Asterios Polyp is a book that has stuck with me since the moment I first read it a few years ago. What I mean by that statement is that I refer to it often as a comic book that defies typical expectations of the medium, that I regularly find myself thinking about it and rereading it, and that I’ve gifted it to plenty of friends (whether they are comic book fans or not). Not only that, but I sometimes gravitate towards it because I’m fascinated with the main character, sometimes because I am captivated by Mazzucchelli’s art, and sometimes just because I want to hold a beautiful hardcover book in my hands.
Writer: David Mazzucchelli
Artist: David Mazzucchelli
Publisher: Pantheon Books
Age: Older Teen
Asterios Polyp as literature could be a text book on how to take different approaches to art and storytelling, yet present them with such harmony that the reading experience is seamless and wonderful. It’s a book that shifts and skips through styles which border on rigid (to the point of being geometrical) to incredibly organic. Mazzucchelli further complicates the formula by adopting a currently non-traditional colour palette with which to work, inspired by the original printer’s inks of yellow, cyan and magenta. And it does work, it works flawlessly. The book actually presents an easy example of how comic book artists are stylistic chameleons. With pretty much every other artist it would take several different works to highlight how wonderfully adept cartoonists need to be at rearranging their own techniques and creating permutations on their trade. But David Mazzucchelli has such command of his own voice and the medium that his artistic aim is true no matter what he seems to be involved in. It actually becomes easy to see why Mazzucchelli voiced his displeasure this year with a DC reprint of Batman:Year One which he originally illustrated and was coloured by his wife Richmond Lewis in 1987. The reason I am mentioning this is because his qualms with the product were centered on the quality of paper that was used in the reprint, the fuzzy digital files that DC reprinted from, and the recolouring of the art. Clearly, this is an artist that operates on a level which considers every aspect of the work, and Asterios Polyp is David Mazzucchelli at the top of his game. He expresses powerful intention between the smallest of details to the largest – much like his main character.
I found the protagonist, Asterios Polyp, infinitely intriguing. For one, he was at the pinnacle of his chosen field, yet still has so much to learn in order to grow up having mainly worked in the theoretical as opposed to hands-on creation. I think this speaks to the tremendous amount of work that goes into being the best at something. In order to be remarkably successful it is necessary to do the work, and then work a lot more. Despite all that, Asterios makes it seems easy, as though his tremendous intellect can just distill everything in the natural world into two halves, creating Hegelian divisions that help Asterios operate in the real world. In the midst of all this work, what time is there to develop personal relationships, see the world as it is and not how you want to see it, and also discover yourself? As a celebrated architect, Asterios Polyp isn’t just used to structure in the world, he is used to actually designing that structure (although his designs are on paper and not ever built). To let go of that and begin to view the past 50 years of his life as childish is a tremendous personal accomplishment, that is, if he can survive such a quest of self-discovery. The journey itself is truly interesting, and it is only enhanced by all the nuances that hang off every page.
For example, Asterios Polyp’s profession is that of an architecture professor, and the reading of the book is enhanced by having knowledge of architecture. The same can be said about the references to Greek oral tradition and classical Greek stories. Asterios is interested in these traditions, and so Mazzucchelli makes a point to highlight them in the narrative. Some of these references are overt, like in a dream sequence where Asterios plays the role of Orpheus and his wife Hana plays Eurydice. Some of the references are less than obvious but still build the tone of the book.
This book plays to anyone who has a tendency to see everything in dualities, which is to say, that we all tend to simplify the real world to a great extent. The trick that Mazzucchelli pulls is to convey the dualistic philosophy of his main character, but to allow tremendous variation in his art and how other characters are seen. It’s as though he is actively subverting the point of view of Asterios Polyp in order to make a greater point. It also makes reading Asterios Polyp a huge pleasure. There are layers upon layers of information, making this a repeatable read. Oh, and did I mention that the narrator is the ghost of Asterios’ stillborn twin brother? What!? To find out more, pick up Asterios Polyp and get yourself a fresh cup of coffee, a comfy seat, and some alone time. Trust me when I say that this review has barely scratched the surface of a book that is saturated with well-placed cacophony and style.