Graphic Novel Review – Asterios Polyp
David Mazzucchelli released Asterios Polyp as a near complete surprise in 2009. Mazzucchelli had retreated from work as an illustrator for DC Comics and started working on the brief independent sequential art anthology series Rubber Blanket. The spark for Asterios Polyp came when Mazzucchelli began work on his section of the fourth installment of Rubber Blanket, but found that the anthology format was too short for the idea that he had in mind. Halting his efforts for Rubber Blanket, he began work on Asterios Polyp, which ended up being a 344 page behemoth of creativity, illustration inspired by architecture drafts with a Greek influence, and a storyline that can only be appreciated if you pay attention to the artwork.
On it’s surface, there isn’t much to take in about the narrative of Asterios Polyp. The story’s scope is rather limited compared to how engaging the visuals are on just about every page. The titular lead character is an accomplished “paper architect” who is consumed with theories and a dualistic world view. He is both brash and extremely eloquent when communicating his ideas, so during his swinging single years he was the center of attention and a popular academic. This attitude causes problems when he falls in love with a reserved and underconfident sculptor named Hana Sonnenschein (a name that roughly translates to “Flower Sunshine”. Asterios Polyp’s name refers to both asteroids and half of the cyclops Polyphemus’ name). Much of Asterios’ flashbacks involve their life together as a married couple, and clearly illustrates the personality clash that caused them to separate. The story begins with lightning striking Asterios’ apartment, and he flees the city to drive to the furthest location he can get to with just his pocket cash. There he gets lodging and a car mechanic job through a local redneck type with a hippie wife. Asterios imparts several gifts upon the family as he flashes back to his past. These flashback vignettes are narrated by the ghost of Asterios’ stillborn twin brother. Asterios decides to leave after losing his eye in a bar fight (essentially becoming a cyclops) and the rest, as they say, are spoilers.
The one convention that makes the visuals in this novel instantly recognizable is the prevalent use of the print primary colors, cyan, magenta and yellow. Pretty much no black ink is used in the illustrations, with purple serving as the normal substitute. Each character is drawn in a distinctly different style, and when arguments break out or evaluations are occurring, characters take a distinct second look as well, such as Asterios being rendered sort of like the wireframe of an extruded 3d shape or Hana’s looser pen stroke construction disentangling.
It’s hard to not heap praise upon the design in the visual presentation of this work. Every element works to push toward one of the main ideas behind the characters and they are never more apparent than they are with Asterios. His rigidness is often portrayed by the shape of his head constantly being the same shape, even in the few shots when it isn’t show in profile. Profile shots of his head are often used when it wouldn’t make a lot of sense anatomically, so this adds to it. His head shapes pops up often throughout the story in silhouette to further take advantage of this visual conditioning. Further more, each character has their own speech bubble type and font. I’ve seen this sort of visual convention to distinguish characters before, but I’ve never seen someone stick with it for a whole 300 plus pages. To add one more thing, many of the landscape shots seen throughout the book help to foreshadow it’s ending, and I slapped myself when I didn’t see it coming due to all the clues I was given before.
There’s a number of themes that are recurrent through the book, many of which serve as some light flavoring for the main course. Many allegorical references are made to Greek tragedies in order to highlight Asterios’ personal journey during his otherwise rather uneventful excursion as an auto mechanic. The Odyssey and the Myth of Orpheus and Eurydice are the most prevalent literary references, and the Myth of Orpheus is the most explicit. It too serves to foreshadow the climax. What’s important to notice about all three of these stories, Asterios Polyp included, is that they are essentially about journeys taken to reunite with the lead character’s wife.
Outside of how they are accentuated by the visuals however, the narrative to Asterios Polyp is rather thin. A fair amount of time is spent on periphery characters that I’m sure could have been cut, especially to keep in the spirit of Greek theater, where the casts are normally very small. I originally thought of putting this novel in the Special Recommendations category because I didn’t enjoy much of the story, but reading through much of a great thesis on Asterios Polyp written by Christopher McCarthy helped me swallow it a bit better, and I can appreciate the work that was done here.
Asterios Polyp is certainly a must read for anyone who has an academic interest in graphic novels, or anyone like myself who aims to have a comprehension knowledge of the medium. I would place it up there with Watchmen and Maus as mainstays for study purpose, and it’s nice that this one is a recent release. I would like to thank Youtube user Gavin Smith for the review request and recommendation.
Asterios Polyp on Amazon