David Mazzucchelli has always been an artist with more potential than achievement. He demonstrated early in his career that he could effortlessly do great "realistic" cartooning of the Caniff/Sickles school (a school I define as being represented by artists like Alex Toth, Jordi Bernet, early Alberto Breccia, Enrique Breccia, Frank Robbins, and at a certain extreme, Jose Munoz and Blutch). For some artists, that would have been enough. But Mazzucchelli had greater artistic ambitions. His drawing morphed into a kind of non-realistic expressionism that drew from Gary Panter, Julie Doucet and others (while not going quite as far as those artists) while still honoring the chiarascuro of Caniff and Sickles. He wrote his own stories, which mainly appeared in his own magazine, Rubber Blanket, and which were not bad but not brilliant. Working with Paul Karasik, he created an adaptation of Paul Auster's novel City of Glass. This adaptation was universally well-received, and the drawing was fantastic. But the brilliance of the layout was mostly due to Karasik's input. In a sense, Mazzucchelli was just a brilliant pair of "hands". At this point, no one knew if David Mazzucchelli had reached his peak or if all that Rubber Blanket work was prelude to something greater.
His last solo stories were published in 2001. It was known that Mazzucchelli was teaching, and occasional illustrations popped up in The New Yorker, but to me it seemed that Mazzucchelli had become the most prominent example of a great cartoonist who basically quite the medium. (This is all-too-common in alternative comics, which is historically less renumerative and far less respected than even poetry. And we know how poor poets are. The list of excellent alternative cartoonists who basically have left the field include Michael Dougan, Julie Doucet, Dave Cooper, etc.)
All this is a build-up to what, for me, is the biggest surprise of the year--David Mazzucchelli's first graphic novel, Asterios Polyp. It truly fulfills the promise that comics readers have seen in Mazzucchelli all these years.
His art has always been about synthesizing traditions, and shockingly, what he does here is to chuck the Caniff/Sickles tradition. Sort of. Caniff and Sickles themselves seem to have been influenced by the chiarascuro of Chester Gould. Gould himself though was a true original. The heavy blacks in Dick Tracy were part of the mood of the strip, but the essential quality of his drawing was in the clean line and stylized, reapeatable forms--particularly faces and figures. The only thing like it are the traditional face cards in a standard deck of cards.
So we get characters here like Asterios Polyp who are always drawn in profile. Indeed, each character, drawn with a precise (but not mechanical) line, has his or her own stylized position. Willy Ilium is almost always drawn from the same three-quarters view. The settings are likewise clean and architectural. Even the organic sculptures of Polyp's wife, Hana, are portrayed as very clean. (Ironically, because she is supposed to be someone who uses discarded material to make her sculptures. But her work more resembles James Surls than Robert Rauschenberg or Ed Kienholz.)
But his drawing changes depending on what is being portrayed. The color schemes change according to setting. In Polyp's mind, people are drawn different ways refelcting their dfferent personas. In an Orpheus-inspired fantasy sequence, he returns to a kind of Rubber Blanket-style chiaroscuro.
Now all this would be irrelevent if the story wasn't fantastic. The story is split into two alternating parts--one tells the story of Polyp's life from the beginning through his marriage to Hana to the end of that marriage. The other takes us from the aftermath of the divorce, where Polyp seems to suffer a nervous breakdown, is burned out of his apartment, and hits the road, resettling in a small town and taking a job as a car mechanic. These two strands alternate, and the Polyp in the first strand is arrogant, charming, and successful.
But his arrogance fails him when Ilium hires Hana to design his new ballet version of Orpheus. Ilium is constantly making rude sexist double-entendres towards Hana, but because Ilium and Hana are artistic partners, Polyp keeps quiet. He suspects maybe something is going on. But the reality is that Ilium is a bully, and Hana has been looking for Polyp to step up and defend her. His misreading of the situation and his inaction is one of the causes of the divorce.
This misreading is kind of a shocker, because Polyp is smart and successful. An architecture professor (he is a 'paper architect'--none of his designs were ever built. Zaha Hadid was perhaps the most famous living "paper architect" until the Rosenthal Contemporary Art Center was built in 2003.) He is a great professor and knows a whole lot about everything. This is not always an attractive quality, but it helps him make conversation in any situation.
The thing about Polyp is that he is a highly dualist thinker. Apollonian-Dionysian, form-line, etc. He's not naive about it--he realizes that dualism is an organizing principle, a hermeneutics, not reality. In addition to being about the arc of his relationship with Hana, the book is about the source of this dualism and its eventual collapse.
I really related to Polyp. Even to the point of having a particular hermeneutics. Probably a ridiculous thing to admit. But that probably made the experience of reading Asterios Polyp even better for me. I liked Polyp and I was rooting for him. Other readers might think he's kind of an asshole.
Asterios Polyp is a great achievement. It really confirms my faith in Mazzucchelli as an artist.