Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli

Confusion. That was my first reaction after reading David Mazzucchelli's Asterios Polyp. Normally, an experience like that would be endlessly frustrating. I mean, who wants to finish reading a book only to be left dazed and confused by the process? This time, however, I found the perplexity exhilarating, like a well-designed puzzle that must be savored and relished before it is solved.

Intrigued yet? You should be.

Like many comic book fans, I first encountered David Mazzucchelli through his work on Marvel's Daredevil, first with writer Denny O'Neil and then with Frank Miller. To be honest, the work with O'Neil was interesting, but ultimately forgettable - pretty standard comic book fare for the time. It was Mazzucchelli's collaboration with Miller on Daredevil: Born Again that really made me aware of what untapped talent he had. Many were initially upset that Miller himself was not pencilling his triumphant return to the character that made him famous. After reading the first issue with Mazzucchelli, all fears and doubts were put away. Mazzucchelli's work on Daredevil was quickly followed by another collaboration with Miller - the oft-mentioned (and inspiration for the film Batman Begins) Batman: Year One.

None of this work, as great and spectacular as it is, can possibly prepare you for the monumental evolution of Mazzucchelli's work that is represented by Asterios Polyp. Gone are the pulp heroes, the realistic character depictions and the melodramatic storytelling techniques. These are replaced by philosophical musings wrapped in the tale of one man's undoing and redemption, conveyed by a loose-lined, cartoonish art style. If it sounds heavy and depressing, it is surprisingly not. In fact, it is both ebullient and contemplative, a delicate balance that is deftly handled throughout the work.

The title character of Asterios Polyp is a college professor and architect of some renown, though he is a "paper architect" - his designs are theoretical and thus are never actually built. The story begins at what we think is the end of a rather pathetic and paltry existence (and through a series of flashbacks we learn just how much goodness Polyp has thrown away or wasted in his life), but turns out to be the beginning of self-revelation for this intensely inward-looking man. Along the way, the graphic novel covers territory as diverse as: love, duality, rivalry, design, aesthetics, religion, auto mechanics and (perhaps most importantly) the illusion of male power.

If it sounds as though I completely understand this work, well, remember that confusion I mentioned at the start of this review? Yeah. I'm in the dark still about much of what Mazzucchelli is trying to say. But I'm ok with that. Even if I grapple with one-tenth of the subject matter of Asterios Polyp I think I'm doing pretty well. If this graphic novel teaches nothing else, it's that the the experience of life is more important than the knowledge gained, catalogued and hoarded. Confusion is just another part of the ride.

Cross-posted at PastePotPete.

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