In Review – Asterios Polyp

AstPolyp-3-1If writing about music is like dancing about architecture, what is writing about a comic about an architect? A damned difficult business, if that book is David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp. A bravura piece of formalist comics storytelling, Asterios Polyp is nevertheless a story rich in heart. Its eponymous “hero” is buffeted about by fate, taken for a turn on Fortune’s wheel, tested like Job, and ultimately found – ah, but that would be telling. Suffice it to say that Mazzucchelli takes a character who is, at first glance, a smug, self-absorbed ass, and slowly reveals depths to his character which make you at least pause to reconsider your initial impressions.

Along the way, you’re asked to consider just how possible it is for people to change their outlook on not just another person but the world in general. The book’s narrator, Asterios’ dead-at-birth twin brother, puts the question to us verbally, while Mazzucchelli the cartoonist presents the possibilities visually. In certain instances, characters are drawn in a variety of styles, each one a representation of their own worldview.

In the example below, Asterios Polyp is drawn in a flat, modernist style, reminiscent of his utilitarian approach to design as well as his sharp, unwavering – and often pig-headed – decisiveness. His future wife, Hana Sonnenschein, is delineated with delicate crosshatching, with no solid outlines, reflecting her own tentative approach to her career and her less rigid, more all-encompassing view of the world. When the two first meet, we see how each of their perceptions completely color their surroundings (and note here that “color” isn’t simply a metaphor). Over the course of one conversation, though, each of their worlds become influenced by the other’s, until, in the final panel, we see that their two worlds have become one; elements of each have combined to create something new. For want of a better word, we must call it love.


Asterios Polyp is a book to make you think: About love, about talent, about hubris, about fate, about design, about *comics*. It’s a book to marvel at, and a book to argue with. (It’s about a main character who would most likely look down upon me for ending a sentence with a preposition.) Like any work of art, it’s a book that will reward you and surprise you each time you revisit it.

~ Gene Kannenberg, Jr.


You can buy copies of the works mentioned by clicking on the links below.

4 thoughts on “In Review – Asterios Polyp

  1. That page is one of my favorites, as well. The gradual blending of styles and colors is such a great way of showing the process by which the two characters come together.

    I will also mention – although I’ll leave it to others to discuss for now – that there are a lot of parallels and allusions to The Odyssey in this story. In fact, Douglas Wouk, in his New York Times review called it “…just about the most schematic work of fiction this side of that other big book that constantly alludes to the ‘Odyssey.’ “

  2. Thanks, Gene, for a great review of my favorite book of the past year. Anybody else out there got some review suggestions for Gene?

    Josh is right about the relationship here between this book and ULYSSES. Mazzucchelli is extremely savvy in his choice of theme here. And, for my money, as freely as Joyce used the story of Odysseus to play with the form of the modern novel, Mazzucchelli has done the same within the language of comix and our preconceptions of the graphic novel. There are passages of tremendous wit here in handling form, as in the one Gene shows above, but just as clever a set of dance steps when it comes handling notions of the novel’s own personal irony. Did anyone else notice two of the main characters taking a picnic to visit an enormous crater? The pages of Mazzucchelli’s book are unnumbered, but that giant hole sits dead in the middle of the novel leading to discussions of each characters ego, a foreshadowing of the stories eventual end, and a surprisingly lyrical place for the book to turn around.

    In an age of comix and mainstream entertainment where being meta-textual seems to be a stand-in for our cultures rather juvenile sense of irony, ASTERIOS avoids overt allusions to the comix you know and gives you a wonderful piece of fiction built on idiom and the subtleties of style.

    The smartest damn comic I’ve read in quite some time.

  3. I thoroughly enjoyed Asterios Polyp, and think the review posted here is spot on, but I have a fundamental misgiving– is it too derivative? I mean, it makes reference to Narcissus and Goldmund, and so certainly doesn’t hide its debt to Hesse, but I wonder if another book about the perils of western dualism was really necessary? Hesse made his career struggling with the issue, and at times it seemed AP trod familiar ground. I say this with the firm belief that there is much that comics can do to advance thought and art, so does a book as high profile and earnest as AP do more harm to comics than good by showing off its intellectual chops on a dinosaur? Did comics just show up to the prom in a powder blue, wide collar tux without the slightest hint of irony?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *