Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli

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Asterios Polyp
By David Mazzucchelli

davidmazzucchelliasterioscoverAt some point we all become ambassadors—to our parents, to our friends, to strangers we meet at parties. We give recommendations and lend out worn copies with bent spines. We attempt to justify our passions as more than simple guilty pleasures. There is no guilt here. This is art.

Few statements in this world are more subjective than that last one, of course, so, for the hard sell, we compile lists of game changers—the Spiegelmans, Satrapis, Wares, and Moores—authors whose work has convinced the critics to assess the medium’s finest work alongside the world’s high art and literature. Because, after all, if a book is high brow enough to win over some stodgy old book critic at The New York Times, surely it will do a number on mom and dad, right?

Of course it’s a touch too early to bandy about a term like “game changer” for Asterios Polyp—that’s a distinction that will have to be bestowed upon the book by future artists. Despite the still drying ink on the title’s first printing, however, it doesn’t seem too early to add David Mazzucchelli’s new book to the personal lending libraries of some of this medium’s finer works.

Opening Asterios Polyp feels like cracking open the pages of some vintage art book, one stashed away on the library for a few decades, which pulsates and comes to life the moment its contents hit the air. Mazzucchelli, who has already established his talents in any number of corners in this medium, from Frank Miller’s Daredevil to Paul Auster’s City of Glass, seems, perhaps for the first time in a long and storied career, to have finally allotted himself sufficient stretching room, dripping these pages with free-flowing cartoon lines and splotches of electric neon ink.

Mazzucchelli clearly has something to prove on the pages of Asterios Polyp, to demonstrate just how nimble and whole his artist abilities truly are, adopting the aesthetic antithesis of the dark and ripped Batman of Year One, a free-flowing line borrowed from the cartoon cover of some early 60s beatnik jazz records.

It’s an attempt too, perhaps, to draw out some of the oft self-seriousness of a storyline that airs out male narcissism in a manner akin to the works that helped make Phillip Roth and John Updike famous. Asterios Polyp is a slow deconstruction of the male ego—the fortress constructed around himself by the titular world famous architect—if only on paper.  It’s a cautionary tale about the tenuousness of genius, success, and memory.

Mazzucchelli supplements his character deconstruction with a visual one, keeping with the architectural theme by showing us Polyp’s framework in those rare instances that he lets his guard down. Or perhaps its just that a woman—Polyp’s intellectually neglected wife, Hanna—is one of the few characters capable of seeing the man through decades-old layers of insecure posturing, the same innate bullshit detection that ultimately leads her to leave Polyp in search of her own untapped potential. It’s an action which, when coupled with a freak lightning strike, serves as the catalyst for Polyp’s obligatory journey of self-discovery and subsequent redemption.

In order to achieve absolution, however, Polyp must become Orpheus and rescue Eurydice from the grips of Hades. Again Mazzucchelli illustrates this act on dual levels, both through Polyp’s abrupt move to a rural community, working as a car mechanic, and through a dream sequence which finds the architect descending the circles of the underworld, a t-square-turned-harp clutched in his hand. And once again the author can be forgiven the tendency to literalize such subtext when so much story is swirling around at any one moment.

And, ultimately, the construction of memories is every bit as central to Polyp’s return to the land of the living. “To live (as I understand it) is to exist within a conception of time,” the character narrates toward the end of the book’s packed 344 pages over an image of a pocket watch a young Asterios pulled apart and never figured out how to reconstruct. “But to remember is to vacate the very notion of time.”

Dreams are every bit as essential as memories in Polyp’s de- and subsequent re-construction. After all in a sense they are the same thing, “because,” adds Polyp on the facing page, “every memory is a re-creation, not a playback.” Unfortunately for Polyp, however, such self-realization and redefinition cannot be achieved through memory alone. Far stronger catalysts are required here like divorce violence and forces of nature—catalysts that bring the character as close to the brink of non-existence as possible.

The amount that Mazzucchelli hurls at his protagonist—and, by proxy, his readers—is staggering. What’s even more impressive in the frequency with which his trials and experiments succeed. Asterios Polyp is the work of a veteran artist firing on all cylinders, who, despite having worked his way through the sequential art ringer for a few decades now, has managed to craft something remarkably fresh. Something that is sure to be borrowed from the libraries of plenty of self-appointed graphic novel ambassadors.

–Brian Heater

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2 Comments to “Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli”

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