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June 09, 2009

From Mark Siegel's night table: Mazzuchelli's ASTERIOS POLYP (from Pantheon)


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.


Sounds daunting?


It isn’t!


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 clever 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 thirteen years.


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 for this.


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.






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Amazing, well deserved review. You really can't say enough about the book. It's so good. I will be reading it over and over and over again for years to come, because as you said, it feels complex, deep and at the same time very very accessible. I wish there were more "Mazzucchelli's" out there providing insanely well rounded content like this.

Just finished reading this and am absolutely blown away! Reads like a mix of James Joyce, Pablo Picasso & Wes Anderson. Mazzuchelli has set a new standard that will either cause everyone to rejoice or to hold their heads in their hands wondering how they will ever be able to compete!

This graphic novel cannot be more HIGHLY recommended!

I just won a copy of this from Pantheon today! I'm looking forward to reading this soooo much!

Merci pour ce bel article, Mark!
Quelle magnifique couverture.
Faut que je trouve ça en France !


OK, I just preordered it from Amazon!

Nice review, Mark. I agree 100%; Asterios Polyp is a tremendous work on many levels. It's definitely near the top of my best comics list.

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