Review: Asterios Polyp
In 1986, David Mazzucchelli drew my favorite superhero story, “Daredevil: Born Again”. He followed that by drawing the “Year One” arc on Batman–another deservedly-famous superhero story. His subsequent projects received less attention (both from the industry and from me), and his pace dwindled as he pursued other interests. He hardly published anything at all throughout the 2000’s.
Then, in 2009, he completed Asterios Polyp, a 300-page graphic novel that he wrote and drew. It received critical acclaim and a number of awards, including three Eisners. It was a big deal, and it’s been on my list ever since.
It’s a story about a self-absorbed academic struggling through his social life. As far as premises go, that hardly reads like an award-winner. It’s actually a fascinating book; it just requires some patience. The nonlinear storytelling makes it tough to understand the characters or recognize the themes on the first reading. Some of it is downright misleading.
You should see my initial attempt to collect my thoughts on the book. Actually, you could see it if I wasn’t so embarrassed. Suffice it to say that the outline I produced was superficial and entirely uninteresting.
“People went nuts over this,” I thought. “I must be missing something.”
So I re-read it, and I can’t tell you how much more entertaining it is the second time through. With a broad-strokes knowledge of the book’s events and a vague familiarity with its characters, you can begin to empathize. You can read the meaning behind seemingly-mundane exchanges. You can see how the artwork reflects Asterios’ perception of the world. And you can understand the characters’ shortcomings, recognize their epiphanies, and appreciate their growth.
The experience is a lot like solving a jigsaw puzzle. If you were given one piece at a time, it’d be almost impossible to put the thing together. But once you had all the pieces laid out in front of you, you could organize them and make guesses about how they connect. Re-reading Asterios Polyp involves the same satisfaction from recognizing how different pieces snap together.
Most people assemble jigsaw puzzles using a photo of the final image as a guide, though. I guess you could approximate that experience by reading a plot synopsis first, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Although it’s more challenging to build your own point of reference, it’s worth the effort.