Greg Hunter

Late to the Rack: Asterios Polyp

In Comics on November 13, 2009 at 4:46 AM

Well, I wasn’t exactly late to the rack with Asterios Polyp. I bought the graphic novel when it came out this past summer, encouraged by the superlative-filled reviews that came out along with it. Then, knowing I’d only be able to read it for the first time once, I kept it on my shelf for two months, waiting for what felt like the right time. Since I started the book, there have been other times when I’ve been reluctant to pick it up, and for different reasons. Asterios Polyp is economically told, elegantly drawn, and at times a real disappointment–a disappointment for being very good, rather than great, but a disappointment still.

Asterios Polyp‘s scripter/illustrator David Mazzucchelli isn’t one of the most prolific comic artists around, but he has one of the highest batting averages. In the ’80s, he collaborated with Frank Miller on the Daredevil storyline “Born Again“–a high point in the character’s history–and “Batman: Year One,” a contender for my favorite single superhero story. In the ’90s, Mazzucchelli was part of the team that adapted Paul Auster’s City of Glass for comics. Publishers Weekly began their review of Asterios by claiming, “for decades, Mazzuccelli has been a master without a masterpiece. Now he has one.” The first part’s not quite accurate, unless you add “all his own” after “a masterpiece”–his Daredevil and Batman work stands with the best superhero stories. If Asterios Polyp is a masterpiece itself, it’s in spite of some serious flaws.

Mazzucchelli has been rightly praised for using the comics medium to full advantage. His story hops back and forth between different moments in the life of the title character, inviting readers to dictate their own pace, to linger on a page or skip back to an earlier one. He also works with a veteran’s consistency and restraint: each page’s line drawings are tightly composed and colored with a small palette of muted hues. And when Mazzucchelli lets loose, he’s all the better: the centerpiece of Asterios Polyp is a wordless dream sequence patterned after Orpheus’ trip to Hell. Mazzucchelli renders Polyp and his supporting cast with rougher, sometimes frenzied-looking line work, and the result is a stunning display of visual storytelling.

Polyp is an opinionated architecture professor, and Mazzucchelli’s at his best when visualizing abstracts like his character’s aesthetic philosophies:


Some formal tricks grow tiresome after repeat appearances. The book’s characters talks in different-shaped speech balloons, with different-looking letters, a noble attempt to convey their varied voices and perspectives that’s a little cloying in practice. Where Asterios Polyp suffers most, though, is in failures of characterization elsewhere. The title character’s opinions on art and life are unique, and illustrated uniquely, but otherwise, he’s not too different from the typical, blustery academic of film and lit. It’s tough to empathize with Polyp, not because he’s arrogant, but because he’s less well-realized in the script than in Mazzucchelli’s artwork.

This isn’t to say that for a work to be successful, readers have to identify with the main character. Some of Mazzucchelli’s peers (Ware, Clowes, Tomine) get by with unlikeable, pathetic wretches at the center of their books. But for Asterios Polyp‘s story to work, I’d argue that it has to happen–Polyp’s desire for his estranged wife drives the book, and whatever else Asterios Polyp is, it’s a romance.

Much of the book takes place in the small town where Polyp ends up after a fall from prestige, and if you think he runs into some colorful locals, then there’s a lot else that won’t surprise you. There’s a dilettante Marxist wannabe-rocker, a buxom housewife into astrology, a husky, well-intentioned mechanic–all likeable enough, but this is what readers know about them when they’re introduced, and this is what readers know when Polyp takes off again. Now Mazzucchelli is not responsible for my disappointment in the book, any more than he’s responsible for the hype surrounding it. Still, it’s hard not to look at one of Asterios Polyp‘s beautifully drawn pages and wish for its plot to have as much resonance–even if that’s asking too much.

  1. I was so inspired by your post that I made my own name out of crazy, interconnected shapes!

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