A crook-eyed and foppish jerks of jerks, Asterios Polyp is the guy at the university parties whom everybody hates but still self-consciously sidles near to just so they can hear what he’s saying—even if it’ll make them sick the rest of the night. Daredevil and Batman: Year One artist David Mazzucchelli does the amazing in this, his first graphic novel, in not only basing an entire work around such an unctuous creation but actually making him something of a real human being whom one can envision caring about. The result is one of the smartest and most rewarding graphic novels of the year to date.
At the start of Asterios Polyp, we can see that the titular titan of academia has fallen to great depths. On the night of his fiftieth birthday he was lazing about his apartment watching porn in a disheveled manner, right before the whole place went up in flames. Not long before he’d been a guy to be reckoned with, a renowned professor of architecture whose ideas were so uncompromising that he was called (with some envy) a “paper architect”—meaning none of his buildings had ever actually been constructed. One randomly-chosen bus ticket out of town and the novel turns into a series of flashbacks by which we see not only the rigorously applied mechanisms by which Asterios turned himself into such a preening ass of arrogance but the stages of his bona fide romance with a quiet beauty of a sculptor, Hana, who just finally couldn’t take it anymore.
Mazzucchelli fiddles enjoyably with his storylines throughout here, stirring in dream sequences and breezy asides on Platonic logic and the history of architecture. For all the lashings of satire leveled at the pretentious realms of theoretical disciplines, where an unbuilt building is a sign of an architect’s enviable purity, Mazzuccheli evinces a sharp and well-calibrated intellect, seeding his dialogue with the kind of worn-in literacy that such a work requires. The motley gang of supporting characters (particularly those in the nameless small town Asterios holes up in to take stock of his life) hold up strong against the gale-force wind of Asterios’ hawk-like visage and smirking glare. Unfortunately, a secondary device of the author’s which toys with the idea of a shadow brother to Asterios (also functioning as the narrator) plays less well.
The satire weeds out somewhat as the book whips along, Mazzucchelli’s art a vibrant blur of primary color and strong, simple lines that lends itself better to the heart-palpitating romance of regret that the book eventually becomes. By the end of it all, Asterios seems less a terrible bore than simply that worst and most arrogant part we fear is within each of us—which makes Mazzucchelli’s shock ending all the more wrenching when it comes.