The question here is, how to even begin talking about Asterios Polyp, 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.
However, 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, et cetera--which is sort of what happens here.
The titular character, a "paper architect" who has never had any of his designs built (he ends up as a university professor, of course), is 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 behind (what little there is of it). He takes a bus trip to the country and impulsively stops in a small town where he gets a job as an auto mechanic and regains some sense of direction to his life.
Chapters of this storyline alternate with flashbacks to Asterios's past--focusing mostly on his relationship with his ex-wife, Hana. She's a sculptor who seems as quiet and reserved as he is brash and confident. During the story, he finally realizes what's most important to him and sets out to make things right.
However, while the basic description I've provided sounds somewhat banal, the execution is where things really take off. 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. The scene sees characters depicted in a 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 that befits his logical architect's nature while Hana seems completely opposite--all soft lines and tactile curves. 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.
However, 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. He doesn't overuse it, though, as 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's mechanic boss, Stiffly Major, is a round, fat man with a small head--which shows his large, welcoming nature and reticence to speak. His wife, Ursula, carries herself regally--like the goddess she believes she is.
Taking it one step further, Mazzucchelli gives each character their own unique word balloon shape and font--making it seem like each has a separate "voice" in a way that seems obvious but isn't yet widely used in comics.
Aside from all the striking visuals, the characters get fleshed out wonderfully bit by bit through narration, flashbacks, or just through the depiction of their interactions. We learn early on that Asterios was a twin, but his brother Ignazio died at birth--leaving Asterios feeling as if an invisible half of himself was missing. This loss of his twin gave rise to a personal philosophy in which Asterios gives everything a duality--grouping things into two warring halves.
Mazzucchelli illustrates this notion of duality 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 by imagining a present in which he is surpassed by Ignazio, or, more painfully and 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 characters.
As Asterios goes on his journey of the soul, he opens up and realizes some things about himself as well--such as how much Hana meant to him and how badly he treated her by being pompous, self-absorbed, and dismissive. This poor treatment of Hana becomes especially clear in a sequence in which she 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.
As ever, Mazzucchelli keeps both the visual and storytelling fireworks coming--such as in a series of memory sequencess that start slow and then overwhelm Asterios. There are also little, intimate moments that might be the most precious part of any relationship--showing that Asterios and Hana feel 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.
The scene 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 the story, to the point that a second reading (or a lot of flipping back to previous pages) is absolutely 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.
However, at its heart, Asterios Polyp is a very human story filled with 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 the book 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. It's a great example of something that could only be done in comics. The medium is certainly richer for its existence.
What did you think of this book?
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