Asterios Polyp original hardcover graphic novel
Writer/Artist/Cover artist: David Mazzucchelli
Publisher: Pantheon Books
Price: $29.95 US/$34 CAN
Like most comics readers, I associate the name “David Mazzucchelli” with Daredevil and Batman: Year One, the artist’s collaborations with writer Frank Miller. Those were much-lauded (and deservedly so) super-hero genre projects, but those who have read them shouldn’t consider them any kind of indication of what they can expect from Mazzucchelli and this book. Not only is this character- and philosophy-driven graphic far removed from spandex costumes and crime-fighting fisticuffs, it also boasts a radically different visual style.
I realize that might sound like I’m panning this project, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. This is an intellectual work about a flawed intellectual, and with it, Mazzucchelli proves that there are some stories that can only be told through the medium of comics. Asterios Polyp is an engrossing, challenging work. Everything about the book — the characterizations, the plotting, the art and the lettering — shows incredible vision and ambition on the creator’s part, and it demonstrates just how well he knows this medium. Harvey Pekar meets Scott McCloud in this fascinating tome, one that will not only amaze lovers of comics but will change the way they think about them.
Asterios Polyp is an architect, scholar and professor who’s lived a life in the spotlight. His designs are considered some of the most brilliant in the world, but the architectural theory is beyond what’s expected that none of his designs have ever actually led to the construction of a building. Asterios believes in parallels and dichotomies, in partners and opposites. He approaches the world from a simple perspective, seeing everything around him as basic constructs. As he reaches his 50th birthday and discovers he’s alone and without anything to show for his life, he turns his attention to the notions of chaos and chance.
Mazzucchelli plays around a lot with the notions of balance, understandably, as it’s an integral part of the title character. Hana is brilliant like Asterios, but she’s also a shrinking violet. She mirrors Asterios while also serving as his opposite number. It’s why they fit together so well… at first. Of course, they share something else in common: they feel eclipsed by others. As Hana builds her life in Asterios’s shadow and ego, so does Asterios define his own life by his unborn and invisible twin. Just as Hana was made to feel inferior to her older brothers, so does Asterios feel as though he’s lacking as compared to the unlimited potential of the life his twin Ignazio never lived.
Forget inky cityscapes and lithe, powerful figures in costume leaping from rooftop to rooftop. Mazzucchelli adopts a radically different style for this much more personal, grounded and compelling narrative. Honestly, Asterios Polyp looks a bit like what one might expect to arise if a New Yorker cartoonist were to undertake a graphic novel rather than a one-panel gag strip. The artist often incorporates symbolism into his depiction of the characters themselves. When Mazzucchelli depicts the title character as an assembly of simple shapes, it illustrates his world view perfectly, just as the hazy collection of red scribbles and scratches represents Hana’s more fluid approach to life and perception.
Mazzucchelli incorporates the lettering into the art rather than simply using it to give voices to his characters. He adopts a different font for each character, further reinforcing their individuality. Of course, Asterios boasts the most traditional, least creative lettering approach, which adds to the notion of his limited view of the world. The unseen narrator, Ignazio, has a similar but much larger font for his narrative captions, which is in keeping with Asterios’s delusion of his unborn twin being the bolder personality. The artist also employs the colors to aid him in his symbolism. Those moments in which Hana stands up to or becomes frustrated with Asterios, she’s transformed into a human pyre, it seems, while Asterios’s distant and aloof nature is conveyed well with cool, blue lines. “Later” scenes (meaning later in Asterios’s life, since the book is constructed of achronological segments) is enveloped in warm yellows, which are in keeping with the title character’s altered perceptions and improved attitude about the people around him.
The artist’s choices when it comes to naming his characters is another intriguing aspect of the book, and the central figure’s name is one of the most curious. His first name is a lofty one, putting the reader in mind of heavenly bodies and even suggesting the character’s intellectualism and accomplishment with its unusual nature. Conversely, his last name evokes an image of an ugly, unwanted and even possibly malignant element. While this is a grounded, character-driven book, Mazzucchelli opts for names that suggest caricature rather than character. It’s a signal that he’s playing with extremes, that his story isn’t meant to represent reality but rather to serve as more of a parable.
Asterios’s shift from a world of dinner parties and hoity-toity conversation to a blue-collar lifestyle is a surprising one, but it’s thoroughly intriguing. I love that the level of discourse, though different, is no less insightful… perhaps much moreso. Asterios moves from an artificial reality into a genuine lifestyle, and he begins to fulfill his lifelong potential, even if it’s only in a small scale. Of course, he still suffers, but now, he’s not the architect of his own demise. Forces from without begin to exert influence on his life rather than his own ignorance or rejection of others.
I could write pages about what I think Mazzucchelli is talking about in this book. At times, his meaning comes across as abundantly clear, and at others, there’s a surreal tone that makes meaning elusive, even fluid. And the ending… the ending alone is enough to keep readers debating about the artist’s ultimate message, I’m sure. This is without a doubt the most amazing comics experience I’ve had all year, and it’s a safe bet that this book will top critics’ best of 2009 lists in a few months. This is a must read for fans of intelligent, finely crafted comics. 10/10
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