Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The possibilities of comics

About three-quarters of the way through Asterios Polyp, Mazzucchelli takes up an entire chapter with a small, seemingly irrelevant moment in the married life of Hana and Polyp. The event is bookended by Polyp worrying over a blister on his foot. The rest of it (seven pages) has to do with a minor domestic emergency: Hana is swabbing her ear with a q-tip, and the end of the tip breaks off in her ear. She freaks out. Polyp comes to her rescue, using one of those little tweezer doohickies from his Swiss knife to pull it out. At the end of the chapter she hugs her husband and promises him, "That's the last time I buy that pseudo-somebody brand."

Or rather, that's one thing that happens. Mazzuchelli has structured the chapter so that, visually, there are three different sections to every page. The linear narrative I've just given you is the middle section, a series of panels set apart from the top and bottom sections visually through the prominence of the color blue (the other two sections are primarily colored in red and purple). It's also the only section with words. Above and it and below are a series of more or less unconnected vignettes from Hana's life, most of which have some relation to her body, the discharges therefrom: Hana taking a dump, Hana farting, Hana cutting her leg shaving, Hana throwing up in the toilet, Hana slurping noodles, Hana sneezing, Hana kissing her cat, Hana snoring.

There is no clear connection between these panels and the center section (a series of random panels of Hana trying to pull open a subway car door just makes matters more confusing), but for me one of the clear suggestions was of an unarticulated discomfort on Hana's part with her body, with the porousness of the human body, the way that its boundaries often break down. (This only makes sense (maybe) a little later on in the narrative). There is also a least one other sub-theme: the importance of trusting another person, and the difficulty of same. Mazzucchelli is able to communicate this in a way that--to bring up the point from my previous post--I can't see him being able to do with any other medium. Because of how the graphic novel works, you are able to digest all of the information--the various silent panels as well as the middle, verbalized moments--in one glance. For sure, you will pause on a single panel for a closer look, but at the same time all the rest of this information is also coming at you. A novelist wouldn't be able to do that: she would have to toggle from one scene to another as we move down the page. Here, Mazzucchelli is able collapse time, in a way: to give us a sense of these various moments making up the life of a person, at a single go. It's almost like watching a musical score, but in pictures.

Okay, that's enough of me complimenting this guy. My next post is going to be more critical.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Color and Alternate Reality in Asterios Polyp

Building on Trithemius's well-made points regarding visual design of characters is Mazzuchelli's Asterios Polyp, I'd like to focus on color. One chapter in AP is dedicated to an alternate reality, a sequence set off in a different mode through use of color. About three quarters through the book, Polyp the architect is depicted encountering a three-headed dog (an obvious Cerberus reference) in front of a subway station. After briefly petting this 20th century Cerberus (one of whose heads is a poodle head), Polyp descends into the subway station, which is flooded with water, creating a most Sygian impression. He gets off the train, then goes down again (Hades, one presumes) to encounter a vomiting woman, and then a set (chorus) of nattily dressed phantoms (including his parents, others), all emitting/exhaling breath/spirit/geist/whatever from their mouths. He interacts briefly with these phantoms, his own non-speech (depicted as vapor from his mouth) seems to assuage them enough to make them disappear, and Polyp enters a theater, where Aeschylus-ian drama (complete with masks) plays out on stage. This drama depicts a boy meets girl, they both have fun, girl falls/dies, boy sad drama. Then Hana's real-life impresario the choreographer (Willy Chimera, so-called by Polyp) comes in, to announce something to Polyp, summon Hana, and allow Polyp and Hana to depart from the underworld. Hana doesn't make it up; Polyp is left bereft.

First thing to point out here: almost the entire thing is depicted in the purple tone printmakers and comix artists have used for markups. The first thing that occurred to me here was to recall how Gary Panter used the same technique for many of his comics. The effect of the single color print here is, first, to set this chapter aside from everything else. Is it a dream? Is it the narrator (Polyp's dead twin brother) speaking to us more directly? Is it an alternate reality of some non-dream kind? There is no saying. But the color tells us this is separate from the rest of the story. Second, this color can be taken as a very specific reference to Gary Panter's depictions of hellish futurescapes. This is a dystopian purple, through reference to Panter. I could be very wrong about this.

Next post will be on references to Los Bros Hernandez in this sucker.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Poem for your day

I stole this off of Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac website. I don't claim to have any connection with the group of people being described here. I used to live in the city, but far away from this part of town. But I just love this poem.

Maybe I can justify it by saying that it is in honor of the Phils clinching the division yesterday.

Stadium Traffic
by Daniel Donaghy

You're on your way home
when a thousand cars
pour onto Broad Street:
the ball game's over.
No one's going anywhere soon.
It's mid-July: eighty and humid.
You smell like all the crappies in the Delaware,
wear the ache of dock crates in your back.
Your buddy lost two fingers tonight
to a jigsaw: boss said go home early,
stay late tomorrow night.
These people don't appreciate
what they have: time to go to ball games.
You get out among blaring horns
and hustlers hawking T-shirts,
walk the yellow lines like a tight rope,
arms out for balance,
all the way to the corner and back.
Broad Street still as a parking lot,
wound tight as a fist.
You pop the trunk, fish a beer
from your cooler, and pound it.
Back in your car, the radio's
recapping the game:
your team pulled one out
they would have blown last year.
You've blown the last year working
nights while your lady works days.
Night work means bad lighting,
and you've had enough close calls.
You've had enough overtime.
You've had enough.
Something has to give.
Somewhere in the distance a dog
is barking, a husband is coming home.

The Geometric Mr. Polyp

One of the features of Mazzucchelli’s book that has gotten a lot of play is his use of visual information to convey personality. This is especially notable with Asterios Polyp himself, who is drawn in a highly stylized, almost geometric manner: all lines and angles. Much of the time he comes across as a two-dimensional figure in comparison to the background, or to other characters. Mazzucchelli uses other visual cues as well: rather than speak in word balloons, Polyp speaks in word “boxes,” with block letters (as opposed to the more flowing lettering of almost every other character: his mother, in fact, speaks in cursive). At certain moments in the narrative Mazzucchelli heightens this contrast, such as when Polyp and his wife Hana have an argument over a composer they have just met. Then the architect literally morphs into a set of abstract forms, with a head on top and a pair of shoes on the bottom (and still holding the ever-present cigarette). As the main thematic and narrative foil, Hana (who is herself a designer: Mazzucchelli has her graduate from his alma mater) also becomes his visual negative. She is curvy and flowing, in opposition to his rigid figure, and this mirrors her more open attitude toward others and to the world. Again, Mazzucchelli heightens this during arguments, as Hana’s lines become less and less distinct: at times she looks almost like the draft of an image, rather than an actual person.

In other words, without reading any of the text, you might already begin to suspect that Asterios Polyp sees the world in a hyper-intellectualized, abstract way: that his own architectural designs, and his theories about his field, reflect a love of form, elegance, and simplicity over ornamentation and comfort. This is pretty much the case. Polyp has the modernist desire to explain the entire world, categorizing things and people into binary opposites. He likes clean lines, clear definitions that draw hard and fast distinctions between what is good and what is bad (which he thinks of more in aesthetic than moral terms). Anything that won’t fit into his system will be made to fit. His preference for theory over actual lived, brute experience is, needless to say, a source of a great deal of his problems. For example, he picks out his shoes because he loves the way they “express the essence of shoeness.” Since he doesn’t bother trying them on before he buys them, they end up giving his feet blisters. (Reminds me very much of my visit to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robey House in Chicago. Wright designed all the furniture to fit with his vision of the house. The long backed dining-room chairs were beautiful, and apparently torture to actually sit in. Also, the roof leaked all the time because Wright couldn't be bothered to think about where the rain-water would drain.) Word and image work together here to get the point across in a way that would not be possible in a novel.

It’s a clever way of using the qualities of the comic to highlight its own distinctiveness as a communication medium, but it’s also fairly obvious; obvious enough for readers like me--readers, that is, who are a little familiar with graphic novels and some of their conventions but not too terribly familiar with them--to cotton onto. I think that explains in part the excitement Asterios Polyp has garnered in more mainstream publications: we can see the innovation here that we might miss in works by other artists. My other point: the effect is most dramatic, therefore most impressive, with Polyp and with Hana. After this, things sorts of drop off: the minor characters look as though less thought went into their construction: they're much closer to visual caricatures.