David Mazzucchelli’s worn an astonishing number of hats over the past quarter century. He achieved fame in the ’80s as the last great superhero comics artist, though the stories he worked on stripped the heroes of their costumes, rooting them realistically in urban milieux, among everyday people. He abandoned fame and comics at the end of the me decade, learned printing techniques, played music. Emerging once more in 1991, he debuted Rubber Blanket, a self-published, handsomely produced magazine meant to showcase his new comics work, which had become surprisingly experimental and promiscuous in approach. He began taking on work from the New Yorker and the Village Voice, and travelled to Japan to create manga for the huge Kodansha publishing house. His slick, smart adaptation of Paul Auster’s City of Glass, co-authored with Paul Karasik, appeared in 1994, and coincided with the end of Rubber Blanket. Since then, he’s been teaching comics, producing a couple pages here and there for the beleaguered market of comic book anthologies—and, we’d heard whispered, he’d been toiling away on his magnum opus. So now here it is, his first large-scale solo project, Asterios Polyp, and we have to rethink Mazzucchelli all over again.
The book—a hefty affair, weighing in at well over 300 pages—tells one story along two timelines. In one, set mainly over several years in the mid-’80s, renowned architect Asterios Polyp, with books but no buildings to his name, begins teaching at a college in Ithaca. There he meets and falls in love with his sculptor wife, Hana, and soon stands bemused on the sidelines as she throws herself into designing the sets for a prestigious New York theatre production of the Orpheus myth.
In the other timeline, set over a few months in the year 2000, the divorced Asterios watches his apartment building burn down and decides to walk away from the shambles his life has become. Catching a bus as far out of town as the money in his wallet will take him, he rooms with an earthy, big-spirited family, and reinvents himself as an auto-mechanic. So one plot, coloured with cyan and magenta, tells the story of Asterios with Hana, how he loved her and why he lost her. The other, in yellow and purple, tells the story of Asterios without Hana, and how he becomes prepared to see her again.
The neat division of the narrative into two chronologies and two colour schemes is an engaging way to tell this story, allowing the evolution of the present-day Asterios to play out in counterpoint to the slow sabotage his younger self enacts on his marriage. Departures from these timeframes—reaching farther into the past for a bit of pertinent biography, or breaking away into a dream sequence—are narrated by, or haunted by, Asterios’s identical twin who died at birth. It’s here, though, that Mazzucchelli’s larger thematic concerns threaten to overwhelm his book, as we learn that, for Asterios, everything is divided, or twinned, or thought of purely in binary terms—present/past, living/dead, cyan/magenta, man/woman, Asterios/Hana.
Granted, the book as a whole recounts how this dualistic view of the world fails Asterios, of how he “mistakes the system for reality.” And Mazzucchelli wrings an incredible number of permutations out of the idea—Asterios appears mainly in leonine profile, as though there were only two sides to his stubborn head; when husband and wife fight, they separate into their own pink and blue hues and distinctive drawing styles, he blocky and geometric while she’s hatched with decorative lines; even the cover of the book is split perfectly down the middle. But cleaving to this worldview does little to combat the argument that Mazzucchelli is smart enough to raise (though he then dismisses it out of hand): “Some might argue that such simplification is best suited to children’s stories, or comic books.”
Comic books do encourage an easy pictorial thinking, and at this task Mazzucchelli is clearly a past master. Where his and Karasik’s simplifications in City of Glass, though, were eloquent, graceful solutions to storytelling problems, many of his abstractions here—dealing with duality, Greek mythology, the cosmos, and strategies of representing speech and subjectivity—are clunky, bald statements rather than fluid explanations. Mazzucchelli’s images, here, aren’t diagrams, or illustrations, or even windows onto another world, so much as they’re simply symbols, ideas embodied and left on the page rather than communicated, or brought to life. Symbolism in cartooning becomes a kind of treasure hunt, where a reader feels rewarded for checking off another iteration of a theme, another appearance of a pattern, where the mere recurrence of some motif justifies its existence, no matter whether it’s illuminating or not. A couple climactic moments here fail to have an effect because they come off as one more instance of an already simple conceit—look, they’re fighting again! they must perceive things differently!—rather than as some kind of culmination. Meaning isn’t woven through this book, that is, so much as it’s just assigned, and that’s that.
Such simplifications work against Mazzucchelli, too, because they run counter to the naturalistic qualities he pulls off so well in other passages. His observations about academia, though brief, are smart, funny, and incisive—one page showing a huge Asterios lecturing to a classroom of students, some of whom appear as little copies of him while others remain stridently different, is as pithy a comment on influence, deference, and free-thinking as you’re likely to find. The cartoonist is even better when handling relationships, as he does in most of the book. The bond between Asterios and Hana is testy, strong, and strained at different times; their shared moments are so particular as to be universal, their interactions idiosyncratic enough to be recognisable. One 13-page “chapter” depicting a mini hygienic crisis is flanked by disconnected glimpses from Asterios’ point of view into Hana’s intimate moments, exactly the kind of winning detail that gets jettisoned during the book’s more abstracted Men-are-from-Mars moments.
If Mazzucchelli’s observations are so keen, it’s in large part, and surprisingly, because he does such good work with characters. Surprising, because it was only with his last extended story, 1994′s “Rates of Exchange,” that any real notion of character entered into his work. His strips before this were populated with stand-ins and types, which was fine as long as his Rubber Blanket stories were more about astonishing brushwork, the sculptural use of two-colour, and a kind of invisible storytelling finesse, and less about real people or situations. If we get less of Rubber Blanket’s ink-stained, handmade bravado here, we also get fewer caricatures. Bit players who could easily be painted in the broadest strokes—a pack-rat music composer, a larger-than-life new-age matriarch who sports the prodigious moniker Ursula Major—instead retain a dignity and presence that would sustain them through books of their own.
As for the main cast, Hana and Asterios have a believable relationship because their creator grants them believable personalities. He sketches in their backstories in unobtrusive ways, and adds new layers to their behaviour on every page. A quarter through the book, for instance, Mazzucchelli pulls back for a revelation that recasts how we’ve been thinking about Asterios since the story’s beginning, when we saw him watching, presumably, old sex tapes—the author’s sleight of hand, later on, renders his protagonist at once more pathetic, and more endearing.
That the cartoonist is able to manipulate our attention in this way shows just how firm a grasp he has on the language of comics. Some silent sequences here—Asterios building a treehouse, the only edifice he’s ever had a hand in; a suite of calm, rhythmic pages during which Asterios drives across the country—are exactly the kind of easygoing, relaxed storytelling that few cartoonists are ever able to figure out. And however much I may carp about the proscriptive use of colours, or the often recherché use of different fonts for different characters, I’ll admit that the pay-off in the final scenes—where word balloons swap around, and warm oranges and greens finally crop up—is effective, if expected.
Mazzucchelli’s visual quotations of comics history, too, allow him to adapt techniques innovated by other artists, and explore these approaches to their limit. So he nods to Saul Steinberg’s pioneering use of diverse styles to convey subjectivity, or borrows a character design from Red-Colored Elegy to align his work with Hayashi’s tale of a tempestuous relationship, and even provides a walk-on for an anxious character from his own “Near Miss,” allowing the author to revisit and revise that earlier work’s doomsaying. But I appreciate these references more than I think they’re integral to the work at hand—as with the formal cartwheels the artist turns everywhere in the book, they act as schema imposed from without rather than from within. To be so dedicated to the mindset and mechanics of comics-making is admirable, to be sure—I’m just not convinced what we’re left with validates these tricks being pulled, or necessitates our being dazzled.
Still, whatever claims may be made for his new book—and hoo boy are they being made—it’s Mazzucchelli’s own attitude toward his work, articulated over a decade ago, that remains the most productive and humble approach to Asterios Polyp, like Rubber Blanket before it. “I described it [Rubber Blanket] before as being a kind of workshop,” he’s said. “I was making stories I needed to make in order to explore certain things. And my conceit in publishing them was that other people would be interested in seeing what I was doing…. I think every one of the major stories I’ve done … has at least a few compelling passages or some kind of compelling theme that makes it worth reading, particularly if you’re interested in comics.”
Is Asterios Polyp compelling work? Certainly it is. Mazzucchelli’s explorations of the form, and his navigation through the ins and outs of a relationship, make for involving reading, even when it’s slight. But rather than thinking of it as some kind of summa, I like Asterios Polyp better when I view it precisely as the product of a workshop. The book then becomes part of a process, a catalogue of experiments of varying degrees of success, and a record of David Mazzucchelli as a restless, dissatisfied innovator. Let’s hope we’ll be rethinking him again real soon.