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.