Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Inchoate Thoughts on Asterios Polyp

This is a revised version of an essay that originally appeared on The Hooded Utilitarian on June 6, 2010.

What's startling about Asterios Polyp, David Mazzucchelli’s decade-in-the-making graphic novel, is the degree he appears to glory in his command of artifice. Mazzucchelli’s previous efforts, for all the shifts in styles and genres over the years, had been exemplars of dramatic naturalism. In Daredevil: Born Again and Batman: Year One, his 1980s collaborations with scriptwriter Frank Miller, the gaudy trappings of the superhero genre--the fanciful costumes and violent spectacle--seemed like impositions on the stories. The material comes most to life when it focuses on the mundane dramas of the characters’ lives. Born Again rarely features the hero in costume, and while he’s always central, he is just one character among many in the book’s large ensemble cast. In Batman: Year One, the title character was effectively reduced to a supporting role; the true protagonist was the future police commissioner James Gordon, and the story was driven by his efforts to navigate the city’s corruption. The emphasis on the mundane continued in Mazzucchelli’s major 1990s efforts, such as the comics adaptation of Paul Auster’s novel City of Glass, and his short pieces in Rubber Blanket, Drawn & Quarterly, and other anthologies. Character drama seemed like it was everything to him, and with his command of dramatic nuance, his ability to set scenes, and his capacity for remarkably observant depictions of story locales, he had a uniquely potent arsenal for realizing any story to which he applied himself.

In Asterios Polyp, Mazzucchelli turns his back on virtually everything that defined his previous work. The title character is an academic--an architecture professor--who chucks it all to take up a working-class, small-town existence. The “simple life” (cue the Elton John song) helps him get in touch with his true self and come to terms with his relationship with his ex-wife, with whom he reconciles at the book’s end. The story is glib, trite, and populated with hackneyed characters. There is nothing naturalistic or observed in how they are written. Some characters exist to expound narratives and theses at each other. Others embody some abstract quality or behave in some contrivedly absurd way, such as speaking in malapropisms or spouting Leninist cant. The drawing often looks like it was processed though a computer, with its ersatz quality emphasized by the arbitrary color scheme and the emphasis on yellow and purple hues. The book largely seems to exist as a platform to show off effects. Here’s how lettering and balloon shapes can be used to inflect characterizations. Here’s how color and line can be used to render shifts in emotional tone. Here’s how compositional repetitions can be used to illustrate a character’s mindset. And so on. Mazzucchelli has been teaching comics at the School of Visual Arts for several years now, and one wonders to what extent Asterios Polyp was intended as a textbook in his classes. A reader looking for substance may end up hating the book from one end of its piss-elegant jacket design to the other.

But one can’t entirely dismiss it. Upon reflection, Asterios Polyp is not quite a radical break from the work Mazzucchelli has done before, and it’s hardly an artistic Tourette’s outburst. One can see the book as an expansion on parts of his earlier efforts. The sections given to discussions of binary concepts and other intellectual matters certainly have their roots in the abstract monologues in City of Glass. Those sequences--the most celebrated in the book--were pointedly not attributed to Mazzucchelli. He did the final rendering, but the visual conception and breakdowns were handled by his collaborator, Paul Karasik. It’s only natural to expect him to try his hand at similar scenes of his own. And the conspicuously artificial quality of Asterios Polyp, specifically its use of stock characters, contrived repetitions, and absurdist touches, harkens back to the “The Death of Monsieur Absurde,” the last story in the third (and final) issue of Mazzucchelli’s self-published anthology series, Rubber Blanket. Before reading Asterios Polyp, I considered “Monsieur Absurde” tangential to Mazzucchelli’s œuvre. It may end up deserving reconsideration as one of the most important things he’s done, at least relative to his development. Asterios Polyp, if nothing else, throws an entirely new light on Mazzucchelli’s previous work.

I’m also being unfair when I describe Mazzucchelli’s art in Asterios Polyp as having an ersatz quality to it. I have an instinctive revulsion to computer-generated repetitions in comics, and I can’t help but grit my teeth at the use of Photoshop to change the color of Mazzucchelli’s line and brushwork. However, none of that changes the fact that he is one of the finest draftsmen in the field, and Asterios Polyp may be his best-drawn work to date. The character renderings are packed with nuance. Mazzucchelli’s love of observed detail in settings is also very much on display in his depiction of the characters’ apartments and other interiors. The composer’s apartment in particular is just astounding; Mazzucchelli captures the extreme clutter while keeping the compositions entirely lucid. On top of that, the page design and pacing is nothing less than impeccable throughout—the book is a fast, breezy read. Once one gets used to the color effects, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Asterios Polyp may be an unsurpassed piece of comics eye-candy.

And maybe that’s enough to justify thinking of it as one of the better comics of recent years. Those who love comics extend that sentiment to a lot of lowbrow or children’s material--work that we can’t recommend (or defend) to the less obsessed without a lot of caveats and apologies. At present, I’m pretty fixated on Alex Toth’s Zorro stories and Frank Frazetta’s romance comics, neither of which I could begin to recommend in the way I can with From Hell or Fun Home. One is either entertained by Toth or Frazetta’s consummate visual craftsmanship or one isn’t; the story material certainly isn’t worth bothering with on its own. That’s a generosity that we should consider extending to shallow “literary” comics like Asterios Polyp. It is, after all, one I certainly give to stylistically brilliant highbrow banality like Antonioni’s films after L’avventura or Updike’s fiction outside of the Rabbit novels. There should be no class distinctions in the arts, not even with entertainingly artful junk.

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