Thursday, October 1, 2009

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.

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