Thursday, 23 April 2015

The Second Rule Of Book Club Is YOU DO NOT TALK ABOUT BOOK CLUB!

A bit more bling than our usual meeting place of "beside the new comics."
 Monday saw our latest Book Club meeting.  Rather than meet in Forbidden Planet for a nerdy lock-in, we instead met in the nearby pub Waxy O'Connors - which a few of us usually gather in for a post-meeting drink anyway.  Duly assembled, we discussed this month's book, The Sculptor

The Sculptor is a 500 page hard-backed tome by Scott McCloud and his first piece of fiction in about two decades.  He's made a name for himself as the author of three different books on the creation of comics, and was a big pioneer when web-comics and micro-transactions kicked off.  However, he's also got a bit of a reputation for being a bit poncy and highbrow - it's hard not to look at his huge body of comic design work but rare forays into actually designing  graphic fiction and not find that suspicious.

A whole book dedicated to designing comics, rendered as a comic.
The Sculptor proved a bit of a challenge for me at the book club, because everyone else seemed to think it was an epic masterpiece and I thought it was…. OK?  It would be nice to tell myself all my fellow nerds are falling for the hype and that I'm the smartest person in the room, but when the room contains award winning comic book writers and artists it seems more likely that I've got poor taste.  I feel slightly vindicated by the fact a few critics also had issues, but it was hard to shake the feeling I wasn't quite as bright as the others.

The cover to this book.

What follows, then, is my minority report on The Sculptor.  Spoilers, inevitably, follow.

The two universal sizing mechanics on this blog: a Space Marine and a Torchic.

The first thing that strikes you when you see The Sculptor is how large and imposing it is - sized more like a large novel than a comic.  Despite this, however, The Sculptor reads very easily.  I sat down on Sunday afternoon expecting a mammoth slog but I sailed through the whole thing in one sitting.  Whatever else one thinks of the book, it flows brilliantly.

The plot features two key elements.  The supernatural element, introduced right at the start, is a struggling sculptor living in New York who is given a magical boon to aid him in making art.  The price of this gift, however, is that his life will be limited - he has only 200 days left before he will die.  This is introduced in the very first section, but then is almost forgotten about in the middle of the book which instead becomes a romance story as the artist gets close with another struggling artist, this one a young bi-polar lady.  It's like a Woody Allen film in comic book form, with a dash of Neil Gaiman's fairy tale motif.
David liases with "Harry", the Death of the piece.
Unfortunately, I found myself a little disengaged from the lead character at points, which is perhaps why I never quite fell for the book as hard as the others.  David comes from a family of artists, is determined to create something that will be worthy and shouts about how he would die for his art... but he felt throughout to be the kind of character only another artist could write, his world one entirely divorced from people who aren't art or stage school graduates.

David casts aside the idea of having a real job in which he does his art in his spare time as insane, without really explaining why working 9-to-5 would be some sort of hell and why paying bills is for losers.  His art is the most important thing in the world, even though what we see can sometimes seem a bit Adrian Mole in it's self-obsession and self-aggrandizement.  Art critics are evil peer pressure tools of the art establishment cruelly ruining careers when they mock David's art and big-up corporate shills... but when they like David's later work, suddenly art critics are nice guys after all, kthanxbye.

Meg, a probably more sympathetic character than David

The object of his affection is a lot more sympathetic, being a fairly good portrayal of someone with a mental illness.  Meg leaps from extreme to extreme, being a bubbly care-free spirit one moment and a dark brooding depressive the other, and rather than being portrayed as "good" and "bad" it's clear neither extreme is very healthy.  Unfortunately, she still has a lot of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl to her, which makes her feel a bit stereotypical a love interest.   Some stuff, like her past dalliance with bisexuality OH I’M SUCH A LIBERATED FEMINIST WOMAN just clunked on the ground for me as parts of a Build Your Hippy Love Interest Kit.

Her final fate, dying while pregnant with David's child, comes out of nowhere and is shocking but has a rather underwhelming bit of Fridge Logic: "So, um, a woman dying can only be tragic if she's pregnant?  To a man who has shown zero interest in ever having a child, a job, or anything other than art?"   There's some other things going on here about creating something to survive after death, but it still grated with me.
My favourite part of the art: David's life flashing before his eyes.
The art was another point were I diverged from my fellow readers.  To me it was fairly pedestrian: neither gorgeous nor ugly, simply a medium for delivering the story.  The others found it much better and in particular praised the landscapes.  Clearly I'm watching the wrong telly & films because I just saw random city shots, but the representation of New York streets and museums really excited everyone else.  There is some commentary at the back by the author about the work he did to get references, so clearly Mr McCloud spent a lot of time trying to render The Big Apple correctly, and some of you may appreciate that.  For me, it was just a city street or an interior of a museum and thusly not worthy of comment.

I mention the book is large, but reads very quickly - there is no slow section.  That said, it is still quite long and only once it's finished do you realize quite how much of the middle section is a 500 Days of Summer-like romance story, how little the opening & closing supernatural plot element is actually present.  Again, Fridge Logic applies here - it didn't bother me while reading it, but when you stop and think about it then it occurs that the book advertises itself as this Seventh Seal-esque thing but a large chunk of the book is a bunch of barely-employed artsy hipsters flouncing about their apartments not really doing anything.

He doesn't actually do much of this.

This isn't a problem, exactly - it's probably intentional as the main character dabbled with his magical gift, then only really focuses when death is finally nearing.  Still, when Death tells David he's not to use his powers to fight crime, the intended joke of HO HO HO YOU AREN'T IN A SUPERHERO COMIC falls a bit flat when it occurs to you that David's amazing yet temporary supernatural gift is being squandered while he fannies about.

All I knew about Scott McCloud going in.
Overall, would I recommend this book?  Despite being a little muted on it, I think I would say that it's a pretty safe choice for anyone to read.  It's an easy read and it's fairly normal friendly.  Unsurprisingly, the book has a movie deal already and I'm sure it'll do good business.

However, I can't see myself jumping to read it again anytime soon and unlike some of the other Book Club books like Pride of Baghdad or Beautiful Darkness I don't feel it's anything truly remarkable, either in style or substance.  Perhaps it's a more bitter conservative side bleeding through in my old age, but it's hard for me to read it without wanting to shout to quite a few of the characters "GET A REAL JOB, JACKASS."

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