Asterios Polyp (Pantheon)

asterios-header.jpgThis sure-to-be-award-winning new work from David Mazzucchelli (Batman: Year One, City of Glass) puts the "novel" back in "graphic novel."

 

344 pgs. full color; $29.95

(W / A: David Mazzucchelli)

 

 

In a world where graphic novels are often heavy on the "graphic," light on the "novel," it’s refreshing to read David Mazzucchelli’s 344-page, complex, ambitious Asterios Polyp, sure to win plenty of awards and a lasting place among other graphic tales that feature impressive writing.

The title character is a "paper architect," an academic whose blueprints have never actually become buildings. He’s also a pretentious boor who enjoys lording his intelligence over his peers, and apparently, it has finally cost him his long-suffering wife. Polyp empties his wallet and buys a train ticket that takes him as far as he can from his old life. He takes a room as a boarder, and a job as an auto mechanic, reckoning with his assholish ways and his shameful past as he gets to know a cast of eccentrics in a new town.

From the beginning, we get that this guy’s a jerk. He’s casually cruel to his shrinking-violet wife Hana, and pretty much everybody else. As he begins to redeem himself, he’s humbled, but that’s a long time coming. I know I’m not the only reader that needs to care about the main character to care about the book, and Mazzucchelli stretched my sympathies here.

The cover to Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli. Click for a larger image.This thick tome was obviously a long time in the making, and it screams "magnum opus." The use of subtexts and themes is really something. For instance, the action begins as Polyp is grabbing his most valuable possessions before running out of his burning apartment. His watch, his Zippo lighter, and his Swiss Army knife will all play a part later in the tale. Polyp’s theories about architecture, his solipsistic world view, and his fondness for Greek myth all pop up in ways both overt and sly, feeding into one another and making the journey richer, especially during a second reading.

In fact, Mazzucchelli’s adept treatment of themes, together with his erudite references to writers like Italo Calvino and cultural touchstones like the Pritzker Prize, make this meatier than the standard. The author works in Polyp’s frequent dreams about his stillborn twin brother – they’re resonant glimpses into the subconscious. His minor characters include a freeloading, enfant terrible choreographer who actually manages to makes Asterios look humble, and Polyp’s Rubenesque landlady "Ursula Major," a font of kooky New Age aphorisms that somehow start to sound reasonable.

What’s going on here is that Mazzucchelli can write with nearly the facility that he can draw. That’s the rarity that will surely rope in Eisner Awards and effusive praise from his peers.

There are graphic innovations, too. Most of the pages are drawn in a palette of just two families of color — purples and yellows, or reds and blues. It’s as if Mazzucchelli is using a minimum of color effects to show that only a minimum of color effects is necessary to tell a story well. The art itself is minimalist, too, and the understatement works.

He’s adept at playing with panel configurations, and in particular, when Polyp starts to explore his beloved theories about architecture, philosophy, and so on, the illustration choices are a delight. Some of these "visual lectures" took on the tone of old, famous educational cartoon shorts, such as 1959’s "Donald in Mathmagic Land." When Polyp gets a blister on his foot, his mind roams into a free association of memories concerning everything physical about his estranged wife — the way she smelled a shirt to see if it was clean, the scratches she sometimes received from her cat, her snoring noises, and a few dozen other mundane (and gross) moments, all arranged in a wistful montage of floating panels.

With Batman: Year One, a Frank Miller collaboration (and the basis for franchise-reboot film Batman Begins), Mazzucchelli showed he could craft an iconic take on superheroes. With Asterios Polyp, he shows he’s capable of writing and drawing a literary odyssey, with stylistic innovations that somehow make carefully woven themes play as casually as a cartoon. Like Alison Bechdel’s triumphant Fun Home, Polyp reminds us what the medium is capable of, and how much more pithy, ambitious stuff like this serious readers are craving. | Byron Kerman

 

Click here for an 8-page excerpt from Asterios Polyp, courtesy of NYmag.com.

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