Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Books: Asterios Polyp


Asterios Polyp
By David Mazzucchelli


Available now from Islington Libraries
You can reserve this item for free here:

The big idea of Asterios Polyp is: "What if reality (as perceived) were simply an extension of the self?" It's not really a question that you're supposed to be decide for yourself ("uh / yes / no"?) more a starting point that it uses to tell a story that's both massively entertaining, visually bold and experimental plus sprinkled with lots of philosophical food-for-thought (stuff like: Relationships / Romance / Langauge / Communication / Design / Duality / Classical Literature / Politics / Religion / Astronomy / Architecture / Art / Acoustics / Music / Time / Memories etc - you know: the basics).

My starting point with Asterios Polyp was on Thursday February the 10th of 2011 Paul Gravett [1] presented a talk at Islington Central Library: More Than Words Can Say: 21st Century Comics [2]. As I rewrite this post in late 2012 [3] it's hard to recall what exactly was said. There was a lot of slides and a potted history of some of the many highlights from the world of graphic novels (Maus and The Dark Knight Returns and stuff like that) which for a confirmed comics geek such as myself were things that I was already well aware of. But then towards the end it opened up into a sort of taster of books that had only just recently appeared. Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth was mentioned as well as a French book called Years of The Elephant which was about a father struggling to deal with his son's suicide [4]. And then (and in my memory it's last book he mentioned: but that's probably not true) he started to talk about a book I've never heard of called: Asterio Polyp.

Just in case it's not clear by now: I'm not really big on books that are too worthy. You know: if it's the kind of thing that you could easily imagine being picked apart in a class: if it seems kinda dry and academic: a contender for "great literature" then most of the time I'm probably not really going to enjoy it. I mean I get that it's very intelligent or whatever but I need some sort of entertainment in my entertainment before we can start getting into the heavy stuff. At the time I remember feeling a little bit peeved that in a 2 hour talk about "21st Century Comics" Bryan Lee O'Malley's Scott Pilgrim hadn't even been mentioned once. Because - well - that's the sort of book that I tend to fall in love with: something that's exciting and funny and heart-breaking (that's the entertainment side of things) but also in it's own surreptitious way: ground-breaking and experimental and smart about how comics can be put together (and that's the heavy stuff). And books and films and music that prioritize the latter while neglecting the former - I dunno - they just leave me kinda cold [5]. And well as you'll see when you read Asterios Polyp - life is all about keeping the dualities in balance with each other.

And up until that point of the talk everything had seemed a little bit - I dunno - like I guess it seemed like it had been aimed at someone who thought that comics were something to keep the children entertained and so the emphasis was on showing off comic's presentable side: putting them in a good suit, giving them a neat haircut and making sure that they didn't use any swear words. Highbrow comics that weren't going to scare the chickens: and so for me (who basically needs constant visual stimulation) - it was a little bit boring.

But then: these slides from Asterios Polyp. And I kinda want to describe them to you in detail ("...two different characters talking to each other: but each drawn in a different colour and each rendered in a different artistic style..." "...their speech ballons slowly intertwining...") but to say too much would give too much away and my philosophy is always to try and talk up a book as much as possible so that by the time you reach the end you want to read it: but you don't know too much (or anything) about what actually happens. So what I will say is: in the notes that I was taking during the talk I wrote down (and no doubt misspelled) "Asterios Polyp" [6] in big letters and underlined it several times thinking: This is a book I want to read.

It turned out that Islington already had a copy (nice one Islington) and so I didn't have long to wait until I had it in my hands. I'm not sure if a paperback copy exists (I mean - I guess it must do - right?) but you know how sometimes your first impression of a book just sticks with you - so that if you ever see it in another format or with a different cover it just seems wrong? Like a cheap imitation or something: you know that it has the same content but that still - it's not the same book? Well: for me Asterios Polyp will always be a big cardboard hardback with a thin strip of paper with the title wrapped around it that took flipping ages to be properly wrapped in the plastic covering that all library books require [7].

It starts off slow. I mean yeah: there's a pretty big bang but at the start it's almost possible to believe that you're reading another comic that's going through the same motions as everyone else. It's heavily stylized sure - but it almost seems like a Darwyn Cooke book or something [8]. But then you'll start to notice the little things: like how some sounds will stay within the confines of the panel while others will float around in the empty white spaces between (and isn't that just a great visual metaphor for the way music can sometimes seem to work: moving between the panels of our life [9]?).

Even tho this is a book that tends to get most of it's love for how well drawn it is (from one of the many quotes on the back cover: "Mazzucchelli's visuals don't merely illustrate the storyline; they communicate an entire conceptual framework in their own right."[10]) - it would be much more accurate to talk about how it's designed it is: not just the pictures but the way that the words are the pictures work in tandem to create effects that neither one of them could achieve alone: and indeed how at several points it collapses the dividing line between the two (which kinda makes me think how difficult it would be to translate the book into other languages... maybe in fact if you wanted to go for the international market they would just have to draw the whole thing brand new?). Plus: even tho he's brilliant at all the arty stuff his writing is pretty snappy too (you've gotta love the opening line if nothing else: "If it were possible for me to narrate this story, I'd begin here.")

"Four walls and a roof make a shelter, but exquisite design is transporting." And this is book that knows exactly how to transport the reader. Perfectly capturing a whole range of different experiences: from the big transcendent ones like the way that dawn can transform a two-dimensional landscape into a three-dimensional one to how memories can flutter across the span of a lifetime in a blink of an eye and transport you from one place to another then rush all over you in a big wave in a succession of images and frozen moments - to the small little way that someone can flick their hand to wave away cigarette smoke. All the way down to the way to it's inventive use of word ballons: I mean there's so many things that the book does so well that it's hard to get around to praising them all but especially especially it's the word ballons where Mazzucchelli does a lot of his best work: its no big sweat to say that it's the best comic I've ever read in terms of it's word ballon construction - it's like a symphony of word ballons [11]: coming all in all sorts of shapes and sizes and styles: with Mazzucchelli being more than happy to let them be obscured by other panels (a trick that Scott Pilgrim uses a lot too!) while at other times (like when a bus driver is calling out a stop) having them spill over the edges... To having Jackson put his "hi" all the way in the corner of a big empty ballon to having Ursula Major (what a fantastic name) scream so loudly and furiously that the words all hit the sides every page has a new twist and a new idea. Seriously: after being exposed to it's multifaceted use of fonts and styles it feels a little bit restrictive having to type this up all in the same Times New Roman. It's like being dipped in a rainbow only to then return to a world of black and white.

But then colour too plays a big part in how the book is constructed and the types of emotional affect it can bring about and how much information it can convey. At the start it just seems like he's just using colour merely for the visual effect - the way that the blue switches to purple and then when the purple gives way to the yellow seems like it's more the impact than anything else (and it certainly made an impression on me [12]). But as the book goes on the colouring becomes a lot more subtle as the big contrasts start to give way to the possibilities contained within: Blue and Red giving way to pinks and purples.

And - yeah - It's one of those books that is built to be reread again and again and again. I dug the way that certain phrases and images would recur - each time gaining new significance and deepening the reader's understanding about what exactly they were looking at and what it represented (the various iterations of Asterio's living room being a particularly good example). And some beautiful images that just show up the once but that stick in your head long after the book is done: a subway train driving through the waters of the underworld, to the epic size of Meteor Crater [13].

And Asterios himself - well - he's a lovely send-up of the Great Male Narcissist type (Mailer, Updike, Roth et al [14]) as exemplified by the lines he likes to drop into faculty party conversation ("...so when a man says, "I don't sleep with a woman I can't talk with afterward" ... what he means is, "I don't talk with a woman I can't sleep with afterward,""). But like all good writers Mazzucchelli manages to walk the fine line between both laughing at him and laughing with him. And if I'm being totally honest I certainly felt a kinship with his rigorous and logical approach to things plus like him (as my girlfriend is always reminding me) I'm also very partial to analogues and metaphors and being ever-so-slightly stubborn and stuck in my ways - and the depiction of arguments that leave one person in blocks and cylinders and the other in scratchy crosshatched lines is something I've certainly experienced a few times here and there. Plus: (as you can no doubt tell from my entertainment/heavy oppositions described above) I like splitting things up into two separate sides too (And hell: "By choosing two aspects of a subject that appear to be in opposition, each can be examined in light of the other in order to better illuminate the entire subject." sure sounds like good advice to me - even if later on (Mazzucchelli obviously wanted to make sure he was being fair and balanced) another character offers: "Well, y'know, in life, things are seldom either/or. It's that kind of simplistic thinking that creates fanatics").  So yeah: all the entertainment bases are covered: it's funny (especially when Asterios is in boorish mode: "Providence? The city that always sleeps?"), involving ("God was keeping my husband alive, and I was praying for him to be dead.") and at times - heart-breaking (that image of Hana standing just to the side of the spotlight made my heart well - if not actually break - it at least made it hurt a little) but it has enough weight to leave you feeling intellectually stimulated too.

At one point when talking about Zodiac Asterios says that he has trouble accepting the idea that "objects whirling through the firmament" could have a direct impact on his daily life: but I for one am very glad that this book had such an impact on me.

[1] If you don't know who that is: he's a London-based journalist, curator, writer and broadcaster who has worked in comics publishing and promotion for over 20 years and the man responsible (amongst other things) for the book: 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die.

[2] As advertised on this very blog. (So don't blame me if you didn't go).

[3] If you want to read my original (much more clunkily-written) thoughts then - well - here you go: "Asterios Polyp is an architect. Or - to be more precise - a 'paper architect' - which means that he's never had one of his buildings made. But that hasn't stopped him developing an over-inflated opinion of himself which he enjoys sharing with everyone within earshot. That, along with his fiercely held conviction that anything not useful is merely "decorative," doesn't make him the easiest person in the world to get along with - but then everything is about to change. Asterios Polyp is a sumptuous feast of a comic book: with every small part marvellously and intricately designed: plot, art, theme, characterisation - even the word balloons all complimenting each other and combining in a harmonious whole. Reminiscent in places of Jimmy Corrigan (high praise indeed) only much more warm and approachable it's a heady mix of love, philosophy, humour, art, cosmology and the principles of good architecture. The creator - David Mazzucchelli - was previously known as the artist for Frank Miller's Batman: Year One as well as an adaptation of Paul Auster's novella City of Glass - but it seems that his talents are growing with age. I can't wait to see what he does next. Highly recommended." (Cringe).

[4] Yeah. I know. Cheery right? There's a copy available in stock in Islington but (for some reason) it doesn't really go out that much... (maybe because it's utterly depressing?)

[5] A good example that should help you understand exactly what I'm talking about: Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood (you couldn't have a better title for a film). I while yeah I get that it's beautifully shot and there's all that acting and the Jonny Greenwood soundtrack is all lovely and Pendereckiy: I couldn't say that I actually enjoyed watching it and I couldn't say that I would ever really want to watch it again and (because of that) well - I couldn't say that I really thought it was great film (which I guess is why my friends shake their heads at me whenever we talk about it).

[6] And - come on! - what sort of name is that anyway? I mean - it does sound sort of cool. But even tho I'm a massive fan I still have no idea as to how to pronounce it properly (which puts it into the same illustrious company as Synecdoche, New York).

[7] From this interview: "Asterios Polyp is a fragile book whose cover is easily marred and which librarians say is hard to wrap in plastic. Why did he design the book the way he is? It was “the most frustrating package I could come up with,” said DM, to much laughter. He wanted the final product to have a rawness to it."(Ha).

[8] Not that there's anything particularly wrong with Darwyn Cooke (and if you don't know who that is - well - I recommend you try out his Parker books): but he's pretty much all entertainment and no heavy.

[9] Of course it sounds super-cheesy when you try and say it: but that's just another reason why I love that it's put across visually - so that you don't need to say it with words...

[10] And while we're talking about the quotes on back I'v gotta take issue with two of them in particular: "Mazzucchelli's masterwork is by no means an easy read... but it is a transcendent one." (The Austin Chronicle) and "Asterios Polyp is a dazzling, expertly constructed entertainment, even as it's maddening and even suffocating at times. It demands that its audience wrestle with it, argue with it, reread it and examine it. Isn't that the ultimate purpose of style?" (The New York Times Book Review). I mean obviously it's good that they're praising (and so they should) but I have no idea why they seem to be making out that it's a difficult book to read. I mean unless they're talking about the emotional aspects (and maybe the reviewers got beaten up at school by a bunch of architects or something?) I can't think of any other comic book that is as clear and straight forward as Asterios Polyp. The idea that someone reading it would have to wrestle with it strikes me as being as ludicrous as someone saying that they had to grapple with watching Toy Story. There is no sense of friction or struggle: as soon as you start reading everything is on automatic - all those white spaces and clear lines means that the whole story just rolls right off the page and directly into your head. Yeah - sometimes it does hit you with some big ideas ("This would suggest it's possible for someone to freely alter his own perception of reality in order to overlap with that of another.") but that only makes it a difficult read if you're only used to sentences like "See Spot run!" Like Hana says: "It's just a matter of paying attention."

[11] As Kalvin Kohoutek puts it in the book (much better than I could): "In a cacophony of information, each listener, by focusing on certain tones and phrases, can become an active participant in creating a unique, unique polyphonic experience."

[12] Although much later on when Asterios and Ursula are at the Independence Day parade Mazzucchelli uses that same purple and yellow to give us a brief yet brilliant one panel flashback: so I guess there were deeper reasons after all...

[13] Not just any meteor crater - I mean the particular place called "Meteor Crater." (a meteorite impact crater approximately 43 miles (69 km) east of Flagstaff, near Winslow in the northern Arizona desert of the United States). You can tell it's the same place in the book from the shape of the road in the background of the picture.

[14] As lovingly skewered in this David Foster Wallace article: John Updike, Champion Literary Phallocrat, Drops One; Is This Finally the End for Magnificent Narcissists? ("Mr. Updike, for example, has for years been constructing protagonistswho are basically all the same guy (see for example Rabbit Angstrom, Dick Maple, Piet Hanema, Henry Bech, Rev. Tom Marshfield, Roger's Version's "Uncle Nunc") and who are all clearly stand-ins for the author himself. They always live in either Pennsylvania or New England, are unhappily married/divorced, are roughly Mr. Updike's age. Always either the narrator or the point-of-view character, they all have the author's astounding perceptual gifts; they all think and speak in the same effortlessly lush, synesthetic way Mr. Updike does. They are also always incorrigibly narcissistic, philandering, self-contemptuous, self-pitying and deeply alone, alone the way only a solipsist can be alone. They never belong to any sort of larger unit or community or cause. Though usually family men, they never really love anybody -- and, though always heterosexual to the point of satyriasis, they especially don't love women. The very world around them, as beautifully as they see and describe it, seems to exist for them only insofar as it evokes impressions and associations and emotions inside the self.")

Links: Sean T Collins ReviewNew York Times Review, Comics Bulletin Review, Savage Critics Review, The Hooded Utilitarian Article, Extract from Comics Journal Interview with David Mazzucchelli, Scott McCloud: Some Thoughts on Asterios Polyp.

Further reading: City of Glass, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, Logicomix, Alec: How to be an Artist, Batman: Year OneAre You My Mother?Daredevil: Born Again.

All comments welcome.

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