TCJ 300: Asterios Polyp reviewed by Charles Hatfield

Posted by on January 5th, 2010 at 7:53 AM


©2009 David Mazzucchelli.

The book’s dialectical design is hinted at even on its outside. On its front cover, a suited, professorial Asterios looks left, toward the spine; on the back, a more plainclothes Asterios (as he appears in Apogee) looks right, mirroring himself. This twinning conceit appears incised into the coverboards and is reprised on the book’s dust jacket, with the addition of colors: blue and magenta on the front, reflecting Asterios’s life as an academic — and implicitly his relationship with Hana — versus a band of yellow on the back. The sharp geometrical forms on the jacket reflect his status as a paper architect. In fact, his name — that is, the book’s title — is composed of overlapping blue and magenta shapes that could have come from an architect’s drawing template. Only the overlay of the two colors renders the title legible. Inside the book, endpapers and flyleaf recap this alternating color scheme. The book and jacket design, by the way, are Mazzucchelli’s own, the result being a triumph of integrated narrative design. Even the look and feel of the book-as-object serve to reinforce and enrich the tale.

(True story: I got Asterios Polyp at the Mocca Festival 2009, then spent much of my flight back to Los Angeles reading and rereading the book, and in fact began drafting this review right then. A passenger in the row behind me saw the book from a distance and her eyes were drawn to the way it was designed. Eventually she took the plunge and asked me what I was reading, which sparked a conversation between us during the last half-hour or so of the flight. It turned out that she was a graphic designer, book artist, teacher and the director of the Book Arts Institute of the International Printing Museum, and that she was just on her way back home from the Hybrid Book Conference in Philadelphia. She took down information about Mazzucchelli’s book, and then we talked about quite a few other topics. So I learned some things, made a new acquaintance, and had my life enriched. The point is, Asterios Polyp will be a magnet for anyone with a designer’s eye. The book is proof positive of the proposition that comics = graphic design turned to narrative ends.)

Despite its designed and designing nature, and despite its passion for doubling and opposition, Asterios Polyp finally breaks out of its habits, in a manner both surprising and yet, with hindsight, entirely fitting. While partaking of his lead’s mania for symmetrical and diametrical form, Mazzucchelli questions and in the end seeks to overturn the tendency. In right Hegelian fashion, he seeks and achieves a new synthesis that is at once graphic, thematic and character-based. Even as the novel testifies to a preoccupation with form, it explodes its own formalism from within, achieving in the home stretch a wonderful good humor, earned pathos, and, finally, believable tenderness. The book’s climax, a bittersweet, gorgeous opening-out while at the same time a return, is almost palpable.

Mazzucchelli utilizes the Orpheus and Eurydice myth in Asterios Polyp, ©2009 David Mazzucchelli.

An incandescently smart book, Asterios Polyp knows enough to outsmart itself. To a great degree, it’s taken up with the problem of graphic ideation: how can abstract ideas be made graphically vivid? This kind of bravura problem-solving, which entails the nonstop hurdling of design challenges, makes the book fairly mind-boggling: Mazzucchelli indulges in plenty of visual grandstanding as he gets us to share, and question, his hero’s worldview. Graphic metaphors abound, recalling City of Glass (which, years down the line, seems to have soaked deep into Mazzucchelli’s skin). Yet the book sloughs off this strategy as it nears the windup, reverting to an elegant naturalism that more nearly recalls the restrained Mazzucchelli of short stories like “Rates of Exchange.” In short, the book unclenches. Mazzucchelli will not be bound by his own cleverness.

Overall, this is a happy book that works out tensions through the comic play of contrasts. This is why it comes across as deftly humorous — dig, for example, the droll contrast between Asterios and the outsized figures of the Major family, so full of life — rather than overworked and alienating. In its unabashed joyfulness, the novel seems a riposte to the chilly austerity of the post-Ware school of comics formalism, as well as a rejection of that clichéd aesthetic of queasy nostalgia, fetishizing object-worship, and near-autistic social withdrawal taken up by so many contemporary alt-comics. Yes, the plot begins with Asterios in a state of alienation, reliving his past on videocassette (he keeps a vast library of tapes recording what goes on in his apartment), but it immediately turns him out on his ear, purging him by fire so to speak. In other words, this is a book that begins by breaking out of the cul-de-sac where many alt-comics end. So, despite its status as an obsessively crafted art object, Asterios Polyp turns out to be a fresh, teeming work of light-handed social comedy. It dances around nostalgia, refuses the aesthetics of recessiveness, deflects its own obsessive impulses, embraces human zaniness, and, despite a polished, urbane air, surges with liveliness and joy.

In sum, it is not only suave but also immensely pleasurable.

That the novel overflows with visual delights helps: dig the gracefulness of its line, the sensuousness of its forms, the hopscotching restlessness of its layouts. The book is a delectable performance. Every page is a unique assemblage of images, some laid out in ways I’ve never before seen. In addition, an entire personal genealogy of comics is implied in its imagery, with graphic and thematic nods to Chester Gould and Los Bros; an understructure built from the minimalism of Toth and of course the deep formalism of Kurtzman, Spiegelman, Karasik and their protégés; sidelong tributes to Bushmiller and Kirby; intervals of voluptuous brushwork worthy of Baudoin or Blutch; omnivorous referencing of art and design styles, in particular snazzy modernist design recalling everything from Eames furniture to Steranko; and a yen for ellipsis and visual poetry reminiscent of Seiichi Hayashi and of nouvelle manga. An underworld sequence, riffing on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, reminded me both of the great European brush masters and of Eric Drooker’s wordless fables, while being in no way an imitation of either. The book spills over with great drawing like a burst dam.

©2009 David Mazzucchelli.

In the end, Asterios Polyp is a benevolent and deeply romantic book. Asterios learns and grows and finds his way to something warm and human. Hana and Asterios see each other again, in an unexpected way. Asterios becomes, yep, a better person. Even as he loses his binocular vision — I won’t say how — he gains a deeper understanding, a metaphor harking back to Mazzucchelli’s earlier work (“Blind Date”). His singular ego investment, his monocular view of life, gives way to a more rounded appreciation of world and people. The novel, in short, is interested in people and how they relate. It even goes so far as to suggest that one person may be completed by another. How deliciously old-fashioned.

Beyond dialectic — beyond duality — love, loss and chance are Mazzucchelli’s abiding themes. His carpe diem conclusion is compassionate but bruising; frankly, I felt sandbagged when I got there. I felt as if I had gone round the bend. Mazzucchelli, though, earns the hurt fairly. So as soon as I had read the book I started reading it again.

When all is said and done, Asterios Polyp is that long-expected great thing: a humane, openhearted, graphically transporting masterpiece.


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