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7 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Ambitious graphic novel that doesn't quite get there, 7 Jun 2010
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This review is from: Asterios Polyp (Hardcover)
David Mazzucchelli is a leading American illustrative artist, whose work elsewhere has been widely praised. This is the first major piece of work for which he takes sole responsibility. It tells the story of Asterios Polyp, a self-regarding and deeply anxious Greek-American academic architect, weaving elements of romance, satire and domestic adventure around a core of existential unease and philosophical speculation.

As a graphic artist, Mazzucchelli is well up to the task he has set himself. However, his achievement here is distinctly mixed. For me, the obvious weakness in the book resided almost entirely in the story elements and organization rather than the art. The author has organised his narrative around themes taken from ancient Greek philosophy and myth, which are rather selfconsciously introduced. In addition, Mazzucchelli has consciously invited comparison with celebrated writers of postmodernist fictions. Rather like Paul Auster, whose work Mazzucchelli has illustrated, he doesn't always recognise that this is a game that has to be played to the hilt or not at all. Toying with such recognizable elements is one thing: expecting a literate audience not to recognise second-hand or watered-down tropes is something else. Greater originality - a quality whose very possibility postmodernism tends to portray as a romantic fiction - is needed if cliches are to be revivified. Mazzucchelli is no Calvino, Bernhard or Borges, and the banality of the central story demands a textualist of that calibre - and, one suspects, the density of a real text.

Mazzucchelli has not taken the easy road here, and he should be praised for that. He has deliberately restricted himself to a limited colour palette based on the three 'printer's colours' - magenta, cyan and yellow - and a limited range of combinations, which means for example that in the absence of a true black he uses a deep, muted purple. There is no 'eye candy' here. I suspect some people will find the results unattractive, and the reader who dislikes raw cyan and magenta will certainly find no escape from them. It is almost as though the artist was so taken with the design conceit that he chose to disregard how harshly these artificial colours strike the eye when used separately rather than as tints and overlays.

Throughout the book the design elements are thoroughly integrated: the characters' speech bubbles, for example, are rendered consistently in shapes and font styles unique to each character, and there are a host of echoes and repetitions in the appearance and disappearance of significant objects. At times, this degree of obsessive organisation threatens to become schematic: the messiness and uncertainty of life, which are championed implicitly by other characters in the story and emerge as the unifying theme, threaten to disappear entirely. This is one of those stories in which no detail is ever accidental.

Asterios Polyp is very consciously clever - though not as clever as it thinks it is - and a little cold. Apparently the author laboured over it for nine years, and while one can hardly doubt the sincerity of the effort, the finished item does rather smell of the lamp.

As with anything by this artist, it is worth reading, and students of book design will probably be more impressed than I was. One need not pay attention to those who insist that it is 'the best graphic novel ever' - there are dozens of better candidates - to enjoy it for what it is: one of the better graphic novels to appear in its year of publication. However, I would suggest that the reader completely new to Mazzucchelli starts elsewhere: perhaps with City of Glass: The Graphic Novel or with Frank Miller's highly regarded Batman: Year One.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 27 Jul 2010 18:44:13 BDT
Last edited by the author on 27 Jul 2010 18:47:55 BDT
monica says:
It was only as I read your review that it struck me that perhaps the repetitions and recurrances are meant to parallel the use of epithets in Homer (given the classical references): never a sea that's not wine dark, never an Asterios who is seen face-on. . . On the other hand they may be nothing of the sort.

In reply to an earlier post on 29 Jul 2010 18:19:36 BDT
Paul Bowes says:
Hi Monica

You may well be right. I suspect that there are a host of such references that somebody more alert and better educated in the classics than myself would spot. But whether Mazzucchelli can make us care enough to trace them is another matter.
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