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David Mazzucchelli:

Asterios Polyp

The wait is nearly over. This June, after a hiatus of some fifteen years since his last substantial project with Paul Karasik adapting Paul Auster’s City of Glass, David Mazzucchelli returns to the medium with one of the most eagerly awaited graphic novels of the year, the puzzlingly titled Asterios Polyp. Weighing in at a wopping 344 pages, this is his big, bold statement, his first true one-man magnum opus, in which he has challenged himself and now challenges his peers. From the advance colour photocopies I’ve been privileged to read, Mazzucchelli has really thrown down the gauntlet here and produced something extraordinary, something which he wants readers to come to as fresh and unprepared as possible.

Asterios Ployp:
Mazzucchelli uses the ‘De Luca Effect’.

So he’s tried to keep a lid on things before the book actually "drops". He’s also vetoed any interviews, signings or appearances, publicity of any kind (although he has agreed to do a special book plate for Gosh! Comics, London). Like Steve Ditko, or Thomas Pynchon, he insists that this work is to speak for itself, and to speak for him too. Perhaps inevitably, some unsanctioned scans have leaked out online, only stoking anticipation still higher. These are some of the first tasters which he’s allowed the public to see. Mazzucchelli’s comeback will take many by surprise, as he strikingly mutates and multiplies his approaches and themes. During a career of over 25 years, this is not the first time that he’s disappeared, only to come back, reinvented and reinvigorated.

Breaking in sporadically at Marvel from 1983 aged 22, Mazzucchelli first really shone with his relatively naturalistic take on Daredevil, especially on those written by Frank Miller. Their Born Again story disclosed for the first time Matt Murdock’s long-absent mother who had become a nun and proved to be one of the blind superhero’s most moving story arcs. After Miller jumped ship to DC and made his breakthroughs on The Dark Knight Returns, he reunited with Mazzucchelli in 1987 on Batman Year One. To many, this four-issue expanded origin tale is one of the all-time classiest Bat-books. Here the artist further revised his drawing by looking back to earlier masters like Alex Toth, and before him Noel Sickles and Milton Caniff, as well as Chester (Dick Tracy) Gould and even Hergé of Tintin fame, and brewed up a blend of their bold chiaroscuro contrasts, deep shadows and minimalist refinements. His leaner approach grounded the fledgling solo Caped Crusader and the young Catwoman-to-be in a gritty, convincing urban crime drama. Back again at Marvel in 1988, Mazzucchelli changed again on a memorable one-off Angel fable by Ann Nocenti, drawing in almost Kurtzman-esque bravura brushstrokes.

From left: David Mazzucchelli,
with Woodrow Phoenix and Brian Bolland, 1988.

That same year, at the second and last Grenoble Comics Festival in France, Brian Bolland, Woodrow Phoenix and I got on famously with David (see my photo above), a bright, understated, friendly guy, clearly a hugely gifted artist who could go anywhere in the superhero mainstream. Instead, bafflingly, at the height of his career, he vanished.

Big Man, from Rubber Blanket #3

It was three years before the new Mazzucchelli resurfaced, this time in full control as writer, artist and self-publisher, with his colourist-partner Richmond Lewis, of a personal anthology in an oversized art-comic format inspired by Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly’s Raw. Sorry to disappoint those who thought its title, Rubber Blanket, was some kinky sex reference, when it is actually a term in litho printing for the solid roller which picks up the inked image before transferring it onto the paper. In his three annual issues, from 1991 to 1993, he stunned his followers with blockish bravura brushstokes, a fusion of Kirby and Toth mixed with Edward Hopper and the sheer physicality of ink on paper, especially on Big Man, like a variation on the Hulk and Rick Jones but turned into a subdued reflection on masculinity and coming of age in middle-America. Mazzucchelli, no doubt with Lewis’s input, also stripped back his colours, playing for the first time with the contrasts and constraints of only two hues.

City Of Glass

In 1992, while still experimenting in Rubber Blanket and shorter pieces for other magazines, Mazzucchelli was approached by Spiegelman to adapt Paul Auster’s multi-levelled story City of Glass for Neon Lit, a new line of noir graphic novelisations. After four quick "cinematic" tryout pages, Spiegelman brought Paul Karasik onto the project. As Mazzucchelli told Indy Magazine, "Paul thinks of comics in much more graphic terms - drawing as symbol, cipher, icon,... cartoon!" From Karasik’s very different layouts began a creative to-and-fro between the two collaborators which unlocked the project’s rich formal and aesthetic aspects. In 1994, this resulted in one of the rare examples of a comics adaptation that really adds depth and understanding to its prose source.

In 2000, City of Glass had appeared in French and America was the guest country at France’s Angoulême Comics Festival, so Mazzucchelli was over to promote it. On the Sunday, before racing to catch my train back to London, I had a fascinating lunch with David joined by his outstanding French counterpart, Blutch, who had just completed his Roman epic Peplum. So what was next for Mazzucchelli? By this time, after several intriguing but short pieces through the Nineties in assorted anthologies like Snake Eyes, Drawn & Quarterly, Nozone, Zero Zero and Little Lit, and incorporating various influences from Euro-comics and manga, Blutch and I weren’t the only ones wondering whether he would embark on something longer, meatier, a long-form graphic novel of his own.

After nine years, partly spent teaching comics, he’s finished it. The story pulls you in from the word go, opening aloft with a fearsome thunderstorm in cyan and purple as we plummet down to earth and float through a dishevilled apartment, piles of dirty plates and unpaid bills, the sounds emerging of a porn video and our drowsy, stubbly protagonist, alone, flat out on his bed. He flips his cigarette lighter and at that precise moment, the "KKLAPP!" of a lightning bolt sets the building ablaze and he has to evacuate. You can learn a lot about someone in such circumstances from what they choose to take with them. And as Polyp’s story unfolds, we learn why he chose a cigarette lighter, a watch and a Swiss army knife. With his home, his belongings, everything up in flames, he’s not so much beginning a new chapter in his life, as a whole fresh book, relocating to small-town America to get by as a car mechanic.

Asterios Ployp

Asterios Polyp is not likelable. Conceited, complicated and prickly, he must always be right and always have the last word. His face is almost only ever seen in a profile, two curves, one of a long nose, the other of a pinched mouth. Of Greek extraction, he is an esteemed “paper architect”, one who has never had any of his grandiose designs built (like the Japanese project shown here, amusingly-named "Akimbo Arms").  So not unlike a comic artist whose panels construct whole worlds that only exist on the page. Polyp’s background and fate are impossibly narrated by his identical twin brother Ignazio, who died in childbirth. Ever since, Asterios has been haunted by this death that could so easily have been his, and by the fear that he could have been his twin’s murderer. So our cerebral designer has grown up preoccupied by questions of duality, questions running through the book.

Asterios Ployp

At one stage he concedes, "Of course I realize that things aren’t so black and white." And appropriately, neither is this book. Throughout, black is replaced by a dark purple and offset mainly against limited but expressive second palettes, in solid tones and paler tints. Our leading player can switch from a cool cobalt blue in his professional milieu as an architecture professor, to a soft fiery orange as the survivor of the fire, forced to start over from almost nothing. A lascivious, solid magenta bursts onto the page, red as a student-lover’s lipstick and exposed nipple, the colour of his desires and passions. A yellow ochre predominates the fantastical and philosophical interludes where he communes with Ignazio. Only in the final section does the spectrum of a fuller world come in more than two colours.

Asterios Ployp

In another brilliant move, Mazzucchelli gives every character their own drawing style, balloon shape and lettering font, all evocative of their personality, such as Asterios’ architectural forms or the feathered volume of Hana, his Japanese sculptress lover. After all, why should a cartoonist homogenise all the diverse individuals within a graphic novel to the same sort of presentation? Not wishing to spoil too many of this book’s surprises, I’ll simply say that it contains numerous sequences whose sublime effects could only be achieved by unlocking those possibilities of the language of comics that are still untapped. As Hana advises Asterios, and us, the readers: "It’s just a matter of paying attention".

In 2005, in Comic Book Artist‘s Will Eisner Tribute, Mazzucchelli cited Eisner’s example, especially his rich late period from A Contract With God onwards, as a major inspiration. He commented, "Here was an artist in love with the medium of comics and still curious to see how far his particular talents would allow him to push it." Now Mazzucchelli’s talents have pushed his beloved medium farther still. May this triumph be only the beginning a whole new period for him.

Update May 27, 2009:
It arrived today. Holding and reading the advance dummy, bound printouts on bright white paper, is one thing, but holding and reading the actual finished printed object is something else entirely. Mazzucchelli has given this book-as-object some striking and elegant production qualities: the wraparound dustjacket is shorter, top and bottom, than the covers beneath. The spine of this hardback has a purple cloth binding, matching the purple main colour used on the front logo and in place of black inside, and stretching to half of the covers, front and back. A further refinement are the binding edges, light blue cyan at the top, magenta pink at the bottom, like the other two logo colours which combine to create the purple. Mazzucchelli has left the other halves of the boards of the hardcover as raw, unfinished grey card, and these are debossed or indented with the two outline figures of Asterios Polyp. The endpapers, blue at the front, pink at the back, feature 32 drawing of plants. Another surprise awaiting inside is the paper stock, a slightly grey white with excellent opacity, which gently mutes the colours. The indicia at the back reveal that the book is printed on 100% recycled paper. Mazzucchelli adds this modest biography to the back inside flap: "David Mazzucchelli has been making comics his whole life. This is his first graphic novel." You can read that first sentence in two ways - first, that it reveals how long he’s been making comics, but second, that comics have become his whole life, filling his life. And this great comics can fill ours.


"It’s just a matter of paying attention." It becomes clear that these words of advice, from the nature-loving Japanese sculptress, Hana, to her strictly urbane lover, Asterios, are also being suggested to the readers of David Mazzucchelli’s full-length solo debut. In the footsteps of North American auteurs Seth and David Lapham or Frenchmen Moebius and Bilal, Mazzucchelli is another former artist, who started as an illustrator of other people’s stories, from Frank Miller’s Daredevil to Paul Auster’s City Of Glass, who has gradually found his own voice by writing short pieces, before achieving a long-form breakthrough.

Great graphic novels don’t happen overnight, and Mazzucchelli took some nine years to craft his 344-page Asterios Polyp (Pantheon, June). Our eponymous leading man is a prickly, stiff, self-important "paper architect", lauded for his designs, none of which have ever been constructed. Framed by acts of God, from its opening lightning bolt which destroys Asterios’s apartment block, to its potentially equally dramatic finale, his story unravels between flashbacks, to his family roots, his dying father and his romance with Hana, and the present-day chapters as he rebuilds his shattered ego by working as a small-town auto mechanic, a world away from his former high-brow milieu. From here, he reevaluates his unfulfilled career and his broken relationship with the woman he loved. These scenes are intercut with philosophical ruminations, even a variation on Orpheus and Eurydice, and symbolistic vignettes where he communes with Ignazio Polyp, his twin brother, whose death (or was it pre-natal murder in the womb?) still haunts Asterios constantly.

Masterfully, Mazzucchelli gives each principal character their own appropriate visual style, balloon shape and dialogue font. So Asterios holds forth in emphatic sans serif capitals inside rectangular blocks, while Hana’s softer voice is evoked through a cursive upper-and-lower case within curvaceous bubbles. When the couple first meet at a party, they and everyone else are drawn in different styles, Asterios made up of outlined cylinders, spheres and other Aristotelean forms, while Hana appears like a carved statuette in textured volume. As the two of them start to get on, they take on each other’s distinct visual register, literally coming together. Later, when they argue, they revert to their individual styles. Similarly, the book’s palettes of purple and a second colour shift to suit the setting and mood. Yet, for all these ludic, allusive techniques, Mazzucchelli makes them serve his prime purpose: to reflect on how one man comes to terms with what is worth "paying attention" to.

Posted: April 19, 2009

The above review first appearred in Art Review magazine, a monthly publication dedicated to contemporary art and is essential reading for a global community of artists and gallerists, collectors, curators and indeed anyone with an interest in art. Every issue of Art Review is available to read free online here.


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Pedrona, Italy:
City of Glass
March 22 to April 26, 2009

Sounds & Pauses:
The Comics of
David Mazzucchelli
MOCCA Museum, NY
MOCCA Art Festival 2009

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