Asterios Polyp
by David Mazuchelli (Pantheon, 2009)

David Mazuchelli is well-known and respected as the artist behind the brilliant Batman: Year One and many other classics, but until recently he was an artist who had not yet produced a magnum opus that showed the full range of his particular genius. Along comes Asterios Polyp, a nine-year labor of love that shows what Mazuchelli really can do.

Asterios Polyp is a middle-aged professor who teaches architecture. A visionary designer whose ideas are beautiful but completely impractical, he nonetheless reigns supreme in his corner of the academic firmament. That none of his ideas ever leave the paper, remaining concept only, doesn't stop Asterios from developing a very high opinion of himself. It's quite obvious that he tolerates the opinions of others more than he understands or respects them. For Asterios, his intellect is the boundary, the defining principle. No other worldview or opinion is acceptable. He glows when surrounded by the adoration of others, but his creeping egotism is gradually shutting him off from everything that's human. The shadow of his twin, who died in the womb, reminds him over and over again of this narcissism, Greek-chorus style, as his life starts to veer off course in one jarring incident after another.

A child prodigy, Asterios is a polymath who settles on architecture as his main study because of his love of order. He is not a bumbling professor but a smooth aesthete, charming and popular, socially suave and verbally graceful. But his work, unconnected as it is to anything larger and more purposeful -- as he himself is unable to connect with anything outside of his own self-regard -- is quickly becoming irrelevant because he cannot truly connect with the larger framework of society.

His lovely wife, Hana, is a first-generation Japanese artist who happens to be a pretty brilliant sculptor, the type of organic creative whose talent is intimate and emotional while being at the same time highly disorganized. She can't complete anything or take direction or even explain what her art means even to herself. Asterios, with all his insight into form and function, indulges rather heavily in overly helpful "critiquing" of her work, succeeding only in alienating her a little more each day. It's clear that while they love one another immensely, they are also hampering one another's growth. The inevitable split comes, leaving Asterios numb and floating in a world of post-divorce grayness, until one night a lightning strike burns down his apartment.

It's the catalyst for an exploration of the soul as he leaves the big city in a daze and ends up relocating for a time to a small town. From there, he learns how to live life all over again, only this time the beauty of differing personalities and human eccentricities is a guide and not an annoyance to rub out. As each day slides gently by, Asterios rediscovers his humanity, until the moment yet another, well-placed-if-a-bit-contrived catalyst sends him back to his beginnings and to a fateful meeting with his former wife.

As stories go, Mazuchelli isn't exactly upending any tropes. This story rests on the classic foundation of exploration of humanity via relational opposites, using the most well-known formula: the controlling, uptight male paired off with a dreamy, light-hearted, gentle female whose knowledge of life is more organic than the intellectual male.

Mazuchelli uses a variety of visual innovations to tell his story; however, the story itself, being basically a contemporary love tale, is a very familiar plot, one we've seen in many Woody Allen movies. In fact, Asterios Polyp is quite close to Allen's Annie Hall in theme and content.

As for the art, Scott McCloud, author of Understanding Comics, said on his website that Mazuchelli "followed every rule in my book," which from a visual standpoint is true. Mazuchelli has indeed used many of the best-known tricks of the trade, and AP demonstrates his mastery of them all. Of special note is the way he works to overcome the traditional panel layout with interesting sequences and pattern breaks.

AP is a very, very promising beginning for an established genius. The techniques Mazuchelli employs are wonderful, but the construction of the story is so academic and precise that it's hard to empathize with the main characters. The emotional tone is constrained to the point of distancing the reader just enough to make it difficult to relate to Asterios and Hana as real people. Although Asterios has had some kind of breakthrough at the end that renders him more accessible and forgiving of others who aren't, well, him, it's a bit hard to actually feel it. It's not entirely clear how he comes to grips with his self-obsession. Hana herself is pretty vague as a person. She appears at first to have been crafted as Asterios' psychic opposite, but she seems only to be able to shock him without actually moving him. It's the boss's wife who is his true opposite and the only unbeatable debater with whom he has ever locked horns. She never bests his subtle intellectual condescension as much as she beats him hands down, every time, with her inviolable sense of self, something the self-involved professor has no knowledge of. As such, she tends to be much more interesting than the tragic but rather shallow Asterios.

Artistically, though, AP is a complete success. I would definitely recommend this novel as an almost pure example of what McCloud talks about in his books. It's also very engaging and creatively dense enough to bear re-reading to catch all the wonderful details you might miss the first time around.

review by
Mary Harvey

20 November 2010

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