29 Sept 2009

Graphic Perception: ASTERIOS POLYP

By Matt C

Writer: David Mazzucchelli
Art: David Mazzucchelli
Pantheon Books $29.95

I’m ashamed to say that this book didn’t even appear as a blip on my radar until the enthusiastic reviews started pouring in, but I swiftly realised anything receiving such high praise was probably worth my time and money. So while I’m a little late to the party it looks like I’ll be adding to the chorus of approval Asterios Polyp is receiving because, to put it simply, it’s a masterpiece.

Asterios Polyp is a well-renowned architect who is as pompous and self-centred as he is a genius in his profession. A freak bolt of lightening sets his apartment ablaze prompting him to take to the road, far from his intellectual safety-net, where he may just uncover what is truly important in life. As a backdrop to all this, we peek into his past and see the rise and fall of his relationship with the winsome Hana, and the events that led him to his current situation.

I imagine I'm just one of a great many who previously only knew David Mazzucchelli for his work on Daredevil in ‘80s along with – obviously – the seminal Batman: Year One, and to be honest it was now a case of out of sight, out of mind. It appears the reason he’s been out of the picture for such a long time is because Asterios Polyp has been a book “ten years in the making” (whatever that means) and when you get a copy of it in your hands it’s immediately clear why. It amazes on so many levels: there’s the intellectual content as it projects of a variety of stimulating philosophical ideas; the visual ingenuity as it displays with complete confidence the uniqueness of the medium; and the emotional power as it digs into the human condition to find what makes us tick.

Perhaps the central theme (or the one I picked up during my first reading) is perception, and how it can both control our thoughts and actions as well as setting them free, sometimes simultaneously. Mazzucchelli achieves this partly through dialogue but mostly with some quite astonishing imagery. It’s a much simpler style than those of us familiar with his work on Daredevil and Batman would maybe expect, at least that’s how it seems on first glance. Once you become properly engrossed in the story it quickly becomes apparent just how sophisticated and inventive the art is, whether it’s brilliantly tweaking each character’s visual appearance to highlight their individuality, the frequent breaking away from the standard panels-on-page structure to emphasis a point or an idea, or the utilization of two distinct colour schemes to distinguish between past and present (a simple but enormously effective stylistic choice).

On more than one occasion I was reminded of the oeuvre of Woody Allen, particularly Annie Hall with it’s intellectual protagonist hooking up with a more free-spirited and arty partner. Having said that, Asterios himself is nowhere near the kind of neurotic personality that usually takes the lead in Allen’s films, and really that’s merely one potential reference point, a cursory scratch of the surface for those intrigued by this book.

I may have hinted that The Hunter would be the one to beat this year, but I think that stance has been reassessed now I’ve read Asterios Polyp. I can’t really do it justice in this review because it would require an essay-length article to really explore fully the themes and ideas it churns up. It may initially seem to the more spandex-minded amongst you that this is another critically acclaimed indie book that will probably disappear from view once the superlatives have been worn out by the select few, but this is a truly astounding piece of work that ably demonstrates the potency and potential of the format. A moving, inspiring and – yes! – enlightening tome that will inevitably be regarded as one of the most important graphic novels of the decade. 10/10


Justin Giampaoli said...

Terrific write up, Matt! Nice to see you tackle such a great book that's a little bit outside of your typical wheelhouse. I'm glad you honestly enjoyed it and found all the praise appropriate (I hate when the reverse happens!).

It seems everyone wants to take bets on whether or not this will end up on "Best of" lists for the year, but that seems like a sucker bet to me.

Matt Clark said...

It's a shoe-in, surely? I'd be very surprised if anything better was released during the final months of 2009, but then what do I know? I wasn't even aware of the existence of Asterios Polyp until it hit the shelves! :)