Sunday, July 26, 2009

Two and Three: Asterios Polyp

Rob reviews the long-awaited book from David Mazzucchelli, ASTERIOS POLYP (Pantheon).

David Mazzucchelli emerging with a huge, boldly original graphic novel is akin to the occasional reappearances of Thomas Pynchon in terms of it being a publishing event. He's an unusual figure in comics in that while he came out of a fine arts background, he first came to prominence as a mainstream superhero artist, illustrating Frank Miller's "Born Again" run on Daredevil as well as Batman: Year One. Then he went in a different direction, helping to adapt Paul Auster's CITY OF GLASS with Paul Karasik and then start his own groundbreaking anthology, RUBBER BLANKET. After the third issue of that series, Mazzucchelli pretty much dropped off the radar as he set to writing what was originally going to be the fourth issue of that series and instead grew in scope and ambition.

The result is ASTERIOS POLYP, a book whose scope is formally ambitious and enormously clever but whose concerns are deceptively simple. Mazzucchelli, above all else, has always been interested in exploring not just the formal aspects of comics in terms of the way a page is composed and designed, but in the very production and printing process of comics. As a result, there's a hyperawareness of the way color in particular appears and interacts with other elements on the page. Very few cartoonists really think about color as the primary way of imparting information to the reader, and doing so in a way that is not an homage to past uses of color. Chris Ware really blazed the trail in that area; indeed, much of the emotional content in his stories is modulated not by his line or dialogue but by the choice and juxtaposition of colors. Dash Shaw is currently taking color in some bold and original directions, and he noted that it's actually easier to innovate with color since it was an afterthought for so many for so long, as opposed to the weight of influence he feels from other cartoonists.

In ASTERIOS POLYP, Mazzucchelli's line is extremely simple and clear. His character design is stylized to the point of telegraphing each character's purpose in the story immediately upon introduction. Temporality, mood and character interaction are entirely dictated by the very basic colors he employs. Going back to printmaking, the basic CMYK colors are dominant in this book, as well as some of the very basic combinations of cyan, magenta, and yellow--but never black. Black, the usual cornerstone of most comics, is not at all present in the final product of this book. I don't think it's an accident that it was three colors that dominated the book; the unstated importance of three instead of two (in this case, "color" vs "black and white) is repeated throughout the book as a sort of cosmic corrective for the titular protagonist.

Mazzucchelli very carefully treads the line between innovation and wider reader appeal with this book. There's a sense that he overexplains certain aspects of his themes with his occasional use of a narrator. His archetypical use of characters flattens them emotionally, to the point where some became caricatures. There's something very cool and detached with the way he designs a page and employs color, even ones where there's a lot of drama occurring. Unlike Ware or Carol Tyler (another artist with a fine arts background), who simultaneously distance the reader with their line and use of color and draw them in with the spontaneous, organic nature of their storytelling, there's little that feels organic about ASTERIOS POLYP.

That observation is not meant to be pejorative, because further readings seem to indicate that ASTERIOS POLYP is inspired by Greek tragedy as much as anything. Such works are the wellspring for many modern character archetypes and story themes, and Mazzucchelli dips into that well both overtly and subtly. The more obvious ways in which this pops up is making the character of Greek descent, the way the tragedy of Orpheus literally becomes the wedge that drives his wife away from him through her involvement in an off-Broadway production, the way the tragedy appears as a dream sequence starring Asterios, and referencing Aristophanes in Plato's SYMPOSIUM. However, the unstated but dominant theme of the book is the hubris of its protagonist, Asterios Polyp, and the ways in which the gods chose to punish him.

The plot of the book is simple: we meet Asterios in his trashed Manhattan apartment, which is struck by lightning and burns down. He hurriedly leaves the apartment, taking only three items: his watch, a lighter and a Swiss army knife. He gets on the subway and takes a bus as far as it will go, aptly depositing him in a town called Apogee. Asterios gets a job as a mechanic with a kind, buffoonish malaprop factory named Stiffly Major, married to a Rubensesque new age "goddess" named Ursula. As the book proceeds, the reader is given three different perspectives: a straightforward account of Asterios' days in Apogee, a series of flashbacks to his past (in particular, to the way his relationship with his wife crumbed) and asides told by his dead twin brother, Ignazio.

If Asterios' crime against the gods was hubris, what was the nature of his pride and vanity? It was the way he apprehended structure and design and used it to bend the universe to his will. As a famous professor of architecture, this had a profound impact on his students. With the way he treated his wife, this would prove to be unforgiveable by the gods (even when his ex-wife herself eventually forgives him). That structure he was so infatuated with was one of simple duality: everything can be understood in opposition to other concepts. Such binary concepts have their uses in everyday life, but Mazzucchelli views them as one would a drawing of a square: it's two dimensional, flat. Like Polyp's designs, they exist only on paper (he was a renowned "paper architect", with none of his designs ever being built). Adding a third dimension (from square to cube) increases the complexity of a set of concepts, eliminating some easily-reducible conclusions, but also gives such concepts life. It's no accident that Asterios' wife Hana was a sculptor and designer who always worked in three dimensions.

The ultimate problem with this dualistic point of view, where one categorizes everything as either/or, is that the eventual extrapolation of this idea is the definitive set of categories: right/wrong. This happens with Asterios, where he abandons observation and rationality and reifies his understanding of the world as one where he is always right and anyone who disagrees with him is always wrong as a hard and fast rule. The elements of his relationship with his wife that he thought were perfectly complementary turned out to be occluding his wife's very sense of identity and self-worth. A natural wallflower with little self-esteem, it took the introduction of a buffoonish blowhard of a choreographer who fawned on her to make her realize what she wasn't getting from her husband.

For Asterios, his wife leaving him was as much a thunderbolt to the way he constructed his own version of reality as it was him grieving her loss as a person. That feeling of being split in half and the alienation that resulted was the sensation that he most feared in life, given that his brother died shortly after birth. What he doesn't understand that his attempts to regain a sense of wholeness were a horrible sort of botched surgery that wound up traumatizing his other half, something he alludes to throughout the work when Asterios wonders if he somehow killed his twin himself. Leaving her broke down his carefully-constructed dualisms and barriers between himself and the spectre of his twin. This played out in Asterios watching a videotape of his first date with his ex-wife Hana, part of a set created to create a phantom or twin version of his life. The choices twins make are often freakishly similar (even separated by time and distance), and Asterios thought he could give his twin a mirror life of sorts. Crossing the line and watching the tape was an indication both of what he knew he had lost and an attempt at trying to reconcile that sense of being split that he felt so acutely.

Asterios' experiences in Apogee play out as an extended form of penance & letting go as well as an unexpected series of lectures designed to expand and explode his old set of cognitive & emotional steady-states. This played out most powerfully in a scene near the end, when a discussion arises on what holds relationships together. Asterios immediately chimes in with yet another binary system, but a female friend interrupts and delivers a brilliant but simple model: she takes three badges and names them trust, respect and love. Angling them against each other allows them to stand freely, but she notes that removing any one element will cause the structure to collapse. Once again, the theme of three vs two arises, and once again, it's presented as a complex, three-dimensional structure as opposed to a more simplistic concept.

There's much to delight in visually in this book. The page where Asterios meets Hana and the reader understands how they complete each other in the way that their colors and design start to merge was simply brilliant and spoke to what was happening better than words ever could; it was one of many "only in comics" moments in the book. The fact that we never some them merge again quite like that again until the end is telling. Indeed, when Asterios reunites with Hana, the effect is somewhat subtle: we don't see the tell-tale formal framework surrounding each character, as Mazzucchelli does throughout the book. Instead, the entire environment is bursting with heretofore unseen colors: green, peach, orange, brown and more. It reflected that Asterios was no longer quite imposing his view of reality externally the way he had before and he was now ready to see things through different eyes. Given also that Asterios' base color was blue and Hana's red, it also makes sense that purple is the dominant color found in the book. It's used to create line, for spotting purposes and even for lettering.

A number of the philosophical asides were quite clever, though I found myself wishing there were more of them. I especially enjoyed the aside about memory and temporality, where it's presented that the two are mutually exclusive. Memory is an atemporal construction of the mind that nonetheless gives the illusion of "playback". That was especially true of Asterios, who possessed the rare gift of an eidetic memory. Even that sort of ability, no matter what details could be remembered, only produces an image of an experience--never the experience itself as it is being experienced. That aside gave those memories Asterios chose to relive an interesting context, especially a superb set of fractured images of Hana as a visceral, living human being (burping, sneezing, clipping her toenails, etc.)--perhaps the only time he accepted and loved her for precisely who she was (as opposed to what he wanted her to be), which was the only thing she ever wanted from him.

Some of the images in the book are a bit too on-the-nose, like the way he finally was able to enjoy nature after he built a treehouse, the Orpheus dream sequence or especially the grotesque buffoon Willy Ilium. The latter character is intended both as a warped reflection of Asterios and his superior of sorts, in that Willy saw the world a bit more broadly than Asterios--and especially in the attention he lavished on Hana. While I understood his purpose in the story, he was such a broad character that his very presence on the page drew me out of the story. It almost felt like Mazzucchelli was getting a bit of revenge in print on someone who had greatly annoyed him, given his pomposity and string of bad habits. Obviously, the character was designed to be irritating, but as a reader I resented his presence in a book where Mazzucchelli was sympathetic to a wide range of character types.

Ultimately, the book is about design in all senses of the word: the physical design of a comic book page; the designs of Asterios and the ways in which he falls short in his life; and design in the sense of having a plan or intetion. Mazzucchelli is as interested in how overlapping differently-colored panels, playing with word balloons & thought balloons to make them more iconic and integrate them more directly on the page and creating an emotional tone through the use of color as he is in exploring the lives of his characters. The book is also about point-of-view, as many of the unexpected jolts he receives throughout his life could have been handled better if only he had seen them differently. If only he had let his wife share the spotlight; if only he had seen what she wanted and tried to give it to her, instead of treating her as a beloved appendage rather than a true the end, it wound up being too late for both of them, as they meet their end in a rather spectacular "act of god". That ending is a sort of punchline and twisted deus-ex-machina, only this time the act of god fulfills a tragedy rather than prevents it.

When this book is studied in the future (and I'm fairly certain it will be), what future students will get out of it is the way Mazzucchelli created his own set of visual rules and simultaneously critiqued the inorganic superimposition of rules, patterns and structure on others, for either art or life. The central tension of the book at its heart is the use of a bracing and bold formalism to critique the rigidity of formalism. He uses caricatures while critiquing reducing others to caricature. The characters in the book want nothing more than a way to express themselves and receive acknowledgment and feedback on that expression. Mazzucchelli breaks down the individual desires behind that need for expression, making form and content blur into one another. It's a heady mix, even if Mazzucchelli pulled back at times a bit more than he needed to, and felt as much like a road map for Mazzucchelli's future development as an artist than it did a coherent work. I'll be excited to see how Mazzucchelli develops this new visual language given that he's now established a basic vocabulary for it in the pages of ASTERIOS POLYP.


  1. An excellent review of an excellent work. I was unable to snag my own copy at MoCCA so I had to borrow a friends. Really amazing stuff!

  2. Well-made, but after ten years' worth of work? Pretty slim output in context, and the story and art rely too much on being a pastiche of what has been done before, to the point of becoming an homage/swipe/in-joke that constantly jolts the experienced reader out of the story. Page one's profile is indeed a hybrid of Eustice Tilly of The New Yorker and the Mole from Dick Tracy. Page two's gridded panel scene comes straight out of an old "Gasoline Alley" Sunday strip from the '30s, and so on and so forth. I can't watch Quentin Tarentino films for the same reason. Its source material is too evident. The book's biggest problem, however, is its price tag. A thirty dollar hardcover with an obscure title and no obvious commercial 'hooks' will win ephemeral critical praise, but will be long out of print while Batman: Year One continues to sell. Sad, to some, but true. It's simply too didactic and too arty for its own good. And family friendly it is not.