Graphic High Art

Asterios Polyp.  It’s either the name of an obscure Greek philosopher or some sort of intestinal ailment.  Actually, it’s neither.  Asterios Polyp is the titular character in one of the most engrossing and beautiful graphic novels that I have ever read.  Famed graphic novelist David Mazzucchelli has turned out a masterpiece that draws from, and elevates the medium to, high art.

Asterios Polyp, to be honest, is a bit of a jerk.  An ivory tower academic and paper architect who has never actually had a design of his built, Asterios loves to hear himself talk.  On his fiftieth birthday, lightning strikes his apartment building, and he flees outside to watch it burn.  He buys a bus ticket to middle America and takes a job as a mechanic, moving in with his “boss” Stiff and his wife Ursula and son Running Dog.  Along the way, Asterios looks back over his life and his relationships, all of which have failed for one reason or another, but mostly because he’s about as selfish as a guy can be.  In constructing these memories, he offers a host of philosophical, scientific, artistic, and theological ruminations.

While the dialogue and Asterios’ reflections are engaging, the artwork is the thrill here.  It seems as if the coloring and drawing in no two chapters are the same.  Most often, Mazzucchelli relies on muted color combinations that seem fitting for a Wes Anderson film.  The images to the left here give a sense of the diversity in his work

There is much to digest in terms of dialogue and the written word.  Rather early on, we see that Asterios has a desire to “view the world through a filter–to superimpose a rational system on to its seeming randomness.”  This makes for frustrating engagements with both the reader and the other characters.  The brilliance of Mazzucchelli’s creation is how he confounds Asterios’ predominant worldview with a simultaneously intimate and sublime ending.  Asterios’ worldview also makes for an interesting comparison with his mother’s “simple” Catholic faith, especially when she explains to Asterios her struggles with taking care of his invalid father and praying to God for him to die.

The act of remembering and memories play a central role in the novel, as the majority of the panels are of Asterios’ past.  Mazzucchelli offers interesting points on this activity:  “To live is to exist within a conception of time.  But to remember is to vacate the very notion of time.  Every memory, no matter how remote its subject, takes place ‘now,’ at the moment it’s called up in the mind.  The more something is recalled, the more the brain has a chance to refine the original experience, because every memory is a re-creation, not a playback.” It’s appropriate that memory plays such a central role in Mazzucchelli’s book, because it’s one that readers won’t soon forget.