Asterios Polyp is one of those comic books that pushes boundaries. I like comics like that. It is written and illustrated by David Mazzucchelli, who, I am told, “has making comics all of his life.” By reading this book, I can tell you that I don’t doubt that statement for a moment. Mazzucchelli offers the reader a sumpuous banquet of images that convey the more abstract notions going on within the story. The artist uses negative space deftly, making what isn’t there as important as what is there.
The main character, Asterios, is a middle-aged professor in architecture. He has had great success as an architect despite the fact that none of his designs have ever been made. His concepts are lauded as earth-shatteringly awesome regardless (or possibly because) of them dwelling in the physically unrealized state. I’m pretty sure that Plato would smile at this.
Asterios is flawed because he tends to see things in a very black and white manner (actually, from the comic’s point of view, I should say cyan and magenta, but more on that in a moment). However, he isn’t a fool about it: he knows that there are variences and that everything is not so extreme. Yet, he uses it as a way to organize concepts, and by doing that his whole life takes on a dualistic tone.
Part of this tendency is because he was a twin; unfortunately (?), his brother died in the womb. This shaped and steered Asterios’ life. Even now, in his 50’s, Asterios feels like his brother is watching him. He also struggles with the idea of who his brother could have been and what life he would have led in Asterios’ place.
Asterios’ dualistic point of view gets him into trouble when it comes to relationships. It gets even more difficult when the fact that he can also be a pompous know-it-all that will even stoop to semantics in the midst of a personal arguement.
His relationship with Hana is the most complex one in the book. She’s an artist and is rather meek. Asterios’ giant personality tends to crush her. He isn’t abusive so much as he is neglectful. He cares more about himself than he does about her. However, when she is given an opportunity to design sets for a ballet of Orpheus, she’s given a chance to make the spotlight her own. As she gains more friends and becomes more confident, a gap forms between her and Asterios. More or less, when she finally figures out that he’s an ass, she decides to leave him.
After Hana leaves, Asterios goes through a journey of self-discovery that is initiated by a lightning bolt that strikes his apartment building. He loses everything he’s ever owned except for a lighter his father gave him, a watch that he saved two years’ worth of allowance to get, and a Swiss Army knife that Hana found and gave to him.
Asterios finds work repairing cars in a small town. His employer, Stiffy (go ahead, get it out of your system), is a gregarious man that is rather brilliant. He constantly confuses words when using idioms, which supplies some comedy. It also gives Asterios the opportunity to learn that education and intelligence don’t necessarily go hand in hand.
Stiffy’s wife is Ursula Major. She’s a heavy set woman that believes she’s been reincarnated several times. She’s apparently Jewish, has blonde hair and blue eyes, and goes on and on about how she’s a Native American. She’s wise and confident and provides a sounding board for Asterios. She is also a guide for him, helping show him what’s been wrong with his life.
I don’t want to blow the entire story for you, but it ends in a very appropriate manner. I should note that the story is not told as directly as I’ve told it: in fact, it is very skillfully woven around itself in a way that would require a bit more planning for me to be able to adequately retell it all play-by-play.
In the end, Mazzucchelli tells a wonderful story with a lot of depth and substance. It has a great deal of re-readability; several of its concepts are much larger than they appear and certainly give the reader plenty of brain food. I’d encourage y’all to pick it up and get an eyefull of one of the best comics I’ve read in a very long time.