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 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 author 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.”