We all sometimes fantasize about having a superpower—think how much more exciting your life would be if you could fly or read minds or turn your enemies into frogs. As a teenager, cartoonist Scott McCloud started doodling about character who had a particularly powerful ability—he could shape any material he touched. This idea easily could’ve remained buried in a high school binder, but it stuck with McCloud over the years. “The story just wouldn’t let me go,” he says. “It changed and evolved and became something much more than that adolescent power fantasy. 

Now McCloud has written a graphic novel, The Sculptor, which explores this idea. In the book, David Smith, a struggling sculptor, makes a deal with Death: he gains the ability to mold any material with his hands but has only 200 days to use it, after which he’ll die. David plans to use that time to make a name for himself and sets out to produce the work that will secure his legacy, but a chance meeting with a young woman named Meg complicates his plan.

The love story between these two characters forms the emotional core of the book. McCloud modeled it after his real-life relationship with his wife, but basing the characters on real people posed certain challenges. “I didn’t want some idealized version in which all of the uncomfortable aspects had been removed,” he says. That meant employing a certain amount of ruthlessness, allowing the characters to drift away from their nonfictional counterparts and, eventually, McCloud says, to drift back. The final result is that Meg is about 70% his wife, while the character of David is only 40% autobiographical.

Telling such a personal story was something of a departure for McCloud, who’s best known for his books on the theory of comics. But he says that writing those books was really his way of trying to figure out how to write this one. “I was literally teaching myself how to make comics in front of my readers,” he says. Those lessons were important but didn’t directly influence The Sculptor, for which McCloud eschewed the innovative formats of his previous projects in favor of a more straightforward style. Instead, he says that understanding how comics work helped him create a seamless reading experience, where the reader is swept up in the emotion of the story rather than analyzing aesthetic decisions.

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After years of living with his idea but focusing on other projects, McCloud committed to writing The Sculptor in the early 2000s. However, he was on a 50-state tour at the time, which forced him to spend a year planning the story without starting to draw. “That proved to be very productive,” he says. “I was able to put the story together in my mind in a fairly orgMcCloud cover anic way and not have to rush it.”

From there he spent two years laying out the story and another three creating the final pages. This process was extremely involved—McCloud drew and redrew every page three or four or sometimes even five times. He also did tons of research—taking thousands of photographs of New York and interviewing people who lived ther e, taking videos of his models, even staging the story’s flash-mob scenes. “No matter how good your tool of imagination is,” he says, “the surprises that come from people actually interacting with one another, the accidents of framing, the accidents of balance…these are things you just can’t imagine; you have to see them for yourself.” These images provided McCloud with the level of detail necessary to tell a story that is so much about objects, whether they are David’s sculptures or human bodies.

The Sculptor’s long incubation period reflects how McCloud sees the story—as a young person’s tale told by someone who has benefited from the wisdom of experience. “At the very beginning, it was just this kid’s idea,” he says, “but it was the adult who had to make sense of it.”

Alex Heimbach is a freelance writer in California.