Back in 1986, when Watchmen and Maus were storming bookstores, artist David Mazzucchelli was briefly at the flash point of comic-book hip, collaborating with Frank Miller on celebrated issues of Daredevil and Batman. He resurfaced sporadically in the ’90s with a graphic-novel adaptation of Paul Auster’s City of Glass, and with stories in scattered indie anthology series. Then he disappeared again. Finally, after a decade of silence, Mazzucchelli has returned with his own graphic novel, Asterios Polyp: sprawling, trippy, moving, and a hell of a lot of fun.
When we first meet the brilliant and bullheaded professor Asterios, just before his New York City apartment is destroyed by fire, he’s glumly watching sex tapes of himself and his ex-wife. He flees the building and heads out of town as flashbacks show him, 20 years earlier, blithely tossing off obnoxious cocktail-party bons mots and sleeping with students. His youthful self’s slicked-back hair and ever-present smirk recall one of Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy villains, and the stuffy middlebrow conversations that swirl around him bring to mind Woody Allen’s favorite targets. Needless to say, he’s no superhero.
But Mazzucchelli is a sympathetic guide to the byways of his character’s psyche, and soon the narrative splits in two — one filling in the details of Asterios’ earlier life, the other following his post-evacuation reinvention as a small-town auto mechanic.
Almost without realizing it, we slowly begin rooting for Asterios, and hard. A serial overthinker, he lives much of his life in his own head. So Mazzucchelli takes us there, repeatedly, with perfect clarity — it’s as if John Updike had discovered a bag of art supplies and LSD. Elegant, deceptively simple line work and nearly subliminal color symbolism make everything go down like candy. The narrative comes back to earth for a profoundly satisfying climax, but you’ll want to keep turning pages — all the way back to the beginning, for another read. A