Aug 8, 2010

Comics Cube! Reviews: Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli

For my birthday, one of the gifts Peachy gave me was the 2010 Eisner Award-winning book by David Mazzucchelli, Asterios Polyp:

As has been reported in this blog just a couple of weeks ago, Asterios Polyp nearly swept the Eisners, winning three of the four awards for which it was nominated. Namely, it not only garnered Mazzucchelli the Best Writer/Artist Award (which is a separate award from the Best Writer and Best Penciller/Inker awards) and the Best Lettering Award, but it also won him the Best New Graphic Album Award. Not only that, but it's also in the running for the same categories for the Harvey Awards later this month. Also, whenever I looked at a best of 2009 list, almost invariably topping the list at each time was Asterios Polyp. So that's a lot of hype to be living up to. Did it indeed live up to the hype?

At its heart, Asterios Polyp is a really simple story about the titular character, a divorced architect whose house burns down on his 50th birthday. He then takes all the money he has and a few key possessions - a lighter, a watch, a Swiss army knife - and goes, on a whim (and as far as money will take him) to the small town of Apogee, where no one knows him, and gets a job as a mechanic. Asterios is a really intelligent man, and I think he even qualifies as a polymath, and Mazzucchelli has mastered the art of "show, don't tell," when he just goes to the library after he gets the new job to read up all he can on auto repair. It's a pretty inspired sequence and is only a small example of the book depicting its narrative through pictures.

Half the book is set in the present day, and the other half takes place in flashbacks through Asterios' life, narrated by -- well, I don't want to tell you, because when I found out who the narrator was, my jaw dropped at the suddenness and surprise of the reveal. Not to worry, folks, it's one of the first things you find out, so I'm not unnecessarily overhyping it.  Anyway, as such, the character development is evident when you look at the flashback scenes and the present-day scenes. Asterios Polyp has a character flaw that ends up (presumably) being the cause of his divorce, and again, I don't want to say what it is because I don't want to ruin it for anyone (it's THAT good), but in the present-day scenes, you can see him actually try to curb that tendency, with no exposition whatsoever. It's so subtle and so well-done that you don't explicitly notice it until you sit down in front of your computer and start a review about it. Asterios may not be all that likable in flashback scenes, but you root for him in the present-day scenes, and that's always a good thing.

In addition, even with a likable lead character, he may well still be the least likable character in the present-day scenes, with the small-town people he ends up living with being good, down-to-earth characters that you just can't help but like. And in the flashback scenes, you can't help but like his wife Hana, who does her very best to keep him grounded, and is pretty much his polar opposite. It's one of those things where, because she's in love with him, you figure there must be something good about him.

All right, so the story's good, and the characters are likable, but what about the art, which as we all know is the thing that carries the story? After all, David Mazzucchelli won the Best Writer/Artist and the Best Letterer awards, and he also was nominated for the Best Colorist Award, so did he fully deserve these accolades? In your friendly neighborhood Comics Cuber's humble opinion, yes, absolutely.

I liked Mazzucchelli's minimalist "story first" style since I first saw it on Batman: Year One, and I am not a fan of Frank Miller. But I really fell in love with Mazzucchelli's ability to tell a story when I read his and Paul Karasik's adaptation of Paul Auster's City of Glass (titled, wouldn't you know it, Paul Auster's City of Glass). Mazzucchelli comes from the Alex Toth school of storytelling - never drawing anything that doesn't need to be there and drawing the hell out of what's left. I can't really put into words the effect of drawing the outlines of the characters in purple instead of black, or having such a flat palette of colors, except that it reminds me of the same effect Will Eisner would usually go for in terms of trying to evoke the sensation of memory in his graphic novels. And as much as I hate that term, a graphic novel is exactly what Asterios Polyp is - you have to read the book wholly to get everything, words and pictures, and reading it more than once pays dividends. (Remember the three things Asterios gets from his apartment when it burns down? They all play into the story, and it all emphasizes what's really important to him.)

The other thing that really makes the art stand out is the sheer formalist mentality behind it. There's a conceit that Mazzucchelli uses in the flashback scenes, in which he depicts people as they perceive themselves. So a Japanese language teacher looks like a character from one of the Japanese written languages, a doodler looks like a humanoid shape made of scribblings, and all that. Asterios, being an architect, is made up of cylinders, while his wife Hana, being a sculptor, is rendered more realistically.

This technique is beautiful enough, but then he does this breathtaking thing where he depicts them both in both styles when they get to talking and getting along, and then breaks apart again into two separate styles when they fight. I could mine this entire story for Comics Techniques and Tricks, but I won't, because I really, really want you to read this book.

There is a huge gap between the first present-day scene and the last flashback scene, leaving you to fill in the blanks as to what actually happened. But as both stories tie into each other and reach the ending, Mazzucchelli once again weaves words and pictures so adeptly and pulls a trick with the lettering (which, again, I won't show) that left me smiling in my seat when I saw it happening.

Look, folks, I don't usually get blown away by anything, and I must admit that in terms of indie comics, the batting average for my reading them has been "good" to "so-so." There have been only a few that truly blew me away - Good-bye Chunky Rice and The Escapists, namely (even Jimmy Corrigan by Chris Ware, brilliant though it was formally, left me cold narratively) - with such an adept combination of words, pictures, and technique. But Asterios Polyp joined that list almost immediately, and I have to say, it deserves every award it got.

So incredibly highly recommended. If you read just one comic book this year, make it Asterios Polyp.

Asterios Polyp and other David Mazzucchelli works:


Peachy said...

Happy that you love the book, although I wish now that I hadn't given it to you so far ahead of your birthday!

Duy Tano said...

If you hadn't, I would have bought it myself!

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