For such a behemoth piece of work, Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli was a completely engrossing read from beginning to end — and despite the end, which I’ll get to later. As a unified piece of work, it’s an astounding accomplishment, and it takes graphic representation in narrative forms to an entirely new level beyond most everything else I’ve encountered. That said, I think the narrative construction was far more interesting than the story beneath the surface, which flickers with fascinating elements but finally left me unfulfilled on the last page.
The visual machine that Mazzucchelli constructed for this book rivals the ingenuity of Chris Ware and the virtuoso icon composition of Marjane Satrapi. Furthermore, his use of CMYK colors to define tonal and thematic emotional shifts drove home what he was already accomplishing through shapes and styles.
Fundamentally, Asterios Polyp deals with conflicting world views and ideologies, calling into question their role in facilitating human relationships versus dividing them. The aging and lauded “paper architect” for whom this novel is named suffers a late midlife crisis that drives him out of New York and into a new exploration of his own identity and relationship to society. There’s a really vivid Joycean quality to the organic use of flashback and association that Mazzucchelli adeptly harnesses to flesh him out. I have to admit, though, that the concussive and repeated allusions to classic stories and characters probably washed over me more times than I connected with them.
The book deals with him through the analysis of his profession creating genius works of architecture that will never be built. I’m sure I’m not the only comics reader who first read through the story’s revelation of Asterios’ deceased-at-birth twin and recalled the Professor X/Cassandra Nova twist of Grant Morrison’s New X-Men run. Anyway, his relationship to that twin acts a continuing thread throughout. That seemed to be the personal crisis within the title character that drove his fascination with materially useless concepts and how unrealized ideals fuel the construction of society.
Still, Asterios Polyp‘s continued meditations that pop up throughout the book were more provocative for me as sketches in narrative mechanics and character exploration than they were as a compelling beginning-to-end tale. There is a vivid Modernist personality to this graphic novel that unrelentingly defies the reconciliation of its disparate forces. And I’m not a reader who needs fairy tale endings, but without spoiling anything, final event of the book felt not only unbelievable, but entirely contrived concluding a story that otherwise felt consistently like it was being driven by human emotions and thoughtful authorial investigation.