Anything That Is Not Functional Is Merely Decorative. David Mazzucchelli Once Again Shows How It’s Done, With Asterios Polyp.

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I wrote what follows a few years ago for Pop Your Culture, but after my most recent umpteenth read I felt the need to share it again. If you haven’t read and absorbed the brilliant Asterios Polyp, I hope my review changes that. This is an important graphic novel, one that embraces the medium as it expands upon it, and it demands a prominent space on every fan’s bookshelf.

David Mazzucchelli is back after a decade long absence from the world of comics. Mazzucchelli, best known for his work with Frank Miller on Batman: Year One and Daredevil, has been away for far too many years, but what a comeback he has made here! I had heard much about the multiple Eisner nominated modernist work that is Asterios Polyp. I had heard that it was arguably the best new comic work in decades, and I had heard that it was an incomprehensible mess. I had been looking forward to reading it for myself, but for whatever reason it took me months to finally get around to it. The truth is, everywhere I went it proved to be sold out. Well, I finally found a copy, and read it twice last night. Was it worth the hype? Or for that matter, the wait? I say, yes. Yes. YES.

Let me begin by stating that Asterios Polyp is not for everybody. Asterios Polyp is an ambitious and dense read, filled with ideas and concepts that few comics, American comics at least, would dare to tackle. On the surface it is about a self-absorbed “paper architect” with a dead twin brother who goes on a voyage of self discovery after his flat is burned down, but it’s the deeper themes that make this work a brilliant piece of sequential storytelling. If you want to read a comic that creates a sense of awe in it’s reader, and forces you to think differently about the world around you, this book does that and a whole lot more. This book simply begs to be read multiple times, and makes more and more sense with every read. It is a true “graphic novel” in every sense of the word.

The art was the first thing that really grabbed my attention. At first glance it has a very cartoony, nineteen-sixties advertising aesthetic. Simple lines with sparse yet bold colors. Very much like a French comic album, in many ways. There is an economy of line that while at once intentional, also seems effortless. Once you get past the first page though, you realize there is a whole lot more going on here. Mazzucchelli deliberately uses many different art styles to convey different themes and emotions. There is Pop Art, Cubism, Expressionism, Impressionism, Pointilism, Realism, and Surrealism.

He also, apologetically, uses the main three printer’s colors, as if to say, “Yes, this is a comic book.” It is however, so much more than that. Each character has their own color scheme and design aesthetic, which works on so many different levels for different intents and purposes. Asterios himself is cyan, while his wife Hana is magenta, and when the two merge, the page is made up entirely of shades of purple. It’s a very subtle, yet ideal way to show how lives become intertwined. What really impressed me was David’s use of blank space. If a scene was meant to be paused upon, he has it sitting there, all by itself, with no other distractions surrounding it. Every page and panel in this work is calculated without seeming so, and David put in a lot of work and research to make it that way. Mazzucchelli uses this work to push the boundaries of the medium like few before him. There are definitely hints of Will Eisner and Scott McCloud, but only hints.

The story itself seems likewise very simple, yet with more and more layers as you get farther in. David uses Asterios as a vehicle for discussions of art, religion, sex, politics, isolation, mortality, duality, and style versus substance, without drowning out the story of a man on a search for self. Each character has his or her very distinct voice, and he uses them wisely to propel the story, as well as drive home the idea that beliefs and principles can change with experience. The scenes with Geronimo Pinque, a young Native-American activist, and country-punk musician are particularly interesting to me. Asterios being the constant over thinker, Gerry being the impulsive idealist. The two get along quite well, even while Asterios subtly challenges Gerry’s belief system in every conversation. The story is told in an interesting way. It is very linear in the way the main story is told, but the flashback sequences really make it interesting. They tell of Asterios’ failed marriage to the aforementioned Hana, a string of one-night stands with his students, and faculty parties where Asterios seized the spotlight and clung to it as if it were a life preserver. We need these flashbacks because we need to know where Asterios has been to help understand where he needs to go.

And then there are the hallucinogenic sequences narrated by Asterios’ dead twin brother, Ignacio. The theme of twins, and duality in general, permeate this work. The Yin-Yang symbol pops up frequently. It is mentioned that even though Asterios is a Cancer, he is very close to being a Gemini. There are many scenes where Ignacio is a dotted outline, following Asterios. In many of these scenes Ignacio does the opposite of what Asterios does, again creating a Yin/Yang image. Yet, it is mentioned that identical twins often have similar lives, even when they do not know of each others existence. In this, Ignacio is a successful architect, where Asterios has never had any of his designs built.

With a title like Asterios Polyp you would expect some discussion of Greek themes as well, and they are definitely there although very understated at times. Asterios’ family come to America from Greece, and have their last name cut in half. Asterios teaches at a college in Ithaca, New York, named after the Greek island. He mentions a belief in the Greek Pantheon. Asterios, like Orpheus, descends into Hades at one point. He arrives at a town called Apogee. Apollo and Dionysus, Euclidean geometry, the Five Platonic Solids, and the Parthenon are referenced as well. A re-read reveals many more subtleties in the backgrounds, and make it that much more interesting. The whole story, plays out like a classic Greek Tragedy.

This is not to mention the other literary and art world names and concepts that are sprinkled throughout the story. Narcissus and Goldmund, The Cloven Viscount, the sculptor Isamu Noguchi, Francis of Assisi, Mao Tse-tung, Plato’s Republic, Gilgamesh, Mark Rothko, and many others are brought up to illustrate or drive home certain points of the story, but many have double or even triple meanings.

The story never gets bogged down with name drops or high concepts though. This book is an example of style AS substance, but it is so much more. The fact that David Mazzucchelli can have such a literate work be so fun and engaging at the same time is a testament to his artistry. This is a creator at the top of his game, and if he never produced another work, this piece would be a great legacy to leave behind.

Asterios Polyp is still available at finer comic shops, bookstores, and online.

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