With 'The Sculptor,' the Bill Nye of comic books takes a break from explaining stories to tell one of his own.

By Joshua Rivera
Updated February 03, 2015 at 12:00 PM EST

There’s no one working in comics quite like Scott McCloud. He is, in a sense, the Bill Nye of comic books. With his 1994 graphic nonfiction book Understanding Comics, McCloud gave the world an accessible, friendly crash course in art appreciation, breaking down the infinite complexity hidden away in simple comic strips, and helping the world to understand why comics as a medium resonate so strongly with readers.

But as good as he is at explaining what makes comics work, McCloud has told precious few stories of his own. Today that changes with the release of The Sculptor, a nearly 500-page opus about David Smith, about a struggling artist and the deal he makes with Death: He gets the power to sculpt anything he can imagine with his bare hands, but only 200 days to live.

In the first of a multi-part, in-depth interview, McCloud talks to EW about the origins of The Sculptor, a very personal story he’s been meaning to tell for a long time.

What made you want to do another graphic novel? You’ve only done one.

In the comics industry, we have a tacit agreement that we’ve all sort of—basically we agreed that one technical graphic novel that I did called The New Adventures of Abraham Lincoln never existed. [Laughs] So this is basically my first graphic novel. I always felt like I had this big hole in my resume ’cause I hadn’t done a really big satisfying work of fiction. Fiction is interesting. I love telling stories, and I did about a 20-year sidetrack where I was just explained things in comics. A big part of comics is just the joy of telling and reading stories and I wanted to jump back in the pool and see if I could finally create a story that would be really involving for readers.

Why this story? It feels very personal in its telling. It’s emotionally heavy.

It is very old. It goes back to when I was a very young man. But in many ways, it was just a detached evaluation of the story. Once the basic broad strokes of the plot came to me in my 20s, I recognized that it had the potential to be a very cool story.

But I was wondering if maybe it was—maybe it had a little bit too much of this serious superhero thing, which… that’s sort of the despised subset of comics. The serious superhero is like our version of Prog rock—you know, it’s kind of a disreputable sub-genre. But despite that, over the years, the more I thought about it, the more I liked it. I thought that it had some real substance as a story. And finally, I’d been thinking about it for literally decades and I just had to go for it. So that’s what I did, I gave it my best shot and I was lucky even to have a publisher and an editor who gave me the space, gave me the time and the encouragement to get it right. At least, as right as I could get it.

What’s it like to finally get a story out that you’ve been living with for so long?

Oh it’s wonderful! I think it would have been torture if I felt like I hadn’t done it justice. That would have hurt, you know? But it’s really satisfying knowing that you’ve done something as well as you can. Even if, you know that others have might have more skill—there’s certainly people that have far more natural talent than me as a draftsman—and probably more talent than me as a writer—but I know that this was the best I could do at the time and so that means I did this story justice in my way. In my own way, I gave it my best. And I’m very happy with it. I like to read this story.

You know, I’ve read this story more than anyone else because the way that my layout system works, I would draw it all together, words and pictures, and then I’d read the thing and then I’d rewrite it then I’d read it again and then I rewrite it. So I would read passages over and over and over and over. I think that it has a sort of momentum to it—I just want it to be a page turner. First and foremost, whatever ambitions I have for it, I figured that the first job was to get that kind of momentum where you just felt compelled to move from one page to the next.

Are you concerned or worried about how huge this expectation might be given that you’ve explained comics to so many people? That’s what you’re known for.

Well, you know what? I love that. I love that I had all this pressure on me. I love that I had this big target on my back because I’m the guy who went around explaining how to make comics. It’s bad enough I thought I understood them!

I was a sitting duck, but it was liberating in a way, too, because that made the whole venture necessary. It meant that failure was not an option because it was too horrible to contemplate—that I would make some awful, shitty, unreadable mess. That was an unacceptable outcome. I worked hard on this for the same reason that people sit down on roller-coasters—because to do otherwise meant death. You know, it would have killed me if I didn’t give it my best. So it’s liberating, in a weird way.

That’s far more preferable to it being paralyzing. As far as being a sculptor, that’s kind of a challenge for you as an artist isn’t it? Just to come up with these creations that he has and then have to be deemed either brilliant art or not. What was that like?

Well, it was a challenge coming up with David’s sculptures, but I gave myself an out: There’s a loophole in this, and that is that for most of the story, David makes work that is not acceptable to the New York art world. What he makes is not what people are looking to buy, it’s not what people are looking to invest or put in shows and galleries or museums. That kind of sculpture, I feel like I’m qualified to make. I’m qualified to imagine sculptures that fail.

Even in his life, before the story begins, we know that David had some success in the art world but we don’t see those sculptures. At one point in the story, David makes some sculptures that his friend Oliver, who works in the galleries of Chelsea, thinks that are very strong. We don’t see those sculptures, either. So essentially, I was able to push myself to make what I thought were cool, interesting and varied sculptures without feeling like I had to somehow create something that instantly recognizable as a masterpiece. There are a lot of things I can do. But I know my limitations and that’s not one that I could guarantee in advance so I never went down that road. And that made it an easier job for me.

What made you want to focus this around mortality in such a literal way?

I did a lot of short, improvisational comics on my website early on and I swear every other one ended with somebody dying or the universe being destroyed. My mind just seemed to go there. Also, I mean, of course it’s in the premise. If you had to deal with death, you’ve got to confront it at some point. I mean, some stories like that actually end with the forestalling of death so you can have that happy ending. To me, that’s just not as interesting. I think you should go the distance.

For many artists, maybe even most artists, dealt is a constant companion because if they don’t get a lot of worldly rewards for their art—and most artists don’t—then they have to console themselves with the unearthly reward of being remembered after they die. So it’s a fairly universal instinct. It’s something that I certainly recognized especially when I was young as something fundamental to what I was doing. I had to believe that I was doing something that mattered, that would last. And so that was just natural for my character.

But I think it helped that I was doing this as a much older man. This is a young man’s story written and drawn by somebody twice his age—conceived of in my 20s but drawn when I was nearly 50. Because of that I was also able to write about the ways in which we accept the limits of that memory and accept the fact that we all get forgotten. And I think that’s where the story really clicked, is being able to write about somebody who refuses to accept it in some ways but learns to accept it in others. And to present both of those contradictory ideas as opposed to one another to the very end, it’s sort of a dual message that never quite resolves itself. And that made a much more interesting story for me.

It’s interesting that the arc isn’t necessarily between David and any person in particular—the driving force is his relationship with art.

Well, in fact, if we look at stories through the lens of conflict, then this was a conflict that can never be resolved because there’s no tangible foe, there’s no enemy, there’s nothing tangible to struggle against. And that’s why a part of the story is about futility. That it becomes, I think, a beautiful kind of futility when the artist struggles—beyond any reason, beyond all hope—continues to struggle. I think there’s something very beautiful in that.