Bandying about words like excellent and incredible to describe Asterios Polyp feels so underwhelming. It’s a special book, one that holds much promise, the first graphic novel from David Mazzucchelli, who made his name in comics beginning in the 1980s, when his artwork graced the pages of Daredevil and Batman comics and more. Seeing Mazzucchelli return with this book-length masterwork is a treat, a real pleasure. That it’s truly a read—meaning a long book, an engrossing one, a graphic novel that puts the emphasis on the novel—enhances the experience of getting reacquainted with Mazzucchelli so much more. This is a book to be savored over a nice length of time, not quickly devoured and placed on a shelf. And yes, it’s that good.
Asterios Polyp, the man behind the title, is an intellectual and a bit of a polymath. He’s capable of doing such things as lying his way into a job as an auto mechanic, then quickly excusing himself to grab a bit to eat before he starts working—but in reality, he runs to the library for an hour to quickly study how cars work. Polyp, who can’t be looked at on the page without reminding one of John Updike (but also gives off a strong vibe of Gay Talese as well, and perhaps just a touch of Tom Wolfe), is a former professor and architect who holds onto the past (and the love he found in it) with a viselike grip.
Through his reflections on the past, we meet Hana, an artist Polyp falls for and marries and then loses. Finding out why this love of his life is no longer around, and why the former greatness of Polyp—whose intellect and wit were the envy of every elite party he attended—has so profoundly faded is the driving force of the story. There is no overly sentimental trip down sordid memories here. There is just the human, the sublimely powerful force of raw emotion held deeply in check and inside, to escort us through while we watch Polyp leave his fire-ravaged apartment and embark on a new adventure and we stumble along trying to figure out what brought him here, to this place and time. When we find out, we’ve completed a full journey with Asterios Polyp and we’re better for it. So is the graphic novel format. Because, yes, it’s that good.
Reviewed by John Hogan on July 9, 2012