So, I realise I’m a little late to the game on this one. Asterios Polyp, written and illustrated by David Mazzucchelli was first released in 2009, and it’s a comic book that defies that very name. Paging through the book the first time, a realisation began to come over me: that I’m not well-equipped for reviewing a graphic novel quite so full of design, architecture and unfamiliar literature as this one, but I shall have to do my best.
We begin with a miserable man in his miserable house, ambivalently watching porn and flicking his lighter. The flat is washed in grey and blue colours, as is this dishevelled man, when a fork of lightning cracks across the page and casts everything in a murky purple light. Our stubbly hero grabs his shoes and three items from his flat – his lighter (a metal Zippo type affair), a wristwatch and a Swiss Army Knife – and leaves before his home bursts into flames, obliterating everything. One of the creepy things about this opening is seeing the flames lick up hundreds and hundreds of videos with dates on them, just like the one he was watching in bed.
The story is divided into multiple narratives from here on out. We have the story of Asterios, the young “paper architect” so named because none of his designs, however award-winning, have never been built. He meets and falls in love with a vulnerable, hopeful girl named Hana, whom he marries. But we also have the “present” of the comic, Asterios aiming to rebuild his life away from everything he’s know, and maybe try to learn something. Additionally there are minor storylines based around Asterios’ twin brother who died in the uterus, Ignazio, who lives on as a manifestation of Asterios’ guilt and fear and is the occasional narrator of his other stories.
Asterios himself is an impressively dislikeable person; he’s smart and inventive but he’s also hugely egotistical, self-confident and stubborn. It’s obvious that Asterios is of higher than usual intelligence, as evidenced through his childhood love of reading and curiosity about the way things work. Entire pages follow Asterios and his shadow of a twin brother with barely any words spoken and hauntingly horrible panels show women vomiting over themselves, and crazy men living in boxes. As a young man, he was clearly not a nice guy.
“What if reality (as perceived) were simply an extension of the self? Wouldn’t that colour the way each individual experiences the world?”. This beautifully designed few pages of speech talks about the ways people complement or conflict with each other and show elegantly how people can differ by taking on different artistic styles; some scruffy and loose, some carefully shaded, some abstract. Some people look more similar than others, and they have matching attitudes; we see this plenty throughout the book, most obviously in scenes between Asterios and his wife Hana where we see their styles begin to emerge. It’s as though we all see life through a different lens; you can either find someone with the same reality as yours, or find someone different and over time merge your views together.
A well-discussed element of the graphic novel is its duality. Whether it’s because of the slicing in half of his father’s surname on emigrating to America or his being the only one of a pair of children to be born, Asterios is obsessed with opposites and frequently undermines others with reductive reasoning; for example, “I have two kinds of students: those who can’t draw and those who can’t think.” The journey of the graphic novel sees Asterios learnt to see things as spheres, or continuums, as opposed to equals and opposites, which allows him a more “rounded” view of life (unintentional pun!). And there’s no better representation of this than in Asterios and his wife Hana.
When Asterios is drawn he is like a technical base on which to build later, and his life is full of straight lines, whereas Hana’s is hatched and more freeflowing, tending to move with her mood, making it obvious that she’s an emotional and artistic person. In many ways, their differences compliment each other, as the harsh cynical Asterios needs a calming influence while Hana’s vulnerability means she feels secure around an intelligent, self-assured person. Unfortunately, as in most relationships like this, Asterios begins to overshadow her and his colours drown out hers; you get the feeling she doesn’t always mind, but it means he has a tendency to think he’s better than her. His cockiness becomes worse and worse as Hana takes a job with an obnoxious director who sexually objectifies her nearly constantly while Asterios just looks on, and when the director (a vile little man mockingly dubbed Willy Chimera by Asterios, for giving so many versions of his last name) brazenly asks Hana if she was abused as a young girl, Asterios dismisses the question out of hand. It’s painfully obvious that she didn’t answer no, and that her love for her husband was, at least in part, about protection.
The present day storyline is slightly cheerier, often bathed in yellows. Asterios meets Stiff, a mechanic, and secures a job and accommodation with him and his family; a young boy and a fantastically crazy hippy who insists on arranging his room dependant on his star sign. One of her pages in which she outlines her philosophies is unlike any other I’ve read in a comic before as you have to turn the book full circle to read the different sections of text. She’s a great antithesis to the atheist Asterios who has been so rigid and stubborn before but begins to accept that just because he doesn’t believe something, doesn’t mean he needs to be rude. He meets a group of people he might never have in New York for thinking he was better than them, and puts his intelligence to practical and menial use.
As I said before, I doubt that I’m capable of doing this graphic novel justice. It’s clever in so many ways, taking inspiration from Homer’s Odyssey, Orpheus’ decent into Hades, Apollo and Dionysus of Greek myth and with every page dripping in symbolism…I could have written my dissertation on the colour, semiotics, poetry and references in this book. It’s not an easy graphic novel by any means, but that’s why it’s so rewarding – like an exquisitely made film or a textured piece of art which appears to show new and beautiful aspects every time. Its sad and romantic story of hubris is exceeded in quality only by its flawless design.