Asterios Polyp is
one of the most remarkable graphic novels I’ve read.
David Mazzuchelli takes the form to new heights, reinventing
its language as the very best do. He also plumbs human, narrative, emotional
depths that even fewer comics can touch. And to top it all off, he delivers all
that in one of the most pleasurable, accessible reads of all.
Formally as daring and brilliant as Chris Ware,
Mazzuchelli’s Asterios Polyp turns
art and design idioms into a unique new comics syntaxe. Every single character
speaks in a distinct typeface (which could have been a disastrous decision in
lesser hands.) In different modes, characters appear more figurative or more abstract,
or as architectural schematics. Colors become a code, expressing balances of
power and the inner nature of a character. And there’s more, all of which
dazzles by its thoughtfulness, its care, and its intelligence.
Mazzuchelli, this virtuoso dude, whisks his reader on and on,
for a startling, delightful experience—an oddly clear, attractive, effortless
ride. (And yet, one that greatly rewards those who do enjoy putting a little
effort into their reading. Its themes snuck up on me, staying with me, coloring
my view of the world.)
Far from a purely cerebral pleasure, Asterios Polyp also manages to take its reader by the hand and lead
the way to things mightily poignant. There is a story thread between Asterios
and Hana, told in action, dialog and above all color, that is intense, real, moving.
An unforgettable Orpheus and Eurydice sequence is overwhelming. As with great
characters who live on forever in novels or film or anywhere Asterios Polyp’s transformation feels both
startling and inevitable.
And it’s so often hilarious—all of it bathes in Mazzuchelli’s
rich humor, the humor of an experienced man, a mature author, a true literary
and artistic mountain goat, at his ease scaling, hopping around and delighting
himself at these great heights. Though most characters are at times pathetic or
laughable, Mazzuchelli peers into human nature with kindness and endearment.
It’s also a beautiful object, and here Pantheon does what it
shines at. The silky blueish-white paper stock is a perfect setting for the
CMYK magic Pantone spot color magic that unfolds in Asterios
Polyp. I was told the rare paper is only produced by one mill in Japan—a
nice selling point that underscores the loving attention this book exudes in
all of its attributes.
Editing First Second authors, I sometimes worry about the
pressures the publishing world (contracts, deadlines, release dates) can exert
on the creative life. We live in the age of the forced fruit. Some books, it’s
true, only need a short gestation period and labor. Others need longer. Alison
Bechdel took seven years to make Fun Home.
Art Spiegelman gave his total Maus
Asterios Polyp feels
like it’s had the time to cook, to grow in layers, to take on a life of its
own, one that conceivably escapes even its author’s full grasp—or at least has had
a chance to surprise him, and revealed itself along the way. It’s been ten years waiting
for David Mazzuchelli’s new work. It would have been worth waiting another ten
What puts a graphic novel into every reading household? What
delivers it to the ages, to outlast its creator, its generation?
It isn’t some clever new premise, or some new creature, some
bizarre special effect, or some new titillating shock—the gimmicks all too many
new works (in every medium) reach for in the absence of anything else. What
lets a comic join the timeless best of the human heritage lies somewhere in an
artist’s ability to think deeply, to feel
deeply, and to have the skill to give that a fitting portrayal. Asterios Polyp is one of those. It’s
excellent and magnificent.