A few pages into Asterios Polyp, I wondered if maybe I missed a crucial memo. Is this what everyone else expected from David Mazzucchelli's "first" graphic novel? I managed to avoid too many details from the heaps of pre-publication praise (Publishers Weekly: "Easily one of the best books of 2009 already."), yet I was still unprepared for what unfolded in this very curious, very ambitious piece of graphic literature.
Like many comic fans, I was familiar enough with Mazzucchelli's work to know why he was so highly regarded. Very rarely do artists have the opportunity to log one "definitive" storyline in the career of a superhero. But Mazzucchelli has done this twice already--teaming with writer Frank Miller in the mid-1980s for Daredevil: Born Again and Batman: Year One. (The latter is a story so influential that its framework can be traced to Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins and The Dark Knight some 20 years later.) After these two stories, I knew Mazzucchelli dabbled in a few independent projects and in the early 1990s, he adapted Paul Auster's City of Glass. There were superhero one-offs and covers for The New Yorker here and there, but his work was so sparse that it was difficult for me not to think of him, with all the respect he deserved, as mainly the artistic force behind two classic superhero stories.
Then I began reading Asterios Polyp, a project ten years in the making. Is it close-minded of me to say that I expected it to be genre fiction? A detective story, maybe? It certainly opens with action: we see a man’s evening alone in front of the television interrupted by a lightning strike, followed by an apartment fire.
Asterios Polyp emerges from the fire facing a blank slate. We learn he is a “paper architect,” known for his designs “rather than the buildings constructed from them.” None of his plans has ever resulted in a finished building. Yet, Asterios is a well-respected, tenured professor. Through flashbacks we see him swagger his way through dinners, parties, and plenty of coeds before meeting his wife Hana. What caught me so off guard, at first, was the style--or styles--Mazzucchelli employs in his character designs. Every personality seems sprung from a different sketchbook; each person is an entity without overlap. When Asterios and Hana first meet, for example, their deceptively simple frames break down into shapes and shades, taking on entirely new dimensions.
In the present, after Asterios walks away from the fire--Hana is inexplicably absent--he decides to start over, and a fully-formed cast of characters begins to orbit around him. And this is only the surface story.
Mazzuchelli uses Asterios as a mouthpiece for ruminations on design, but also space, time, art, language, philosophy, music, memory, and emotion. This is a heavy book in every sense of the word. The sprawling, smart ideas are all here, but the details kept me focused. In a touching, unflinching seven-page sequence, Asterios quietly remembers many of the mundane moments of Hana’s life with him, and few of them are rose-tinted.
Once I finished, I went back and re-read Daredevil: Born Again and could barely find any trace of Polyp. Likewise Year One. In their precision lies a similarity, sure, but otherwise, these stories could be illustrated by right and left hands, independent of one another. It’s a given that second and third readings are a must (see here for one fan’s exhaustive annotations), but it’s thankfully not a chore. Earlier I mentioned that it's rare for an artist to define one, let alone two, superheroes, but here David Mazzucchelli has redefined a medium.