The “literary” graphic novel has been both a boon and a bane to comics as an art form, given that so much of what’s been produced under the banner rarely works as comics. A comic’s narrative pleasures, when the form is really cooking, are based on visual invention as much as traditional literary merit — a hoary truism in the comics world, one often strangely glossed outside of its boundaries.
David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp (Pantheon) certainly looks, from the outside, like it’s targeting “mainstream” book readers. The jacket design is exquisite, with a palette of pink, plum, and sky blue. It also features a middle-aged man who, with his suit and receding hairline and look of smug satisfaction, wouldn’t be out of place accompanying a short by one of the New Yorker’s masters of upper-middle-class ennui.
The plot likewise reads like something that could have wound up a National Book Award runner-up: The titular architect, adrift following his divorce, witnesses his New York apartment destroyed in a natural disaster. So — insert dramatic pause here — he hits the road with the scant cash in his pocket to find out when and how he screwed up so badly that he finds himself completely alone.
It turns out Asterios is a genius, but also a prick, self-assured in a way that either attracts or repels you instantly. His ex-wife, Hana, a sculptor, is sketched (sometimes literally) as Asterios’s softer, more life-curious counterpart. She’s a woman who thinks in grays while her husband so rigidly adheres to the black-and-white philosophy that everything can be broken down into complementary opposites. You can probably guess how their relationship plays out once the honeymoon period wears away.
Out West, natural bullshitter Asterios is hired as a mechanic, even though he’s never touched a car’s innards before. The book then alternates chapters between Asterios’s middle-American, post-traumatic present, and his slowly, almost imperceptibly unraveling past. Time slows to a crawl as Asterios hides in small-town U.S.A., in contrast with the increasingly tense atmosphere of his marriage as a playwright named Willy
Illium drives a wedge between Asterios and Hana when Illium commissions her as stage designer for his next production.
If Asterios Polyp were a novel, played straight, it might be too precious to bear. Some characters’ names verge on excruciating puns and it is narrated by the protagonist’s twin brother, who died in utero, so that Mazzucchelli can wax philosophical about duality. But the book is more concerned with using comics’ native qualities to get inside of characters’ heads, rather than squeezing masterful prose into crowded captions.
Mazzucchelli is one of the medium’s great draftsmen and one of its great formalists, and he works both sides of his talent overtime in Asterios Polyp, his first major work in nearly a decade. He’s had one of the odder career paths in comics, starting out as a journeyman superhero artist (forgettable Marvel crud like Moon Knight), only to quickly become a brilliant superhero artist (pulp-fiction classics such as Batman: Year One and Daredevil: Born Again). And then he threw his fanboy fame away to follow the muse.
The result was Rubber Blanket, a three-issue anthology Mazzucchelli self-published in the early ’90s. He produced rough, scratchy work that bore the stamp of ratty ’80s icon Gary Panter as much as the suggestive line of ’60s virtuoso Alex Toth, for stories that felt like parables. An astounding adaptation (with Paul Karasik) of Paul Auster’s City of Glass followed in 1994, which exploded the source novel into a series of meticulous cityscapes and panels that verged on the iconographic simplicity of street signs. Then Mazzucchelli spent 10 years crafting what Asterios Polyp’s book flap calls “his first graphic novel.”
Visually, Asterios Polyp is the lushest comic of the year — maybe of the last the 10 years, a decade not exactly thin on astounding cartooning. Mazzucchelli’s work has all but abandoned the realistic musculature and architecture that made him stand out from his superhero peers. Asterios Polyp feels like three or four cartoonists working in concert, often on the same page, all of them firmly creating in the “stylized” end of the comics’ spectrum.
A dream sequence based on the Orpheus myth looks like it was drawn with purple coal, contrasting with the tight, classicist line of the rest of the book. When Asterios meets Hana for the first time, he’s drawn as a series of rigid geometric planes while she’s delicately cross-hatched, a contrast that Mazzucchelli masterfully uses to convey both their attachment (Hana’s pink filling Asterios’s empty vessel) and estrangement (Hana’s warmth receding from Asterios’s world until he’s left against awful negative space). And Mazzucchelli is still able to suggest the tactile clutter of city apartments and rural homes without dipping into “realism.”
Mazzucchelli’s use of color alone — subtly suggesting form and mood and psychological states and meteorological conditions — should be added to any art school’s comics curriculum. The sequences of Asterios living with the Major family are the warm yellows of a late summer afternoon, mirroring his not unpleasant stasis as he reflects on his former life. His New York years of happy-to-frayed married life are chilly blues and purples, only occasionally flushed by the pink of Hana’s presence.
While you’re reading Asterios Polyp, the occasionally thin, episodic plotting matters not a whit, because you’re so bowled over by the alternately subtle and breathtaking ways Mazzucchelli uses art (rather than prose) to make his characters three-dimensional. And because you accept these people as simultaneously “real” and as lines on paper, Mazzucchelli’s formal playfulness isn’t distracting the way it would be on film. If you need reference points from outside the medium, think William Gaddis crafting character through dialogue in JR rather than Michel Gondry’s whimsical, self-impressed special-effects intrusions.
If a line runs through Mazzucchelli’s career, it’s the joy of moving objects (and the reader’s eye) across the page. Some of Asterios Polyp’s most arresting sequences come when Mazzucchelli stretches the reader’s expectations of linear panel-to-panel progression, like the dazzling eight-page sequence in which a vignette from Asterios and Hana’s home life is framed by dizzying individual panels of Hana alone, flash cut between intimate moments away from her husband. Each individual page of Asterios Polyp is full of unexpected design and layout choices, the innovations never hampering new comics readers’ enjoyment. Like the best “literary” comics of the last 20 years — David B.’s Epileptic, Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan — Mazzucchelli knows that the best way to illuminate human truths is to use the tools at your disposal, rather than aping another medium in hopes of siphoning some of its respect from the literati.
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