I don’t read as many Western comics as I probably should, though this mostly my own fault. Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli was a title I’d heard tossed around a lot in the last few months, but even with a roommate’s recommendation and several mentions on SEQALAB, I put it off. Well, with my college days wrapping up, I decided I was going to take these last few days to read every single one of aforementioned roommate’s comics before we all went our separate ways for the summer. This collection, naturally, included Asterios Polyp.
Annnnd Asterios Polyp is easily one of the most amazing comics I’ve read in recent memory. This is also one of the shortest reviews I’ve written in recent memory, mostly because I find that language is failing me in my attempts to tell you just why this book is amazing. Besides, it’s always easier to ramble on about why I dislike something than why I like something. There are more synonyms for negative words than there are for positive words. Asterios Polyp been nominated for four 2010 Eisner Awards, and if it doesn’t win at least one, then by golly, the Eisners must not mean much anymore.
(this review contains no spoilers)
Asterios Polyp starts with the titular character at the end of his luck. His home burns down and he’s left with nothing but the money in his pocket and the clothes on his back. What follows is a journey backwards into the life that led him there and a journey forward towards some kind of enlightenment and some kind of peace. Asterios is a man obsessed with dualities and who sees the world in black and white. Things either are, or they aren’t. He is highly intelligent, self-assured and egocentric. Naturally, most of his conflicts are with other people — of both similar or opposing natures — and most of his problems lie within himself. Asterios is a very specific and three-dimensional character, but there is a universality to him and his problems that makes him easy to relate to and easy to sympathize with.
Hana, Asterios’s wife, is his foil in every way. Where he is rigid, she is soft. Where he is blunt, she is subtle. But there’s more to her than just playing out his opposites. She changes and grows alongside her husband, but most importantly, she is the catalyst and begins changing him from the moment they meet, even if he doesn’t realize it. Their relationship is representational of many marriages, making the characters even more accessible. All the other characters are also delightfully realistic and utterly believable. From Stiff and Ursula Major, with whom Asterios works for and lives with after the fire, to Willy Ilium, who employed Hana’s talents for a time (and makes a ton of inappropriate remarks along the way), all of the people Asterios encounters feel like people I could meet as well.
In addition to dualities and opposites, Asterios Polyp has thematic roots in Greek heritage, clashing cultures, and various philosophies. The story itself is still pretty straightforward, but there are so many surrealist and modernist elements to the storytelling and art that the journey becomes much more involved and personal for the reader. Comics as a medium already offers a beautiful blend of writing and art, but to see the art convey the story’s themes so literally is a rare, metaphysical treat. Story and art in this graphic novel compliment and accentuate one another perfectly.
The core style of the graphic novel has a very retro, cartoonish feel to it. Colors are very limited with most sections conforming to a two- or three-tone palette; a notable dream sequence near the end is monochromatic. Characters are simple and flat, easy to distinguish, and wholly unique. This in itself sets it apart from most other comics on the shelves today, but Mazzucchelli hardly stop there. Panel layouts flow with what is being told, rather than conforming to any specific aesthetic. Some pages are crammed with a dozen panels of the same size, shape, and colors. Others sprawl with an endless assortment of visual styles, all of which collide together poetically. This may sound chaotic, but Asterios Polyp never loses itself. Flip to any page in the book and you will be assured that it’s still the same book, no matter how different the page is from the one you were on previously.
Occasionally, Asterios is portrayed as a figure made of blue geometric shapes while Hana is portrayed as a mass of sketchy red. He is mechanical. She is organic. That they’re opposites is more than evident even without this visual representation, but the depiction never feels over-the-top or jarring, even when it’s a sudden jump from the previous panel.
Mazzucchelli hand-letters all of the text in Asterios Polyp. I’ve always found hand-lettering in general to be very charming. The slight imperfections that make each letter unique make the words more personal and more connected to the art. It’s distracting when lettering doesn’t suit the feel of the artwork, and unfortunately, that isn’t an unusual phenomenon when it comes to digital lettering. Hand-lettering avoids the problem completely because the letters and the art are created by the same hand. And here, Mazzucchelli creates a specific script for each character, setting them apart in their dialogue as well as their physical representation. And the scripts all have personality. Asterios has a traditional, sans serif, all-caps script. Hana prefers a more natural, handwriting script. The narration, offered from the point of view of Asterios’s dead twin brother, is in a strong, bold script similar to Asterios’s, but not quite.
This book really is a piece of work, especially considering it’s David Mazzucchelli’s first original graphic novel. He had previously worked on a brilliant adaptation of Paul Auster’s City of Glass, which is stylistically similar in both art style and storytelling (and which I also highly recommend), though it isn’t nearly as bold in its experimentation. But otherwise, his comics portfolio is grounded in the mainstream with titles like Daredevil and Batman: Year One (not that these are inferior titles by any means). Asterios Polyp isn’t necessarily a title one would expect out of Mazzucchelli, but he does an amazing job, and everyone needs to check out this book. (Right now.)