O Say Can You See: The Greatest Patriotic Super Heroes of All-Time
by David Mazzucchelli
Pantheon, 344 pages, $29.95.
Asterios Polyp is the type of graphic novel that causes critics like me to rub our hands together frantically and salivate. It’s full of all the juicy metaphors, re-occuring motifs and classical allusions that academics and reviewers alike go koo-koo for. Best of all, they’re all right up front and not hidden in the text, so you don’t have to do a lot of hunting around.
At its center, however, Polyp is a familiar and heartfelt tale of a man, who, halfway through his life, is faced with the realization that he is far from the wonderful person he thought he was and sets about trying to make things right.
It all begins on his 50th birthday, where Polyp, a teacher and architect whose designs have never made it past the blueprint stage, seemingly incurs the wrath of the gods as a freak bolt of lightning sets his apartment on fire. Salvaging just three items from the wreckage (all of which bear significance — as does everything else in this book), he heads as far away from his old life as possible, and ends up at the fittingly named, bucolic town of Apogee, where he befriends a Malaprop-spouting grease monkey called Stiff Major, his Earth goddess wife Ursula and their son.
Mazzucchelli intersperses these segments with flashbacks involving his relationship with his ex-wife Hana and how it all went wrong. An insecure sculptor (Mazzucchelli creates a lovely visual metaphor by drawing her as constantly a hairsbreadth shy of the spotlight) she initially finds herself charmed by Asterios’ forthright, assured demeanor, but it isn’t long before that confidence gives way to arrogance and sours their relationship.
Asterios, you see, has a narrow, dualistic view of the world. Everything according to him is defined by its opposite: things are either functional or decorative, right or wrong, and he instinctively tends to choose the former over the latter. He adores shoes, for example, that are devoid of decoration, ignoring the question of whether or not they hurt his feet.
Thus, it shouldn’t surprise you too much when I tell you that he has a twin. Or that, being the damaged person Asterios is, that the twin died in childbirth but still lingers throughout the story serving as a beyond-the-grave narrator.
This type of hyper-aware formalism runs throughout the book. Images of duality and symmetry abound, and are frequently undercut by say, by Mazzucchelli’s use of color, leaving no question as to what Mazzucchelli ultimately thinks of Asterios’ philosophy.
All this makes for a rich and visually stunning book. Notions of duality are only one of the many ideas explored here. Polyp also examines our relationship with religion, how we interact with each other, classical myths, how we perceive the world and does so in a fluid, graceful visual manner that never once feels like a treatise. Mazzucchelli handles the notion of individuality, for example, by having each character speak in a different font. Asterios for example uses a clipped comic book font devoid of serifs or lower case letters — purely functional.
I could go on and on, but I think you get the idea. There’s not a single wasted line in the book. No one has a name that isn’t significant — even the cat is named after a famous architect. Everything carries some kind of iconic significance. It’s important, for example, that Asterios is Greek. And even that he’s left-handed.
That aids the book in that Mazzucchelli marries the structure to the visual pacing of the book to such a degree that you can’t you couldn’t imagine this story being told in any other medium but comics. But in another way the book suffers from sharing some of Asterios’ mania for function. There’s not a image or word here that doesn’t carry a deeper meaning. It seems a tad ironic that a book that derides mere functionality should be so functional in its structure.
But that’s all just part of the game Mazzucchelli is playing here. More to the point, as clever and playful as Asterios Polyp is, I don’t think ultimately it would all matter very much if you didn’t care about both Asterios and Hana. But Mazzucchelli does a marvelous job of making his cast (with one possible exception) seem like knowable, well-rounded people instead of types. We can see how much Asterios really cares for Hana and by the end are rooting for him to overcome his egocentric nature and reconcile with her.
Obviously those who appreciate craft and formalist games — who like to re-read books looking for hints and portents they missed the first time around — will get more out of this book than those who don’t. But don’t let its academic aspects keep you away. Asterios Polyp is one of the smartest, most entertaining graphic novels you’ll read this year.