When Words Collide

Mon, June 22nd, 2009 at 2:28pm PDT | Updated: June 22nd, 2009 at 4:20pm

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

DAVID MAZZUCCHELLI'S "ASTERIOS POLYP"

The Asterios Polyp Graphic Novel

The "about the author" blurb on the inside back cover of "Asterios Polyp" says only this: "David Mazzucchelli has been making comics his whole life. This is his first graphic novel." That last sentence seems wrong, doesn't it? How can this be his first graphic novel if many of us -- most of us -- have volumes on our shelves with his name along the spine? Though originally serialized, "Daredevil: Born Again" is surely a graphic novel. So is "Batman: Year One." They may be genre graphic novels, but that doesn't mean they should be disqualified.

Yet, those two collaborations with Frank Miller are decidedly different than what we get in "Asterios Polyp." And if the "about the author" blurb was written by Mazzucchelli himself, which is highly likely, than it's telling that he would boldly differentiate between what he's done in the past, "making comics," and this hardcover "graphic novel." But "Asterios Polyp" is different, and as Mazzucchelli's first major solo project, it deserves to be treated differently.

It is, undoubtedly, a major work of graphic narrative. A true graphic novel in a way that so few comics-with-spines really are.

I don't want to get into the old debates about the inaccuracy of the term "graphic novel," because everyone knows that it's used to mean anything from a thick collection of "X-Force" comics to "Maus" I and II. But if "graphic novel," as a concept, bears any resemblance to the idea of a literary novel, then very few would actually qualify. If we exclude the graphic memoirs, what are we left with for great true graphic novels? Graphic novels that don't rest comfortably inside the confines of "genre fiction"? "Jimmy Corrigan"? "Bottomless Belly Button"? "Stuck Rubber Baby"? It's a small list indeed.

"Asterios Polyp" deserves a spot on that list, and after reading it a second time, I'm convinced that no matter how you define the term "graphic novel," Mazzucchelli's first graphic novel is one of the great comics of all time.

THE CRANIUM OF ASTERIOS POLYP

Asterios Meets Stiff Major

The title of the book refers to the protagonist, Asterios Polyp himself, a "paper architect," a man esteemed for his "designs, rather than on the buildings constructed from them." "In fact," says the narrator, "only nine of his designs had ever been built." The book opens with a thunderstorm and a fire in Polyp's building -- as the down-on-his-luck character watches, pathetically, old surveillance videos of he and his wife having sex -- and the rest of the volume alternates between bits of Polyp's philosophy of form, function, and life, along with flashbacks to his past, and sequences detailing his journey to find a place he might call home.

What you'll notice about the physical appearance of Polyp -- especially if you watch Mazzucchelli draw a sketch of the character, as I did during the MoCCA art festival -- is that the character has a perfectly round skull, and he's almost always shown in profile. Polyp rarely faces the reader -- only a couple times throughout the thousands of panels in the graphic novel -- and even then, it's a three-quarters view at best. No, Polyp is a character who constantly looks either left or right, and his template-drawn half-circle head never changes, no matter what angle we see him.

Why might Mazzucchelli, who is no doubt capable of drawing anything, use a circle drafting template to form the cranium of his main character? For one, the character is an architect -- a "paper architect," remember -- whose very life is based around using rigid shapes to define the world around him. Also, though Polyp undergoes a change by the end of the novel, he never loses that thick-headed, intellectual stubbornness that's physically represented by his perfectly round cranium. And by using that half-circle for the head and nose when shown in profile -- which, as I said, is nearly every panel in the book -- it makes Polyp seem less open and friendly. We only see him from the side (mostly), and that means he's either coming or going from the left or right of the panel, looking off to the side instead of towards us, as if he had better things to do than engage the audience. Polyp spent much of his life as a professor -- teaching architecture students mostly through pontification and chastisement -- and imagine being taught be a man who never looks directly at you, but only off to the left or the right. It would be difficult to embrace his principles, it would be difficult to embrace him as a human being, if he couldn't be bothered to look at least in your general direction.

As readers, Mazzucchelli puts us in that position, ignored by the protagonist while the more sympathetic characters -- especially Hana, Polyp's wife -- have more open faces, with big, inviting eyes. Because Polyp is a different personality type, he's drawn differently, and that approach to graphic storytelling is central to what Mazzucchelli is doing here.

It's all about form and function. In the most artistic way possible.

I DON'T THINK IN TERMS OF THREE

Asterios and the Three Things

Before escaping from the burning building in the opening scene of the novel, Polyp grabs three items from his apartment: a lighter, a watch, and a Swiss army knife. Later in the book, in a flashback, we find that Polyp refuses to "think in terms of three," and won't even pretend to answer Hana's question about what three things he would take from his apartment in an emergency. The minimalist Polyp deflects the question by asking, "how much do you want to bet that the guy who invented numbers was someone who just wanted to count his possessions?" The real issue at the heart of the scene is that Polyp doesn't want all of Hana's stuff to fill up his apartment now that they've moved in together. "There's only so much room," he says, but what he really means is that he values his own possessions -- his own taste in his possessions -- but finds Hana's contributions to the domicile to be merely numbers of things and not things of value to the space. It's just one of the many indications that Polyp's selfishness will be his own downfall.

Yet why does he take the lighter, the watch, and the Swiss army knife? The lighter -- which doesn't even work -- belonged to his father, we later discover. And the watch was the first thing he ever bought with his own money, though for narrative purposes it provides a more interesting scene later on when we learn that the watch runs on magnets and emits a gentle hum which is magnified when placed in a larger context (like a dresser drawer). But the Swiss army knife is the most central symbol of the three items, the link between the themes and relationships within the novel. The Swiss army knife -- in all of its perfect blending of form and function, the item of perfect, streamlined utility -- was found by Hana on the beach one afternoon, during the early days of their marriage. The knife reappears throughout the narrative, but it's used most notably not as a knife but as an all-purpose tool -- the corkscrew and the tweezers being the most significant -- and it not only seems to represent the early, more loving phase of Polyp's relationship with Hana, but it also seems to represent the notion of simple utility that Polyp strives for, but so often fails at because he lets his theories get in the way of his practice.

Ironically, the first time Polyp ever puts his architectural principles into practice, he helps build a house based on a rudimentary sketch done by the garage owner he's temporarily staying with -- a guy named Stiff Major. It's a tree house for Major's son, and instead of criticizing the hastily, but earnestly, sketched blueprint, Polyp says two simple words: "looks great." And he takes a simple satisfaction in helping to build a structure that will bring pleasure to the young boy.

It's a turning point for Polyp, and it helps him emotionally prepare for his journey back to Ithaca.

ODYSSEUS RISING

The Walls of Willy Ilium

When I say "Ithaca," I'm not referring to "Ithaca, New York," although Polyp did teach there for a time. But Polyp's metaphorical return home parallel's Odysseus's journey in more than a few fundamental ways. Like a few other major works of narrative -- from Joyce's "Ulysses" to the Coen's "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" -- "Asterios Polyp" takes its underlying structure from Homer's tale of the king of Ithaca's troublesome voyage home. Though less schematically faithful to the ancient epic than either example cited above, there's no doubt that Polyp's journey parallels that of Odysseus.

There's a descent into the underworld -- at first just a nightmarish subway stop, but then a literal nightmare involving the ghosts of the pasts and visions of his lost home. There's the song of the siren in the form of a seductive student. There's Stiff Major's wife, Ursula Major, a corpusculent earth mother who lives in a house surrounded by water. She seems to be part Circe, but mostly Calypso, the goddess who hold Odysseus captive until Zeus finally relents to allow him to return home. There's Polyp's great nemesis, Willy Ilium, who ultimately causes the rift between Polyp and his wife. Ilium is, of course, another name for Troy. There's the bar fight that leaves Polyp blind in one eye, a reversal of the Polyphemus scene from "The Odyssey" in which the hero blinded the Cyclops. But in the ancient epic, it was Polyphemus's poor hospitality that led to his loss of sight -- eating your guests will get you that -- while in "Asterios Polyp," it's the protagonist who is the poor host, failing to ever give anyone a fair share of his space, even his wife.

And there's the return to his lost home -- to his wife Hana -- who may not be beset by suitors like Penelope, but remains far out of reach until the final sequence of the story.

Mazzucchelli doesn't let "The Odyssey" influences overwhelm the story, but he keeps them near the surface as a reminder of this archetypal story. Of this tale of a man trying to reclaim what was once his, and overcoming tremendous obstacles along the way. But he never lets the schema of Homer's text overwhelm the uniquely modern story he's telling.

PERCEPTION AND REALITY

Asterios and Hana Merge

One of the things that distinguishes "Asterios Polyp" from so many other graphic novels is that the central concerns of artistic representation are not only at the core of the story, but they are so impressively displayed through the use of line and color. The narrator posits this question, and it's an essential one: "What if reality (as perceived) were simply an extension of the self? Wouldn't that color the way each individual experiences the world?" It's question that has formed the basis of many an undergraduate philosophy discussion and debate about cultural relativism, but in the hands of David Mazzucchelli, it becomes a way to express emotion and connectivity through art. His characters, even when they are drawn in consistent style, seem to inhabit slightly different worlds. They can occupy the same space, in the same panel, but they look different based on Mazzucchelli's stylistic approach. I mentioned how Polyp himself is drawn with the spherical cranium an nose in constant profile, but his body is all clean brush lines. Stiff Major, though, is drawn with no holding line on his body, just a gray template of color to signify his shirt, with some brush strokes to indicate his collar and buttons. Major's wife is all yellows and flower/leaf patterns, and Hana is simple lines and big, innocent eyes.

Yet the real symbolism -- the hit-you-over-the-head-symbolism, even if it's excitingly effective -- is when we see the relationship between Polyp and Hana change. When they first meet, they are drawn expressionistically, as if we were seeing the understructure of their bodies based on the way they perceive reality. Polyp is all blue geometric shapes, while Hana is gentle pink crosshatching. As they fall in love, their colors and styles blur together, and they become visually bonded. As they drift apart -- and fight -- their colors and styles begin to emerge as distinct units once again. With the blue geometry of Polyp no longer occupying the same emotional space as Hana's pink shading. When she cries alone on the couch at the end of that scene, it's more than just visual space that separates the two characters, it's psychic space that may never again be spanned again.

Mazzucchelli pulls off such overt symbolism because it's appropriate to the story, and because he doesn't comment upon it within the scenes. He build up his own grammar of visual storytelling and then uses it to dramatic effect as the story progresses. This may be a cliché, but like all great works of literature, this book teaches us how to read it. And it's an impressive feat.

"Asterios Polyp" in all of its symbolic, Odysseus-driven, literary splendor hits shops in the beginning of July. If you picked up an early copy at the MoCCA festival, you know how good this book is, but if you're waiting for the official release date, then you're in for a treat. This is David Mazzucchelli's first graphic novel, and it's a great one.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" (which explores "Zenith" in great detail) and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen every day at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

Follow Tim on Twitter: gbfiremelon

Want to talk about this week's column with other readers? Post your thoughts over on the CBR message boards.

TAGS:  when words collide, david mazzuchelli, asterios polyp

When Words Collide Home | When Words Collide Archives

When Words Collide

Send This Article to a Friend

Separate multiple email address with commas.

You must state your name.

You must enter your email address.