Reviewed by Chris Bolton
With the current surge of comic book movies filling multiplexes, it's easy to forget that good comics aren't just a storyboard for a film -- or, for that matter, just a novel with pictures. The comic medium has its own, unique strengths and a distinctive narrative approach that defies the easy dismissal from those who view it as some sort of juvenilia for short attention spans.
Writer/artist David Mazzucchelli's Asterios Polyp is a prime example of a story that could only be told in comic form. While the broad outlines of the plot could translate to film or prose, especially in its almost stream-of-consciousness narrative flow, neither medium is equipped to match the impact of Mazzucchelli's artwork. Words and pictures have rarely existed in such perfect symbiosis.
Mazzucchelli's visual style varies from panel to panel -- and sometimes, even within a single panel -- depending on the character or idea represented. Asterios Polyp himself is an angular person, viewing the world with rigidity and a self-imposed structure. Both he and his environment are depicted with straight edges and solid geometric shapes. On the other hand, Polyp's wife, Hana, views the world with an open-minded flexibility, bringing softness and circularity into Polyp's worldview. In one memorable scene, Polyp and Hana engage in an aesthetic debate during which each seeks to dominate. Mazzucchelli changes the background of the panels to reflect the ebb and flow of their battle of egos; when Hana gains the upper hand, her soft-edged, curvy style pushes Polyp's straight lines to the edge of the panel. Ultimately, almost by sheer force of will, Polyp wins out, and his design aesthetic overcomes the page.
Asterios Polyp is a brilliant architect -- or, rather, architectural theorist -- whose designs are widely admired, even though not a single building has been built from them. After his marriage fails and he loses his home in a fire, Polyp moves to a small town, presumably to escape his academic prison and experience a more authentic existence. After diligently reading a book on auto repair and mastering its concepts in less than a day, he becomes an auto mechanic and moves in with his new boss's family. The narrative weaves in and out of his past, exploring his failed marriage and the regret-riddled path that has led him to his current existence.
The most common complaint I've heard about the book is that Asterios Polyp is not a terribly "likable" protagonist. He's egotistical, self-absorbed almost to the point of narcissism, and more than a bit of a prig who thrusts his opinion into every conversation with the immediate assumption that he's right and everyone else is a fool. He might be a total bore during a dinner conversation, but these very traits make Polyp a riveting, multi-faceted character. I'm not sure when we collectively decided all protagonists have to be likable, but I find this philosophy deeply misguided, often resulting in bland depictions of one-dimensional archetypes. Asterios Polyp may not be likable, per se, but he's unforgettable -- and, as a fictional character, that's three times as valuable.
Allusions are ever-present and dense; I'll let a more skillful writer like Douglas Wolk parse out the various meanings and analogies, as he does in his New York Times book review. Or, if you're feeling particularly academic, hack your way through the Comics Journal's analysis. Suffice it to say, one can read the entire book four or five times and discover something new on every page -- in fact, in nearly every panel.
There's a danger in overstating the density of Asterios Polyp. This isn't some homework assignment to identify which "ism" Mazzucchelli represents on each page. Every single image is a delight to the eyes and a thrill for the brain. I was particularly spellbound by the sequence in which Polyp descends to Hades in a realization of the Orpheus myth (a personal favorite of mine). The sequence works on a surface level; your eyes can glance across the images and feel perfectly satisfied as you turn the page. But the work is so beautiful, bursting with potent imagery and gorgeous symbolism, that it richly rewards the most intense scrutiny. I'm not sure it has ever taken me so long to read so few pages.
Asterios Polyp belongs on the short list with Maus, Blankets, and Fun Home as not only brilliant, absolutely essential graphic novels that expand the form with delirious imagination, but also perfect "crossover" titles for non-comic readers. And each book could only achieve its true potential in the comic medium.
Chris Bolton co-created Smash, an all-ages web-comic about a ten-year-old superhero, and created the web-series Wage Slaves, which premiered in July 2009. His short story set in Powell's City of Books, "The Red Room," can be found in Portland Noir.
Books mentioned in this post