Asterios Polyp is the glorious return of legendary artist David Mazzucchelli. Follow the odyssey of a middle-aged man as he confronts his flaws, failures and maybe… just maybe the will of the gods themselves.
This award winning graphic novel is an exploration of duality. It unfolds between the past and present. Slowly introducing us to the complex, conflicting yet fascinating charter that is Asterios.
Enter Mazzucchelli’s brilliant but eccentric story that takes side trips into morality, Greek myths and touches on a little bit of everything from the meaning of self, parallel dimensions to design theory.
Once a successful and admired university professor Asterios ‘escapes’ into the American heartland? Why? Read on to find out…
What to Do When Your Life Goes Up in Flames… Literally
When we meet Asterios he’s teetering on the edge of a cliff. His New York apartment is a mess, he is a mess and the mortgage is overdue.
While listlessly lying in bed watching home movies on cassette tape, our protagonist is pushed over the edge –into an amazing journey of self-discover (and maybe redemption?).
Thunder strikes his apartment block and starts a fire. Asterios races through his apartment to retrieve a watch and Swiss Army knife.
Once he is safely outside on the street, he helplessly watches as his home is burnt down. We are treated to shot of the burning apartment with a room stacked with numbered VHS cassettes. Hmm…
The story then takes us into the past. Asterios spent his life as a tenured professor of architecture. Thing is while he has won many competitions and awards during his career, he is a ‘paper architect’. None of his buildings have actually ever been built.
You see while everyone always said that Asterios is brilliant he’s been rather unlucky. All of his buildings where cancelled or never completed.
We learn about his parents, first-generation Americans. One Greek, whose family name was too long for Ellis Island officials (hence Polyp), the other Italian.
We learn that Asterios is a twin but that his brother Ignazio was dead at birth.
And then we are back to the present. Asterios is standing in the rain watching his home burn and only thinks “Not Again”.
Travel See the World and Get Away from Yourself
So Asterios does the only thing he can.
He starts walking.
On his journey through a rained out New York, we get to see the human suffering and realities that lie close to the surface of any big city.
The story also switches back to the past. Asterios is a successful university professor. Full of himself –brilliant, adored and arrogant. He crushes students who divert from his vision of architecture with a few words.
And then there are the women…
Asterios loves women. He is a serial womanizer. While he doesn’t actively pursue female students (or faculty), they come to him. Draw by his knowledge, position and somewhat self-centered charm.
Then they leave heartbroken…
Back in the present Asterios has reached his destination. The local Greyhound stop. He pulls out his last money and asks how far it’ll get him.
One the bus he dreams. He dreams of a Greek temple, in the midst of which stands a hospital bed. In the bed, on a respirator and drip, lies a man who looks exactly like him. But it’s not him. It’s his unborn brother Ignazio…
We will see more dream (or parallel universe?) interactions with Ignazio later in the novel. Asterios Polyp uses the it’s protagonists Greek heritage to the fullest with allusions to myth, architecture and philosophy.
Then he wakes up. The disturbed bum next to him asks for a cigarette. Asterios says his wife made him quite. There is no pleasing women the bum answers.
The End of a Blissful Life
Asterios gets off the bus in the town of Apogee. Your stereotypical small, clean and drab American heartland community.
With nothing to do, Asterios walks into the local garage and asks for a job as a mechanic. The owner Stiff Major (really?) decides to give him a chance and offers him a place to live.
Here’s where we see part of the charm of Asterios Polyp. Asterios has never worked on a car. But he’s got a lot of confidence and a photographic memory. So he spends an afternoon in the town library to get up to speed on mechanics. How hard could it be?
We are introduced to the love of Asterios’ life. His wife Hana. A sensitive and talented half-Japanese artist.
She is quite while Asterios is brash. She is thoughtful where he is thoughtless. She is the sky to his sun.
They live a blissful life together. But somehow it ends. And we find Asterios alone, in a mess and reminiscing about the past.
What happened to Hana? Will Asterios find himself and confront his flaws?
What happens when you live your whole life in certainty and then it is taken away from you?
You’ll have to read Asterios Polyp to find out!
The Art and Writing of Asterios Polyp
Asterios Polyp is a very different beast. First of all it highlights Mazzucchelli’s talent as a writer. Asterios is a very complicated and conflicted character.
He actually feels like a real person. He is brilliant, but vulgar. He has a measure of success, but not the one he wants. He is arrogant but capable of empathy (in the end).
Thing is Asterios Polyp isn’t the kind of graphic novel I like to read. I generally don’t do character driven dramas or ‘real-life’ fiction. But this one captured my imagination and wouldn’t let me go!
Mazzucchelli really explores the (false?) concept of dichotomy –or that everything can be divided into two opposed details. Male and Female. Night and Day. Ying and Yang.
Asterios has built his life on this kind of thinking… Thinking that depends on classification and labeling. But when his life falls apart nothing makes sense anymore.
In many ways this story is a journey of redemption and exploration.
I also liked the variety of characters in this novel. From Asterios himself, to Stiff Majors eccentric family and friends –to Hana.
Hana. The not so ‘perfect’ other half of our protagonist.
The art is interesting. Since I was first exposed to Mazzucchelli’s art by 80’s novels from mainstream publishers –Asterios Polyp was very different and fresh.
It isn’t full of realistically drawn characters with overdeveloped muscles. It’s very stylized, cartoony and versatile. Mazzucchelli fluctuates between different styles while keeping the underlying art the same. Simple clean lines that sometimes break out into a riot of detail.
Sometime David also just shows off his passion, and talent, for art:
Was there anything I didn’t like about this graphic novel? Hmm… yes the ending. But that would be telling. It did close the story off and added an unexpected twist to it. I just thought it was too… real life??
If you like character driven drama which discusses everything from philosophy to design theory. If you want to see proof that redemption and change are always possible. You will love Asterios Polyp!
It’s different, smart and totally worth your time! David Mazzucchelli proves that he isn’t just a great artist, he’s a great writer. This graphic novel will fit into any good collection.