Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli was the big star last year, winning all sorts of critical acclaim and ending up on many “Best Comics of 2009″ lists except for mine, because I hadn’t read it yet.
Why hadn’t I? I was a little wary of it. I wasn’t sure if I would like it, it sounded rather intimidating, and honestly, I don’t usually go much for books that receive a lot of acclaim from the “outside world” because they’re often not nearly as interesting to comics readers as they are to non-comics readers.
However, after flipping through the book I decided to pick it up and give it a read.
It was not at all what I was expecting.
Basics first. It’s the story of a pompous, overbearing architect (the titular Asterios Polyp) who loses it all and starts over to find out what’s really important (important thing number one: not being pompous and overbearing).
Now, I didn’t come to that summary after consulting arcane texts, copious footnotes, and tomes of critical theories. I read the book. The plot is pretty straightforward and not remotely confusing. Why would I think otherwise? Because looking at some of the blurbs on the back and some of the reviews on the Amazon page, you’d think that the book is right up there with such dense, opaque works as Ulysses and Gravity’s Rainbow. It’s not. The story is right there on the page, for even as clumsy a reader as me to get the first time.
Which is not to say that the story isn’t good, it’s just not particularly interesting for itself. The plot is about what you’d expect from my synopsis above. It’s the artwork that is the star of the show here, with Mazzucchelli doing a lot of things that he can only do in a comic book, and this is what makes Asterios Polyp a star of the medium. His artistic touches add to a somewhat pedestrian story, developing it much further than one would think. The relationship between Asterios and his wife, Hana, is described more through the art than the story (indeed, when the story attempts to take over the reins, as in a scene involving the both of them attempting to tell a story, the results are often somewhat clunky and cliched.)
In fact, the story itself has two major problems. The first is that this is the story of someone who is forced to re-examine his life and make an abrupt change. The book opens with Polyp’s apartment burning in a fire and him losing essentially everything. He takes what money he can and gets on a bus, going “as far as he can” to a town called Apogee, where he settles in effortlessly and immediately with the local inhabitants. The book is a voyage of self-discovery that we never see. In the beginning, it’s clear that Hana has left him already, his life is a shambles, and that the fire doesn’t actually remove things from him because they’re clearly already gone. By the time he gets to Apogee he’s already a different person. We never see this transition. We see the flashbacks of his life (narrated by the ghost of his twin brother, who died at birth, to no particular effect) which clearly illustrate the person he was and wants to get away from, but we don’t see any of the things that cause his dramatic shift in personality.
The second problem is the ending, which is fine until it drops the most ridiculous, eye-rollingest, Creative Writing 101-est denouement onto the reader. It is enough to make one consider taking an exacto knife to the last few pages of the book.
So Asterios Polyp, overall? Well, I have to give it credit for having a more or less contemporary setting and theme without (a) being just Yet Another Autobiographical Wankfest or (b) having to introduce an element of sci-fi, fantasy, or PULP NOIR CRIMINAL DETECTIVE GUN BROADS to keep the nerd crowd reading. I am so thankful for graphic novels that read like fiction for adults. I think the artwork and what Mazzucchelli does with it are stunning and well worth the price of admission, elevating a somewhat formulaic story into something much more interesting. But even with all that, the story doesn’t go anywhere that hasn’t already been visited and revisited hundreds of times in American fiction.
Asterios Polyp is, indeed, a milestone in graphic novels. Unfortunately what it marks most is how far behind they still are and how much further they have to go.