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Sunday, December 27, 2009

What I'm Reading: Asterios Polyp

I was able to get my hands one of the year's best reviewed books, Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli.  If you want a grown-up fiction graphic novel, this one is for you.  One of the problems with the current offerings in "grown-up" graphic novels is that many of the nongenre options are all nonfiction.  Those of us who enjoy literary fiction graphic novels have fewer choices.  Thankfully, Asterios Polyp  is a good option.

The plot is pretty simple, Asterios Polyp is 50 years old when his New York City apartment is destroyed in a fire.  He then takes off on a bus as far as his money can take him to start over in a generic Midwest town.

Asterios' life story is told in flaskbacks as narrated by his twin, who died in utero.  He is a famous "paper architect," meaning he is well renowned for his drawings but none were never built. He was a self righteous, blowhard professor in Ithaca, married to a caring, sensitive sculptor named Hana.  But as we see, he ruined his own life by basically being a jerk.

Asterios' time in the Midwest working as a car mechanic is the first time he truly comes to know himself, and as the book ends, he is trying to make amends for his past mistakes. It is when his life completely falls apart, that he sets off to finally build one. The irony is, he has never built anything before.  I liked that tie in; he is famous for never building anything, but at some point he finally has to step up and do it.

In terms of the drawing style I liked that Mazzucchelli used a free style, utilizing the entire page to tell the story, but still made it easy to follow. How? He changed the font size and style for each character.  Each character talks in dialogue bubbles, and has their own unique font which also gives you clues into their personality.  The narrator uses much larger font, outside of any dialogue bubbles.

The drawing style is fairly traditional; nothing crazy.  I liked how when Asterios is being pompous, Mazzucchelli breaks down Asterios figure into more basic shapes. Mazzucchelli uses tricks like this to enhance the story throughout the graphic novel.

In terms of the colors, it is  mostly Grey,White and Primary colors (blue, red yellow), with each section using one color pallet. As the chapters shift, so does the dominant color. That was also effective in separating out the different sections of this fairly complex story.

3 Words hat Describe This Book: character-driven, modern, redemptive

General Comments: I am not sure how I feel about the entire dead twin narration mostly because I don't think it pans out. I get how once Asterios finds himself again that the twin disappears, but I felt like he should show up at the end since he was there at the beginning; you know, for closure.  There is a one-page epilogue but it is from the perspective of the family in the Midwest who Asterios stayed with.

I did love the complex characters and their interactions. I also liked the "arts" setting. However, I am not sure how I feel about the ending. It feels like a cop-out for such a complex story.  I don't want to give it away since it kind of comes out of nowhere. Read it for yourself and let me know what you think.

Readalikes: David Mazzucchelli has contributed to many graphic novels in the past, so here is a link to his other work.  Specifically, I would suggest starting with City of Glass, the graphic novel version of Paul Auster's wonderful novel.

This graphic novel is also similar to a book of modern art, both because of Hana's sculptures and the overall look of the book itself.  Here are a few examples.

David Mazzucchelli's drawings (and the content to a lesser extent) reminded me of the work of Daniel Clowes.  Both men use a similar style and write interesting, complex, character-driven, fictional stories.

Fans of Chris Ware will also like Asterios Polyp.

Also, a few other graphic novels have received high accolades this year, and they may be of interest to you.  If so, check out Stitches: a Memoir by David Small, AD: New Orleans After the Deluge by Josh Neufeld,  and The Book of Genesis by R. Crumb.

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