[A quick word of caution. What follows is an analysis of some of the literary antecedents for The Sculptor. As such, spoilers abound. Don’t say I didn’t warn ya!]
If you read last week’s column, you’ll remember that we talked about some of the literary influences on Scott McCloud’s The Sculptor—in particular, Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and the Gnostic legends of Simon Magus. This week, we’re going to look at Goethe’s Faust and then try to see how McCloud’s new graphic novel fits into the tradition.
If Marlowe’s Faustus was the epitome of the Renaissance scholar, Goethe’s Faust is the ultimate Romantic. Now if it’s been a while since you slept through a literature class, I should clarify that Romanticism isn’t the literary equivalent of a Jennifer Aniston movie. The literary Romantics were interested in the individual, nature, and experience. Goethe was one of the most influential of the Romantics—a writer whose work really helped to define the Romantic period.
So when Goethe turns to the legend of Johann Faust, he approaches it far differently than Christopher Marlowe. Goethe’s Faust is still a scholar—but he’s not happy about it. In fact, he’s suicidal. As he looks around at his dusty old office with moldy books stacked to the ceiling, he feels the despair of someone who has wasted his life. So when Mephisto suddenly appears, Faust is more than happy to broker a deal with the devil.
Unlike Marlowe’s Faustus, this deal doesn’t involve learning the great mysteries of the universe or gaining power. Instead, Faust just wants to experience real life with all of its pleasures and pain. In a sense, he’s hiring Mephisto—literally the life coach from Hell—and together the two of them set off to complete Faust’s version of a bucket list.
And in keeping with the true Romantic spirit, Faust’s deal has no term limit. While Marlowe’s Faustus was limited to 24 years and McCloud’s David to only 200 days, Faust’s freedom will last for as long as he remains … discontent. In other words, as long as he keeps striving, searching, feeling, and experiencing, Mephisto will continue to help him in his quest. But if he ever grows satisfied, lazy, or complacent, then he tells Mephisto that the devil can take him. Yeah, that’s Romanticism in a nutshell.
All of which brings us back to Scott McCloud and The Sculptor. Clearly, McCloud is playing with the Faust myth, but rather than closely aligning himself with either Marlowe or Goethe, McCloud draws equally from both. In terms of structure, The Sculptor more closely resembles Marlowe’s play. Like Faustus, David sometimes gives in to a sense of prankishness—sabotaging a better-funded rival’s art show and ultimately dedicating his powers to midnight street sculpting like some strange cross between Rodin and Banksy.
More significantly, both McCloud and Marlowe rely on a term limit for the “deal,” which helps create a sense of rising dramatic tension as they near deadline. Marlowe’s Faustus ends the play by delivering an incredibly long monologue lamenting that his time is over and wishing that he could receive forgiveness. After about three or four pages of angst-filled wailing, his time runs out and the devils rip his body into pieces. Gotta love those Renaissance tragedies.
Obviously, Marlowe’s vision is both bleak and harsh—so much so that some have even questioned whether the ending is to be read ironically. McCloud’s David is far more sympathetic than Faustus, so when he, too, begins to feel anxious, confessing to Meg five days before the end that he doesn’t want to die, the two of them collapse in each other’s arms in a real moment of both poignancy and dread.
But philosophically, McCloud’s story seems closer to Goethe’s version. As Goethe’s Faust goes on a quest to experience life, he becomes captivated by a woman named Gretchen. Faust desires to experience all the passions of life—including love—so he recklessly begins an affair with Gretchen. The results are pretty awful—Faust winds up getting Gretchen pregnant and then kills her brother. Gretchen loses her sanity, kills her baby, is imprisoned, and is scheduled for execution.
While a reader might be tougher on Faust than on David, there are still some parallels between the two. Just as Faust seems to be using Gretchen—particularly in the beginning of their relationship—David’s behavior towards Meg has an exploitative element as well. As someone with only a few months left to live, David’s decision to get involved with Meg raises ethical questions—especially considering that Meg wrestles with depression. Moreover, like Gretchen, Meg eventually gets pregnant, and, as with Faust, The Sculptor’s love story ends in tragedy.
There are also surprising connections with Part 2 of Faust. If you haven’t read Goethe’s play, you should know that it’s divided into two parts. The first part is what most people read; the second part—where Faust romances Helen of Troy (who keeps finding her way into these stories) and tragically loses a child—tends to be more disjointed and episodic. But one incident in Part 2 stands out—the introduction a character known as the Homunculus.
Created by one of Faust’s former students, the Homunculus is a miniature person, much like the creations of Dr. Pretorius in The Bride of Fankenstein. The concept goes back to the rise of alchemy, but in Faust the Homunculus comes across as an incomplete being—an idea—in need of a better physical form.
Interestingly enough, in The Sculptor, as David struggles to figure out what makes good art, he encounters a rival artist, Mira Bratti, whose talent he truly respects. Her specialty? She creates miniaturized depictions of life—little boxes with highly detailed scenes of different people. As David describes them, “Each one is its own little world.” This concept provides the inspiration for one of David’s most detailed pieces—a giant sphere composed of small threads. Inspired perhaps by Mira Bratti’s boxes, David has imbedded tiny figures deep into the braids. As Meg notes, “There’s a whole world in there … but I can only see a tiny piece at a time.” Viewed closely, the braids in the sphere form borders like the panels of a comic. Each panel contains its own world, but viewed in isolation, none of them tell the whole story.
As metaphors for the art of comics go, you could do worse.
The novel reaches its climax when Meg unexpectedly dies, leading David to make his largest sculpture yet—a skyscraper-sized image of Meg holding what would’ve been their baby. High atop the piece, David is shot by the police and begins the long tumble down.
In Lynd Ward’s woodcut novel, when the artist finally confronts Death, he falls off a high cliff. When the child of Goethe’s Faust and Helen of Troy dies, he does so by leaping off a mountain. And when Simon Magus faces his final battle with the Apostle Peter, he levitates above the Forum before crashing down to Earth.
So detailed is McCloud’s depiction of the fall, that by my count, it takes 15 pages and 24 panels before David’s slow-falling image is crowded out by panels of his memories—his life flashing before his (and our) eyes. In fact, McCloud slows time to such an extent that he includes five splash pages of essentially the same shot, slightly lowering David’s body on each page so that he appears suspended in midair to reflect on all that his life has been. In the end, like Goethe’s Faust, David gains more than his special power—he learns better what life, and art, are all about.
In closing, I should say that I make no claims on McCloud’s intentions here. Obviously, he’s invoking the Faust myth, but whether or not the rest of the parallels are by design or coincidence matters little. Stories “work” in ways all of their own, and themes and patterns emerge regardless of conscious effort.
But for what it’s worth, I’ll leave you with a final curiosity. As you know, McCloud’s central conceit is that David gains the ability to manipulate solid objects with his hands. Well, according to legend, when Simon Magus and the Apostle Peter squared off, Peter and Paul dropped to their knees to pray. The place is now home to a church, and the church is now home to a piece of marble that purports to be the piece where Peter knelt. How do they know? According to tradition, the place where Peter’s knees touched down was marked by two indentations in the marble. Cue the Twilight Zone music.