Powerful Panels: David Mazzucchelli's Asterios Polyp
David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp is a mind-bogglingly effective confluence of art and design, narrative and philosophy, words and pictures. The book consists of a mirrored dual narrative that combines the structure of the classical Greek tragedy, with the generally untold story of how the tragic hero rejects his tragic fate and gets about the business of mending his flawed character and repairing his broken life.
The panel above depicts the moment in which the marriage between the book’s eponymous hero and his sculptor wife, Hana Sonnenschein, is irreparably broken. The spareness of the page, the reduction of each character to their respective component parts and the great fields of white space surrounding the characters attest to Mazzucchelli’s effective use of design in a manner that doesn’t simply look cool, but also adds shades of nuance and meaning to the story told.
Asterios has reverted to the state of rigid line and formal abstraction, representative of the complex defense mechanism that he has constructed for dealing with a world that ultimately baffles and terrifies him and, for her part, Hana has sunk back into the withdrawn, un-self-confident shyness that defined her earlier self. This moment depicts the reversal of the process of coming together depicted several hundred pages earlier at the party at which the couple met.
In that sequence, we see the extroverted, arrogant Asterios holding forth at a faculty soirée when he catches a glimpse of a quiet, unassuming Hana. As the two approach and slowly get to know each other, their respective design schemes gradually metamorphose into one another. This metamorphosis is a visual representation of an idea posited a few pages earlier, in which the narrator, Asterios’s stillborn, identical twin brother Ignazio, suggests that perhaps one person’s construction of the world, in other words, his or her individual view of reality, could influence someone else’s. Of course, this is precisely what a marriage is, insofar as marriages are ever successful. Such overtly philosophical musings can quickly become tiresome, but Mazzucchelli not only manages to illustrate them effectively, but also employ them in such a way that provides motive force and adds meaning to the narrative.
There is a measure of ambiguity in the words Hana speaks in this panel. On the preceding page, as Hana finally asserts herself to the consummately overbearing and arrogant Asterios, the latter responds with his usual obtuseness. Frustrated, Hana dissolves into tears, to which her cat Noguchi responds with a plaintive, “MMRRAO?” Thus, Hana’s question on the second page: “Why do you always let him talk to me like that?” can be read as rhetorical, aimed at the once again mute Noguchi. Be that as it may, the couple’s argument stemmed from an encounter with Willy Ilium, the choreographer who has hired Hana to design his new production, a modern retelling of the Orpheus myth (you can see a definite pattern here). Ilium, the corpulent id to Asterios’s pompous super-ego, is forever inserting sexual innuendo into his interactions with Hana—“I’d like to know more . . . about your hirsute pussy,” “Couldn’t you go for something firm in your mouth right now?”—but the cowardly Asterios always pretends not to notice, to Hana’s growing dismay. Thus, Hana’s ultimate displeasure and her accusatory question may be aimed just as much at Asterios as at Noguchi.
Asterios Polyp is the sort of book that repays multiple readings. There is an awful lot going on in the book, but in the final analysis, there is nothing that is not significant. It comes as little surprise, then, to recall that Mazzucchelli was the co-creator of the comics adaptation of Paul Auster’s post-modern detective novel City of Glass. In the early pages of that novel, the narrator explains that Quinn, the book’s novelist protagonist, admired mysteries for “their sense of plenitude and economy. In the good mystery there is nothing wasted, no sentence, no word that is not significant.” Asterios Polyp is a book in which co-existent plenitude and economy reach their paradoxical apogee.