I wasn’t sure what to expect from this, but I kept hearing excellent things. I know Scott McCloud from, but haven’t yet read, his trilogy of non-fiction graphic novels on the topic of comics: Understanding Comics, Making Comics, and Reinventing Comics.
David Smith is a struggling artist who achieved minor fame early in his career and then watched it crumble away. He’s broke and facing possible homelessness, feeling like he’s hit rock bottom in his life, when he’s presented with a deal: his life for his art. He will be given a short amount of time to live, and in that time he will be able to create anything his imagination can conjure. Most people would not make such a trade, but for a depressed, selfish, fame-obsessed artist it seems perfect – a way out and a chance for his vision to live on. Of course, he meets an impossibly cool artsy girl along the way, and it complicates things. This is a tale of finding oneself, of the plight of an artist, and of an ill-fated romance.
I thought this was fantastic. There were quite a few cliches in the storytelling, but because it was told in a whimsical way (both through the art and the plot), I found that easy to overlook. He balanced the two sides of the story, falling in love and pursuing his art, perfectly, adding tension in a way that didn’t feel too contrived.
This is the sort of story where the reader really needs to completely buy in from the beginning and just go along with it. Questions will arise, and it’s best to just smile and move on. Would someone willing to give their life for their art really spend what little time they have to selfishly pursue a new relationship, knowing that the best case scenario would only leave her, and his art, worse off? Would a sculptor receive the same pleasure from his art if it took no skill to create? Wouldn’t more people question how quickly he was able to produce his art or why they didn’t hear any hammering coming from his studio?
I also really didn’t like how he romanticized bipolar disorder. Perpetuating the tortured genius ‘I must suffer these lows to continue living a creative life’ cliche is both lazy and unhealthy. He did have characters who who took the side of medication, but he fell back on the idea of pushing through it with love, which is just silly.
I found myself able to easily brush these issues away while reading and just enjoy the story, which is strong enough to overcome these fairly minor problems. It was paced extremely well for such a chunky graphic novel, sometimes hectic and sometimes meandering, and I absolutely loved the art – his illustrations and the art the character creates. There is something really fun in watching someone vandalize a city in such an extreme way in the name of art.
I don’t know if McCloud has done much other fiction, but this has definitely given me a push to pick up his famous Understanding Comics soon.