(Throughout 2011, every month CCLaP staff writer Oriana Leckert is looking at a different graphic novel from a "girl's" point of view, examining this notoriously male-dominated medium from a female perspective, and sometimes aided by her fellow members of a Brooklyn book club devoted to the same subject. For all of Oriana's J&C essays, please see her main article index here at the site.)
By David Mazzucchelli
Reviewed by Oriana Leckert
This is the first in an essay series I'll be doing for CCLaP called "Jugs & Capes," where I look at graphic novels from a girl's point of view. I'm not going to say a "feminist" point of view, because I think that's a complicated word, one which any thinking woman has a complicated relationship with. And as I haven't got any kind of background in gender studies or feminist theory, I don't feel comfortable talking about what feminists think of this book or that one. I do, however, feel quite comfortable talking about what I think about something, so in this series I will happily do just that.
2009's Asterios Polyp is a lush, fascinating, complex book. But it's that brilliant kind of complex which can be enjoyed on many levels, like Lolita, say, or The Metamorphosis, where, if you'd like, you can derive great enjoyment from the story on the surface, without doing a whole lot of delving. Or, if you're so inclined, you can peel back layers and study the symbolism and wordplay and big ideas, thus gaining a fuller, more multifaceted understanding of this deeply layered text.
We meet Asterios Polyp in the middle of a lightning storm. He is rumpled and exhausted, lying in bed in his luxurious but extremely messy apartment, watching what we assume to be pornography (we hear what is being said, but do not see the picture). Then a blinding flash of lightning illuminates the entire page, and we see that Asterios's building has caught fire. He makes a desperate search of his rooms, grabbing a few small items--a lighter, a pocketknife, and a watch--and dashes out into the storm. Over two lurid pages, we watch his apartment burn.
After this dramatic introduction, we begin to get to know Asterios. He is an architecture professor, but a "paper architect," meaning that none of his designs have ever been built. He has always been something of an aloof genius. He had a twin brother who died in the womb, and who will be our narrator throughout the book. He was married to a sculptor and fellow professor named Hana.
Asterios stands in the rain for a little while, watching his apartment burn, and then he goes to the Greyhound station and buys a ticket that costs everything he has in his wallet. He rides until he gets to a small town, where he takes a job as a mechanic, and rents a room from his boss, a big man who lives with his voluptuous wife and their pudgy son. Asterios settles into small-town life, building a treehouse with his boss, discussing spirituality with his boss's wife, going to see a local band in a local bar. Everything he does is tinged with melancholy, with regret. Asterios is clearly running away from his past, but also trying to make some sense of it. The story opens out and out, in short vignettes, the present interspersed with flashbacks, dreams, and meandering philosophical asides.
Everything about Asterios Polyp is dense, and slow, and meticulously planned and executed. It is easily the most beautiful graphic novel I've ever seen. Each vignette has a specific palate, most using only two or three colors at a time--in fact, it isn't until the book's very last chapter that Mazzucchelli uses full four-color spreads--and there is no black in the book at all. Each character's speech is written in a unique font, one which is clearly representative of that person's personality. The story itself is full and rich, the characters multifaceted and real, and everything is augmented and reified by frequent digressions, both visual and described, on perception, human behavior, physics, philosophy, mythology, spirituality, metaphysics, and on and on.
The whole story is, of course, unraveling the mystery of Hana.
Early on, during an aside, Mazzucchelli presents a random group of people, each drawn in a different style and color, as a visual representation of how unique every person is. In the group (we find out later) is Hana, rendered in swirling, shadowy pink, and Asterios, in stark, angular blue. This turns out to be a running motif, and later, during Asterios and Hana's first meeting, his blue outlines begin to fill with pink haze, and her pink shadows become outlined in blue, until they both have nearly the same appearance. Much later, when they begin to argue, their realistic forms melt back into these elementals, he once again empty and blue, she returning to unbounded pink, demonstrating that, no matter how close two people can become, they are always, at heart, fundamentally strange to one another. This is of course terribly difficult to describe, and is a superb argument for the supremacy of the graphic novel form in this book.
On that subject, I will briefly describe another small section, one of the novel's most famous. It is an eight-page spread, with almost no words. The traditional panel structure is abandoned, in favor of three somewhat parallel rows of small boxes. The rows in the middle tell a consistent, simple story, wherein Hana has lost the puff of a Q-tip inside her ear, and has a mild panic until Asterios removes it with a tweezer. Above and below this throughline are a constellation of tiny instances of Hana's corporeal life: brushing her teeth, clipping her nails, shaving, vomiting, eating, dressing, undressing, masturbating, snoring, drinking, crying, laughing, leaving, smiling. It is one of the most stunning, affecting ways to render the memory of life's unnoticed moments, Asterios recalling Hana in all of her physical glory, beautiful and rumpled, joyful and sick, hungry and dirty. It is so humanizing, so plaintive, so shockingly mundane that it elevates Hana to something of a mythical plane. It's something that could never be done in prose, and to me it is the beating heart of the novel--echoed and augmented later by a pitch-perfect, harrowing, devastating, wordless dream sequence, which is rendered as an intricate dance opera.
I've read criticism of this book that takes the opposite view of the Hana montage, accusing Mazzucchelli as reducing her to a plot device, used merely to represent Asterios's development and emotional journey. But I think that's an unfair claim. Hana is a fully developed character--as is the book's whole supporting cast, most of whom are generally more sympathetically than Asterios himself. Certainly Hana is slightly romanticized, but this is a story told through a man who is desperately longing for the life--and the woman--he once had. I don't believe romanticization is inherently reductive, and I don't believe that Hana's character was secondary or subservient to Asterios's.
There is so much more to say about this dense, gorgeous, intricate book, but I've run out of space and steam. I couldn't recommend it more highly, though; this and Fun Home are the most astonishing graphic novels--and among the most astonishing books of any kind--I've ever come across.