And Then I Read: ASTERIOS POLYP

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All images © David Mazzucchelli.

There are many unusual and delightful things about this massive new work by writer/artist David Mazzucchelli. One should not judge a book by its cover, we’re told, but if you were to do so in this case, it would reflect the book within very favorably. First, consider the dust jacket. Large blocks of intersecting colors at the top and bottom thirds use geometric shapes to create the title. Seen separately, these color blocks would say nothing. Here are the ones from the top word, first the red:

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Then the blue:

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Only the intersection is really the word. This kind of clever and difficult work with two or three colors per page is carried out in a tour-de-force of inventive ways throughout the book. Oh, and see that blackline and gray tone figure of Asterios himself on the cover? That, a similar one on the back cover, and some type there encompass the entire and complete use of black ink on this project.

Now let’s look at the cover board beneath the banner-like dustjacket:

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Nearly all printed hardcover books have as the core of their covers a very thick piece of cardboard, the “board” itself, which is usually covered in one or more materials: cloth very often, sometimes a plastic that looks like leather, or a layer of thinner glossy paper with printed images, or any combination of two or more of those. These cover boards are clad half in purple cloth. The other halves are uncovered, with a blind-embossed image of asterios pressed into them (hard to see in my scan). I’ve never seen a book with uncovered boards, it’s again unusual and creative. It will also probably mean that mint condition copies of the book will become very rare, as the corners and edges of the uncovered boards are very easily damaged. I love the originality of it, though.

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The inside pages use one, two or three of the following solid colors and shades of these colors: Blue (Cyan), Magenta, Yellow and Purple, to create an amazingly wide and varied palette. The page above is typical of the style, though Mazzucchelli uses other art styles at times to represent particular characters and viewpoints.

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David shows complete mastery of this technique, and at times I found myself convinced there was some black ink involved, on pages like this one, until I looked closely and realized it’s all done without any.

Then there’s the lettering, which uses different fonts and balloon shapes to mirror the personalities of each of the main characters, perhaps a dozen styles or more. I know from experience how easy it is to overdo this sort of thing, but David makes it work beautifully, partly by choosing styles perfect for his characters, partly by not using too many styles at a time. Most pages have no more than two.

And the story? It’s a biography of sorts, told out of historical sequence, of a man with artistic talent, rigid theories and a large ego; his ups and downs, relationships, triumphs and failures. Not a lot of drama, but no melodrama either, a realistic story of believable people. Yet, through his stylized art, Mazzucchelli brings a great deal of nuance and charm to these people that would be impossible in either a prose novel or a movie. In short, it’s a story that makes use of the comics medium to its best effect. Symbols, visual shortcuts and economy of line add a great deal, and where he needs other art techniques, he uses those too. The narrative is always engaging, never predictable, and if the ending is abrupt, even that seems appropriate on reflection.

“Asterios Polyp” is a masterwork by a master of graphic storytelling. Very highly recommended!

5 thoughts on “And Then I Read: ASTERIOS POLYP

  1. David Goldfarb

    That’s a very interesting point about the cover lettering, and one that resonates with the way that red and blue are used in the story. _Asterios Polyp_ is a very complex book that rewards close attention.

  2. indigo kelleigh

    And I’m sure you also noticed, in the lettering styles, that family relationships are also being described in the visual style: notice the boy’s dialog and speech bubble are hybrids of the father’s and mother’s balloons. The shape is reminiscent of the mom’s bubbly balloons and curved tails, but drawn with the static-width pen stroke of the dad’s balloons. And the letterforms also combine elements of each parent’s dialog.

    Lots of nice little visual and stylistic touches in a book that will definitely bear re-reading and discussion.

  3. Tom Muller

    I couldn’t agree with you more. There are so many ideas in this book… An amazing feat combining clever storytelling and beautiful art with really smart design. A prime example of what comics design can be in my opinion.

  4. Pingback: Speciale Asterios Polyp: la lettura di Todd Klein | Conversazioni sul Fumetto

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