Space Odyssey

Asterios Polyp BY David Mazzucchelli. Pantheon. Hardcover, 344 pages. $29.

The cover of Asterios Polyp

David Mazzucchelli is not a casual cartoonist. There are no accidents in his comics world; he takes every element into account, from ink and color to paper and binding—which makes the apparent spontaneity and easy naturalism of his work both beguiling and convincing. His pictorial world has expanded over the course of two decades and across a variety of publications and genres, from the noir realism of Daredevil (1984–86) and Batman: Year One (1986–87) to the fablelike tales of Rubber Blanket (1991–93) to the epic character study that is his first graphic novel, Asterios Polyp. The key to these projects lies in a set of concerns that include space, line, perception (and misperception), relationships, and everyday morality. These issues are explored by characters—whether the mysterious Big Man or the dreamy Asterios Polyp—who possess a life beneath their cartoonish exteriors that is teased out by Mazzucchelli’s gestural drawing style and multilayered narratives.

Mazzucchelli’s first paying comics job came in 1982, while he was still an undergraduate at the Rhode Island School of Design. He turned in a barely professional art assignment for Marvel’s Master of Kung Fu, following it a year later with some much-improved penciling for the Indiana Jones comic book. By 1984, he’d found his footing with regular work for Daredevil, for which he drew in an illustrative style influenced by Gene Colan, Jack Kirby, and other masters of what Mazzucchelli has described as his primary undergraduate interest: the movement of solid forms in space—a perfect fit for a genre that depends on bodies flying and tumbling across a landscape. When Frank Miller returned to write Daredevil in 1985, Mazzucchelli found an ideal creative partner. Inspired by Miller’s own take in writing the hero, Mazzucchelli’s drawings imbued the script, about the destruction and redemption of the title character, with subtle body language and an expressionist mood befitting the dark plotline.

The following year, he again teamed with Miller for the noirish Batman: Year One, the story of the hero’s origin and early days as a crime fighter. Mazzucchelli pared down his drawing style to a collection of tersely expressive marks that demonstrated the gritty ambiguity of his characters as much as any piece of dialogue did. The plot played to what he liked to draw: regular people and low-key action. Contrary to 99 percent of superhero comics, in Year One Mazzucchelli kept the visuals subtle and the mood somber but not melodramatic, so that in scenes of heightened drama, such as Bruce Wayne’s revelatory encounter with a bat, the effect is profound and lasting. Year One also began Mazzucchelli’s experiments with color as a means of conveying tone and content; he left spaces and textures open to be filled by Richmond Lewis’s atmospheric coloring.

Mazzucchelli’s work was revolutionary. He brought to the genre a sense of space, mood, and human scale it had not seen since the midcentury work of artists like Alex Toth and Jesse Marsh. But after finishing Year One, he realized that he’d done what he wanted to do in superhero comics and that he’d lost interest in the genre. So after a few more jobs for Marvel and DC, he took time off to think about what might come next.

Rubber Blanket was next. It was Mazzucchelli’s bold return to comics in 1991, after an absence during which he played music, made art, and, significantly, took a printmaking class at New York’s School of Visual Arts. In leaving behind mainstream comics and moving into self-publishing, he made a firm break with his past. Though many have tried, few cartoonists have changed directions so radically, let alone with such success. The name of Mazzucchelli’s chosen vehicle hints at the concept behind it: a rubber blanket is a rubber surface used in offset printing to transfer ink from printing plate to paper. Thus, in form and content, Rubber Blanket was linked to the physical process of making and reading comics. It was an oversize anthology, playfully designed using combinations of modernist typography and, most important, printed in just two colors. Mazzucchelli was now committed to an idea that would find fruition in Asterios Polyp: that the physicality of a book, of the reading experience, should amplify the meaning.

Between 1991 and 1993, Mazzucchelli and Lewis published three issues of Rubber Blanket, with the latter two editions featuring comics by a handful of friends and contemporaries. The short-lived series arrived just after RAW and just before Acme Novelty Library, making it a crucial step in the development of the comic book as a design object. Mazzucchelli’s use of two colors and his employment of color as a tool for emotional layering would influence countless cartoonists throughout the ’90s and 2000s, including Darwyn Cooke, Frank Santoro, and Dash Shaw.

“Near Miss,” drawn in 1989 but not printed until Rubber Blanket debuted, was Mazzucchelli’s breakthrough story, anticipating many of his central thematic and pictorial tropes. By using just black and a desert-sand tint, Mazzucchelli evoked the stark mystery of his story’s subject, a man named Steven, who, either paranoid or prescient, is convinced he alone is aware of imminent global destruction and leaves his home for an indeterminate destination. His travels lead him into a beguiling encounter with a woman whose being shifts from real to imagined. The following year’s “Discovering America,” in Rubber Blanket 2, continued Mazzucchelli’s experiments with color and examinations of the nature of perception and the vagaries of male-female relationships. Working like a printmaker, Mazzucchelli used color, without any lines, to delineate forms, adding thoughtfully designed abstract shapes to his formidable set of narrative tools. The final issue of Rubber Blanket contains the forty-page fable “Big Man,” the story of a mysterious giant’s arrival in a farming community. In muted black and beige, Mazzucchelli drained the story of any sensationalist screech and told a steadily paced tale of misunderstanding, kindness, and strength. Drawn in a Kirby-by-way-of-Georg-Baselitz style, the visuals are unusually immediate, and Big Man, though given the heroic stature one might expect, never bursts out of panels or jumps off the page. All the action is contained and modestly scaled, making the tragedy human size.

In the years after Rubber Blanket, Mazzucchelli continued to pursue unique projects. He completed, with Paul Karasik, a formally ambitious adaptation of Paul Auster’s novel City of Glass (1994), for which the artist employed subjective stylistic shifts to demonstrate the cognitive confusion of Auster’s protagonist. He also took two lengthy and influential trips to Japan. “Still Life,” published in 1996, takes lessons from the manga avant-garde of the 1960s (especially artist Seiichi Hayashi) with its quiet, open spaces and wispy linework. This surreal tale of loss and rebirth slips away as easily as it arrived, more poem than story.

Mazzucchelli’s most recent stories, including “The Boy Who Loved Comics” (2001), contain his most radical experiments with open-page design, color as form, and minimal rendering, laying the foundations for Asterios Polyp, his longest work to date. It tells the story of an architect’s journey toward self-awareness and his slow revelation of the value of the world around him. The narrative develops by way of Asterios’s perceptions into the nature of the real (his past relationships, his physical environments) and the unreal (his insistence on Platonic rationalism and ideal space). Realizing that the story he was conceiving would result in a lengthy book, Mazzucchelli employed a deceptively simple visual style and (following the example of artists like Chester Gould) designed expressions and poses that could withstand hundreds of pages of use. His cartooning eliminates notions of realism—there is little volumetric drawing, for example, mainly lines and colors, with characters made up of a minimum of precise marks. This simplification allowed for a far more complex narrative and thematic structure than he’d ever attempted.

This narrative style also engendered diverse approaches to space, in terms of both settings and the comic page itself; fitting, since Asterios is, after all, a paper architect, with any space just a mark away from existence. Abandoning the immersive spatial depths he pioneered in his earlier work, Mazzucchelli here explores the flatness of the page as the stage on which his characters act, and in moving beyond individual panels, he exposes the emotional landscape as well. When Asterios goes for a long car trip, the off-white space of the paper opens up into infinity; when he remembers his wife, the page crowds all at once with an elegant jumble of pictures of her.

The beauty of Asterios Polyp is that its core tenet, the need to pay attention to life as it happens, is so well reflected in the book itself—in its lush paper tone and rough-hewn, elegant design—and in the way all the formal devices serve the story. As such, it rewards attention and even devotion. Mazzucchelli, an artist enamored of comics in all its permutations, fascinated by its structures and decorations, its rhythms and timing, asks his audience to give as much as he does, to stop and observe the illusion. To pay attention.

Dan Nadel is the proprietor of PictureBox Inc. and the author of Art in Time: High Adventure in the Twentieth Century, forthcoming next year from Abrams.