Asterios Polyp

Writer(s): David Mazzucchelli
Artist(s): David Mazzucchelli
Publisher: Pantheon
ISBN: 978-0307377326
Price: $29.95
Page count: 344
Year Released: 2009
Status: in print
Original Source: n/a
Other Collected Edition(s): n/a
Genres: literature; magic realism; romance/relationships; teen/young adult
Recommended for Fans Of: bildungsroman novels
Possibly Objectionable Material: nudity
If You Like This Book, Try: Cages
Also in This Series: n/a

Plot Summary
On the surface, the plot of Asterios Polyp is fairly simple. It's the story of a man at the end of his tether. A "paper architect" (meaning that none of his designs were ever built), Polyp used to teach at Cornell and was a star in the academic world. We meet him on his fiftieth birthday, in his disheveled New York apartment, when a fire breaks out, destroying the building in which he's lived for the past 20 years. From this decimation of personal property Polyp leaves New York with nothing but the clothes on his back, riding a bus as far as the cash in his pocket will take him (which in this case is Apogee, Arizona).

There, Polyp takes a job as an auto mechanic, despite having never worked on a car in his life. But a trip to the local library's reference section provides him with all the knowledge he needs. For Polyp is an academic through and through. He has lived his life on the premise that nothing is worth knowing that a book cannot teach you.

Meanwhile, courtesy of the story's ethereal narrator (Ignazio, Polyp's stillborn twin brother), we look into Polyp's past to learn what brought him to this state. The key lies in a talented professor of sculpture, Hana Sonnenschein, whom Polyp met when she joined the faculty back in 1984. A reserved, modest, and sensuous woman, Hana is Polyp's polar opposite--and so he falls for her almost immediately.

It is the clash of their respective worldviews that drives the narrative forward.

My Own 2 Cents
So that's the plot, but it's not what the book is really about. Asterios Polyp is primarily a novel of ideas and, moreso than any other comic book of the last several years, a dazzling visual exploration of those ideas. Like Dave McKean's Cages, much of the power of Mazzucchelli's story is brought forth through his exceptional artistic craftsmanship. More than one reviewer has mentioned Asterios Polyp's tangential relationship to Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics (including McCloud himself), and I think a reader unfamiliar with the more subtle ways in which comic books work would benefit from reading McCloud's book--either before or after reading Asterios Polyp. But it's certainly not necessary to understanding and appreciating the book on its own. Despite Mazzucchelli's virtuosity on display, Asterios Polyp is by no means inaccessible to the general reader. On the contrary, I think it's a real page-turner, and should be for just about anyone who loves to read. Bottom line, Asterios Polyp is a landmark book, and I would recommend it to just about anyone looking for a book that shows what the comics medium is capable of in the right creator's hands.

Other People's Cents
Those of us who have followed Mazzucchelli's work since the '80s have been waiting a long time for his first full-length work. This site isn't really built for in-depth comics criticism, but there are plenty of people out there who have written long, thoughtful reviews of Asterios Polyp. I've linked to a few of them below:

The New York Times review by Douglas Wolk
The Comics Reporter review/reader's guide by Ng Suat Tong
The Metabunker by Matthias Wivel
Scott McCloud's review
Sean T. Collins's review
The Factual Opinion's review by Nina Stone
Dr. K's review
Matthew Brady's review
High-Low's review by Rob Clough
Next Issue!s metareview by Geoff Grogan

Annotations for Asterios Polyp at Stumptown Notes