Asterios Polyp

It’s a shame that such an artistically accomplished work doesn’t have a story of the same high quality. Asterios Polyp is beautiful, with all kinds of formalist and craft tricks to push the medium of comics. But the characters are cliches and you’ve seen the content before, making it an ultimately disappointing book, emptier than I hoped it would be.

Asterios Polyp cover
Asterios Polyp
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Asterios Polyp is an architect. Well, a professor, really, because the point is made early on that the building he designs haven’t been built. He teaches based on his paper constructions. He’s brilliant and lives the life of the mind, harsh to his students when he’s not sleeping with the female ones. He’s a self-obsessed showoff who thinks about no one but himself and is always right.

His wife is a shy sculptor whose parents loved her brother better, the opposite of him in every way possible. She finally leaves him, although I was wondering what she saw in him in the first place. It’s not clear in the book; their relationship just is because it’s artistically apropos.

The conflict here is heart vs. art, achievement vs. academia… classic themes, so one would hope that David Mazzucchelli would have something new to say about them. He doesn’t. Instead, it’s all about his technique. The number of devices you can demonstrate here make this perfectly suited for a college course on graphic novels. It’s full of symbolism and evocative parallels. How this story is told is unusual and unique. You could write essays about the book’s construction and its use of duality.

Stylistically, it’s glorious. Each character has a color, and they’re not the usual ones. Asterios is blue, ranging from electric to sky. His wife is magenta (although rarely purely, since she’s more often part of the background). Instead of black ink, purple frequently appears. Panels scatter across the page or images have no boundaries.

But again, the plot. Lightning burns down his home, destroying all his awards and records. Ooh, a fresh start! A visible image of needing to begin again. He heads out to rural America, randomly, and finds himself by working with his hands fixing cars. (One reason I find it so odd that this book has gotten so much critical praise is that it’s so anti-intellectual.)

Thankfully, I’m not the only one saying this emperor is lacking some robes. But the most damning indictment, I think, comes from my brother. He doesn’t read comics frequently, although he’s familiar with the classics (and his taste has always been better than mine, which tends to be more entertainment than art-centered). He’s also a professor of engineering who almost went into architecture instead. When he heard of this book, he begged to borrow my copy. After I leant it to him, he read through it and returned it, disappointed. I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but his reaction was along the lines of, “There’s not much heart there, is there? It’s awfully familiar.”

19 Responses to “Asterios Polyp”

  1. Best Graphic Novels of 2009 » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    […] Asterios Polyp — Impressive craft that lacks the narrative heart that would make it great. […]

  2. Vanja Says:

    It just couldn’t live up to the hype. I had the same problem with Parker: the Hunter

  3. David Oakes Says:

    How would you compare it to “Watchmen”, also touted as the height of formalism, and (less often) lacking in a real story?

  4. Johanna Says:

    Watchmen does have a story. Much of it resembles an Outer Limits episode, but it’s definitely there. AP just wanders a lot. Watchmen also doesn’t have the art take over the content.

  5. ADD Says:

    I wish I could argue, but you pretty much nailed my feelings on the book. My love for Mazzucchelli’s work knows almost no bounds, from his Marvel and DC stuff through his anthology pieces, City of Glass and especially Rubber Blanket, so my anticipation was unbelievably high for Asterios Polyp. I guess there’s no way to know for sure if part of the disappointment is rooted in the superb quality of virtually every previous work, but I do know definitively that AP came nowhere near the brilliance of Discovering America, which may be my favourite Mazzucchelli story of all time.

    I certainly would check out anything he does from here, but with far less certainty that any new work is going to be as extraordinary and revelatory as the very best stuff he has produced in the past.

  6. Johanna Says:

    I agree with Vanja, that too much praise can have negative impact.

  7. Scratchie Says:

    I thought the story was “light”, but there is something of an emotional core there which keeps the book from being purely about its own craft.

    That said, Douglas Wolk pointed out that Mazzucchelli pre-empted this exact criticism anyway by literally placing a giant hole in the middle of his novel (the two page spread of the meteor crater).

  8. Seldom Posts Says:

    I can’t take this review seriously when you obviously didn’t read the book closely.

    You say “It’s not clear in the book; [what his wife saw in him] their relationship just is because it’s artistically apropos.”

    The book makes it explicit because that she intially likes him because he is the spotlight–the centre of attention. This is what causes problems later on.

    If you’re not going to read or review seriously, please don’t bother posting your thoughts on the internet.

  9. Scratchie Says:

    A ha ha ha ha! Because if there’s one thing we have on the internet, it’s standards!

  10. Johanna Says:

    Funny, I can’t take anonymous pot shots seriously. I think my 18 years of doing this attests to how serious I am about reviewing. Oh, and my willingness to sign my name and stand behind my opinions. Heck, for all I know, you’re the author’s daughter, come to defend daddy.

  11. Johanna Says:

    Although if you want to actually have a conversation about why I found that not compelling, we could do that. But you’d have to be nicer about it.

  12. Seldom Posts Says:

    The whole ‘anonymity’ arguement has no merit. My point stands regardless of who I am, and I’d rather not open myself to the endless irritations that come from revealing a true identity on line.

    As to whether or not you found it ‘compelling’ that is different from the point you originally made. You originally said ‘it wasn’t clear.’ It’s as clear as day in the book. When she’s a child the spotlight (a literal spotlight) is always on her brothers. (Another error in your piece, she has four brothers, not one.) When she sees AP, she finds a way to get into the spotlight, through him. It’s as clear as day. And then the spotlight motif is repeated when they start having problems–AP can’t deal with having the spotlight on someone else.

    In any event, I’m finished posting here. I was looking for some good commentary on a great book, but unfortunately I didn’t find it. I wish you good luck in future reviewing efforts.

  13. Johanna Says:

    If you’re looking for good commentary, you might find it easier if you don’t try to start with anonymous drive-by insults. But if that’s what you think is the way to begin intelligent discussion, yes, there are other sites on the internet much better suited for you. Have fun there!

    (Regarding the spotlight: thanks for pointing out another cliche in the book — “a literal spotlight”. I don’t think that that makes sense as the basis for any relationship, but then, I found the narration suspect because if one takes it literally, the story is two-dimensional at best. It doesn’t match my understanding of human nature that a spotlight would be the basis of love; at best, it’s a source of initial attraction. I still think the characters are together only because the author says so, but it’s obvious that you enjoyed the work much more than I did, so you’re willing to cut it a lot more slack and find the characters more human than the paper dolls I saw.)

  14. crywank Says:

    I love your reviews and think your website is great. I’ve never been an active reader but every few months while looking for reviews on the comics I’ve read always come across yours. Today while attempting to list all the comics I’ve read I again ended up here and was excited to see what your opinions on Asterios Polyp where.

    Other than Acme Novelty Library 20, Asterios Polyp is the only new comic I’ve read this year to truely exite me. I picked it up for cheap in an oxfam charity shop (mostly because I thought the book itself was really pleasing to look at so even if it was awful it’d at least be something nice for my shelf), and began reading before I was even aware that it was a well known and well-recieved comic.

    It absoluetly blew me away, my twin brother died in child birth and it’s peculiar how well this book explains a lot of the feeling and emotions I have towards the situation. The idea of a phantom person (like a phantom limb) watching you and always being with you is something I’ve always felt very alone with, and I feel how AS presents the theme of duality throughout is done spectacularly.

    I can totally agree that the stylistic decisions throughout the book overshadow the plot, but I never really felt like the plot was even the driving force behind the book. For me this book was about how people are moulded by their experience as youths to create personality types and aspirations, and how the most seemingly insignificant views and opinions may have will in someway affect the course of your life far more drastically than you may realize at first.

    Your review in some ways has made me doubt myself and my opinions in this book (as a good review would do), and I may have such a great affection towards AP because of personal reasons that it could be said that my opinion is in someway skewed, but as far as I’m concerned you’re focusing on the wrong points when reviewing this book.

    The plot is not what drives the book at all, very little happens and I believe there is good reason for this. It can be argued that it is rife with clichés, but I’ve never seen a cliché displayed in such a way, so surely that makes the fact that you may have heard it all before redundant. AP is an intricate and beautiful work, that demands more attention than a usual comic.

    I may not be able to change your opinion, nor am I really trying to, but I’d be suprised if you read this book again and you didn’t take something new from it.

  15. Johanna Says:

    It may very well be that I see the book very differently in another year. That has happened to me with other works, when I approach them after some time has gone by and I’m a different person with different experiences. I’m very glad to hear that you had such a strong reaction to the book and enjoyed it so much — and I hope that my comments don’t change that. I appreciated hearing your viewpoint, showing me a different way to look at it.

  16. Bryan Says:

    Well I boarded this bus a little late, but i just read this today and was blown away. I understand what you are saying, but I thought that, although the whole “duality” thing is really overdone in literature, an interesting take here is the focus on the middle ground between them. Asterios’s focus on the concrete has him always one upping people, including his wife. Whereas Hana just lets people walk over her because of her love for the soft and abstract. This is the initial reason they are attracted to each other, I think. Even when they are married, they are always two separate entities with strongly differing opinions. It was not until the final pages, where the text bubble stems were intertwined and they were sharing their memories together, that the two finally understood one another. The duality that was so present gives way to a compromising middle ground. Unlike other literature, the emphasis wasn’t on the harsh contrast between the two opposites.

    I also don’t think the change from AP’s life of study to one of manual labor is anti-intellectual. He changes more and has more revelations about his life when he leaves his professorship.

    Either way, I think i have a different perspective because i had never even heard of this book! So there was no hype for it to live up to for me.

  17. phox Says:

    I agree with the above commenter, Bryan. :)

    I like to surprise myself by picking random books from library shelves. Asterios Polyp is one of my new favorites. :)

  18. David Glassey Says:

    The concept of duality in the book to me is similar to the duality present in Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (classic vs. romantic views) and of course it seems very Jungian or Plato vs. Aristotle, etc.. I personally think that Mazzuchelli is trying to sort out his reactions to much of Western philosophy with Asterios Polyp.
    Of course it is not the greatest graphic novel ever, that crown belongs to Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. Not even Watchmen touches that work in sheer greatness.

  19. The Joyners in 3D » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    […] have the sinking feeling that this is another graphic novel, like Asterios Polyp, where the visual hijinks will distract enough people that no one will want to talk about how […]




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