Still Just a Comic Book

Despite my love for the medium, I’ve never really liked the term “graphic novel.” Not because comics don’t attain the thematic depth or structural coherency of the novel, but because they do so on their own distinct terms. The “graphic novel,” I thought, is how comic book apologists try to justify a medium needing no justification.

But David Mazzucchelli’s decade-in-the-making Asterios Polyp declares itself something more than a comic. The jacket’s pointedly brief bio insists on this point, reading in full: “David Mazzucchelli has been making comics his whole life. This is his first graphic novel.” And Asterios really does feel like a departure. The at times heavy-handed use of modernist aesthetic theory, philosophizing, and religiosity would be jarring in any popular art form, let alone in a medium still popularly imagined as the domain of socially inept, adolescent boys. In the end, though, its pretensions are turned on their head. Asterios is still just a comic book and it makes a strong case for the importance of all that may seem similarly modest, simple, or everyday.

The plot itself is nothing special, despite a stillborn twin brother’s narration, an Orphic trip into the underworld, and its frequent academic digressions. The book’s title character is a middle-aged architect and egotist who loses his wife, only to learn some hard lessons and find out what’s important in life. There is some Philip Roth in the treatment of Asterios’ masculinity, some Woody Allen in the relationship between the pretentious professor and the intuitive artist, and some Kurt Vonnegut in the stylized characterizations. Asterios Polyp, though, is absolutely unique in its rigorously formal, symbolically-loaded style.

Buy the book.

Buy the book

Every color, every line, and every word in Asterios Polyp has a purpose. Nothing is merely decorative. Mazzucchelli uses the printer’s primary colors—cyan, magenta, yellow, and black—almost exclusively. Each character has their own font, color, and even text bubble shape. Characters are drawn in a manner representative of personality and others, as perceived by them, are subtly influenced by that style. Asterios, for example, looks geometric and is colored in a cold cyan. If he begins to dominate a conversation, his color spreads throughout the page, and the person to whom he speaks begins to grow geometric as well. Purple, diverging from Mazzucchelli’s color scheme, marks the meeting ground between Asterios’ cyan and the feminine magenta; as such, it is typically used only after Asterios begins to change as a character. The text directly addresses these formal decisions through the ruminations of Asterios’ dead twin brother: “What if reality (as perceived) were simply an extension of the self?”

The book’s structure is Joycean, playing with subconscious digression, subtly recurring motifs, allusion, and subjectivity. The full meaning of any given event or object only became clear to me upon the second, or third, or fourth reading. Late in the book, Mazzucchelli offers a key to this approach:

    To live (as I understand it) is to exist within a conception of time. But to remember is to vacate the very notion of time. Every memory, no matter how remote its subject, takes place “now,” at the moment it’s called up in the mind. The more something is recalled, the more the brain has a chance to refine the original experience, because every memory is a re-creation, not a playback.

The bulk of the book consists of these playbacks, triggered by present action. At first glance they are confusing, but Asterios Polyp itself teaches you how to read them.

Reviewers have doubted whether the simple, seen-it-before story justifies the stylistic experimentation, but this misses the point. The book’s central theme emerges in Asterios’ single-minded pursuit of a dualistic understanding of the world. For him, the functional and decorative are opposed: form not necessitated by function is extraneous. The book reveals such dualism to be faulty, as it becomes responsible for the disintegration of Asterios’ life. This is, of course, the same thinking at play in applauding Asterios Polyps’ style while dismissing its plot; the relationship between the two is far more complicated than that.

Critics have described it as a modernist work in the strictest sense: its content is its form. But the book is not modernist; it is about modernism. Mazzucchelli’s style is an example of what the story ultimately decries. I’m reminded of David Harvey’s description, in The Condition of Postmodernity, of the shift from modernist to postmodernist architecture: “It was time, they said, to build for people rather than for Man.” Asterios, in the beginning, is a “paper architect”; that is, none of his formally perfect designs had actually been built. Near the end of the book, he constructs a solar-powered Cadillac. Of course, a heavy caddy is impractical for that purpose—and if it isn’t functional, it’s merely decorative—but Asterios insists that he kind of likes “the old boat.” It is through a form that isn’t strictly formal that he finally proves his humanity.

Religion, the pariah of modernity, plays a central role in his development. Since what is not factual is, for Asterios, mere fiction, he tends to pull out those tired simplifications from critiques of religion—prophets are schizophrenics, ancient traditions are “codified superstition,” religion provides false relief from life’s apparent meaningless complexity, and an all-seeing God is an expression of human narcissism. This thinking finds its fullest expression in a full-page schematic purporting to explain God as “all a big mommy complex.”

It is Ursula Major, a self-proclaimed goddess with a penchant for astrology, earth worship, and references to her own past lives, who finally shatters Asterios’ hyper-rational dualism. He acknowledges, for the first and only time, the poverty of his worldview when she challenges his conception of the male/female duality. “The Pima Tribe,” she tells him, “recognized four distinct sexes.” And in one of the most visually compelling sections of the book, Ursula marshals science to make a case for the truth of the Zodiac:

    Look, y’know, scientists took mollusks and found that even in the lab, they orient their movement according to the phase of the lunar month. And oysters taken from Long Island and relocated to dark tanks in the Midwest alter their opening and closing to coincide with tides that, like, could exist in that location, but don’t. Solar activity creates extremely low frequency electromagnetic waves, and they affect all kinds of things, like the way wheat sprouts, and the way bacteria grows, and the way insects behave … so with all that going on … maybe the Chaldeans were onto something when they discovered the Zodiac, y’know?

(Ursula’s informal, valley-girl-lite language ultimately comes off as affectionate rather than patronizing in Mazzucchelli’s deft hands.)

Even before Ursula, though, religiosity was dormant within Asterios in the mythology of his Greek heritage. His family’s last name, we are told, was chopped in half at Ellis Island. It would have been “Polyphemos,” the cyclops from The Odyssey, fitting for Asterios’ refusal to see from multiple perspectives. Furthermore, even before his personal odyssey, he had an affinity for the capricious, willful gods of the Greek pantheon, a cosmology which insists on the amoral randomness that characterizes so much of human life. The entire book is, self-consciously, a retelling of the Orpheus myth with one major twist. For Orpheus, death triumphs and he loses Eurydice. In Asterios, the ultimate victor is far less clear. This ambiguity is fitting, since Asterios questions even the life/death duality, with one character asking, “How can we call death—about which we know nothing—the opposite of life, when we barely comprehend life itself?”

Asterios Polyp is a self-conscious book of big ideas. Though most reviewers emphasize its rigorous formalism and the digressions into philosophy, aesthetics, or modernism, it’s really about their limitations. In Seeing Like A State, a critique of high modernity as practiced by the nation-state, political scientist James Scott insists on “the indispensable role of practical knowledge, informal processes, and improvisation in the face of unpredictability.” Reflective of this, it is the running joke between Asterios and his wife—“Did Francis of Assisi ever swat a mosquito?”—that is the most concisely expressive example of the sort of grounded, practical religiosity that is the work’s central theme.

The surprisingly simple highlight of the book, and its most intimate moment, should therefore not really be so surprising. In an extended montage, the minutiae of Asterios’ wife’s life—filing her nails, getting sick, farting, brushing her teeth, having sex—weaves around a scene in which he must carefully remove the head of a cotton swab from her ear. He tries one pair of tweezers, then another. She stands still, trusting but scared. These pathos-charged pages depict the practical knowledge, informal process, and improvisation that Scott calls for, and they show Mazzucchelli at the height of his powers.

All this is to say that, in the end, Asterios Polyp accounts for human life not through form or theory, but through pragmatic contradictions, small triumphs, and small tragedies. This, I think, is what is most effective about the book. Not the aesthetic form, or its function; not the modernist ideas, or the plot that is so subservient to them; but the extent to which Mazzucchelli seems to say that all of those things are ultimately insignificant when faced with the practical needs of an unpredictable life. The story begins with a bolt of lightning, ends with a meteor, and is divided neatly in two by an enormous crater; what fills that hole are the revelations of the everyday. Mazzucchelli may be writing and drawing in refreshing new ways, but he is, finally, reiterating what has always been most important.

Garrett Baer is a graduate student in religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.