Frontier Psychiatrist

Words & Pictures (for sub-literates): A Review of Asterios Polyp

Posted on: August 8, 2011

 “The argument goes like this:  Words are good.  You can win the Nobel Prize for words.  Pictures!  Pictures are good.  They hang in a museum.  BUT, if you combine words and pictures you’re automatically doing something intended for children or sub-literates.”  -Neil Gaiman, author of  The Sandman and Coraline

(Today we welcome Jared Thomas to the Frontier Psychiatrist staff with the first installment of his column Words & Pictures, a regular look into the best of the world of graphic novels.  Each month, Mr Thomas will be bringing us reviews of newly collected works as well as thoughts on the medium’s creative benchmarks.  He begins today with an essay on David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp, a landmark work that Publisher’s Weekly referred to as “the comics equivalent of a Pynchon or Gaddis novel.  We hope that you enjoy Mr. Thomas’ work, and we hope you’ll take a chance on the world of modern comics.)

“Aristophanes, in Plato’s Symposium, is purported to suggest that human form was not always as it is today:  Originally, humans were spherical, with four arms, four legs, and two faces on either side of a single head.  Zeus, in his wisdom, split the upstarts into two, each half becoming a distinct identity.  Since then, men and women have been running around in a panic, searching for their lost counterparts, in a desire to be whole again.” –Ignazio Polyp

Wholeness, or lack thereof, is a central theme running through David Mazzuccheli’s elegant graphic novel, Asterios Polyp.  Dualities consistently appear.  The above quote is from Asterios’ twin brother  who, not so incidentally, died in the womb and therefore doesn’t really exist.  Asterios himself is a famous “paper architect” (Mazzuccheli makes much of the fact none of his designs have ever actually been built) who is obsessed with dividing the worlds into opposites.  Linear versus Plastic.  Functional versus Decorative.  Apollonian versus Dionysian.  Men versus Women.

We first meet Asterios on his fiftieth birthday, the night his Manhattan apartment gets struck by lightning and burns to the ground.  He buys a ticket to the farthest place he can afford, ending up in a town called Apogee, where he gets a job as an auto mechanic and moves in with the Major family.  The Asterios we’re dealt in the “present” is a mournful man, divorced and stripped of all his worldly armor.  Fortunately, the graphic novel bounces around in time so we get to see how he got that way.

In the past, Asterios was, for all intents and purposes, a pompous prig.  He had the good fortune to marry a lovely yet intensely shy sculptor named Hana Schoenstein, who is all soft curves to his hard right angles.

When Asterios and Hana first meet, Mazzuchelli shows us their inner world.  Asterios is illustrated as a series of blue geometric shapes while Hana is made up of entirely pink, sketchy lines.  As Asterios and Hana fall in love, their inner shapes combine, so Hana is given an underlying structure of blue geometry and Asterios is enlivened with comforting pinkness.

Much to Mazzuchelli’s credit, it is impossible to separate Asterios’ story from the cartoon medium in which it is told.  Asterios Polyp is not merely a story told in words and pictures but THROUGH words and pictures.  It helps that Mazzuccheli is casually brilliant.  His grasp of illustrative technique is nothing short of profound.  From the perfect linear perspective of Asterios’ Apollonian ideal to the moody cross-hatching of the Orpheus sequence to the simple-perfect line work of his cartoonish characters, Asterios Polyp is a master class in illustration.

As, for example, when  Mazzucchelli has Ignazio, who is the narrator of the story, ask the question:

“What if reality (as perceived) were simply an extension of self?”

And then dedicates the rest of the page to various figures with radically different designs (some people are dots, some cubist, some a mess of squiggly lines, some calligraphy). He manages to explicate a core concern of the book not just through the abstraction of an idea but through a keen visual display.

As Asterios and Hana’s relationship deteriorates, it is the visible which tells us the truth, not the words they exchange.  Asterios’ hard geometry becomes further and further separated from Hana’s sketchy lines until they are no longer combined, merely sharing space on the page.

This general distrust of language as a tool for honesty is omnipresent.  As when Hana says:

“How old were you when you could say something that wasn’t true—two?  Three?  People can say anything then do the exact opposite—even if they’re not aware that’s what they’re doing.”

Mazzuccheli makes clear his bias (he’s an artist first, after all).  All the scenes in which anything genuine is expressed, whether it be the lovely nearly all-silent chapter of Hana’s day-to-day mundanity (the sort of things only a lover is privy to) or the various dream sequences with Ignazio or the sunset on the porch in Apogee as the crickets chirp and Asterios has just finished building a treehouse (the first thing he’s ever built), are all conspicuously absent of elevated language.

It is the mask of words, and the structures they create, which keeps Asterios from human meaning.

Asterios:  Duality is rooted in nature:  the brain is divided into right and left hemispheres, electrical current is either positive or negative—our very existence is the result of humans being male and female.  Yin and Yang.  Of course I realize that things aren’t so black and white—that in actuality possibilities exist along a continuum between the extremes.

Ignazio:  But why must choice always lie along a linear spectrum, with two poles, instead of, say, among a sphere of possibilities?

Asterios:  It’s just a convenient organizing principle.  By choosing two aspects of a subject which appear to be in opposition, each can be examined in light of the other, in order to better illuminate the entire subject.

Ignazio:   As long as one doesn’t mistake the system for reality.

The journey out of duality and into the “sphere of possibilities” is the true story of Asterios Polyp.  It is only when he stops defining things in terms of their opposites (himself and his brother, himself and Hana) is he able to find peace.  To think, as Mazzuccheli does, graphically, dualities must always exist on a line.  A line is infinitely divisible.  A sphere is a circle and a circle is a whole which cannot be broken.

Jared Thomas is a playwright, novelist, and scriptwriter.  He writes sneaky trash fiction.  His works include Sandoval, The Raven King, The Last Amesha, Street Dreams of Electric Youth, Dog Eats Human, and The Rose Garden.


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