It’s funny how some myths never seem to go away. In The Sculptor, Scott McCloud’s long-awaited new graphic novel, we see a very contemporary story that shines light on some of the problems of the modern art world where artists struggle to express themselves in an era where there are no absolutes. As one character laments, it’s a world where, instead of “art,” people talk about “art events.” But in the midst of this very Postmodern setting, The Sculptor winds up echoing some very old legends with roots tracing back through 19th century Germany, 16th century England, and 1st century Rome.
[Author’s note: What follows will contain spoilers for those who haven’t read The Sculptor yet. It will also contain spoilers for Goethe, Christopher Marlowe and some Gnostic Gospels, but something tells me no one will care about that.]
A few years ago, I was asked to teach a class in post-Renaissance World Literature. Teaching the class was a bit of a trial by fire, considering that I hadn’t actually ever read most of the things I would be expected to cover. So as I skimmed through the anthology, I gravitated towards anything that might put me on familiar ground. One of these was Faust, Part One, a play by the German Romantic poet, Goethe.
I picked it because I knew Christopher Marlowe’s tragedy, Doctor Faustus, pretty well and I thought it might be easy to slide from Marlowe over to Goethe. Well, if you’ve ever read it, you can imagine how things went. Goethe’s Faust is tough for the uninitiated, and it required me to do more research than anything else I taught that semester.
During the research, one of the things I became fascinated with was the legend of Simon Magus. In the Book of Acts from the New Testament, there is a brief passage that describes the conversion of a man known as “Simon the Sorcerer” to Christianity. According to the account, when Simon saw the Apostles Peter and John performing miracles, he offered to pay them for the power of the Holy Spirit. Peter calls him out, Simon seems contrite, and that’s the end of the story.
Like so many Biblical stories, the details are minimal. But from this sketch, a veritable legion of myth and legend has arisen. According to many traditions, Simon Magus became one of the leading figures in the Gnostic movement—a fascinating collection of alternative Christian groups eventually deemed heretical by the church. Different sources tell different stories, but many of Simon’s followers regarded him as a deity, and an entire mythology evolved around Simon and his love, Helen.
This gets pretty complicated, but I’ll save you a Wikipedia trip by giving you a quick summary. According to some of the stories, before God created anything else, he had a thought. That “thought” became personified and was female. She was very beautiful but the other angels were jealous so they forced her down to Earth, condemning her to live a series of lives as a disgraced woman, the most famous of which was Helen of Troy. Finally, God descended to Earth in the first century to rescue her. He took the form of Simon Magus and found his love—also named Helen. Together they had many adventures.
Oh, but we’re not done. In many other stories—ones that don’t revere Simon as a god—he and his arch-nemesis, Peter, square off like something out of an old Silver Age issue of The Flash. Their duels finally culminate in a confrontation at the Forum in Rome where Simon—who has the power to levitate—is flying around until Peter drops to his knees and prays, forcing Simon to come crashing down like the Hindenburg—only with a little less anguish over all “the humanity.” And so ends the legend of Simon Magus.
Okay, so maybe that was more complicated than trying to explain the history of the Green Lantern, but the story of Simon Magus is the granddaddy of a whole tradition of stories—a sub-genre in fact—that Scott McCloud draws from in The Sculptor.
His story focuses on David Smith, a once-promising artist whose career seems to be hitting the proverbial brick wall until he makes a deal with Death. In exchange for giving up his life, Death grants David the ability to shape solid objects—granite, concrete, metal—with his bare hands. The only catch? After 200 days, David will die.
In other words, The Sculptor is part of the long tradition of stories about people making deals with supernatural forces for power or knowledge. We’ve seen variations of the story in everything from Lynd Ward’s silent, woodcut novel, Gods’ Man, in which an artist bargains with Death for a successful art career, to The Simpsons, where Homer Simpson once sold his soul to the devil for a donut—a temptation with which most of us have probably struggled at one point or another.
But by far the most famous versions of this story trope come from Christopher Marlowe and Goethe, both of whom can trace their stories’ roots back to the legend of Simon Magus. What makes reading The Sculptor fascinating are the ways in which the story—sometimes deliberately, other times most likely by coincidence—echoes specific elements of each of these stories.
Christopher Marlowe’s most famous play, Doctor Faustus, is based on the legend surrounding Johann Faust, a 16th Century German alchemist who developed a scandalous reputation during his lifetime. Marlowe, writing only a few decades after Faust’s death, turns him into the perfect Renaissance scholar—a learned man who, like Star Trek’s V’GER, has learned all that is learnable in the traditional academic disciplines. Similar to McCloud’s David, he has reached the limits of what his career can offer him, so Faustus turns his focus to Necromancy, summons Mephistopheles, and signs away his soul. In exchange, Faustus, like David, is granted a specific term—in Faustus’s case, 24 years—in which he can achieve total knowledge and exercise unlimited power.
However, Marlowe’s Faustus makes little use of his new gifts, ultimately settling for pranks and parlor tricks. Near the end of his time, and in the most famous moment of the play, Faustus conjures the image of Helen of Troy—one of the earlier manifestations of Simon Magus’s Helen—and tells Mephistopheles he’s willing to recommit to Lucifer if he can have Helen of Troy as a lover. He lingers over her image, both objectifying and immortalizing her with the most famous speech in the play that begins, “Was this the face that launched a thousand ships.”
In The Sculptor, David also struggles to find purpose after receiving his gift. At first he goes on a creative frenzy, filling his apartment with one sculpture after another, but his work receives mixed-to-poor reviews and David winds up despairing again until he falls in love with an actress named Meg. McCloud introduces her as an angel—literally—floating through the air directly in front of David. We learn later that it’s part of a film experiment—cinematic street art, if you will—but at first she might as well be, well … something conjured out of thin air.
Later, after she agrees to model for a sculpture, David—unlike John Travolta at the Oscars—asks permission to feel the contours of her face with his hands. He doesn’t say anything about her face launching a thousand ships or anything, but Meg complains that she feels “objectified.” David suggests that she’s both a thing and a person, simultaneously: “To be a ‘thing’ that thinks and moves and wants … that’s miraculous.”
Meg ultimately does for David what Helen of Troy is unable to do for Faustus—she inspires his work and fills his life with meaning that doesn’t rely on selling art or receiving good reviews.
Now, lest you fear that The Sculptor is the book that launched a thousand columns, I promise to wrap things up next week by looking at Goethe’s Faust and then maybe finding some way to explain more clearly what all this has to do with The Sculptor.