On Asterios Polyp

July 14th, 2009 by | Tags: ,

Asterios Polyp
David Mazzucchelli
344 pages
ISBN: 0307377326

David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp is looking like the latest capital A Art book, the kind of thing that people smarter than I (such as Jog or Douglas Wolk) are doubtless going to pore over, deconstruct, reconstruct, and analyze over the next few weeks. And, well, with good reason– Mazzucchelli does a lot of interesting things with the format and formula of comic books, and ends up creating amazing. More than anything, all ideas of what constitutes an “art” comic aside, Asterios Polyp is fascinating.

I read through this 344-page book pretty quickly, and barely noticed the time passing. Each chapter alternates time periods, telling us about Asterios’s history and his present, and are visually distinct. Every fistful of pages, the style switches from a standard comic format to something more influenced by graphic design and experimental. Mazzucchelli shows off a variety of styles in the book, even going so far as to have individual characters exist in their own styles.

There’s a visual metaphor introduced fairly early on, where Asterios and his wife are a combination of two different styles, with Asterios taking the form of the building blocks of a drawing of a human and Hana being the details and shading. When they meet, they merge to form a complete drawing. When strife hits their relationship, Hana violently pulls out of Asterios’s reality. It’s an amazingly effective move, and one which works on a gut level. You don’t need captions to tell you that they’re troubled, or growing apart, or anything– you simply have to look.

Asterios Polyp is so fascinating because it approaches storytelling in a way that only comics can. It takes advantage of the format to do something new and interesting, while coming at it from a new angle. Everything in life is about delivering information of one sort of another, be it via text, pictures, texture, or taste. Mazzucchelli doesn’t use the images in Asterios Polyp to show cool images or poses. Instead, each image has a point. We never (well, maybe twice, but he’s obscured) see Asterios’s face from the front. He’s always looking to the left or the right. It struck me in a few different ways while I was reading. It makes Asterios seem like he’s always doing something. There’s something just off-panel that we can’t see that’s he’s really interested in. However, it also makes him somewhat untrustworthy or uncomfortable. He’s never looking you in the eye. He never seems to be paying attention. There’s a level of distance there.

Most of all, though, it plays into the dualism that forms the foundation of his personal philosophy. Asterios Polyp can be accurately described as the story of a man learning to count to three. He embraces the idea of there being 1 and 2, yes and no, linear and plastic, and form and function. When his life falls apart, he learns to count in threes. (It’s interesting that twos vs threes is portrayed as a yin/yang of its own, inflexibility vs flexibility, but I’m not sure what that means just yet.)

Asterios is a book that’s fun to look at. The color palette is very focused. There are a lot of purples, yellows, pinks, blues, and blacks. Toward the end of the book, though, for a few pages, the palette opens up in an amazing scene. It’s a burst of color, and life, and a symbol of things to come. It’s a counterpoint to the beginning of the book, which was somber and fairly depressing.

Basically, Asterios Polyp is a must-read. It’s straightforward enough that anyone can enjoy it, but has layers that you can peel back and examine. I’m probably going to read it agin in a couple weeks, with the goal of just poring over the art. Mazzucchelli uses a lot of techniques in Asterios Polyp that all comics could benefit from. He got there first, though, and set the bar pretty high. The writing and art are excellent, and full of insights on how both comics and life work.

Asterios Polyp is objectively better than anything you’ve read this year thus far. There’s absolutely no question in my mind about that.

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6 comments to “On Asterios Polyp”

  1. There’s so much interesting stuff going on in this book in the art. Like you mentioned, Asterios and Hana become the “complete drawing” when they meet, but that’s the only time! Every other time they go from “real” to the blue/red “essence” drawings is when they’re fighting, obviously further emphasizing their differences in Asterios’s mind. That is some clever shit.

    Another thought I had was about the use of yellow. I don’t have the book in front of me, but I did a quick check in my 2nd readthrough, and IIRC, yellow is used as the primary color in 2 places – when Asterios dreams of Ignazio, and when he starts his “second life” in Apogee. Is David saying that when he ditches New York after the fire, in his mind, he’s taking the “other path” he was thinking about Ignazio living if he’d lived? Am I just making this up? Is this really obvious? Either way, god DAMN is there some interesting stuff going on in this book.

  2. Oh man, I just read this Friday night, and absolutely loved it. Everything, from the art, to the lettering, to the storytelling and dialogue is just pitch perfect.

    Like you, I found myself examining the book for any deeper meaning or symbolism, and days later I’m still mulling the whole thing over. But, what I love the most about it is that it’s so warm and accessible, and told with zero pretension. At its heart it’s really just a brilliant character piece, following a man as, half a century into his life, he finds himself fundamentally changing.

  3. […] Asterios Polyp Link: David Brothers, Dan […]

  4. hi there,

    I just thought I would let you know that we have our annotations up for Asterios Polyp over at our site, Stumptowntradereview.com.

    I agree. Asterios Polyp is an amazing and complex book that begs to be read and re-read.


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  6. […] three books all comics readers should be forced to read this year, at gunpoint if necessary. One is David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp. It’s the kind of book you read a couple times, discuss with your friends, and dig into to […]