Comics artist David Mazzucchelli is probably best known for his work on Frank Miller's Batman: Year One—the legendary four-issue arc describes the parallel stories of Bruce Wayne and Jim Gordon, as both men struggle to define themselves against the corrupt and shadowy backdrop of Gotham City. Mazzucchelli's more recently done work for indie publishers like Drawn & Quarterly and Fantagraphics, as well as illustrating the graphic novel adaptation of Paul Auster's City of Glass. In short, he has two-plus decades of experience telling all kinds of stories in the medium—and he brings every bit of it to bear on his new graphic novel, Asterios Polyp. The result? An absolutely incredible piece of visual communication. Asterios Polyp is a high-concept integration of image, text, and color that, for all its intellectual swagger, is ultimately a perceptive, funny, and empathetic case study of the book's title character.
Asterios Polyp is introduced as a "paper architect," meaning that though he's a renowned professor of architecture, none of his award-winning designs have ever been built. He's 50. He's divorced. And, as the book begins, his apartment building is burning down. The fiery destruction of his home and all of his possessions proves a turning point for the unhappy professor—he buys a bus ticket out of town, and lands in a small town where he slowly reinvents himself.
Middle-aged man has personal and professional crisis—it sounds phenomenally unoriginal, described in such plain terms (paging Richard Ford!). Around this straightforward premise, though, Mazzucchelli layers a rich visual and philosophical framework. The book is narrated, first of all, by the ghost of Polyp's twin brother, Ignazio, who walks the reader through a series of flashbacks explaining Polyp's history and general worldview.
In both his work and his life, we learn, Polyp is drawn to abstraction, to rational systems and the symmetry of a framework defined by opposing points of view (male and female, form and function, linear and plastic). But this approach, Ignazio points out, is limited in that it presupposes the existence of a binary system: "Why must choices always lie along a linear spectrum with two poles," he asks, "instead of, say, among a sphere of possibilities?" And in the next drawing, Polyp stands on a grid, looking down, while a sphere hovers overhead, casting a deceptively two-dimensional shadow. This isn't mere philosophical speculation: It's clear that, if he wants to be happy, Polyp's task is to reorient himself toward the possibility of entirely new ways of thinking about the world.
The book's intellectual game playing is most effective, and most affecting, when it comes to bear on Polyp's personal life. Polyp's ex-wife Hana is rendered in red cross-hatching, shading lending her figure a gently rounded shape. Polyp, drawn in blue, is an unshaded geometric conception of a man, torso and arms built of cylinders. When the two meet, their aspects merge, lending definition to Hana and depth to Polyp, and their early life together is a wash of soft blues, reds, and purples. As the relationship develops and eventually unravels, colors ebb and flow accordingly.
If there's any justice, Asterios Polyp will join the ranks of books like Fun Home and Blankets—graphic novels that've received a stamp of mainstream literary approval—if for no other reason than that it's hard to think of a better primer on how to read a comic book. Mazzucchelli's visuals don't merely illustrate the storyline; they communicate an entire conceptual framework in their own right. Every element is in place for a reason, and parsing each one rewards the effort tenfold.