Warning: This in-depth analysis for The Sculptor contains SPOILERS.
Have you ever wanted to stop consuming and start creating? Have you ever had an idea that you wish you could make a reality? What if you were given that power to create what you wished, but you would die in 200 days? David Smith in Scott McCloud’s 2015 graphic novel, The Sculptor, is given that choice by his late Uncle Harry.
Celebrating his twenty-sixth birthday, David Smith is in his own world, inside his mind. He barely hears the waitress talk to him, or his Uncle Harry arriving.
He is so inside his own head, it takes him quite a while to remember that his uncle has been dead for a while. We see him staring at his hands, followed by him touching his plate, his glass, and his fork. He sees his hands as objects, as tools, like the ones he holds in his hands. Later in the story, he sees people as the sum of their parts. The bones, muscle, everything connected, yet still separated at the atomic level.
The scene at the restaurant sets up a lot for the story. We learn that he was a protege while still in art college. This shows he has talent, but we also learn that he has difficulty interacting with people. Fallen from grace, just having lost his job “flipping burgers” and his girlfriend, and two months out from losing his apartment to a new landlord, David thinks he has hit rock bottom.
David is also the last of his family. Over the course of his life, he has lost his father, his mother, and finally his sister. He only has his best friend from childhood, but it is his name he is obsessed with. Not only is his name generic, but it is the same name of a famous person in the art world. While his parents said he could do anything he wanted in life, he made a promise to his father that he would make a name for himself.
These promises are one of the things that David holds dear in his life. His ethics and his promises are unmovable like rock. His principles, his art, and his view of people as objects lend to a cold outlook. The art in the book uses a cool color pallet to further emphasize the cold nature of stone and metal.
For all his despair, David is shown a copy of a comic book he drew as a nine year-old, and the old excitement of his blissfully unaware creativity returns. He recognizes the rough edges, but there is a certain quality to something created without caring what other people think. This further sets up the creative nature of his family. His mother was a painter, his father an author, and his sister was an intelligent student in college.
Reality sets back in, and the story continues to show how little uniqueness there is about David Smith when the waitress has a cousin with the same name as him, and his birthday is shared by a girl in the booth seats behind him.
All of the terrible events in his life has led to the mindset that he will accept the offer to give up his life for the chance of creating to his heart’s desire. Uncle Harry is even overly fair about the whole deal, giving him a glimpse into what his life could be. He would never be someone famous, but he could be happy. This early on, it would seem he gives it all up because of how bad his life seems, but later it is learned that his father was a famous author, and his mother is just as famous. Yet both stepped away from that life to raise their children and have a “normal” life. Furthermore, his promise to his dad to make a name for himself is also a driving factor to him taking the deal with Death.
Death explains that upon death, he can see a person’s life and experience it. It is questionable whether the life he offers to David was to be his original life, or just a chance at that life.
After David takes the deal, he walks in a day dream through his life when he realizes he cannot move through the crowd. When he touches a man’s shoulder, they all turn to stare at him before bowing. An angel appears telling him “Everything will be all right” and kisses him.
In a way, this scene shows what will happen in the book to come. He will struggle with everyone not hearing his shouts, his vision in his creations. It’s not until he is able to touch and connect with someone that everyone will notice and appreciate what he has created. And when the calm and peace he reaches, it will all disappear.
In the meantime, he has a meeting with a woman named Ms. Penelope Hammer. She is one of the few supportive people in David’s life, along with his friend, Ollie. Even after David trash talks another artist for their lazy work, she still wants to see what he has to offer.
He is also introduced to Finn, the artist David called a lazy trust-fund kid. For all of David’s lacking social skills, he is still insightful enough to recognize the lack of quality in the art.
David talks with Ollie about a bad dream in which he is passing by people on the street. No matter what their job, they all secretly want to be “a dancer, an actor, a writer, a painter.” This introspection that regardless of what people must do in society to get by hides their creative ability. When the city tips, everyone slides off the edge into the void. They become nothing, unmemorable, and their dreams of creating are gone.
It is interesting to note that on David’s birthday, his best and only friend seems to have forgotten about his birthday. He makes David attend a party, but it is not a birthday party for David, and he is abandoned shortly after arriving.
There is a collage of small panels that showcases the small space David occupies apart from all of the people at the party. Speech bubbles are cut off to show that not everything can be heard during conversations. David overhears part of a conversation Finn is saying he’ll dump Ollie as soon as he gets an in with Roger who runs the gallery David met with Ms. Hammer.
David is ignored when he tries to tell Ollie who gives David the name of a guy who will give him a ride home. David stays at the party when he sees the angel from earlier in the day. He catches up to her and finds out the whole scene was an act put on by a group of people. David is a one-man audience in his own show. They call him the Sad Man, and they are excited about how popular his video will be online.
For David, he wants to be famous for legitimate reasons through the effort, talent, and skill of his art. The idea of becoming a celebrity through a viral video sickens him, both figuratively and literally as he vomits on a guy’s laptop, partially due to drinking all day.
Thrown out of the party and without a ride home due to the laptop belonging to his ride, David waits across the street. The angel, Meg, walks over to talk to him against the protests of her boyfriend, Mikey. She apologizes for the video stunt, but David cuts her off, explaining that their intentions of cheering up a sad man was good, but wasted on him.
Throughout the story, we learn of the many promises David keeps which includes not taking charity or accruing debts. This makes his five-mile walk home more difficult than it needed to be when he refuses charity from Meg and a bum asking David for money.
When the sun rises, and David falls to his knees on a bridge. He opens his eyes to see that he has left hand prints in the metal. He manipulates more metal, and the exhilaration of his childhood returns as he runs the rest of the way back to his studio apartment.
To show how unbelievably fair Death is, he returns to David and still offers him an out to the deal. Like an addict getting his first hit, David cannot ever go back. In a way, the deal made is like a promise, and in that unmovable way, David cannot break the promise of the deal.