Friday, August 14, 2009
Word Balloon: Asterios Polyp
This month's edition of the Word Balloon takes us into the realm of the independent comic book, specifically a wonderful little book I heard about just before Comic Con but only managed to track down recently during my trip to Chicago, Pantheon Books Asterios Polyp, by writer/artist David Mazzucchelli. I first heard about this book from G4 TV correspondent Blair Butler on her weekly comics segment and I had to admit, I was piqued by her exuberance for the title. While at Con I talked to a few other folks who had also either read the book or were looking for it, citing it as a front runner for comics Academy Award, the Eisner's for best Original Graphic novel. Unfortunately I never found a copy until this past week.
David Mazzucchelli has been in comics for nearly thirty years breaking into the business in the early 1980's. He hit it big very quickly working with Frank Miller on the writer's legendary Daredevil run during that time, most notably penciling the seminal DD tale, Born Again. Later on he worked with Miller again on the reboot of Batman in the late 80's penciling the Batman: Year One story arc, also considered a seminal Batman story. By the mid 1990's he had dedicated himself to producing independent comics. Asterios Polyp, nearly a decade in the making, marks his first graphic novel.
Asterios Polyp on the surface is a very simple tale. Asterios is a somewhat successful architect and teacher who has an opinion on every subject. His apartment (and world) is shattered after a fire ruins all of his belongings. In a haze, he saves a few meager possessions from the blaze and escapes his life by heading into the heartland of America, to find himself. As the tale unfolds, we learn what Asterios is escaping from, as the book moves between the present and the past, unfolding his life and the reason for the path that Asterios finds himself on. More so, it introduces Hana, a sweet and smart artist with whom Asterios had led a blissful and happy life. As the book plays out, you slowly find out what makes Asterios tick, and just what happened to Hana. Ultimately, you also find out what life has taught Asterios.
Beneath the surface of this book is a deeply complex tale, wherein Mazzucchelli plays out his thoughts on many subjects, like art, design, social morality, eccentricity, and even man's insight to it's own human perceptions. Never before in a book have I seen such great use of design and color to accentuate a story. He employs an old artistic trick to tell his story, using a different art style for each character. Each character is their own separate universe, drawn in a distinct style to create the sense of independent realities for each. Each with their own style, the book throws them each into a mismatched world creating a juxtaposition of color and shape.
Asterios is comprised of primary shapes, Hana is abstract. The life they create together becomes an interesting blend of the new kind of physical reality that is resultant of their relationship. Mazzucchelli makes even more daring moves in his artistic style, particularly in his use of negative space. It's the space BETWEEN the panels that actually help us to realize what Asterios is realizing, the emptiness of his life. Even in the pages where they are happy together, the white space helps to frame the reality that they have created.
Even more amazing is his use of color. Mazzucchelli targets the use of the primary printer's colors, Magenta, Cyan, and Yellow. He uses them in a myriad of ways. To create a sense of the character's mind, to create separation, to set mood, even to mark the changing of time periods in the story. The soft palette really highlights the artists use of panel spacing and setting tonality in the story. Between the color scheme, the negative space and perspective, and the use of shapes, all of the tools collide together to create a sense of isolation. As you read you understand more and more who Polyp himself feels, maybe even before he knows it.
In the story, Asterios saves three items from his apartment, a lighter (his father's) a watch (his) and a knife (Hana's). As Asertios progresses through the story, these items represent Polyp maturity and the unburdening of his soul. Each item has a meaning, and as he sheds them, they each represent a new aspect of his outlook on life. The lighter is maturity, preparing himself for a world outside of his one way perspective. The watch, the understanding that value of practicality in the world over one's theory. The knife, understanding selflessness and accepting the fact that you are ready for change. Even better is the twists along the path though down this road. That sometimes your life isn't changed so easy, it's not gift wrapped in a pretty bow. Sometimes the universe has to hit you over the head to make you understand.
Mazzuccelli crafts a very expansive story, but doesn't bog it down with unnecessary words or dialog. He lets the art and the colors tell a story that no other medium can quite duplicate. The best part is how reading it through more than once unlocks new elements you don't get on the first read through. How key plot elements from later in the tale unlock content peppered throughout the first read through. It is a wonderful blend of storytelling and art that isn't designed to be fully realized in one sitting.
Mazucchelli has been working on this book for a number of years, but the time, energy and patience has really paid off. While artistically he is using a more cartoonish style than his earlier pulp work, the clean images and beautiful palette is a win for the creator. It has been a long time since a book made me change the way I think about what the medium of comics is capable of, especially one produced this decade. I have read plenty of books that remind me why I love comics, plenty of books that validate the story and the art of a medium, but this book is one of the rare few that challenges the totality of the medium itself. Asterios Polyp is simply one of the best comics I have ever read. Please don't let the $30.00 price tag affect your decision to buy this book. It is beautifully presented and bound, with a striking and stylistic cover. This books gets my highest possible recommendation, you should definitely check it out.
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