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Lightning Strikes and Pen Strokes

Asterios Polyp

By David Mazzucchelli
Pantheon Books, 2009

A lightning bolt streaks from the sky and sets a building afire – this first image sets the plot of Asterios Polyp into motion as a fifty-year old architecture professor (named Asterios Polyp) grabs three prized possessions and flees his burning apartment. There’s no dialogue during this scene, and it’s like watching news coverage of victims rushing wordlessly in front of the camera.

This exciting beginning, however, introduces a graphic novel full of ponderous digressions. Once the narration begins, it dilutes the impact of David Mazzucchelli’s elegant drawings. The pictures capture a desperate event, but the writing relates, “This is Asterios Polyp. Right now, He’s watching his home burn up.” Since the reader has already watched flames incinerate all of Asterios’s belongings, why must the narrator state the obvious? It’s the graphic novel’s equivalent to the movie voiceover.

Asterios Polyp, tiresomely, has more lofty literary goals than telling a story using compelling language – instead, the writing labors over existential and theoretical ramifications of an architecture professor going through a mid-life crisis. Even the startling image of lightning hitting an apartment building becomes an opportunity to foist another insight upon the reader. The lightning cuts the page into two parts, initiating the inspection of doubles and doppelgangers that occurs throughout the novel. Later, the basic form of a bisecting line is explained by the professor’s colleague and wife, Hana, as she teaches class:

The lightning strike, like the two bricks, “designs a finite area of space,” but the illustration of the shattered sky dramatizes the collision of positive and negative elements within a fixed area far more effectively than Hana’s dry explanation.

Eventually the reader comes to understand that the lightning bolt not only splits space, but also divides Asterios’s life into two parts – it is the pivotal event that separates Asterios’s past from the corresponding narrative of his present wanderings. Mazzucchelli helpfully illustrates past-time and present-time of the plot by inking Asterios in blue as history unfolds, and the reader follows a yellow-inked Asterios in the scenes that take place after the lightning hits. As the two plots intersect, readers witness events from Asterios’s former marriage as they follow his spiritual journey to a town named “Apogee,” located somewhere in the southwest United States. (For further information on Apogee, please consult the Penguin Dictionary of Obvious Metaphors.)

Even as he runs from the memories of divorce, loss, and failure, episodes and images from his sad marriage continually break up the present action. The relationship between Asterios and Hana is so absorbing, however, that the tale of Asterios’s journey of self-discovery pales in comparison. Having past incidents constantly interrupt the “present” narrative is probably meant to mimic the tendency of memory to inform and encroach upon present experience, but one wishes that Mazzucchelli had abandoned his convoluted storytelling style to concentrate on the couple’s marriage.

In these panels, Asterios, a longwinded, pretentious academic, meets the talented, shy artist Hana. In my mind, the couple became a metaphor for staid, lifeless writing meeting Mazzucchelli’s beautiful drawings. Up to this point in his career, Mazzucchelli has worked primarily as an artist and illustrator – the drawings for Batman: Year One provide a particularly good example of his prior work. But this is his first attempt at being the writer as well as the illustrator for a full-length graphic novel; throughout Asterios Polyp, overworked plotting and dull writing are consistently shown up by his inventive imagery.

While the author’s language includes elaborate observations concerning the patterns and doubles in one man’s life, the illustrations effortlessly demonstrate what the prose so tortuously covers. The clean, blue lines of Asterios’s form render a man interested in neat definitions and tidy explanations, but Hana’s cross-hatched, pink portrait depict a woman concerned with contradictions and the sensitivities of feeling. The drawings make the charming insight that these qualities, though seemingly contradictory, overlap seamlessly when the two lovers meet. Their styles complement each other.

The storyline of Asterios Polyp is too laborious to strike the grace notes of the artistry. Compounding the dualistic past/present rendering of the protagonist’s life, the narrator is Asterios’s unborn identical twin brother, Ignazio. This somewhat precious technique of having the unborn brother tell the story, even as Asterios feels haunted by the brother he never knew, never quitelives up to its thought-provoking potential.

The narrator becomes less and less important as the story continues, and only Asterios’s obsession with recording his life supplies a moment of dramatic tension. Rows of VHS tapes create an exact duplicate of Asterios’s daily experience, and Asterios imagines that these copies generate what Ignazio’s life might have been if he had survived. The library of surveillance tapes causes a fight between Asterios and Hana when she finds out that she’s been taped secretly for several months, and this confrontation has more dramatic heft than any of the philosophical reflections concerning the unborn brother:

Once again, Mazzucchelli uses the subtlety of line, color, and cross-hatching to depict the characters’ feelings and personalities, and we see Hana thaw visibly as she considers Asterios’s side of the argument. The expressionistic line work of Mazzucchelli’s drawings encourages the reader to look ever more closely at the intimacies of marriage, and they capture the wordless moments that couples share:

Asterios tries to forget his past with Hana, but these images of daily dramas, details, and passions won’t leave him. Having spent years living with one woman, her most casual acts assume significance in his mind. Even the minor upset she felt over a defective Q-Tip becomes a poignant recollection. As observers, we are sometimes drawn as close to these characters as the husband is to his wife, and the quiet power of Mazzucchelli’s perceptive illustrations stay with the reader long past the time that the plot has been forgotten.

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Sharon Fulton is a PhD candidate in English literature at Columbia University. She is working on a dissertation about the role of animals in the literary dream-visions of the late fourteenth-century.

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