Research, References, and Structuring Stories: Scott McCloud Goes In-Depth On ‘The Sculptor’ [Interview]
Two weeks ago, First Second Books released The Sculptor, Scott McCloud's long-awaited, five-years-in-the-making, latest graphic novel. It's a complex and nuanced work that functions as both an emotionally rich personal statement, and a masterclass in graphic storytelling (not surprising, given McCloud's authorship of the seminal Understanding Comics, and its two sequels, Reinventing Comics, and Making Comics), and it's become an immediate commercial and critical success, shooting to the top of the New York Times bestseller list, and garnering a wealth of rave reviews.
The book tells the story of David Smith, a young sculptor living in New York City who makes a deal with Death that gives him only two hundred days to live, but allows him to shape any material, creating art with his bare hands from whatever he wishes… Which seems like a great deal, until he meets a mysterious woman named Meg, and falls desperately in love with her.
Two weeks ago, when The Sculptor hit stands, we shared the first part of our in-depth interview with McCloud, and now that our readers have had a chance to read the book for themselves, we're proud to present the second half of the conversation, delving more fully into plot specifics, and the technical details of McCloud's storytelling approach.
[WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD.]
ComicsAlliance: Your art style shifts a bit from scene to scene, from the straightforward look of the prologue to the kinetic manga speed line elements of the final sequences. Did you make those choices more for dramatic effect, or practical reasons – or were they even all conscious choices?
Scott McCloud: Well, the book took five years, and I think it's inevitable that my style might've shifted or evolved a bit during that time. I tried as best I could to keep it consistent, but keeping it consistent can also mean that the style changes based on the needs of any given scene. So, for instance, if the subject is more sensual – there's a little sex in the book, and when this is happening, you're more aware of the presence of the characters as bodies, as physical beings, and so it shifts a little bit closer to realism at that time. Whereas, when it's sort of comedic or characters are in the distance, they might be a little bit more cartoony. But that's just the natural result of the needs of that particular scene, so I'm applying the same standards, but you plug those standards into different scenes, and they're going to output a different result.
The manga influence is something that goes back thirty years. I mean, I was one of the first comic artists in America to actively apply the lessons of manga, though there was definitely a strong underground appreciation for it, and a few artists like Frank Miller and Wendy Pini who had jumped on that vehicle – so for me, this is a longstanding appreciation for the techniques that I learned from looking at thousands of pages of manga back in my twenties. I just think they're good storytelling techniques. Motion, for instance – you mentioned the manga speed lines – I think the way we depict motion here in North America just isn't as effective as the techniques that I found in manga.
CA: And watching the way that the world becomes more liquid in the literal run-up to the finale – on the second reading, I was looking at the book piece by piece, but the different elements are never jarring. You've adopted them, made them part of your vocabulary, so they're all delivered in your voice.
SMcC: Well, in terms of shifts of style, I guess what I'm saying is that I was always at the ready... If a scene with that emotional content or that kind of action had occurred on page thirty-four, it might've actually looked pretty similar to the stuff you're seeing toward the end of the book.
CA: So over those five years that you were working on this book, were there parts that you rethought and changed, or that you decided to go back and rework as the story progressed and grew?
SMcC: Well actually, I got most of my changes out of my system early on, because the first two years of that five years was completely spent on the roughs. In other words, I did a rough version of the comic – pretty obsessive-compulsive and detailed, but still a rough version, no finished art at all – with all of the panels and words in balloons, so you could read it like the finished comic. Except it wasn't! [laughs] It was just this roughed-out version.
And I did that once and then, with the encouragement of my editor, I revised it, and revised it, and revised it again – four different versions – until both of us were happy with it. So at that point, I could embark on the finished art with a lot of confidence.
Now, that said, I then took three years to draw it! And when I was done drawing the thing, I had gotten better at the actual execution of it, and I no longer liked the first fifty pages or so. So I convinced my editor to let me restructure, rewrite, and redraw those. So you could call that "Draft Number Five" if you like... I was very lucky to have pretty much the perfect editor on this one: Mark Siegel knew that I was very ambitious and I wanted to do something that had a lot more depth and careful planning and thought going into it than anything I'd ever done before. And he definitely gave me the space and encouragement and good advice to help me do that. I really couldn't have done that without him.
CA: Well, hearing that, I think in some ways going back to the beginning might have ended up working to not just make you happier with the entire project, but... On my second time reading it, I really took note of the cyclical nature of the story. So now, hearing that after you finished the end, you went back to the beginning – that might well have worked to reinforce that entire sense of the story coming full circle.
SMcC: And I'm actually looking forward to when the book is out and I can speak to people who've read it more than once, because there are any number of narrative easter eggs – there are a lot of paired scenes, I don't know if you've noticed yet, but many, many scenes have echoes in other scenes. It's kinda like a series of rhyming couplets.
CA: There's a point in the story where you go to a two-page spread, when David has been sculpting in secret for six weeks, and he brings his friend/agent Ollie in to see the work – and there's just something about all those bizarre sculptures and their reactions – it immediately brought to mind C.C. Beck's sequence in Captain Marvel, when Billy Batson passes the giant statues of "The Seven Deadly Enemies Of Man," these huge, grotesque figures...
SMcC: [laughs] You know what? I think you're right there, I think there are... I don't know that there are necessarily echoes for me personally, because Captain Marvel wasn't really one of my most important influences or anything – despite the lightning bolt on my first superhero character – but yeah! It definitely has some of that feeling. It might partially be the kind of totem pole or Easter Island-like verticality of it, it could also be the shadows thrown on the wall from a light source that's underneath, I think that was done in the original Captain Marvel stories. It's funny, it is a little like that, yeah...
CA: Right down to that cartoony element of the surprise lines around Ollie's head, that classic cartoony flourish in the midst of it.
SMcC: Yeah, that's a good call! I haven't heard that comparison yet. [laughs]
CA: And with all of the pieces in that scene, all the incredibly varied and weird sculptures covering the pages, how did you go about deciding what those would be? Did you create them on the fly to suit the needs of the scene and story, were they images ripped from old sketchbooks you had lying around, were they just weird things you wanted to draw...?
SMcC: It was a mix. The things that were going to be explained in that scene had to be there in that big shot, so for starters, I would have the things that needed to be there, because they were plot points, because David and Ollie were going to discuss them specifically. And then from there, it was just "what kind of craziness do I feel like drawing today?" [laughs] I figured that each one of them would have some kind of explanation, even if we never find out what it is – so I just went for it, I just made a lot of crazy stuff!
And it was liberating, the fact that this work was not going to get him what he wanted – the fact that a practiced eye in the art world would not necessarily go for this stuff – it was liberating, because I could make it as fun and interesting as I liked, but the chances of actually creating something that would have worked in the gallery context are so slim anyway. There was no danger of my accidentally making it too good, and it was very easy to make it not good enough.
Y'know, I could try to make it as good as I could, I could try to be as impressive and interesting, or haunting, or imaginative, or compellingly cryptic as I liked, and it would still not be good enough. So I had that comforting protection that I didn't have to worry that something I created might be embarrassing or childish or incoherent!
CA: Well, there's another possible comic-book reference point, too... There are sculptures in there that remind me of the sort of thing Jack Kirby would draw when called upon to draw "Modern Art," when The Fantastic Four was in an art gallery, or something like that.
SMcC: Well, Kirby just loved to make stuff up. And he actually worked in a fairly abstract realm for much of his career – all you have to do is go down to sub-panel level, and you're in a pretty crazy place.
CA: When you were putting this book together, how did you go about researching the details? I've seen you mention that you used thousand of photos as reference for the locations, but it's not just that the individual details are accurate – you managed to create a New York that I recognize, as someone who's lived in Manhattan for a decade and a half.
SMcC: Well, it was mostly just talking to people and going to New York. Visiting a lot of galleries, speaking to a couple people in the art world... Though, in the end, the story wasn't really about the art world. David really doesn't break back into that world, so we don't really see much inside it.
But just what it is to live in Manhattan, what it is to live in Brooklyn, to do your laundry at the local laundromat or hang out in Central Park or just sorta get a sense of it all. I'd be going to New York on business, and just extend the trip by one day, see if I had any hotel points so I could get a free night in a hotel and just spend fourteen straight hours walking, taking pictures.
CA: And you avoid the mistakes that people often make, especially in film, of getting the relative geography all wrong.
SMcC: Those little telltale signs that you're actually in Toronto or somewhere.
CA: And you certainly managed to create something that feels like the actual New York, not just the idea of New York.
SMcC: Well, that was one of my principal goals. There's a scene with David on a bridge, and when I first conceived it, it was the Brooklyn Bridge, because I was just another dummy living in Southern California, telling a story about New York. But then I just mapped it out and thought there was no reason it would be the Brooklyn Bridge – it would probably be the Williamsburg Bridge, if anything, considering what neighborhood he was coming from and what neighborhood he was going to. And so I made it the Williamsburg Bridge, and I managed to find compositional opportunities there.
And I found interesting ways to skirt around things – for example, there's a scene in Times Square where we actually see very little of Times Square, it's Times Square portrayed entirely in voices. Because you have my protagonist head-down, hungry, homeless, with a hood over his head, and it's about to rain. He's not looking up at the big lit signs and video monitors, he's just looking down at where he's walking. But the voices tell you exactly where you are. And I thought that was a nice way to call out to a part of New York that everyone knows about, but an aspect of it that they don't necessarily see.
CA: As we get toward the end of the book, over the last couple chapters, there are some radical shifts in pace – there's a pause with eight days left, when David and Meg are spending time together in the park, and then things slow down and expand. And then some of the supporting cast return and reappear, which seems almost like a foreshadowing of the accelerated life-flashing-before-your-eyes moment when David falls...
SMcC: Well I mean, the life-flashing idea is something that calls back to the whole story, because the whole story's been about memory. So that's the culmination of that idea of memory. But I think in terms of the pacing changes you mentioned, the slowing of the pace is a way of evoking the whole idea of acceptance. Y'know, you feel like you're racing the clock, as he does for much of the story, and finally he comes to appreciate how much can be unpacked from each and every minute by living in the present. And the best way to show that is to unpack those minutes and allow them to spread across a greater amount of space. The story slows because his heartbeat is finally slowing. He's finally allowing each day to grow to its full size by mindfully enjoying every aspect of those days. And that's something that he's able to do because he has her. He has Meg.
CA: And going back and reading this book a second time, I experienced the prologue in a very different way, and it made me reconsider how much of this is a story David is telling... I don't expect, or even want an answer to that – I think it's something that readers can decide for themselves – but on second reading, it changed the whole way I looked at the story and the reality. Was the prologue in the outline from the get-go, or is that one of the elements that developed at some point over the drafts?
SMcC: I think by the time I did the first draft, I was already beginning with that, so I think it was an early decision. I was following Vonnegut's advice, I guess, that you should start the story as close to the end as you can. So that's what I did. And because the first act of the story is just a couple guys in a diner talking, I'm asking the reader to have patience – so that prologue, in part, promises something supernatural, it promises something intimate, it promises something mysterious. And these are not things that are readily apparent when the story begins. So by having the prologue, I'm telling you what kind of story you're reading, and I'm also telling you that the ending matters.