The Annotated Asterios Polyp, Pt. 1: Cover and creator background

For the past week I’ve been wrestling with Asterios Polyp, the new graphic novel by acclaimed artist David Mazzucchelli. This book is about as deep as you want it to go, but never loses its brisk pace or overwhelms the reader with complicated imagery. This book deserves more than a mere review, which is why I’ve decided to annotate it chapter-by-chapter.

Asterios Polyp is an architect and lecturerwho loses his home to a fire in the year 2000. He attempts to start anew by fleeing the city and working as an auto mechanic. The rest of the book  alternates between chapters set in 2000 and chapters that provide background to the character, explaining both his philosophy and his failed marriage. As we learn more about Asterios, stray details and seeming non-sequiturs become imbued with significance.

David Mazzucchelli shares a few similarities with Asterios. Mazzucchelli is best known for his adaptations of other people’s works and characters–see his work on Daredevil or Batman (with Frank Miller), or his cartoon translation of Paul Auster’s City of Glass (with Paul Karasik)–while Asterios Polyp is a “paper architect”, meaning his designs have never actually become completed buildings. Now, a paper architect is not at all the same thing as an artist-for-hire, but both may feel the frustration that comes from not seeing their own babies brought into the world. In the meantime, both David and Asterios became teachers.

Mazzucchelli’s early artwork depicted characters concretely and realistically; as he mentions in a recent interview, it was working with Karasik on the Auster book that got him to approach the craft differently. While Mazzucchelli’s  temptation had been to render situations as they would appear to the human eye, Karasik helped him create and use images abstractly. Likewise, Asterios approaches the dilemmas of his craft (and, as we learn, how he sees the world) through the divide between the realistic and the illusory. It’s too large a step to say that Asterios is Mazzucchelli, but it’s a safer bet to say that Mazzucchelli worked through his philosophy of art by making Asterios Polyp.*

Anyway, before reading any further, I’d recommend obtaining a copy!

Cover, Jacket, and other material qualities of the book:

Mazzucchelli designed the book and jacket. The spine features the title in Futura Bold, a fitting choice for his subject, an architect obsessed with Modernism. It also conjures up filmmaker Wes Anderson as a possible influence, since Anderson uses Futura Bold in his movie credits. Anderson’s films feature backward-looking characters who love artifice and have rich-but-constrictive inner lives. As we’ll see, those qualities fit Asterios to a tee.

The front cover displays the title through intersecting planes of color. Blue and red rectangles, with cut-out shapes, line up over a white background. The blue and red rectangles create a purplish hue when they meet–purple will be one of the two dominant colors for the book. It’s only through the intersection of the red, white, and blue that his name becomes visible. This design  extends to the front inner flap, but I can’t make out if that says anything.

The front and back covers each feature an illustration of Asterios. On the front he’s in a suit, smoking a cigarette. Later in the book we’ll learn why he eventually quits cigarettes. The billowing smoke from the cigarette is also suggestive–when we see some word balloons inside, we’ll witness that some are smoke-shaped. The Asterios on the back cover is more casually dressed (although it’s an old-fashioned sort of casual–a dress shirt with rolled-up sleeves tucked into slacks) and has his hands in his pockets.

A quick word or two about character design. Asterios’s head is already famous, drawing comparisons to a hammer. This is especially fitting since Asterio’s worldview becomes a hammer through which he nails down everything he encounters (as they say, “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”). Asterios is quite angular as well, which meshes with his design principles. The nose, eyes, and cheek lines also give him a feline quality.

The back jacket features another colored rectangle–this one’s yellow, and yellow will alternate with purple as the dominant colors of the book. Yellow and purple are complementary colors on the color wheel. The two Asterios match up with the Asterios of the past of the book and the Asterios of the present. The “twoness” of Asterios will also have much play in the plot of the book.

The cover itself is gray (which is what you’ll get if you mix complementary colors) with purple on the spine. Open the book to the endpapers, and you’ll see illustrations of various flowers on fields of blue and red. The top headband is blue, the bottom red. The flowers will connect with Asterio’s wife Hana, whose name means “flower” in Japanese. The red and blue will be the colors associated most often with Hana and Asterios, respectively, during their relationship. And yeah, if you mix red and blue, you’ll get purple. Much, much more on colors to come.

Next time: I’ll look at the first chapter!

*check out the author description: “David Mazzucchelli has been making comics his whole life. This is his first graphic novel.” Mazzucchelli is making a distinction between what has come before (comics) and what he has just produced (a graphic novel). But what does this distinction mean? Some literary types use the term graphic novel to differentiate oh-so-sophisticated comic books from those starring Batman, but I doubt that’s really what Mazzucchelli’s getting at here. He’s also suggesting a difference between work-for-hire and his own creative pursuits. Lastly, he’s signaling that this work gestated for quite a while.


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