One of the most hotly anticipated books of the year, at least among the indie crowd, has got to be David Mazzucchelli's Asterios Polyp. The book has been earning a plentiful number of plaudits, but part of the interest is surely the fact that Mazzucchelli hasn't published a book in almost 15 years and hasn't had a strip published since 2001.
With all the fanfare surrounding the book, however, it seems odd that up till now no one has attempted to collect the three oversized issues of Mazzucchelli's seminal self-published series, Rubber Blanket. While the three issues aren't necessarily hard to find, securing them can prove to be a bit pricey. More importantly though, Rubber Blanket was a seminal series, both in Mazzucchelli's development as an artist and in the indie comix scene of the early 90s.
For those who need a bit of background: In the late 1980s, Mazzucchelli was one of the hot new stars of the Marvel/DC world. Having proved himself on titles like The Further Adventures of Indiana Jones and Legends of Arzach, he quickly became a fanboy favorite for his work with Frank Miller on two still-beloved series: Daredevil Born Again and Batman: Year One.
The comic book world, or at least a sizable portion of it, was surely in his grasp, but he abruptly turned his back on the superhero world. Burned out from the strenuous schedule of working on a monthly book, frustrated with the limitations of the genre and wanting to focus on more personal projects,Mazzucchelli bid adieu to Bruce Wayne and Matt Murdock and said hello to Rubber Blanket.
The first issue, published in 1991, shows just how far afield Mazzucchelli's sensibilities had gone since his initial days at the Big Two. If the cover didn't give it away, certainly the larger size was an indication that things had changed. The first story, Near Miss, is a surreal, allegorical tale of a man whose paranoia over the planet just missing being struck by an asteroid sends him out in the desert, telescope in hand. Gone is the thin, stylish naturalism of his earlier work, replaced instead by a thick, almost rough, expressionist line.
The stories in that first issue don't have tidy endings either, or really end at all -- they often just come to a halt. Dialogue is frequently elliptical and the characters' relationships to each other can be nebulous ("Are you my son or my brother?" a woman asks of a visitor in the final tale.) But the book is filled with striking images -- a man pouring a box of old photographs into a newly dug grave, a woman with a trilobite fossil embedded in her stomach -- that drive the story onward. Mazzucchelli is clearly not interested in playing it safe. What is surprising is how assured and confident the comic is considering its exploring, experimental nature.
The second issue saw Mazzucchelli trying on even more varied styles, a shout-out to the classic "underground" comics here, an autobiographical tale there -- even a straight-up, unironical gag strip. But the hallmark of the issue has to be Discovering America, about a young man whose attempts at mapmaking parallel between his romantic delusions. Mazzucchelli adds a second color here to very nice effect:
By the third issue, the pieces seemed to be falling into place, at lest in as far as readers could reasonably what sofr to work to expect from this new David Mazzucchelli. The third issue also contains hat is easily the best story of the series, Big Man.
Big Man is basically an Incredible Hulk story, though I'm doing the work an big disservice by summing it up like that (though hopefully whetting your appetite as well). It's about a giant who literally washes up to a small rural village. The people are at first wary of him but he earns their trust. Then the police show up and everything gets shot to hell.
Within this simple, fable-like structure, Mazzucchelli manages to wring a considerable amount of emotion and sympathy, not just for the title character, but the townsfolk around him. It's a stunner of a story and in a way, a culmination of everything he had been working towards in Rubber Blanket thus far.
I should note at this point, that Blanket featured more than Mazzucchelli's work. He regularly used the book as an opportunity to showcase the work of other artists, most notably Ted Stearn, who went on to do two series for Fantagraphics featuring his wan funny animals, Fuzz and Pluck .
Though RB only lasted three issues, Mazzzucchelli had even greater things ahead of him, most notably his stellar adaptation (collaborating with Paul Karasik) of Paul Auster's City of Glass, a graphic novel that frequently ends up on the short list of "best comics ever made and I'm not kidding boyo."
Between Glass and Blanket, Mazzucchelli became a huge influence for a lot of cartoonists coming to the fore at that time. You can see it Adrian Tomine's early mini-comics for example. Although his bibliography has been sporadic up till now, his comics have brought a sense of sharp design and near-limitless possibilities to the indie comics scene. It seems almost ridiculous that no one's attempted to collect these stories in book form yet. Let's hope the success of Polyp encourages Pantheon to get its act together, and soon.