An epic comic book... about an egotistical non-practicising architect
Feb 15, 2010
David Mazzuccheli is a veteran of the comic book industry. Indeed, in the flyleaf of Asterios Polyp says he's been making comic books all his life. He's best known in mainstream comics for his collaborations with Frank Miller in the 1980s. This was classic work - notably Daredevil: Born Again, and the sublime Batman: Year One; some of the best superhero comic books ever. While Miller has gone on to diminishing returns, with the almost parodic noir of Sin City, the disappointment of Dark Knight Strikes Again, and the farce of The Spirit movie, Mazzucchelli left superhero comics behind completely.
Mazzucchelli went on to collaborate with writer/artist Paul Karasik on a comic strip adaptation of Paul Auster's 1985 novel City of Glass. This saw Mazzuccheli's style changing; not only did his artwork merge and blur with the work of Karasik, the whole showed the influence of Art Spiegelman, whose Maus changed the landscape of comics when it was published in two volumes in 1986 and 1991. Maus was a wake-up call in English-language culture as it alerted many previously dismissive people up to the fact that comic strip was a medium that could handle any subject with a depth and emotiveness previously more associated with more 'serious' media, the novel etc. Comics needn't just be about superheroics and some underground stuff. (Of course, in many countries comic strips have long been a more widely accepted medium, used for telling as diverse an array of stories as conventional literature: the manga of Japan, the bande dessinéeof France and Belgium, etc.)
The influence of Auster is clear on Asterios Polyp, Mazzucchelli's "first graphic novel" - ie an extended comic conceived in a long format rather than published in installments). The titular hero is not unlike an Auster character, a lone, introspective male on a symbolic journey through life, learning from a cast of eccentrics. The other key point of comparison, however, is Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics - a comic book about the unique words-and-pictures art of comic books. Where McCloud's book featured a version of himself essentially providing a lecture, in comic strip form, about comics, Mazzucchelli's book features Polyp talking us through various creative disciplines - but all within the context of an involving, moving story.
Polyp is a university lecturer in architecture. He's won awards, has a reputation allegedly up there with Wright and van der Rohe, but his designs have never actually been constructed. He's pompous, self-important, and loves the sound of his own voice, frequently declaiming about duality (he even has a dead twin, both emphasising and explaining his obsession). Even when he meets and marries sculptor Hana it doesn't exactly moderate his self-obsession.
Mazzuccheli splits the narrative in two - in one strand, the "now", Polyp's alone, and loses his home to a fire. He simply ups and leaves, taking a bus as far as he can go on the change in his pocket and getting a job as a car mechanic. The other strand is the "then" - Polyp's youth, success, and relationship with Hana, leading up to the fire. The two ultimately merge.
Throughout the book Mazzucchelli plays with various styles, even weaving the variety into the narrative - characters are drawn differently in different scenarios due to notions of subjectivity (not dissimilar to readings of Auster, where is experience is mediated through language) or the mood of the scene. It's highly effective, and frequently affecting. There's also a strong, over-riding theme: fate, as exemplified by discussions of the odds of celestial bodies striking the planet (Asterios - asteroid, geddit?) and by allusions to, and retellings of, the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.
All in all, this is a masterpiece. Polyp himself might be a funny looking dude, but don't let that put you off, his story is a fascinating one, told by a comics master who's achieved a refined, sophisticated voice.
I quite liked the way this story is told. The splash of colors used made things very lively and sharp. Even for a graphic novel, it has some really memorable characters and deeply evocative character sketches. David Mazzucchelli has done a good job in developing some vivid characters. When the book starts, Asterios is portrayed as an arrogant teacher who thinks high of himself and spends much of his time teaching. When his apartment goes up in flames, he runs away from the life he knows and moves … more