Shoplifter by Michael Cho
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
"Those who can't do, teach." The first time I heard this canard was from a university professor of English, who punctuated it with a smirk. Comics artist Scott McCloud can certainly "do" -- but since he is best known for "doing" in aid of "teaching" in his trilogy, Understanding Comics, Reinventing Comics, and Making Comics, his narrative efforts attract closer scrutiny than others in his cohort might expect. It's been over a decade since McCloud published fiction -- has his capacity to "do" faded over the years?
Since the days of Zot!, a little, perhaps. McCloud will always be an artist of exuberant surreal expressiveness. In The Sculptor, McCloud's take on the Faustian "bargain" is unique and unexpected. Sure, the kid gets access to unimaginable power in exchange for his life, and sure, he falls in love with his muse as his expiry date draws close. But (mild spoiler) rather than keening the expected Faustian lamentations, the kid explains his plight to his now-girlfriend, and gets her on-board the enterprise.
Other surprises ensue, but their weight will vary, depending on the degree of empathy and sympathy the reader has developed for the characters.
The title character is insufferable, the way young male arty-types are prone to be.
His muse suffers from a bipolar condition, but as portrayed it's a remarkably "lite" variance.
I wasn't feeling much for either character, until the final third of the book. In 500 pages of prose, this deficit of appeal would be a deal-breaker, but a flashy comic can provide a different strain of narrative persuasion. I zoomed through pages of artful maundering and was finally grateful for the experience. If nothing else, the graphic pages give heft to McCloud's final statement at the end of the book.
Coincidentally, Michael Cho's first graphic novel, Shoplifter, appeared just months before McCloud's. Further coincidence(s): Cho also favours a tri-coloured palette (black, white and pink, where McCloud opts for black, white, and blue); and Shoplifter's protagonist is also a young arty-type with massive but wholly uninformed aesthetic ambitions.
But where McCloud embraces grand surrealist motifs to explore the human and humane, Cho zeros in on finely observed day-to-day details that most people recognize. Cho's hero is less keen to dazzle the world with her presumed ability and insight than she is to escape its pedestrian disappointments. The only time she breaks free of her torpor is when she indulges in a little shoplifting.
The path to self-discovery for Cho is perhaps more mundane than it might be for McCloud, but by highlighting the "ordinary" Cho makes unexpected kindness not just convincingly possible, but transformational. Cho understands that the great narrative challenge isn't to make the universal personal; it is to convey precisely how the personal can be universal. This is a brief and powerful work -- Cho could be the Anton Chekov of comic books.
I borrowed both volumes from the library, an appropriate and recommended choice for McCloud -- my shelves are too full to add a 500-page tome I'm not entirely in love with. If you've got a younger arty-type in your family, The Sculptor could be a worthy Christmas (or Seder) gift.
Cho's Shoplifter, on the other hand, is now a welcome addition to my library.
View all my reviews