on July 30, 2009
Reading Asterios Polyp is a daunting experience. Or maybe not so much the reading, which can be accomplished easily enough, but the being able to speak sensibly about it afterward. I feel kind of like how I did after finishing Bolaño's 2666: A Novel, only not quite so out of my depth. Like Bolaño, Mazzucchelli's work here displays a breadth and depth that overtly requires multiple readings in order find ground solid enough to speak with any authority about the book.
But since I've only read the book once, you'll have to be satisfied with my initial thoughts. Asterios Polyp is, in the simplest terms, a coming-of-age story--one in which the fifty-year-old lead, celebrated architect Asterios Polyp, begins a quest to put away the childish things of his past and embarks on journey of both self-discovery and exploration of the world as it is rather than how he has intended to see it for so long. In this aspect, Asterios reminded me of Mr. Ryder from Ishiguro's The Unconsoled, a man at the top of his rarefied field who still must learn to grow up. And like Ryder, Asterios suffers from an inability to see the world as it is and is (really, like us all) victim to his own perceptions.
Reality, perception, and memory play a huge role in Mazzucchelli's work here even as they do in everything I've yet read by Ishiguro.
On top of this is layered the framework of Greek tragedy and specific allusion to the myth of Orpheus (this is pointed out through fistfuls of overt clues, not the least of which is a dream in which Asterios takes the role of Orpheus and his ex-wife Hana embodies Eurydice). We get narrative explanations from a meta-source in the Greek choral tradition. Comparisons to Dionysus and Apollo lead to an evaluation of dualistic systems (and perhaps systems generally) as Asterios gradually must free himself from systemic shackles in order to finally grow up. Of course we suspect if Asterios abandons one aspect he will be destroyed even as Orpheus was for abandoning Dionysius. As well, there are plenty of references to The Odyssey and this cross-pollination of mythologies only serves to enrich our experience of Asterios' journey.
The subject matter, by its summary, sounds simple enough but Mazzucchelli throws so much into this piece and exercises such deft control over the page that one can easily drown in the details. The art is very particular. Much is made of Mazzucchelli's use of colour through the book and, well, with good reason. The colouring itself offers storytelling that is available through no other means. In fact, so occasionally powerful is his use of colour that I worry for colourblind readers, that they might miss out on some of the book's more sublime moments.
On top of Mazzucchelli's tight reign over his colour spectrum, there is ample evidence that he maintains the same level of control over his linework and design. Asterios Polyp is a thoroughly designed experience, with every element from script to story to illustration to panel design to colouration to control of whitespace adding voice to the chorus of this performance. The battle between geometric and organic shapes gives the reader (who may not be familiar with all the names and ideas Asterios or his ghostly narrator reference) a hook on which to hang the interpreter's hat. One's experience of Asterios Polyp will no doubt be more enriched by a working knowledge of architectural history, familiarity with Greek mythology and Homeric tradition, and a smackerel of understanding of postmodern sculpture--but Mazzucchelli's conveyance of story through his visual sense means that even those with Asterios-sized gaps in their education can still get in there and have some deeper sense of what's going on.
As of this writing, I have only read Asterios Polyp once. Of course I still have questions. Of course I do. I think I understand the ending, but I'd like to reread and think on it again. I think I understand why he physically takes on the identity of his true last name in the book's final act (Polyp is only half his original surname, as the immigration official chopped in half the family name when his father immigrated to America). I sometimes understand what Mazzuchelli intends with his character names and sometimes not. I have the barest kernel of an idea why Mazzuchelli, in a mature work that depicts nudity and violence, insists on representing verbal obscenity with cartoony symbolic representation (e.g. "We made up a $#@*load of these"). I don't yet fully grasp Asterios' Ignazio dreams. I am certain, however, that many of these things will become more clear on subsequent readings.
As I said, I have only read Asterios Polyp once. And I can't wait to change that fact.
on July 11, 2009
If you've followed the work of David Mazzucchelli then you already know the man possesses far greater gifts than just being an artist. His work on Daredevil defined his hand and his self-published Rubber Blanket defined his passion.
In Asterios Polyp he defines his genuis.
When I'd heard he was going to "redefine the graphic novel" I immediately thought it was press release pretension. But you know, everyone deserves credit for trying. What Mazzucchelli does is makes it look like he's not trying. It flows seamlessly from color to line, to form and shape and before you know it you're really reading words and pictures in a very unique way; yet still familiar.
Anyone who loved Rubber Blanket and Paul Auster's City of Glass will want this book. Anyone who likes smart literature who wants a new challenge for themselves to mix words and pictures will learn to appreciate what comics can be.
This is just another step in the right direction for the medium as well as the man. I hope David Mazzucchelli continues to practice in the medium he makes us appreciate so much.
on August 18, 2009
I'm definitely going against the grain here of the mostly 5-star reviews and "best graphic novel of the year" accolades being given this book. On the positive side the artwork is wonderful. Mazzucchelli uses a number of inventive layouts to try and break the mold of the tradition square panel format of comics. Sometimes it's successful, sometime it just comes across as in exercise in 'look what I can do'. I found it especially disappointing that the lettering felt very computer generated/typeset while the artwork was much more fluid. The story was a little too distant for me, too abstract or academic in its construction. I never felt attached to the main protagonist of the book so ultimately never cared what happened at the end. If I had to sum it up, this book, the art and the story, are almost too smart for their own good and the emotion got left behind in the inventive layouts. Still, I'm recommending it for comic fans because the attempt alone is worth the purchase.
on July 12, 2009
I waited for this book in the same fashion that I waited for Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day, and Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore, and as with both of those books, not only was I *not* disappointed, I was amazed that these men not only raised the bar, but cleared it, with room to spare.
In the case of Asterios Polyp, I am glad to say that the wait is over, and Mazzucchelli has delivered not just the masterpiece we all knew he had in him, but probably the graphic novel we will still be talking about ten years from now, in the same way we talk about Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen. Groundbreaking, emotional, inventive, sly, thought-provoking: Mazzucchelli has opened a door and shown us a room we never knew was in this house before. Bravo. I will have to buy a second copy soon as I have already loaned out the one I bought to my best friend.
"Asterios Polyp" is a fascinating work of fiction. It demonstrates the depth and complexity that can be achieved within the graphic novel medium, accomplishing philosophically what "V for Vendetta" accomplished politically. It confirms that the graphic novel is capable of conveying ideas and emotions in ways that no other medium can. Despite this praise, however, the final outcome was not entirely satisfying despite being a very enjoyable experience - hence four instead of five stars.
The story begins on a stormy night with the titular character, Asterios Polyp, who though alive has stopped living. The narrative follows him as he copes with loss and struggles to move on while providing substantial background that informs who he has become. Interspersed throughout are philosophical ruminations on life, love, god, time, memory, architecture, etc.
The visual style is simple but captivating. The color palette and drawing style inform the narrative as fully as the text. For example, the emotional differences between Asterios and his wife, Hana, are strikingly represented by the use of reds and blues and mechanical embellishments to figures (occasionally the styles switch or overlap pointedly). Another vivid visual is the introductory sketch of Hana. She stands with hands clasped behind her back, head bowed, and eyes lowered or closed. A spotlight shines beside her illuminating empty space. We learn she has been overlooked throughout life. The picture is worth a thousand words. The same visualization is leveraged later when Asterios compliments her sculptures. A spotlight shines on her as she thanks him, clearly relishing the adoration. But the spotlight slowly pans away from her as Asterios rambles on about his interpretations of her art. As he drones on, smitten with his own cleverness while ignoring her attempts to clarify her own intent, the spotlight focuses on him. Hana is left in the dark once again. Brilliant! As a final example, there is the lengthy adaptation of the classical myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Asterios is our hero who goes to the underworld to reclaim Hana. Instead of a lyre, he carries his drafting tool. Several of the events that occurred during and in the aftermath of the storm in the beginning of the book are delightfully echoed here. Lacking any text, it is a visual marvel.
The breadth of the work is staggering. Author David Mazzucchelli speaks insightfully on a diverse range of topics including science, art, design, classical mythology and philosophy and more. This is not a casual read.
Having stated the work was not completely satisfying, here are my reasons. First, though a work of this complexity would probably yield a rich harvest on repeated readings, I do feel some things were unclear and even confusing. Second, a few of the characters did not seem to fit naturally into the story. Perhaps none of them seemed complete or whole. Finally, the ending left me cold.
That said, I was truly impressed with the work. Not since Neil Gaiman's "Sandman" has so much been packed into a graphic novel. And though this may be blasphemy to some, I rate "Asterios Polyp" a much better work.
on July 12, 2009
I'm a relatively new follower of the graphic novel literary genre, so perhaps a somewhat inexpert reviewer. I haven't followed David Mazzucchelli's work over the years or anything, but someone recommended this to me and I picked it up. And "Wow" is the right word for it. This GN takes you through the entire range of emotional responses that a really great text novel does. It's extremely engaging, and there's something, some little detail at least, that delights on just about every page. I also had the sense reading it that I need to read it again more closely, the way one should read such serious literature. Because there are deep literary resonances here. I heartily recommend it.
on December 18, 2014
The most unexpectedly great graphic novel I've run across. Subtle. Beautiful. Honest. Amazing artwork. I can't say enough about Mazzucchelli's artistry. And the protag, Asterios? My new hero of anti-heroes. Anyone who's attended college has most likely endured the condescending yet subtle dickheadery of Asterios Polyp.
PS: DO NOT TURN TO THE END OF THE BOOK UNTIL YOU'VE FINISHED!!!
on November 23, 2009
Bandying about words like excellent and incredible to describe Asterios Polyp feels so underwhelming. It's a special book, one that holds much promise, the first graphic novel from David Mazzucchelli, who made his name in comics beginning in the 1980s, when his artwork graced the pages of Daredevil and Batman comics and more. Seeing Mazzucchelli return with this book-length masterwork is a treat, a real pleasure. That it's truly a read--meaning a long book, an engrossing one, a graphic novel that puts the emphasis on the novel--enhances the experience of getting reacquainted with Mazzucchelli so much more. This is a book to be savored over a nice length of time, not quickly devoured and placed on a shelf. And yes, it's that good.
Asterios Polyp, the man behind the title, is an intellectual and a bit of a polymath. He's capable of doing such things as lying his way into a job as an auto mechanic, then quickly excusing himself to grab a bit to eat before he starts working--but in reality, he runs to the library for an hour to quickly study how cars work. Polyp, who can't be looked at on the page without reminding one of John Updike (but also gives off a strong vibe of Gay Talese as well, and perhaps just a touch of Tom Wolfe), is a former professor and architect who holds onto the past (and the love he found in it) with a viselike grip.
Through his reflections on the past, we meet Hana, an artist Polyp falls for and marries and then loses. Finding out why this love of his life is no longer around, and why the former greatness of Polyp--whose intellect and wit were the envy of every elite party he attended--has so profoundly faded is the driving force of the story. There is no overly sentimental trip down sordid memories here. There is just the human, the sublimely powerful force of raw emotion held deeply in check and inside, to escort us through while we watch Polyp leave his fire-ravaged apartment and embark on a new adventure and we stumble along trying to figure out what brought him here, to this place and time. When we find out, we've completed a full journey with Asterios Polyp and we're better for it. So is the graphic novel format. Because, yes, it's that good.
-- John Hogan
on December 30, 2014
I greatly enjoyed this book. In fact I've reread it multiple times and get a new appreciation for some of the details each time. It's an enjoyable existential journey through the life of Asterios Polyp, a complex and very realistically rendered human character. He's not there to be the hero or villain, he is presented, quite realistically, as a typical human with foibles, faults, ego and jealously.
Asterios is revisiting the entirety of his life, art and love and how and why he has viewed things is reflected, quite brilliantly in Mazzucchelli's artistic approach. Asterios is an artist/architect that sees things in his personal life very much in the same way as his approach to his work; precisely, mathematically and rigidly. It's only when his carefully catalogued life is subject to an unexpected event that he's forced to start living outside the lines without the safety net of structure that he starts to reflect and evolve.
Every time I reread the book I pick up on little details and gain a new appreciation of the subtleties of the story. While some of it is open to interpretation I think what could potentially be considered subjective was actually quite intentionally calculated....that or maybe I'm forcing connections where there aren't any. Regardless, it's a triumph and a wonderful use of the medium.
on July 16, 2009
Asterios Polyp is quite simply the most well written and conceived graphic novel of the decade (so far).
Like Gatsby and his melancholy we see a life so full of achievement and "balance" shatter, and then is reformed.
Jungian archetypes, philosophy, mysticism. It's all here, splendidly drawn and edited by a true master.
This is what this medium can do, folks.
Do yourself a favor; and buy this novel.