Thursday, September 3, 2009

Asterios Polyp: Great graphic novel, or greatest graphic novel?

This looks cool: here are some clips from an animated adaptation of Jason's Shhh! Very nice; I'll have to try to see that when it comes out, if possible.

Also: Here are some layout sketches and process pictures from Naoki Urasawa on 20th Century Boys. It's rare to see that sort of thing from a manga creator, which makes it worth pointing out, I think.

Asterios Polyp
By David Mazzucchelli

The question here is, how to even begin talking about this book, which was being hailed as the best comic of the year before it was even released? That reputation is not unearned; it's definitely an intelligent, literate work, full of symbolism and allusion, and gorgeously put together to form a fascinating story. But even though it has only recently been released, the weight of its reputation already makes it intimidating to discuss, as if it is a shibboleth designed to expose those who cannot truly comprehend its high-minded code. Can someone who hasn't completed a masters degree in English even talk about it without coming across as an idiot?

Well, it's worth a try, at least. In terms of plot, David Mazzucchelli's work here doesn't seem all that special, akin to one of those corny indie movies in which a busy rich person moves to the country and learns all sorts of lessons about himself, life, love, etc. That's sort of what happens here, with the titular character, a "paper architect" who has never had any of his designs built (he ends up as a university professor, of course), seen wallowing sadly in an unkempt apartment, when a sudden flash of lightning burns his building down and he abruptly decides to leave his life (what little there is of it) behind, taking a bus trip to the country and impulsively stopping in a small town, getting a job as an auto mechanic, and regaining some sense of direction to his life. Chapters of this storyline alternate with flashbacks to Asterios' past, mostly focusing on his relationship with his ex-wife Hana, a sculptor who seems as quiet and reserved as he is brash and confident, until he finally realizes what's most important to him and sets out to make things right.

But while a basic description like that sounds somewhat banal, the execution is where things really take off, as Mazzucchelli pulls out all the stops to bring this story to life. He uses a lot of visual tricks, including one that is sort of on the nose, in that it's explained in the text; it sees characters depicted in a certain specific style, as if their personality and inner feelings are externalized, taking over their entire being. It's a fascinating visual idea, allowing Mazzucchelli to cut loose with various artistic styles and techniques to represent a whole range of humanity:

Asterios himself is seen as a sort of mathematically-precise model, befitting his logical architect's nature, while Hana seems completely opposite, all soft lines and tactile curves. And Mazzucchelli goes one step further, showing how people can attempt to mold themselves after somebody else, as in a moment when Asterios is tempted into an affair with a student:

But a deeper connection shows a more organic combination, as in Asterios' and Hana's first meeting:

It's a fairly simple metaphor, but an effective one, and it allows Mazzucchelli to do some really interesting visual theatrics. And he doesn't overuse it; most of the book sticks with a more cartoony style (albeit one that sees characters depicted in ways that emphasize their personalities), and the "inner state" emerges when emotions are laid bare. That cartoony representation works really well on its own; Asterios' mechanic boss Stiffly Major is a round, fat man with a small head, showing his large, welcoming nature and reticence to speak, while his wife Ursula carries herself regally, like the goddess she believes she is. And taking it one step further, Mazzucchelli gives each character their own unique word balloon shape and font, making it seem like each character has a separate "voice" in a way that seems obvious but isn't yet widely used in comics.

And aside from all the striking visuals, the characters get fleshed out wonderfully bit by bit through narration, flashbacks, or just watching their interactions; we learn early on that Asterios was a twin, but his brother Ignazio died at birth, leaving him feeling like an invisible half of himself was missing. This gave rise to a personal philosophy in which he gives everything a duality, grouping things into two warring halves. Mazzucchelli illustrates this in a variety of ways, at one point invoking Aristophanes' creation myth from Plato's Symposium, in which people originally had four arms, four legs, and two faces, until Zeus split them apart (for a more rock-and-roll version of the story, see Hedwig and the Angry Inch's "The Origin of Love"). Ignazio (who also functions as the book's narrator) is a constant presence for Asterios, leading to a series of dreams in which he plays out his survivor's guilt, imagining a present in which he is surpassed by Ignazio, or, more painfully, completely perfunctory, with Ignazio living an exact replica of his own life. The duality even extends to the book's color scheme, which limits itself mostly to two colors at a time, with present-day sequences in yellow and purple and flashbacks in blue and pink.

It's a feast for the eyes on every page, but it's not empty showing off. Everything is done with the purpose of furthering the development of the characters, most notably Asterios, but even the minor supporting cast ends up being fully realized, realistic human beings. And as Asterios goes on his journey of the soul, he opens up and realizes some things about himself as well, realizing how much Hana meant to him and how badly he treated her by being pompous, self-absorbed, and dismissive. This becomes especially clear in a sequence in which Hana gets a job designing the sets for a play and working with an even more ego-inflated buffoon named Willy Ilium, who constantly makes inappropriate sexual comments to her. Asterios does nothing put mock Willy, until things come to a breaking point, and the moment he and Hana have in which her real feelings come out is absolutely heartbreaking.

And, as ever, Mazzucchelli keeps the visual and storytelling fireworks coming, in sequences like a series of memories that start slow and then overwhelm Asterios, little physical, intimate moments that might be the most precious part of a relationship, showing that the couple feels completely open and at ease with each other:

Another bravura setpiece sees Asterios have a dream in which he acts as Orpheus, descending into a version of hell to rescue Hana, and maybe even realizing what their problem was all along. It's amazingly done, all densely-textured lines and brushes of ink, with lots of surreal touches:

And it references several preceding moments of the story, including Willy's play and some of the sights Asterios saw along his journey. In fact, that's another important aspect of the book: Mazzucchelli peppers a lot of symbolism and foreshadowing throughout, to the point that a second reading (or a lot of flipping back to previous pages) is all but necessary. There's so much going on here that it's no wonder some readers feel that they are in a bit over their heads.

But at heart, it's a very human story, full of emotion that's realistic, gratifying, and cringe-worthy. As cartoony as the characters are, their forms embody their personalities perfectly, and it's a treat to watch them play off each other and live in Mazzucchelli's meticulously crafted world. Does it live up to its lofty reputation? Maybe so; at the least, if Mazzucchelli wasn't already considered one of the greatest living cartoonists, he probably should be now. This is a work that demands to be read, re-read, analyzed, and discussed, and it's a great example of something that could only be done in comics. The medium is certainly richer for its existence.


  1. I loved how it said on the fly-leaf something along the lines of "David Mazzucchelli has worked in comics all his life. This is his first graphic novel". Even a two sentence bio is rich with meaning and subtext.

  2. I was moved nearly to tears by this book.

  3. Hey Matt,

    I read this last week at work and completely forgot to comment on it! I think this was an excellent review. I think you hit the nail on the head with why people say you have to re-read it. I'm someone who is always flipping back while reading a book, trying to pick up on details I think I missed, and it never occured to me that's what people meant when they were talking about re-reading it. Of course, my deepest observation of the book was "red = women, blue = Asterios, yellow = truth, purple = Asterios's perception of the past with Hana, etc."

    I think this was an excellent review, as always! I just woke up so I don't have much more to add at the moment! How's that for sounding like a moron discussing this book? ^_^