A polyp in my heart

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?


From the vault: Asterios Polyp

Yes, you read that headline right. Even though David Mazzucchelli's long-awaited graphic novel Asterios Polyp doesn't come out until tomorrow, I some how ended up with a review copy months and months ago--I wanna say 2008, for pete's sake--so I reviewed the thing on my blog back in March. Now that it's finally coming out officially, I figured I'd repost the review here (in part to apologize for being an absentee savage these past few months). It's after the jump... PhotobucketAsterios Polyp David Mazzucchelli, writer/artist Pantheon, June 2009 344 pages, hardcover $29.95

An extraordinarily easy book to read, Asterios Polyp is, I'm finding, a nearly equally extraordinarily difficult book to talk about. Frankly I think I just feel out of my depth. For example, cartoonist David Mazzucchelli has a long history of making art comics in Europe, and I've flipped through a few in the store or off my buddy Josiah's shelf, but the only Mazzucchelli comics I've read from start to finish prior to this book are Batman Year One, Daredevil: Born Again, and that little comic with the spilled jar of ink he did for The Comics Journal Special Edition: Cartoonists on Cartooning. But hey, fine, I can fake it, I can certainly locate Asterios Polyp within the tradition of alternative comics. For exaple, it uses color and, to a certain extent, character design like a Dash Shaw webcomic or MOME contribution; it mixes imagery with external narrating text like Chris Ware, only with several orders of magnitude more room to breathe on the page, like Ware filmed in slow motion. That, I get.

What I'm having harder time with, where I feel really out of my depth, is in trying to locate the book's story content. Asterios Polyp is a highly lauded, award-winning "paper architect," i.e. a guy whose designs are awesome but have never actually been built, who divides his time between Manhattan and the Ithaca, NY university where he is a professor. We join his story already in progress, as a fire consumes his ratty, messy, porn(?)-soundtracked bachelor pad. Asterios does not pass Go, does not collect $200, proceeds directly from fleeing his apartment in the rain with his wallet and a handful of knicknacks and watching the fire department fight the fire down into the subway and back up and out at the Port Authority, where he takes a bus to the middle of nowhere and gets the first job he can find (as an auto mechanic) and crashpad he can find (renting a room from his boss at the auto shop). From there we bounce back and forth between revelatory events in the present day and key events in the life that led him there, mostly having to do with his ill-fated relationship with the talented but somewhat timid sculptor he was once married to.

In other words, it's very Woody Allen, very Philip Roth, very New Yorker. A sophisticated urban aesthete unsuccessfully balances the life of the mind with the life of his weiner and then wonders where it all went wrong; his life is contrasted with that of the spirited younger woman he can never quite get a handle on and various other sophisticated urban aesthetes whose arrogance and eccentricity he deplores yet cannot see within himself. And there's my problem: I know enough about that stuff to recognize the template, but I don't know enough of it to know if it goes beyond using the template into wholesale swiping and/or rote recapitulation. The best I can do is say "Well, this reminds me somewhat of the Woody/Alan Alda bits in Crimes & Misdemeanors." I'm simply not well-read enough in this area to comment beyond that. Ask me to speak authoritatively about the next Neil Marshall movie and I can probably handle that, but this? Donnie, you're out of your element.

What I can say with confidence, however, is that I enjoyed that story immensely. And a big part of that is because this isn't a Woody Allen film or a Philip Roth novel--it's a comic, and there's no mistaking it. Yeah, the basic story could be told in other ways, but if you wanted an illustration of that old saw that you should be able to look at a comic and determine why it's a comic and not a movie pitch or a short story, look no further. Mazzucchelli clearly had a blast drawing this thing.

My favorite ambitious graphic novels of recent vintage have been pretty manic and information-heavy in terms of the visual approach--Theo Ellsworth's Capacity and Josh Cotter's Skyscrapers of the Midwest spring to mind, and even Dash Shaw's Bottomless Belly Button feels dense and claustrophobic compared much of his other recent work, if only for the lack of color. Asterios Polyp, on the other hand, is airy and light from start to finish, like giving your eyeballs a breath of fresh air. There are all kinds of panel layouts, splash pages, and stand-alone images here, popping right off the big white pages, and the CMYK colors are just a pleasure to look at.

Meanwhile, it's almost unspeakably clever. Mazzucchelli gives each major character and setting its own color scheme, that's apparent from the start--Asterios is bright blue, while his wife Hana is bright pink. But oh, the places Mazzucchelli goes with that! By the time Asterios takes Hana to meet his mother and invalid father, he's wearing a pink checkered jacket, while she has on a blue shirt. In a passage meant to illustrate how our memories slowly refine our original experiences "because every memory is a re-creation, not a playback," Asterios's remembered Hana slowly morphs from having a pink shirt on against a white background to wearing a blue shirt against a blue background. And in a much later scene which I'm going to try hard not to spoil, where the two encounter each other long after their divorce and after myriad transformative experiences, the color scheme is totally different--all oranges and greens. Meanwhile, "neutral zones" in both dreaming and waking life are yellow and purple. And let me assure you that as far as the use of color goes, that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Then there are the countless clever references to the history and art of cartooning. Given our hero's occupation and preoccupations, there are quite a few mini-essays on architecture, philosophy, design, music...and they're drawn and lettered like something out of Understanding Comics. A Latina chef swats flies on the ceiling and looks like she could have gotten off the plane from Palomar yesterday, while her band's drummer sports a "Los Bros" sticker on his drumkit. Asterios's dapper in-his-youth father looks like he stepped out of a Seth comic. The Midwesterners who take Asterios in--Stiff Major and his zaftig wife Ursula, and no, Mazzucchelli is clearly not above having some Vonneguttian fun with names--could be thrown up on the screen in a Disney/Pixar production tomorrow. Hana I can't quite put my finger on, but she's got a distinct '50s/'60s illustration vibe, part Charles Addams part something else I'm too slow to pick up. Asterios himself is given to standing in profile and holding a cigarette like Eustace Tilley holds his monocle. His teaching career reads like Art School Confidential from the professor's perspective. (Student: "I'm thinking about adding fenestration to this planar surface...?" Asterios: "How about just putting a couple of windows in that wall?")

None of this would matter, or at least it would matter very little, if the comic weren't a series of emotional hooks and twists and high points and explosions, which it is. The dream sequences are uniformly strong, with one involving a flooded subway station-cum-dock so evocatively drawn--thick washes of purple ink, rough crosshatching for one of the first times in the whole book--that I could practically hear the echoing slosh of the water in the tunnels. Asterios's unique, virtually constant headshape (how have I not talked about this until now?) essentially requires him to be drawn in profile, so the few times we see him turn toward us (again in a dream sequence, notably!) are stop-and-pay-attention moments. The book's bravura sequence (you'll hear about this a lot) condenses the couple's entire life together into a series of snapshot images of Hana's various movements and bodily secretions; here's one case where my familiarity with this technique bred nothing but admiration for seeing it so well done. The ending...I'll say I imagine it will be controversial and leave it at that, but I got a kick out of it.

The real knockout moment for me, though, came during the pivotal argument that stories like this inevitably include, the storm that built for years yet ultimately came out of nowhere and nothing was the same after that. You spend the build-up to it noticing that something is awry, something in the way Hana has been drawn, something in the way there seem to be two or three things going on at once in the interactions between Hana, Asterios, and the other characters involved (including a memorable little imp named Willy Ilium in the book's Clare Quilty role). Once it gets going, once the pink-and-blue color scheme starts shifting appropriately and the linework and coloring get scratchier and choppier and angrier, you're rooting for Hana all the way, you think that finally the beef you've been accumulating on her behalf is going to get the apocalyptic airing it deserves. And then...and then...BAM, a line you just did not see coming at all, making it all the more devastating, because after all, neither did Asterios. I think this particular exchange may open the book up to charges that it embraces the same sexism it nominally deplores in its characters, but to me it's the human element that comes through, not the gendered one. I read this scene and said "My God" out loud on the train. (You really need to read the book to get what I'm talking about, I suppose, and it doesn't come out until June so unless you somehow ended up with a review copy months ago like I did I guess that's difficult, but do me a favor, bookmark this and come back later and see if you think I'm right, okay?)

I may not know ahhht, is I suppose what I'm saying, but I know what I like. And I like Asterios Polyp a lot. It's certainly a book to savor. I suspect it's a book to treasure. I guess it wasn't that hard to talk about after all.

Sorry for delay

Sunday and Monday I had a store project I needed to finish and forgot about until zero hour. All done, though. I just got back from the store (doing THIS week's books), so let's wrap LAST week by talking about all of the BOOKS you should go and pick up and your local funnybook emporium when you stroll in tomorrow.

In friendly alphabetical order (Or, at least, Alpha by Diamond listings):

B KRIGSTEIN COMICS HC: Yes it is pricey, but damnation, it's worth every penny. Krigstein was a genius, and even the slightest story in this big-ass volume is pure gold. My one quibble: despite it being in the first, biographical volume, I think they missed a big boat by not putting "The Master Race" in this edition.

BONE ONE VOLUME EDITION: Well, you probably can't buy it anyway. We got allocated at just over 1/3 of our order (*sigh*) and all of the rack copies sold out in like 10 minutes. Expect a much much longer thought on this in about a week in Tilting at Windmills over on Newsarama.... Either way, this is top notch comics by a top notch cartoonist, and some version of Bone should be in your collection. I can't wait until Ben is old enough for me to read this to him... (though, actually, it'll be the HC I'll be ordering once it is solicited. I left the SC at the store since we got allocated)

CEREBUS V 16: THE LAST DAY: End of an era, and this volume is worth it for the essay in the back, alone. Honestly, I think it explains a bit more than I had previously understood about the last few years. (Lester, read it before I come in on Friday -- should give us at least 30 minutes of conversation...) One of these days, if I ever find time, I'll write an essay about Cerebus as a complete work, but if you can find a better all-around cartoonist than Dave Sim, I'd like to meet him. The timing, the draftsmanship, the craft and care -- I don't really care if the whole thing ends on the biggest reductio ad absurdum ever, I don't really care if you don't care for his politics or his thinking (fuck, if George Bush could draw like this, I'd buy his comics too!), comics will be a poorer place for not having Dave Sim around, month-in, month-out showing us how to do it. Seriously, read Cerebus, you'll be better for it.

CRISIS ON MULTIPLE EARTHS V3 TP: Well, you know, I've always been a sucker for the JLA/JSA crossover, but, man, are these stinky-ass stories. ("TEPPY STRIKES BACK!") On the other hand, these stories suck so much they're actually great. C'mon, dude, THE HUMAN BOMB! Rocks out, with it's cock out!

FINDER V 6 MYSTERY DATE: Carla Speed McNeil is an amazing cartoonist -- kinetic yet compressed, mystical yet focused on human emotions. Why she isn't a millionaire is a mystery to me.

JIM WOODRING PUPSHAW & PUPSHAW: At $17 for what's effectively 16 panels (well, it is a Japanese import), you have to be a big Woodring fan to appreciate this. Thankfully I am. Plus I only have to pay cost, seeing how I own the store and all. But damn, if he can't draw and tell a reasonably compelling tale in those 16 panels....

KYLE BAKER, CARTOONIST V 2: An excellent companion to volume 1, though it feels a smidge light for the price point of $14.95. It's the week of excellent cartoonists, as you can see (it wasn't the comics what killed me, it was the books), and Baker is up there high in the firmament.

P. CRAIG RUSSELL'S LIBRARY OF THE OPERA V 3 HC: Yah, OK you could wait for the 6 weeks or whatever it will take for the SC to come out, I suppose, but I prefer to have a binding that will hold up for repeated rereadings. Loverly loverly stuff, and he makes the source material palatable to those of us who hate opera as it's own art form.

PAUL AUSTERS CITY OF GLASS: Finally this exquisite book of David Mazzuchelli's adapatation of the Auster story is back in print, and let me hear a fuckin' hallelujah! Despite the (very!) stiff competetition this week, this is the A #1 must have, bug-your-LCS-to-stock-it item of the week. Seriously.

POWERS V 6 THE SELL OUTS: The perhaps-ironically named first post-image volume. While it's begining to flag a bit at this point of the narrative, this is still sharper than 80% of the super-hero work on the market.

SAMURAI EXECUTIONER V1 : If you liked DH's presentation of Lone Wolf & Cub, you're also going to dig this story Koike & Kojima did before. I'm only about 10% into it, but it's reading just as well, to me.

OK, that's what I took home on the book side, at least.

See you.... tomorrow with the first part of this week's books!

(God, tomorrow already? Does this ever end?)