An aging architect may not sound like a traditional lead character in a comic but Asterios Polyp is no ordinary comic. Despite looking like a mammoth read, this 340-page book is significantly more accessible than it first appears.
It’s the creative vision of David Mazzucchelli, a veteran writer, illustrator and teacher. Mazzucchelli has been drawing comic books for decades, with collaborations with Frank Miller proving to be amongst his best known works. This will almost certainly change with Asterios Polyp, which firmly places Mazzucchelli into the top rank of literary graphic novelists.
The book begins with Polyp on the verge of a mid-life crisis. His fancy New York apartment is struck by lightning and bursts into flames, leaving Polyp to escape with little more than his wallet and a handful of mementos. This shedding of worldly goods triggers the next stage of his life – he takes the Greyhound bus and starts again, getting a job as a mechanic in a small-town garage, reading up on car repair as he goes.
While this is going on, Polyp’s history is revealed to us, winding through the narrative, using visual triggers to thrust us through time. We find out that he was a twin, but that his brother didn’t survive the birth – the book is narrated by this dead brother. We find out about his loves, his career, his disappointments and his joys. And all the time, the story of his current life is progressing to its own conclusions.
The story isn’t the only element of interest though – Mazzucchelli is both a masterful designer and gifted illustrator. At times the book is reminiscent of Understanding Comics – you can look through it and pick out stylistic elements as Mazzucchelli shifts and changes them throughout the work. This is far from gratuitious – it’s not a text book, just an artist flexing his muscles, pulling out all the stops to make his work as expressive and meaningful as possible. The art melts into the story, helping illustrate mood, feeling and expression, like a great cinematographer or soundtrack composer can. Even the lettering, which is in a different style for each character, helps give a stylistic voice to their personalities.
All this adds up to make a fascinating and moving exploration of a mid-life crisis. The characterisation is wonderful; the conversations and narration first rate; and the variety and style of the illustration works remarkably well. It’s a near perfect book and well deserving of our top rating. Unless modern literary fiction leaves you cold, this book is well worth your time and investment – don’t miss out on it.