At least in raw numbers, that’s the shorthand for describing the artistic journey toward crafting a new graphic masterpiece about an artistic journey.
” ‘The Sculptor’ was five years in the making, including roughly two years to work out the storytelling in rough form, complete with the dialogue in word balloons — with the words and pictures always working together, with no separate scripts,” McCloud tells The Post’s Comic Riffs, noting that by the time he was ready to ink, “I had confidence that the storytelling was sound.”
So what quite possesses a man at his life’s half-century mark to self-assign a project of this profound commitment? Especially when he’s already widely regarded as one of the smartest minds in his field — an artist-turned-theorist who forever altered the industry with such best-selling illustrated analyses as “Understanding Comics” and “Making Comics.” What does he have to prove to himself, if not his readers?
“I look at this as an opportunity to check off something on my list that was a very embarrassing omission,” says McCloud, who will appear tonight at Washington’s Politics and Prose bookstore in conversation with Comic Riffs. “Just simply the fact that I had gone about delivering lessons on how to make comics for years … but my own fiction had never risen to the level where I could feel qualified.
“This was a hole in my resume that needed filling,” continues McCloud, noting that with aid from the wise eye of First Second Books editor Mark Siegel (“Sailor Twain”), ‘ I hope I’ve filled this hole.”
With McCloud, the key question really is: How far do you go to address such a perceived gap in your career’s chapters. Because as both critic and cartoonist, the Southern California-based McCloud seems ever aware of critical measurements — whether it’s the middle-distance on the page, or where an artist has come and gone and creatively traversed by middle age. Continually in space and pacing and dimension and time, and within the interrelationship of figures and objects and angles, McCloud seems to be gauging ever-crucial perspective.
In that way, a conversation with McCloud feels as warm and insightful and approachably analytical as does his cartoon avatar who guides us through his “Comics” book trilogy. McCloud has a keen perspective on his own work as practitioner, so not unlike talking to Stephen Colbert when he’s in character, the art and the analyses OF the art can become a beautifully fused union — the “meta” suddenly becomes the meat of the thing, and recalibrating the shifting reality is part of the sport and the story.
Which brings us to David Smith, our young protagonist who works in malleable art.
“The Sculptor” centers on a Faustian bargain, and whether you would barter time for fame and acclaim, or trade long-term aging for short-term achievement. What matters more: The size of the vessel that is your life, or the contents you fill it with, even at high cost?
“With artistic passion, there is this bargain: Do you want a meaningful life, or a meaningless life that just a little bit longer?” McCloud says to Comic Riffs. “What is it to want something that much that you invest that much meaning into something?”
But this book is not about the Beethovens or Shakespeares of artistic history. McCloud’s math is focused on the rest of us. He is devoting his nearly 500-page graphic-novel epic to the billions who will die in history’s discarded margins.
“I’m trying to embrace the vast majority or artists …,” McCloud says. “Not the superstars but the also-rans — they’re legion.”
And the author isn’t applying his “Artist” tag only to sculptors and painters and other visual and musical and literary creators. “This is hardly anyone who had ever lived [who] didn’t have some kind of aspiration, or of wanting to be remembered as significant in some way.
“We all hope we have some kind of legacy,” the author continues. “But we all wind up in the same pile of dust. And the majority will see themselves being forgotten in their lifetime, and they realize that they will be forgotten, even by family, within a generation or two.”
Yet in this calculus of legacy, in which the product of a life is nearly zero, McCloud doesn’t mean to reach only for the bleak.
“I guess maybe, in the act of creating [this book], I’m finding some sense of kinship with those millions and billions of forgotten people,” McCloud says. “I hope there’s something comforting knowing you’re not alone. Being forgotten is usually accompanied by a sense of abandonment. But you’re part of the grand tradition of the forgotten, and I guess that the continuing to rail against that is noble and beautiful. Even in the face of hopelessness, there is something noble.”
So with “The Sculptor,” is the author hoisting himself out of the massive steerage class that is the legacy also-ran? Does fixing a career hole lift his artistic ship?
“Oh, God, I don’t get to decide those things,” he says.
Another of McCloud’s ever-calibrating measurements is what expected length of life to set your personal metabolism to. He anticipates a long life because many of his ancestors have lived long lives. But he’s also always aware that his father died while McCloud was just in his early 20s, and that his own comics mentor, the legendary Will Eisner, had so much more to give artistically when he died.
“With my father’s death, it’s like there was a strange mechanism at work,” McCloud tells Comic Riffs. “In 1982, I was out on my own for a few weeks and I got to meet Will Eisner at his house at White Plains [N.Y.]. Then I discovered the next day THAT was the day my father had died.
“Will Eisner was 87 when he died and he could have gone on another 10 years,” McCloud continues. “My family has a relatively long lifespan, so I’m on the long clock. Eisner was 59 when he was [working on the influential graphic novel] ‘Contract With God.’ In his retirement, he began a career of making graphic novels.”
McCloud, doing the math, notes that he’s not so many years from 59 himself — now that his first large fictional narrative is complete. Time, and each artist’s attempt at lasting legacy, marches on. Yet McCloud seems at peace, not consumed with acclaim — it’s more about life stages than life’s stage.
He has his portfolio. He cared to fill an artistic gap. With “The Sculptor,” he repeats, “I hope I’ve filled this hole.”
COMING SOON: Part 2 of our conversation with Scott McCloud.