Book Shelves #24, 6.10.2012


Book shelves series #24, twenty-fourth Sunday of 2012: In which we glance at canonical comics.

So we’ve hit the last shelf in a series of triplets; next week: new room.

This shelf holds graphic novels, including stuff by Alan Moore, Marjane Satrapi, David Mazzucchelli, Jeff Smith, Art Spiegelman, and Chris Ware. There’s also most of Dave Sim’s epic series Cerebus here.


I wrote about Dave Sim and Cerebus back in week 6 of this project, when I looked at the actual comic books I owned in the series. From that post:

 I bought issues of Cerebus intermittently for years at a time, usually getting frustrated and then waiting for the “phone book” graphic novel editions of the series. Sim, along with background artist Gerhard, produced 300 issues of Cerebus over 25 years. The issues from the early ’80s to the early ’90s are brilliant; eventually Sim cracked though and went on an insane, reactionary (and arguably deeply misogynistic) bent. He created his own religion, a mix of hardline Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, and the later books in the series suffered greatly, as the book detoured to chronicle projects that seemed far outside its original scope (including strange, long satires of Hemingway and Fitzgerald).

These are the phone books I referenced. Looking over them again, I keep reminding myself to try and reread the last two books to see if I missed anything.

Somewhat at random, I opened Reads, the novel that signaled the beginning of Sim’s estrangement from sanity. It opened to this page, part of a climactic scene between Cerebus and Cirin, leader of the matriarchy that will rule Iest (don’t ask):


Books Acquired, 1.25.2012 (Malcolm Lowry, Paul Auster, and William Gaddis)

I go to the bookstore once a week, whether I need books or not, which I really don’t. This week, I picked up a book I’ve already read, Lowry’s late-modernist classic Under the Volcano, simply because I hate the cover of the version I have (a bland movie tie-in). Anyway, I’ve been prowling for a version that includes an introduction by William Vollmann, but I saw this midcentury paperback with a nice minimal vibe and had to snap it up (also, it was a dollar, and “I’d buy that for a dollar!”):


I’m not a huge Paul Auster fan, but I do like artist David Mazzucchelli’s work (especially his novel Asterios Polyp), so when I saw a crisp used copy of the graphic novelization of City of Glass (with an intro by Art Spiegelman), I had to snap it up:


A splash page of a stark empty room which I’m sure is meaningful in some way:


Also, couldn’t help pick up a used copy of Gaddis’s late novel Carpenter’s Gothic, even though I know there’s no way I’ll get to it anytime soon.


Biblioklept’s 777th Post Spectacular

Welcome to Biblioklept’s 777th Post Spectacular*

*Not guaranteed to be spectacular.

777 seems like a beautiful enough number to celebrate, and because we’re terribly lazy, let’s celebrate by sharing reviews of seven of our favorite novels that have been published since this blog started back in the hoary yesteryear of 2006. In (more or less) chronological order–

The Children’s Hospital–Chris Adrian — A post-apocalyptic love boat with metaphysical overtones, Adrian’s end of the world novel remains underrated and under-read.

The Road — Cormac McCarthy That ending gets me every time. The first ending, I mean, the real one, the one between the father and son, not the tacked on wish-fulfillment fantasy after it. Avoid the movie.

A Mercy — Toni Morrison –Slender and profound, A Mercy should be required reading for all students of American history. Or maybe just all Americans.

Tree of Smoke — Denis Johnson — Nobody knew we needed another novel about the Vietnam War and then Johnson went and showed us that we did. But it’s fair to say his book is about more than that; it’s an espionage thriller about the human soul.

2666 — Roberto Bolaño — How did he do it? Maybe it was because he was dying, his life-force transferred to the page. Words as viscera. God, the blood of the thing. 2666 is both the labyrinth and the minotaur.

Asterios Polyp — David Mazzucchelli — We laughed, we cried, and oh god that ending, right? Wait, you haven’t read Asterios Polyp yet? Is that because it’s a graphic novel, a, gasp, comic book? Go get it. Read it. Come back. We’ll wait.

C — Tom McCarthy — Too much has been made over whether McCarthy’s newest novel (out in the States next week) is modernist or Modernist or post-modernist or avant-garde or whatever–these are dreadfully boring arguments when stacked against the book itself, which is complex, rich, enriching, maddening.

Asterios Polyp — David Mazzucchelli


Let’s get a few things straight from the get-go: David Mazzuchelli’s graphic novel Asterios Polyp is a masterpiece, an unequivocal advancement of its medium, and an unqualified joy to read. It’s also not only one of the best books we’ve read this year, but also this decade. While such breathless enthusiasm might seem suspect, even a cursory look over Asterios Polyp will reveal that Mazzucchelli has produced a fully-realized work, one that fundamentally reimagines what a graphic novel is, and how it might be read.

Asterios Polyp is a boorish, solipsistic “paper architect” and tenured professor (none of his designs have ever actually been built) whose life goes to shambles after his sensitive wife Hana leaves him. The novel opens with a lightning strike that literally destroys everything that Asterios owns. He grabs three key items–his father’s old lighter, a magnetically-powered watch he bought as a child, and a Swiss Army knife he found on the beach–and hits the road, heading into the great, normal Midwest, where he takes a job as an auto mechanic (in a lovely scene, Asterios the autodidact, after accepting his new job, heads to the library to learn auto repair in an hour). Asterios’s kindly boss Stiff and his hippie wife Ursula take in the poor soul/arrogant prick. As the plot unfolds, Mazzucchelli contrasts Asterios’s past, full of faculty cocktail parties, affairs with grad students, and highbrow conversations, with his incremental rebirth into a more concrete world. “Be not simply good; be good for something,” said Henry David Thoreau–a lesson that Asterios slowly learns as he finally applies his skill and genius to real-world applications, like building a tree house for the couple’s son and creating a solar-powered Cadillac. Asterios’s emergence as a fully-realized human being contrasts sharply with hist past. Although he clearly loved his wife Hana, he was unable to appreciate her as anything other than a prop in relation to himself–how she complimented him, added to him, reflected on him. The flashback scenes with Hana are keenly realistic and loaded with genuine pathos. They are the heart of the novel.

Asterios’s twin brother Ignazio narrates the novel, only there’s a catch–Ignazio died at birth. This trope of twinning underscores Asterios Polyp‘s philosophical thrust. Asterios, in an attempt to understand (and thus control, at least figuratively) the universe, attempts to systematize it in his own intellectual yet limited projections. For Asterios, the world is all duality–life and death, in and out, form and content, exterior and interior, plastic and linear, black and white. Although he’s willing to make pragmatic concessions to shades of gray–Mazzucchelli is far-too savvy to have his lead as a flat, unrealistic allegorical figure–Asterios’s unrelenting idealism nonetheless repeatedly foils any chance for real happiness. Mazzucchelli’s discussions of philosophy, art history, and human relationships are never heavy-handed and always thought-provoking. Beyond this, his cartooning synthesizes words and art to a new level, one in which form and content are seamless, contiguous, and purposeful.

What, exactly, do we mean by this? To put it plain, there are few graphic novels that reinvent the possibilities of the medium. A handful of examples spring to mind: Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, Dave Sim’s Cerebus, and Art Spiegelman’s Maus. Like Asterios Polyp, these books envision the graphic novel as more than just “pictures + words.” Mazzucchelli utilizes every tool at his disposal. It’s not just his obvious talent as a cartoonist whose inks recall the best work of Will Eisner. It’s not just his fantastic scripting and dialogue (undoubtedly the most neglected facet of the comics medium). It’s also his sense of space, the rhythm of his panels, the perfection of not just each page but the cohesion of all the pages. It’s also the beautiful palette of Asterios Polyp, its codified world of pastels, purples and yellow, blues and pinks, and its spare oranges and reds. It’s also the lettering, where Mazzucchelli achieves something that I haven’t seen done properly since Dave Sim: he gives each character a unique, personal tone, simply through the shape of their words.

Of course, none of Mazzucchelli’s craft and technique would matter if his story wasn’t so compelling. There’s poignancy and pathos in the tale of Asterios Polyp, and we find ourselves rooting for him as he earns his redemption. And none of Asterios’s journey feels forced, a rarity these days it seems. Instead, there’s unexpected beauty here, especially as the novel unwinds–or perhaps, winds up–to its rewarding end. For the record, we’d absolutely love to discuss the last few pages of this book with anyone who’s read it–have you read it? Why haven’t you read it yet? Without spoilers, let’s just say that the conclusion is both fitting and bewildering, satisfying and yet maddening, a perfect cohesion of the book’s thematic exploration of dualities (and the pitfalls of choosing to codify the world into a series of those dualities). Mazzucchelli’s been around forever (you probably remember him, like me, from his early work with Frank Miller on Daredevil and the groundbreaking “Year One” arc of Batman). Amazingly, this is his first solo graphic novel. Hopefully he won’t keep us waiting so long for the next one. Do yourself a favor and get this book now. Very highly recommended.

Asterios Polyp is now available from Pantheon Graphic Novels.