David Mazzucchelli
Pantheon Books ($29.95)

by Britt Aamodt

Asterios Polyp is David Mazzucchelli's first graphic novel—a surprising fact considering the artist’s many years in the field. He has been drawing comics since the early 1980s, and has collaborated on such high-profile projects as Daredevil and Batman: Year One (both written by Frank Miller) and an adaptation of Paul Auster’s City of Glass. But the 344-pageAsterios Polyp is indeed a high-water mark for Mazzucchelli—it shows him reveling in his chosen art form at every step, and exercising his considerable talent to produce a harmonious and revelatory arrangement of image and word.

The book's eponymous main character is the farthest thing from a superhero one might imagine: a professor of architecture. Though he is considered brilliant, his ingenious architectural plans never make it past the blueprint stage. So, if Polyp is a genius, he is a thwarted genius—or worse, an arid ideologue whose architecture dismisses the basic fact of human occupancy. This tension lies at the heart of Mazzucchelli's rich character study, and makes the journey Polyp takes riveting.

The story opens on a vision of storm clouds. A lightning bolt sizzles through the rain, darts through a mass of buildings, and slips into Polyp’s apartment's electrical circuitry, causing a fire. The once refined apartment is a mess—clothes litter the floor, overdue notices crowd the tables—and the professor is also a sloppy version of his former self, slumming it on an unmade bed and wallowing in nostalgia. The lightning bolt is just the shock he needs to escape the inertia that has trapped his ambition; it sends Polyp racing out of his burning building and into an adventure that will transform his life into a habitable, three-dimensional space.

Mazzucchelli, too, is on an adventure—one designed to exploits every advantage the comics medium has to tell a story both in pictures and words. Word balloons and lettering alter to suit the characters' personalities, for example: Polyp's word balloons are square, his lettering precise, while Ursula Major (a buxom Mae West type) speaks in cloud-shaped balloons, her lettering darker and earthier than the professor's. Likewise, Mazzucchelli's color schemes and adaptable lines change as easily as the story’s time frames. The narrative jumps back and forth in Polyp's chronology—looking at Polyp as the womanizing academic, exploring his budding relationship with the beautiful artist Hana, leaping ahead to the relationship's decline and the escape from the burning building.

Like Daredevil or Batman, Asterios Polyp is two men, separated not by ego and alter-ego, but by time. He is the esteemed architect and the deadbeat has-been, and the mystery uniting the out-of-sequence episodes is: How did this man who had everything end up with nothing? That question provides a steady drumbeat to the journey Polyp undertakes after fleeing his apartment. He boards a Greyhound bus headed for nowhere and ends up in Apogee, a backwater town that breeds eccentrics. Polyp takes a job as an auto mechanic, and finds a room in the home of his boss, Stiffly Major. In alternating chapters, Polyp deals with his past and gropes about in the dark for the threads of a grounded and more meaningful future.

Asterios Polyp is personal and nuanced, and the action in Polyp's life is cerebral and spiritual. Our hero doesn't need a super-villain to overturn his day; Polyp is his own worst enemy, which is so often the case in real life. Mazzucchelli, a renowned formalist, isn't the first graphic novelist to tackle a human story using the language of comics, but his achievement here is to push the borders of style and content while still providing a compelling, multi-layered read.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009