Graphic Novel Of The Month

Asterios Polyp (Pantheon): I was reading some Roger Ebert essays the other day and came across one of his basic litmus tests for critiquing a film. He explained that in order to quickly eliminate the mediocre from the ridiculously high volume of films he must endure, he uses this technique as a basic sorting filter. Essentially, you take everything you are as a person, along with all of the films you’ve previously consumed, into the theatre with you. You watch the film and then simply decide if anything’s changed for you as a person, either for you intrinsically or for your external world view. That’s it. He notes that the older you are and the more films you’ve experienced, the game changes because you’re taking more in with you at the onset. Naturally, my mind seized on this methodology and how it could be applied to the large number of comics I read; I found myself applying it to David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp, the first graphic novel from a creator who’s been working in the medium for years, known to most for his work on Daredevil and Batman. It has certainly escaped classification as anything remotely mediocre and lingered with me days after reading it. I find myself remembering passages, still trying to analyze and decipher meaning long after I’ve put it down. It’s caused me to observe my own actions and interactions with people a little more closely. It seems that I’m probably the last reviewer on the interwebs to write about Asterios Polyp, the New York Times even got in on the action, but it does deserve the widespread attention and highlighting as a Graphic Novel of the Month. The themes of isolation, completion, and balance run rampant through the work, best evidenced visually by the yin/yang symmetry of the living and deceased twins, best evidenced spiritually by the ever-present kinship of Asterios’ deceased brother. To say that Mazzucchelli’s art is energetic would be an understatement. The book literally opens with a scene of a lighting strike, imbuing the story with life, with a charge, setting events into motion. From there, we see an outline of a figure following Asterios through life like a shadow, and even when it’s not there, he’ll invent it with technology to maintain the comforting illusion for himself. Is his brother’s presence a simple companion like a guardian angel, is it an echo of a life that could have or would have been, or something more sinister? The book doesn’t necessarily answer the many questions it poses, but illuminates them in a thought-provoking way for the duration of the tale. When Asterios meets Hana, he’s depicted as a blue form, her as red matter, and when their figures overlap they form a more complete figure – almost like emotional content filling an empty vessel – symbolic of their physical union and eventual ongoing relationship. Mazzucchelli’s art is full of clean expressive lines and tiny details that make a world of difference. Whether it’s small speed lines to provide a sense of motion for a cat jumping or the tiny motion lines around a taut nipple emphasizing breasts bouncing during sex, the scenes would be lifeless without them. Artistically, there’s an ingenious sequence of three running threads that are set off horizontally across the page, tracking memories. Along with a set of standing figures that show an ideological continuum from white to black, these are pages that would make Scott McCloud proud in their ability to make us understand comics intuitively. I found the diversity of the art offered wonderful, some pages with panels, some without, different fonts, free floating text and images, caption boxes and word balloons being traded back and forth. Most of Mazzucchelli’s panels are extremely sparse, with lots of white background space intentionally left blank. I found it fitting that contemporary artist Mark Rothko was mentioned during a bit of dialogue (also found myself wondering if Rothko’s real world suicide was not another layer of commentary about the “death of self” that Asterios describes in relation to his brother). Having stood before some of Rothko’s larger works at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles, it becomes quite clear that you can use extremely sparse shapes and a limited color palette for the most dramatic emotional impact. As Asterios himself says, “anything that’s not functional becomes decorative.” Veering away from the art and considering the more subtle ideas at work, some interesting things pop up. One of the symmetrical notions involves balance and competing systems. Notice when Asterios’ apartment is on fire and he must leave quickly, he grabs three items. Does he opt for the pragmatic or the sentimental? What does this say about his character? Later we discover him giving away some of those objects, but keeping one in particular. What does this say about the value he places in each? Rather than answering these questions, what I found myself doing was asking myself the same questions. What would I choose? What would I do? What would I say? Like any great art, it causes an introspective reaction. I find myself telling this to people all the time at the museum when they ask about “good” art or what a piece “means.” It doesn’t tell you what to think. It asks what you think. Mazzucchelli proves that he also has a keen awareness of psychological drivers. When the Hana character is introduced, we learn all we need to know about her psychosis; it’s revealed effectively in just a few lines of dialogue about her birth spoiling a party and her attempts to live up to her brothers. She lives out the rest of her life attempting to compensate for these past perceived transgressions; it even affects her relationship with the titular character and the manner in which they choose to argue. As a “paper architect,” a piece of Asterios’ existence is not very enduring, it’s literally paper thin. As someone who searches for something tangible and lasting in his life, it was delightful to see him helping build a tree house for Jackson. On Asterios’ personal little quest, we see Mazzucchelli play with non-linear time, embed interesting commentary about sexual politics, and find intellectual stimulation through abstract thought. It’s interesting that this quest for man-made excellence and non-natural academic quandaries consumes so much of the book and Asterios’ life, yet the story is bookended by two very natural events. There’s the initial lighting strike, the giver of life and energy, balanced perfectly against the cataclysmic life-ending meteor at the end, dueling alpha and omega events, symbolic of birth and death. Along with the peaks and valleys of Hana’s unpredictable love, Asterios is ultimately taught emotional humility in the face of his intellectual arrogance. Like Skyscrapers of the Midwest and Bottomless Belly Button last year, I foresee Asterios Polyp being a strong contender for many eventual best of the year lists in 2009. It’s quite an achievement in craftsmanship, the way the book is so deliberately and carefully constructed to emphasize layers of meaning. Grade A.


At 9:33 AM, Blogger Matt Clark said...

Great review Justin.

I think I've now seen more than enough praise to seek this book out (even though it possibly isn't the kind of thing that normally appeals to me).

At 10:32 PM, Blogger Justin Giampaoli said...

Thanks Matt, I'm all for broadening the books you pick up!


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