There are few people in the world who have thought more deeply about the art of comics than Scott McCloud. In his trilogy Understanding Comics, Reinventing Comics, and Making Comics, he provided a thorough explanation—in graphic form—of the theory and practice of storytelling through sequential drawings in little boxes. But although McCloud, who is 54, had worked for DC and created his own series of black-and-white comic books, Zot!, he had never tried his hand at the graphic novel . . . until now.

The story of The Sculptor, a 500-page behemoth—though McCloud insists that two graphic-novel pages are equivalent to one page of prose—had been rattling around in his head for years, since he was a young man under the influence of superhero comics. (He was a Marvel kid.) It concerns David Smith, a desperate young artist who promises his life to a mysterious stranger—who has taken the form of his dead uncle Harry—in exchange for 200 days with the ability to make any kind of sculpture he can think of.

No, The Sculptor is not autobiographical, though Meg, the angelic young woman with whom David falls in love, is based on McCloud’s wife, Ivy Ratafia. McCloud spent five years working on it, two on the layout (which went through four drafts), three more on the artwork. He worked 11 hours a day except for the last year, when he worked 13. “I think we all wish we had David’s power,” he says. “It’s the struggle of artists in every medium, to see an idea clearly and then hike through 26 miles of boulders to get there.”

His vast knowledge of comic theory didn’t help much. “My purpose [in the earlier books] was to make things visible,” he explains, “to make people aware of what was happening. Here, I had to bury the techniques I was using. I want people to read the story and not think about panel transitions and facing pages and why I used a full bleed. I want them to think about the characters and the setting and the story and be lost in that world.”

McCloud admits his eye is better than his hand. He draws on a tablet attached to his computer and then edits on the screen. “I couldn’t live without it,” he says. “It’s the perfect way to work. If I don’t get it right the first time, I can change things.”

Working on The Sculptor gave him a crash course in anatomical drawing, which he’d never really had to do before. He convinced his friends to model, and discovered he could make more realistic drawings if he worked from videos of their movements instead of still photos. He did not do any sculpture, especially not the stone carvings David makes. “He’s a glutton for punishment,” McCloud jokes. (The decision to make David a sculptor was a subconscious one, but it worked very well thematically with the way the story unfolded.)

Now that McCloud has finished his first graphic novel, his next project is . . . a return to nonfiction. “It’s not about comics,” he says. “It’s about visual communication, the way we communicate with pictures and infographics. It’s the postprint frontier. I’m quite excited.”