Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is David Mazzucchelli, and the comic is Asterios Polyp, which was published by Pantheon in 2009. Enjoy! (There’s a tiny little bit of Not Safe For Work stuff below the cut. Very mild compared to what we’ve seen recently, but still.)
Many, many people loved Asterios Polyp when it came out, and while I liked it, I thought the writing didn’t keep up with the art as much as I would have liked. It’s still an artistic masterpiece, and a good place to finish with Mazzucchelli. Let’s dive right in!
Early in the book, the apartment building where our “hero,” Asterios Polyp himself, lives, is struck by lightning and burns down, taking all his stuff with it. This page shows the lightning strike, and it’s amazing. Mazzucchelli throws everything into shadow by the force of the light, and he gets rid of all the holding lines so that the objects in the room and Asterios himself simply become blocks of purple. Notice that the farther away we get from the lightning, the more Mazzucchelli roughs up the edges of the shadows, as the stark light begins to fade just a little. The fact that the lightning bolt comes from beyond the panel border is a nice touch, as is incorporating the sound effects into the bolt itself. This book is a masterwork of design, and this is an early example of that.
Asterios Polyp is as much an examination of perception and reality as it is a story (in many ways, it’s better at the former than the latter), so Mazzucchelli often comes up with pages like this. He’s showing off a bit, but when he’s so good at doing this stuff, it doesn’t really matter. He constructs faces out of lines wonderfully in the top row, varying line weights well but not doing it so much that his point gets lost. In the middle row, we get the two completely different kinds of art, with the woman drawn more “simplistically,” with curved lines and bold, basic patterns on the rug and behind her, while the “man” (I guess it’s a man) is drawn with harder edges, thinner lines, more analytical tools, and straighter lines. The drawing of the woman keeps us within her circle, while the perspective in the right drawing is more rigid and pushes us away, toward the back of the scene and away from the “man.” Mazzucchelli places flowers in the woman’s drawing, while the “man” has a crystalline sculpture as part of his decoration. Some of this is a bit clichéd, but it’s certainly drawn in a nice way. Meanwhile, in the bottom row, Mazzucchelli goes pointillist on the right side, showing again the differences between the two people as they try to communicate. The other woman is drawn with slightly thicker lines, as once again Mazzucchelli contrasts drawing styles to show contrasting types of people.
Asterios, perhaps not surprisingly, is a bit of a philanderer, so we get scenes where a succession of female students are coming onto him, and he indulges. This is the most drawn-out seduction, mainly so Mazzucchelli can show what goes through Asterios’s mind at least occasionally. As we’ve already seen, the art styles in the book are wonderfully diverse, and we see more of that here. He draws Laurel with no holding lines, turning her into a apparition of sexiness, with hot colors blurring together into a vision, with thicker lines showing her one seducing eye and teasing grin. Mazzucchelli draws Asterios like he does here – as a diagram – quite a bit (we’ll see some more below), as it shows his cool, calculating nature. The gears linking Laurel to Asterios’s head are nicely done, and then Mazzucchelli gives us the incongruous drawing of the somewhat ugly Asterios with the strapping Greek body tied to the mast. Just in that row we get three different kinds of style, all telling their own little story in the drawing. Then, as Asterios weakens in the face of Laurel’s seductive nature, Mazzucchelli makes the three panels at the bottom a bit more liquid, as Asterios goes from the aloof professor to the sex-struck man, and Mazzucchelli turns the lines from their hard, thick nature to a more curved, fluid kind and even loses the bold lines defining Asterios’s head. It’s a clever little trick, and when we turn the page, we find Asterios and Laurel in bed together, as we knew we would!
Asterios meets his wife, Hana, and Mazzucchelli shows it really well. As I noted, he often draws Asterios in this fashion, all bold lines and geometric shapes, as his protagonist is an architect who thinks in these terms and doesn’t have much use for flights of fancy. Hana is pretty much the opposite, so Mazzucchelli draws her with a lot of scratchy lines that create indistinct spaces and lots of texture – he doesn’t always do this with Hana, as we’ll see below, but in this scene, it’s important. Of course, as they come together, their separate natures begin to mix, until we get the final panel, where they’ve both been “infected” by the other. Mazzucchelli also makes some nice comments about the “scene” – they’re at a New York party, so you’ll notice that he draws the people around them as abstractions, both to keep the focus on Asterios and Hana but also to show a pretentious art scene. He uses “cooler” colors for the scenes in New York more often than not, too – Hana’s warmth tends to overwhelm that here, but we can see the blues and light purples he uses for these scenes, as the people are too cool to show real emotions, which is why Hana is so out of place.
Here’s another page that doesn’t contribute much to the narrative but shows more about the way Asterios views the world. Some things on this page are fun: the fact that child Asterios looks exactly like adult Asterios, for instance, is hilarious. The Manichean outlook on life that Asterios has is well represented, too, with the Platonic worldview on the right side of the page, the Apollo/Dionysus contrast front and center, and the tiles on the floor with the yin and yang and the positive/negative poles. And who doesn’t love a good Fibonacci sequence? Mazzucchelli does this kind of thing a lot in the book, and it’s always pretty keen.
In the present, Asterios ends up in a small town called Apogee (I like to think it’s in Arizona), where he gets a job as a car mechanic and helps build a tree house for his hosts, from whom he’s renting a room. Then he sits on the porch. While Mazzucchelli draws Asterios in the same style, notice that he doesn’t use quite as thick a line on him, even though he remains rigidly delineated. He’s more integrated into the natural world, too, so there are softer lines all around him, from the trees to the grass, and Mazzucchelli even draws his sweat, showing that he’s not quite as hung up on his New York lifestyle anymore. The colors in the book, as we’ve seen, are really nice, and Mazzucchelli’s use of very bright yellow keeps this from being too nostalgic, but it’s still warmer than the New York scenes. He still uses purple, though, which links the two time lines together (the New York scenes come before his apartment burned down). It’s a neat trick.
At one point, Asterios has a dream (well, we assume it’s dream) about Hana, and he becomes Orpheus with a T-square lyre and she becomes Eurydice, and things don’t end well (as usual). The entire dream is stunning, with this page a highlight, as Asterios tries to shield his eyes as he leads Hana out of the underworld. Mazzucchelli uses wonderfully thick lines and big chunks of purple to create this horrific landscape, which is scored by a lot of scratchy hatching, with the industrial nightmare in the background adding another touch of horror to the scene. Mazzucchelli even makes the stairs a bit mechanized, as they appear to be engine parts, adding to the brutal, oppressive landscape. Asterios is also quite roughly drawn, but of course Hana is drawn with much less weight, her hair and gown flowing loosely behind her, with Mazzucchelli using a minimum amount of lines to create her and adding flowers floating around her. Something that I hope is deliberate on Mazzucchelli’s part is that Asterios is covering his eyes not so he doesn’t look at Hana, but so he can’t see the chaotic landscape around him. That offends his sensibilities much more than making sure he can lead Hana out of the underworld, or at least I read it that way. Asterios is still a tool, after all. I wonder if Mazzucchelli was thinking that when he made Asterios cover his eyes.
Asterios tries to make up with Hana, because he realizes he’s been kind of a douchebag, and we get a nice scene at the end of the book where he finds her house and talks to her. Mazzucchelli doesn’t do anything fancy with this page, but because Asterios was injured and then had to walk through a snow storm, he gets scuffed a little, which humanizes him nicely. Mazzucchelli draws Hana with those swirly eyes, but I really can’t figure out why. She looks like a scared kitty that’s trying to hypnotize you. I don’t mind the eye size, especially because he keeps her other features so small, which makes her eyes stand out, but I can’t figure out the way he draws them. Are they fingerprints? Anyway, what I like about the final conversation between the two characters is the way Mazzucchelli introduces a more varied color scheme, as he brings in less harsh yellows, that orange on the walls, Hana’s green clothing, and Asterios’s tan sweater. As Asterios begins to see the world in a less black/white way, other colors seep into the narrative. The colors make everything warmer and more comfortable – even Hana’s chair looks more cozy than the other furniture in the book. Asterios might not have completely changed, but he’s figuring things out, and it’s neat that Mazzucchelli shows this in the coloring of the book. It’s not unique, of course, but it’s still clever.
Mazzucchelli hasn’t done much since Asterios Polyp, but he’s off teaching, so I guess he’s happy. Given the way his art has developed in 30 years, I’m curious to see where he’ll go next. But that’s a question for another day! Tomorrow I will start a new artist – one that people have asked for, but who I was hesitant to do, as his work hasn’t changed too much over the years. But I’m giving in! Yay! So come back tomorrow and check it out, or stay here and wander around the archives for a while!
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