Living lives that lie between the lines

Ulin is book editor of The Times.

David Mazzucchelli has been around. After an apprenticeship in the 1980s drawing superhero comics (including “Batman: Year One,” with Frank Miller), he spent the early 1990s producing three issues of the comics magazine Rubber Blanket; his work on the 1994 adaptation of Paul Auster’s “City of Glass” initiated the Neon Lit series of graphic novels and suggested a new, more nuanced approach to the form.

“What I wanted to do was just go back to the roots of what I liked about art in the first place,” he has said of those days, and the same might apply to the last 15 years, in which Mazzucchelli has essentially gone quiet, producing covers for the New Yorker and teaching at the Rhode Island School of Design.

That period, however, appears to have ended with the publication of Mazzucchelli’s first solo graphic novel, “Asterios Polyp,” the story of a “paper architect . . . whose reputation rested on his designs, rather than on the buildings constructed from them.” It’s an important distinction, for Asterios is a theoretician, a connoisseur of dualistic thinking, in which things are either one way or the other, and there’s no ambiguity in between. This is a fascinating, and wholly intended, contradiction in a graphic novel, because the form itself is a hybrid, blending visual and narrative strategies, telling its stories in both pictures and words. Asterios would seem to stand against such a process, but among the thrills of the novel is the way Mazzucchelli integrates his character’s unyielding worldview into the marrow of the book.


“Asterios Polyp,” after all, is a novel as a piece of paper architecture, a book in which function follows form. Here, Mazzucchelli develops a three-dimensional schematic, using the very elements of the comic as part of the emotional template of the work. On the most basic level, this means giving every character his or her own font for dialogue: Asterios’ words come out boxed and all in capital letters as if to emphasize the certainty of his perspective, while his wife, a sculptress named Hana, speaks in a less rigid typeface, a reflection of her own quiet openness.

More to the point, the characters are drawn in different styles -- Asterios a mix of geometric lines and circles, almost like an architect’s blueprint; Hana in more fuzzy, emotional undertones. When they meet, at a party, she is portrayed in red and he in blue, but as they come together as a couple, the lines and colors between them overlap and blur. This is not a permanent condition: Each time they fight, they come apart again. “What makes you think you’re always right?” Hana asks at one point, standing behind him, arms folded, the frame neatly divided between red and blue.

Such a question comes up throughout the novel, and it becomes a central metaphor for the fallacy of knowing, for our inability to contain the world. For Asterios, this plays out from the earliest pages, when his apartment catches fire in a lightning storm and he is cast out from all he thought he understood. As a device, it is reminiscent of Auster, which is only fitting, given Mazzucchelli’s take on “City of Glass.” But it’s also more than that because, by deciding to tell his story in truly graphic terms, he transcends the limitations of language, drawing us into a universe where images move the plot along for pages at a time, and we are asked not just to read but to actively imagine, to put the pieces together for ourselves.

All of this is absolutely conscious, for “Asterios Polyp” is as much about ideas as it is about its characters and their lives. “In a cacophony of information,” a composer tells Asterios late in the novel, “each listener, by focusing on certain tones and phrases, can become an active participant in creating a unique, unique polyphonic experience.” That’s as good a description of what it’s like to read this book as you’re likely to come across, and it highlights Mazzucchelli’s ability to reflect the landscape we occupy. As Asterios is taken apart and reconstructed, he reexamines his relationships to the people around him: his late parents, his stillborn twin brother, his students and his wife.

What does it mean to exist at a time when things long taken for granted, those either/or propositions, are not relevant anymore? Here we have the issue with which Asterios must grapple, and if it’s ultimately a futile process -- we live in a capricious universe -- Mazzucchelli’s triumph is to recognize that the quest might be enough. Yes, happiness is fleeting, and there is always something unexpected hurtling toward us, but in this haunting and beautiful book, Asterios perseveres, taking solace where he finds it, no matter how temporary or conditional it might be.