Asterios Polyp: Symbolysm with Subtractive Color
David Mazzucchelli’s masterpiece Asterios Polyp uses its color palette to create a symbolic language. This is self-evident in its use of color to denote different time periods in the chronology of the novel, and also by its division of chapters. Digging deeper, even more can be gleaned from the use of color, such as information about objects & characters. Before starting this video, I’ll give a big warning for spoilers if you’ve never read the book. In addition, you’ll probably be in the dark if you haven’t read it yet anyway, so get on that.
To accurately describe the most pedestrian observation about the color palette of Asterios Polyp, I’ll have to both summarize the story and demonstrate the colors used in each chapter. To make things easy, I’ve divided the book into 22 chapters. I’ll display all of these chapters on screen in a moment, summarizing the important plot details revealed in each, as well as showing a summary of the colors used to the left of the description. These circles represent how much of a color is used in a chapter’s palette, roughly. So, without further ado, here’s that summary.
As you can see, chapters that recap Polyp’s life in flashbacks are done in cyan, magenta and purple. The present day chapters used yellow, a mixture of all colors to make brown, and purple. Purple subs in for black in Asterios Polyp, so Mazzucchelli doesn’t use the full spectrum of the CMYK subtractive color palette. The final chapter expands the palette greatly, incorporating greens. From this point on, I’ll be referencing specific moments in the story without much context so I can dig into esoteric details about the color. Be sure you’ve read up on the novel if you want to keep up. All of my discussion points will be organized based on the chapters, and I’ll have the CMYK values of most of the colors that appear in each chapter to the left of the screen as a reference point. Let’s dive in, shall we?
Chapter 1 details a few important elements early on. It’s also the only chapter before the final chapter to feature full on cyans and yellows in the present time line, perhaps because Asterios is focused on the past when he’s filled with cyans. The most interesting palette choice in this chapter, after an initial read, is the slight inclusion of magenta on a few unique items in Polyp’s living room. There is a curvy table and japanese tansu that belong to Polyp’s ex-wife Hana there. This will be the first hint of Hana’s magenta motif for the rest of the story.
Chapter 2 reveals that cyan is Polyp’s exclusive color. One of the ways this chapter gets this across is by using purple for every other figure. His students and peers have a slight purple fill, while his parents are purple line art inside an egg. The sperm that would come to bring Asterios and his twin Ignacio into the world is represented by cyan, however, only one gets out alive.
Brown enters the color palette in Chapter 3. This will become a mainstay of the present day chapters. A little bit of all three colors are in the brown, perhaps a hint that the full color spectrum is just within sight of Asterios, if only he would open up his vision.
Chapter 4 is perhaps the most notable chapter for its use of line, but that’s another video. It also sets up the chief symbolic use of color and its interplay in the flashback segments. Cyan, of course, belongs to Asterios, and magenta belongs to his lovers, primarily his ex-wife. In this chapter, we see only a little bit of mixing and matching of these two primary colors. The chapter ends with a strong example of Mazzucchelli’s symbolic lines and color, as we see Polyp’s cyan wireframe figure completely at odds and not mixing with Hana’s magenta cross hatched figure.
In Chapter 5, Asterios thinks of his father while speaking with a vagrant on the bus, and these two panels are displayed in cyan. This is contrasted by the purple, yellow and brown panels around it, a very clear indicator for anyone who hasn’t caught on already that the past and present have unique palettes.
Chapter 6 is the segment where Mazzucchelli’s slow introduction of all his symbolic storytelling methods synthesize, creating a salient visual metaphor and satisfying end to round one of the coda that is this book’s formula. While magenta will appear to represent other lovers, its use as a symbolic color that mainly informs Polyp’s perception of his wife is shown in this chapter. When Hana’s backstory is given, magenta overtakes it all to a ridiculous degree, really nailing in that while Asterios has had a lover’s affection for other women, this is his so called soulmate. By chapter’s end, Polyp’s symbolic wifeframe and Hana’s crosshatching come together to make a scene with figures that have value to them, becoming fully rounded. The symbolic language has peaked, and now we can explore smaller details of the story using this language as a reference point.
From here on in regards to the present day chapters, the color palette doesn’t offer too much in the way of symbolism through simply showing up. Other details, like gradients, volume of the color used, and variety are a bit more relevant. Chapter 7 is very subdued in terms of symbolic elements, but here are the CMYK values anyhow.
It’s in Chapter 8 where we see magenta used for other love interests or vessels of lust. All of them have a little Grateful Dead thing going on where the woman has her magenta theme and Asterios has his cyan, but they’re divided by a white lightning bolt, and don’t wear any of the other’s color. This changes with Hana, as she is shown wearing light cyan and magenta in two outfits on different occasions. Asterios and Hana also appear in scenes next to each other wearing their respective strong color. This shows that they’re comfortable with each other, and Hana has really warmed up to Asterios. They have yet to fully merge and share each other’s strongest color at this point though.
Chapter 9 is interesting in terms of Ursula being introduced with a yellow gradient on her dress. Perhaps this symbolizes that she has the most flexible worldview of the cast of characters, and this directly contrasts against the binary world view that Asterios held to so strongly in the past.
Speaking of that binary world view, Asterios explains it in detail in Chapter 10, where we see that his experience with his twin brother Igancio’s pre-birth death has caused him to mentally compare things against a binary so that he can have balance. When Asterios tries to give some credit to the continuum between the extremes, it is represented by several Asterios figures shown with fills from white to full purple, increasing in value. Interestingly, on the next page, when he shows off figures representing hedonistic and ascetic lifestyles, the figures have gradients on them. Perhaps this is meant to show that the whole lifestyle of person can’t be so easily divided. To contrast, below, where he displays two sides of a person defined by single characteristics, good and cruel, the figure is divided between white and purple. Indeed, single characteristics can be so easily divided into black and white, but lifestyles not so much. It’s a nice little jab at the flaw in Polyp’s worldview, and was shown first in Ursula’s gradient dress from Chapter 9.
Chapter 11 also presents little to speak about, but here’s the color palette.
Chapter 12 features Asterios and Hana at the peak of their trust in the relationship. It also marks the greatest interplay between magenta and cyan. Frescos are displayed throughout the chapter where tiny marks of cyan, magenta and purple create a detailed piece of art. Hana and Asterios visit the Polyps and their home has a blend of cyan and magenta. Most importantly, Hana is wearing a strong cyan shirt, and Asterios is wearing a shirt with strong magenta and purple plaids. They’ve fully merged in the mind of Asterios at this point. Even Polyp’s apartment gets some magenta in it when Hana moves in her furniture, namely, the curvy table and japanese tansu seen in Chapter 1.
Chapter 13 is really yellow. Yup.
Willy Ilium comes into the story in Chapter 14. He has a purple color palette, and is the only character to wear a full garb of strong purple in the story. This is perhaps meant to symbolize him as a hostile element, one that is aberrant from the rest. He wears a mid-purple vest and slightly magenta purple scarf at times, showing that his narrowest tie is to Hana. He is one of the few main characters to never have any kind of cyan on him, making his rivalry with Asterios even more clear.
Chapter 15 is the present day chapter with the most contrast. Purple and strong yellows are used very often. Asterios has more of an identity crisis in this chapter, with a segment where Ignacio’s dream-self imitates a more successful version of Asterios. Asterios also changes significantly here, as he builds the first ever building, a treehouse, of his own design. He was previously a paper architect who never had a building built.
Chapter 16 features the inciting incident that splits Asterios and Hana’s marriage. The color palette completely divides by the end of the chapter, but there is interesting conjunction earlier. Kalvin Kohoutek appears in this chapter, whose inclusion is somewhat strange. I think he only appears to have another scene with Ilium being a letch, and to be another artist that Asterios can run down verbally. Kalvin has all three major flashback colors on his palette, with a magenta sweater, cyan pants and mid-purple to represent his dark skin.
Chapter 17 takes place in the present at first, but a flashback happens mid-way through. Asterios thinks back to a time where Hana had a swab tip stuck in her ear. There are also panels where Hana is doing everyday things and generally living. The sequence with the swab has a cyan fill in the background and the individual Hana panels have a magenta fill. This is more of an achievement of panel composition, another video, yet again, but the color does serve to separate the two threads of time advancement.
A replay of the story of Orpheus plays out in Chapter 18, with Asterios travelling into a greek underworld that resembles his journey through the NYC metro in Chapter 3. Yellow flames overtake the end of the chapter, with purple being the only other color used. Easily the most starkly contrasted of the book.
Chapter 19 has the most complex palette of the present-day chapters before the final. The symbolism of them is lost on me, but there are some very nice panels to look at. The variance of the colors may be a sign that Asterios is getting used to his life in Apogee. Right before he gets assaulted by the bus vagrant and loses an eyeball.
Chapter 20 wraps up the flashbacks & I’m actually surprised that the palette isn’t more divided here. Indeed, I’m not even sure why this chapter was needed, other than to show that Ilium’s play is cancelled and that Asterios and Hana did indeed get divorced.
Chapter 21 is the huge finale, and Chapter 22 is the short epilogue. After the attack on Asterios, and his killing of Ignacio in a dream sequence, Asterios wakes up in a green hospital, an all new color added. More importantly, early on we get a panel of the sky, in which a cyan sky and yellow sun are shown together for the first time, creating a more realistic color palette for the first time. Now that all of the colors, sans black, are being used, we can see the characters as they were meant to more clearly. Stiffly wears a myriad of colored shirts. Asterios mostly has a cyan theme but changes it up. Ursula is still mostly yellow, perhaps showing that her influence on Asterios during his time in Apogee was the most important and literally colored his perception of it.
When Asterios finds Hana, her color scheme has done a 180 turn on the color wheel, and she has a green color scheme. It is likely that Asterios mistook her nature during the entire flashback, assigning her the color designated for all of his other lovers, but missing out on what she truly was inside. After an asteroid lands on Hana’s isolated house, we see the Stiffly family in the treehouse with a yellow color scheme, while the sky is cyan. The asteroid that killed Asterios and Hana was only slightly bigger than the diameter of a house, so it would not have been a danger to the entire earth or an apocalypse event. This senseless killing off of the leads may hint towards that fact that their tale is meant to be a metaphor for us all the learn from, rather than to aspire to be.
In closing, Mazzucchelli uses broad master strokes one at a time in the beginning of the book in order to establish the language of his symbolism very clearly through the colors he uses. Few other graphic novels have played such close attention to color, often using color to inform a few choice metaphors or a chapter here and there, rather than having them be the lynchpin for the entire book’s visual code. The next video essay will be on the use of line in Asterios Polyp, and how it informs the characters.