20 August 2010

Comics that inspired me: Asterios Polyp

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Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli made a lot of noise when it was published last year, and you can find dozens of reviews over the net, but after reading it myself I felt compelled to give my point of view on the matter, as someone who not only reads comics and graphic novels, but has an interest in making both.

Graphic novels usually try to make the medium disappear behind the story, and comics do so to an even greater degree with highly glossy graphics. Even when the fourth wall is broken, the page and characters themselves are seldom visually deconstructed. In contrast, every page of Asterios Polyp shows the nuts and bolts of the medium.

It's a story that's very comfortable moving around its chosen medium and not at all tied down by inherited concerns with consistency or "concealing the puppeteer." Let me emphasize however that what makes it brilliant and not a mere exercise in deconstruction is that there is a clear, quiet but compelling, well-written story and that the sequential art serves that, and not its own sake. When Asterios and Hana meet, they take on 2 different drawing styles to explicit how different they are. When they get together, their style is unified, but anytime there is estrangement between them that is expressed visually by the split of styles reemerging. When someone asks Asterios a question and he's not sure what to answer, a die-shaped thought bubble appears with a different possible answer (yes/no/uh) on each of the sides, remarkably limpid way of communicating his indecision.

The layout is entirely flexible, adopting when necessary the look of a user manual or a textbook before returning to a sequence. All this flowing so naturally we risk to forget that this is no small feat. Conceptually speaking, it is the equivalent of modernism breaking away from the neoclassical architecture the Western world was enslaved to, to adopt forms consistent with and unique to the newest building materials where capitals and cornices no longer made any sense. I find it very interesting, but I don't know if the author intended this, that the main character is an architect, just like Ayn Rand's character in the Fountainhead, who called for just such a shift.

In addition to this, Mazzucchelli's style is strikingly aesthetic. He shifts effortlessly between ligne claire and un-outlined flat shapes, monochromatic and fully colored pages.

In my opinion, this needs to be read by all comic creators, though not so much by casual readers.
To make things more interesting, here is a negative critique I ran across while preparing this issue, though I don't personally relate to the poster's points.