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Rec Room: Claire Grossman: Asterios Polyp

June 29, 2011

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David Mazzucchelli’s gorgeous hardcover teaches us that sometimes a comic book is just a comic book.

By **Claire Grossman**

Claire Grossman.jpgDavid Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp may be the least fanboy-ish comic book to come out in recent years. Its titular hero is a middle-aged, womanizing professor of architecture (the movie adaptation would be horrible), and it’s the kind of gripping work that I would recommend to my least nerdy friends.

In sprawling, wide-angle frames, the opening sequence navigates through a cluttered modern living room during a nighttime storm. The frame of view follows the faint strains of satisfied moans through the unkempt apartment, finally arriving at the bedroom where Asterios lies alone in bed watching a sex tape. A “KKLAPP!” erupts in a full-page flash, blanching the blue tones to a blinding white. The rest of the sequence shows Asterios hurrying to retrieve items from his drawers as he leaves his burning apartment. This catastrophic, wordless moment splits Mazzucchelli’s comic into two main narratives.

The main action of the story shows Asterios’s unraveling academic career and his relationship with a pretty colleague/sculptor named Hanna; the second storyline shows his efforts at redemption and human connection after the fire. A perfect storm of misogyny and self-importance, Asterios obsesses over classic aesthetic principles of symmetry and refuses to see the value in any “low” art beyond his mossy credo. At first, I cringed at the inside-jokiness of Asterios’s tweed-jacketed, tenure-fueled ego, but Mazzucchelli staves off any trace of authorial pretension with his sharp dialogue and gorgeous visuals. Each page unfurls in ungimmicky, Bauhaus landscapes, as the protagonist’s architectural preoccupations influence the forms and contours of Mazzucchelli’s illustrations.

For all its reflection on the value of different artistic forms, it is especially important to think of Asterios Polyp as a comic book and not a “graphic novel.” In the introduction to another Mazzuchelli work (a comic adaptation of Paul Auster’s City of Glass) cartoonist Art Spiegelman offers a condensed history of the neologism: “In the mid-‘80s some well-intended journalists and booksellers tried to distinguish a handful of book-format comics from other, less ambitious works by dubbing them ‘graphic novels,’” he says. “The new label stuck in my craw as a mere cosmetic bid for respectability. Since ‘graphics’ were respectable and ‘novels’ were respectable…surely ‘graphic novels’ must be doubly respectable!” Spiegelman’s wry observation rings true for Asterios Polyp, as well. While we could easily call this gorgeous hardcover a “graphic novel” and put it on some new-lit shelf far from Marvel reprints, the fact is that Mazzucchelli (who got his chops working on Batman and Daredevil) really wants us learn from Asterios’s snobbery: sometimes a comic book is just a comic book.

Copyright 2011 Claire Grossman

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Claire Grossman is an editorial intern at Guernica.

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