We've had a really good summer for graphic novels, haven't we? There's universally well received work like THE HUNTER by Darwyn Cooke, and stuff that doesn't seem to be on anyone's radar, like THE IMPOSTOR'S DAUGHTER from Laurie Sandell (I thought it was a terrific little book!), but without a doubt, the biggest winner of the summer is ASTERIOS POLYP by David Mazzucchelli.
I'm not that great of a critic, really -- not like Douglas Wolk, whose review can be found over here -- but there's not another book this year that has lingered in my brain like POLYP. I've already re-read it twice, each time picking up new little nuances in color and form.
Above all else, this is a masterpiece of cartooning -- Mazzucchelli's line is confident and bold and absolutely assured and in control of his medium. It's funny, but as I try to hand-sell this book to people, a lot of people have said "who?" when I mention Mazzucchelli's name (I suspect some of these people are the same folks who say "Uh, so what?" when they read the non internet-cracking news about Marvel(Miracle)Man's return -- for a guy like me who has been doing this forever and a day, it is easy to forget that when material or a creator is "off the market" for so long, people forget all about them. Man, has it really been 16 years since RUBBER BLANKET was last released (in '93!)? 15 years since his adaptation of CITY OF GLASS?
Even then, outside of a few dozen stores, RUBBER BLANKET didn't really have all that wide circulation, I don't think -- no, I have to mention BATMAN YEAR ONE to people to get that "Oh, yeah, that guy!" reaction. Which is kind of funny, considering the extreme difference in craft and construction between the two. Er, that's not to say that BATMAN YEAR ONE doesn't have craft and construction, more that it's kind of amazing to put the two side by side and realize that they're the same artist. It is rare to see that kind of growth, so starkly.
POLYP is a work that rewards re-reading -- in fact there's a scene at the very beginning that has a COMPLETELY different tone once you know what is in the middle of the book, and there's a lot of smart things happening through-out the work that you're not going to glom onto on your first reading.
One of the most amazing bits is the coloring -- on a "flip test" the book looks a bit limited and too pastel, but on the actual reading the color choices absolutely support and underline virtually every scene nearly perfectly. Good coloring, like good lettering, shouldn't draw one's attention to it, but should support the work itself. But I suspect that if you photocopied POLYP into gray tones, it would lose a tremendous amount of its power and readability.
In the same way, the lettering is amazing as well -- each character has a distinct "voice" conveyed through the lettering, yet the presentation of that lettering is never overwhelming or distracting whatsoever.
Basically, what I'm saying here is that if you appreciate craft whatsoever -- and I don't mean in terms of formalistic tricks like those first chapters of, say, LOST GIRLS (the chapter told all in a mirror, or whatever) -- I mean the actual craft of creating comics work, then this is most certainly the best book of the year so far, and, probably, is the best book of the decade so far; and, best of all, it shows all of that craft without a lot of "hey, hey, look at me!". Every choice that is made is in the service of the work, and it all works and flows seamlessly.
If POLYP doesn't absolutely sweep next year's Eisner Awards I will be shocked and disappointed -- and, if it doesn't, it will only be because it came out so "early in the year" (relative to the judging process, I mean)
I've three criticisms I can make here, but only one is about the work itself.
To start with, and here I am speaking as a retailer, the cover kind of sucks. It looks misprinted and out of register, and while that fits very thematically with the work, it makes it something that I really am having to hand-sell to people. Further, the "short" dustjacket is horrifically prone to ripping, both on the racks, and more perniciously, in the distribution process. I've had to return some 10% of the copies I've received because the dustjacket got mangled.
The second criticism is, again, as a retailer, this comic would have worked very well as a serialization -- it would be pretty easy to chop the book up into segments of 16-18 pages at a throw, and the chapter breaks are already there, in fact. I could have sold hundreds of copies of a serialization, where we'll be limited to scores of copies of a $30 HC (people can be cheap, yes), and there would have been an ongoing buzz for the book over the last x years.
The third bit, and this one relates to the work, is that I thought the ending was pretty bad. In a way, it made me think of LIKE A VELVET GLOVE CAST IN IRON, where Clowes lost the thread of the story, and basically just had it STOP, rather than having a narratively satisfying conclusion -- that's probably overstating it in this case, but the end, at least for the lead characters, feels imposed by the author, rather than flowing naturally out of the characters. I'm glad there's a coda, of sorts, that mutes that to some degree, but the end is the one bit that I did not think worked at all. If that was the end of, say, a film, it would tank it at the box office because that's not how you want people leaving the "theater". Thankfully it IS a comic, and comics have different rules about time and space, but it still did mar the work to some degree.
Still, regardless of any of that, this really is the best book I've read this year, and I'm absolutely enamored of craft of ASTERIOS POLYP. I hope we don't have to wait another decade for Mazzucchelli's next work, because this is everything comics should be.
ASTERIOS POLYP is absolutely EXCELLENT work, and deserves a place of honor on your bookshelf.
What did YOU think?