I'm always on the lookout for good graphic novels to read, and I was sold on this one as soon as I heard that it was a Faust story; that Scott McCloud is not only acclaimed for his knowledge of comics but is also the author of Zot! (which I loved) seemed especially serendipitous. While my personal reaction to this book isn't quite as rapturous as others' seem to be, I enjoyed McCloud's take on the typical Faustian bargain and his explorations of the meanings of (in no particular order) love, art, and life. He deserves significant credit for his successful efforts to refresh the old trope; though the basic architecture of the typical life-for-art trade is sturdy, as expected, the story often veers in unexpected directions, to say nothing of a painful pair of final twists that had me in tears as I returned to the office from a lunch break. Though The Sculptor represents, in many ways, an artist's meditation on the meaning, purpose, and effects of artistic creation, McCloud never becomes aggressively sentimental or philosophical; rather, he slyly works his way into the reader's consciousness, posing questions without stating them outright and, in the process, offering a refreshingly non-pedantic take on an ancient theme.
McCloud also puts his knowledge of graphic storytelling to good use, as the artwork consistently reinforces the story's themes. The dull color palette, which relies heavily on grays and washed-out blue hues, effortlessly establishes the novel's mournful tone while subtly reinforcing the notion that nothing about its many themes is black and white. Occupying the dual roles of writer and illustrator, McCloud utilizes innovative layouts that help guide the reader without overburdening the book with unnecessary words. That one character, for example, often finds herself outside of thick panel boundaries effortlessly illustrates something profound about her personality and her impact on the other characters. Though some of the art can revert to the simplistic side of the spectrum, particularly in large-scale set pieces, The Sculptor contains the most powerful image I have encountered in a graphic novel, splayed clay perfectly capturing the dynamic moment where the artist, having made a pact with personified Death, first fully embraces his newfound ability to mold the physical world exactly to his wishes.
The temptation may be great to treat all Faust stories with the same moralistic touch, but McCloud uses the main architecture of his plot as a springboard, eschewing the usual questions for philosophical explorations of the meaning of art and creation. The book carries with it a certain inherent poignancy, enjoyable on many different levels of intellectual and emotional engagement; I even enjoyed the somewhat ambiguous ending, which lingered far beyond the final page and still haunts me. The book works on its literary and artistic levels, embodying McCloud's esteem for the graphic novel on every single page; here is an artist devoted to his craft, his passion evident in the book's story, art, and themes. The Sculptor provides a compelling vision of the power of graphic storytelling and should appeal to longtime fans and newcomers who are intrigued by the genre's many possibilities.