Jan 9, 2011

Asterios Polyp Annotations, Part 1

I've made no secret about how much I love David Mazzucchelli's ASTERIOS POLYP. You can read my review here, but suffice it to say that I thought it was a pitch-perfect combination of words and pictures, where the formalist design work served only to enhance the story.

If you've read ASTERIOS POLYP, I can only say you should read it at least two more times, because you're bound to notice things that you clearly didn't before. But if you have read it a few times, I've decided it would be fun to write up some annotations and notes for the book.

Most of the information I didn't come up with on my own came from Scott McCloud and Rob Clough. Stumptown Reviews also has annotations up, but I didn't look at them because I wanted to see what I could come up with on my own.

I think it would be fun if people commented with bits that I didn't mention, and I can re-edit the post accordingly, giving you all proper credit, of course.

Naturally, spoilers follow. This is part 1 of ASTERIOS POLYP annotations.

COVER: "Asterios" most likely comes from the word "asteria," which is a gemstone cut to show "asterism," itself meaning a small group of stars. "Polyp" is, according to Merriam-Webster's dictionary, either a "coelenterate (as a coral) that has typically a hollow cylindrical body closed and attached at one end and opening at the other by a central mouth surrounded by tentacles armed with nematocysts" or a "growth projecting from a mucous membrane (as of the colon or vocal cords)." One could see Asterios himself as fitting either defnition, as he views himself in the "subjective reality" world as a hollow cylindrical body, and he never stops talking. One could say he's a very stellar talker with an insubstantial or not-very-attractive personality.

FRONTISPIECE: Here, we're shown the three colors used in this book. Note that it's the three subtractive primaries - cyan, magenta, and yellow. These are the three colors of the printing press, and the scheme is threefold. In other words, life isn't as black and white as Asterios thinks it is.


Page 3, Panel 2: This is the exact same angle of the room that we will be shown later on when he brings Hana to his apartment the first time (Ch. 6, p. 10, p. 2). Note the contrast and the disarray it is currently in.

Pages 4–5: What exactly is Asterios watching here? You want to say porn, don't you? Adjust the speech balloons as if they're not coming from a muffled VCR, and look closely at the tape labels on Asterios' bed.

Page 5, Panel 3: This is the lighter that marks the beginning of our story, and later on will mark when we are nearing the end.

Page 6: Such incredible use of negative space here.

Page 8: Asterios goes out of his way to save three things from the fire: his dad's lighter, the first watch he ever bought, and the Swiss army knife he found with Hana. Along the way, he gives away the first two, letting go of very important parts of his life. But he can't ever get rid of the third one.

Page 11, Panel 1: Again, this is the same angle of the room we're shown in page3 and will be shown again later.

Page 12: There goes pretty much Asterios' entire life with Hana (and also, in a way, Ignazio's entire "life"). The Swiss army knife is all he has left of her now.


Title and Page 1: Reflecting images of Asterios, one as he was then and one as he is now.  Here's a trick - put it up to the light, and you'll see that his image on one side takes the same exact spot as the one on the other. So it looks, somewhat, like these:

Page 2: There is no such thing as the University of Ithaca. (There is an Ithaca College, though.) Ithaca is the name of the place Odysseus wishes to go home to in The Odyssey. If there's a deeper meaning, I confess that it eludes me.

Panel 3: Asterios is left-handed.

Page 3: The lower right panel is one of the first times that we see Mazzucchelli teasing an important scene, as we're not even shown Hana's full face. At first, we may gloss over this panel, but upon rereading, we see its importance.

Page 5, Panel 1: The things that interest Asterios betray his fascination for dualities. Although I can't place the significance of the train set and the dog, we see the twins Tweedledee and Tweedledum from Lewis Carroll's Alice books (specifically Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There).

Luiza Pagliari in the comments states, that the dog "is the wolf and the founders of Rome, which are also twins."

The chess set of course, shows the duality between black and white (It seems that white has played the English opening), and of course, there are two drawers on the table. The Prince and the Pauper, by Mark Twain, is the story of two boys who look exactly alike and trade lives, while The Man in the Iron Mask by Alexandre Dumas is the story of a king and his twin brother, whom he keeps imprisoned with an iron mask , for fear that he may be seen as the legitimate heir to the throne. Note the theme of trading lives in both stories.

Also, note the airplane. This is important.

As for the DNA helix on the bed, the only thing I can think of is that Asterios has that bed, but perhaps it should be occupied by someone else with the same DNA.

Panel 2:  Eugenio comes from "eugenic," which means that one will likely have good offspring. Aglia is a variant of "Aglaia," which means beautiful, and olio means mixture, so Aglia Olio can be said to be a beautiful mixture. Aglia olio is also a way to cook spaghetti.

Page 6, Panels 1–3: Note that Asterios and Ignazio form a Yin/Yang pattern when put together. I actually have no idea what the name "Ignazio" could mean. It's a derivative of the Latin ignis, which means "fire." Somehow I don't see that point. The only thing I can think of is that it may be a tribute to KRAZY KAT's Ignatz Mouse.

Panel 4: Reading this again is incredible. I remember thinking that "Not again" means his house burned down before. We know this is not the case, and he's actually referring to losing his wife again.


I actually have no annotations for this chapter, but if someone could figure out the significance of the bird on page 4, I'd appreciate it.


Page 1: This is the page that hooked me on this book. Although I think these "individual perceptions" are mostly self-explanatory, I think it's worth noting that the dog sees itself as a function of pure internal organs - in other words, a creature of impulse.

Page 3: The shapes surrounding Asterios are the five Platonic solids, which come into play later on in the book). The five Platonic solids are three-dimensional objects where each face is an identical polygon. That is, every surface of each solid is the same exact one as any other. Starting from the cube on the upper right, and going counterclockwise, we have the cube (with 6 faces), the icosahedron (with 20 faces), the tetrahedron (with 4 faces), the dodecahedron (with 12 faces), and finally, the octahedron (with 8 faces).

Asterios, being an architect, obviously sees himself in architectural terms. Perhaps tellingly, the people in the class who actually also see themselves as architects comprise half the class.

Page 4, Panel 2: "How about just putting a couple of windows in that wall?" A line that comes back to us later.

Panel 6: "I can explain the meaning behind this idea..." "Please! Anything but that!" Metatext?

Page 5, Panel 1: The lighter shows up again.

Page 6, Panel 4: "Sing sweet, o siren!" Another Odyssey reference?

Page 8, Panel 5: Note the stark contrast between Asterios and Hana. Is Hana more substantial than Asterios?


Page 1: There is an airplane in every Ignazio dream sequence. It was also in Asterios' memories of the things he was obsessed with in Chapter 2. Does he simply associate planes with Ignazio? I actually have no valid interpretation for this. Anyone care to venture a guess?

Page 4: Asterios gets rid of item #1 that he saved from his fire. The guy he gives it to shows up later on, of course.

Page 5, Panel 4: What's up with these rectal ads? On the train earlier in Chapter 3, there's an ad for "Rectify," a hemorrhoid treatment, and now there's one for "Firmamint," for diarrhea.

Page 7: "Apogee" literally means "culmination." And it is indeed in Apogee that Asterios reaches his.  Note the sequence of places: Town limits, library, Hornbeek's, Major Auto Repair.

Page 8, Panel 3:  You may overlook the car on the right at first glance, but that's the one he uses later on to drive to Hana's.

Page 10: Note how Mazzucchelli doesn't explicitly tell us that he's skipping Hornbeek's; he shows it to us by simply reversing the sequence of places we saw a few pages earlier.


Bob Buethe said...

"Page 5, Panel 4: What's up with these rectal ads?"

I don't have an answer to that, but I recall thinking, when I first heard of this book, that the title sounded like a pseudo-Greek description of a hemorrhoid. The significance escapes me, but now that you've pointed out those ads that I missed, it seems that there must be some significance.

gidolf said...

This was an excellent read! It was only on my time through A.P. that I realised there might be some annotations on the internet, and BÄM! there's so many things I would have missed otherwise.

Since I got the link to the Stumpton review from your site, I guess you've read it yourself already by now .. it covers quite a few of the questions still open in your annotations.

On the other hand, you noticed stuff that excaped their attention - for instance that Ignazio's speech bubbles slowly morph into Asterios' as he narrates his story.

Oh, and one thing that confuses me: Hana (or Mr. Mazzucchelli) got the Octahedron on p323 completely wrong .. in a book like this, I wonder if this has any significance - but probably it's just an error.

Duy Tano said...

Thank you!

I think, if the octahedron is intentional on Mazzucchelli's part (heck, even if it's not), what's important is that at that point in the story, Asterios doesn't call attention to it.

Pither said...

I really enjoyed your annotations but I think your interpretation of the meaning of Asterios' mother's name is incorrect.

Aglia Olio is probably a pun based on two Italian words: "aglio" which means garlic ("aglia" would be the feminine form of the noun; but the word does not actually exist in italian) and "olio" which means oil. Garlic and oil are the two main ingredients of one of the simplest pasta dressings used in Italy, that is "pasta aglio e olio".

It could be another reference to duality since the two words are often coupled in Italian.

I admit your hypothesis is quite fascinating but I'm afraid the explanation is a little bit simpler and straightforward this time.

Duy Tano said...

True! I was not aware of the dish when I wrote this, and now it seems obvious. :)

Unknown said...

Polyphemus was a cyclops of Greek myth, and we know that the Polyp family immigrated and that their name was "cut in half" by an immigration officer. Their family name could well by "Polyphemus", especially when you consider that Polyp is exactly half of that word. Remember how, later on in the story, Asterios loses an eye at One-Eyed Jack's, turning him into a cyclops? This seems significant.

Duy Tano said...

Thank you! I will add it into the section where he loses his eye.

Matt said...

I think the analysis on Chapter 4, page 3 is off. "Perhaps tellingly, the people in the class who actually also see themselves as architects comprise half the class." The people drawn in the same style as Asterios aren't the only people who see themselves as architects, those are people who Asterios has convinced to think like himself. This is supported by the context of the chapter, including the quote on the page about "maybe one person's construction of the world could invluence someone else's"

Duy Tano said...

Insightful! I like it!

Luiza Pagliari said...

“ Page 5, Panel 1: (...) Although I can't place the significance of the (...) the dog“ — that is the wolf and the founders of Rome (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capitoline_Wolf), which are also twins.
Great annotations, by the way, I’ve learned a lot of things after finding your page.

Duy Tano said...

Thank you! I'll add that in.

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