“On Asterios Polyp” an excerpt from my new book Reading Lessons in Seeing
As an introductory poster session on the types of reading lessons that comics make possible, let us turn to a patently non-autobiographical example, David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp (2009), a graphic narrative driven by the same question that animates Reading Lessons in Seeing: how does the way one sees the world affect the world that one sees? And, tangential to that palindrome, how is it possible to transmit interiority visually, or symbolically, in the presence of conflicting and contradictory points of view? The answer, as we shall see, lies in the text’s formalistic tutorials in seeing.
The main character, Asterios, is a twin obsessed with duality who, as we learn, has videotaped portions of his life to artificially replicate his doubling. If that were not enough to convince even the most inattentive reader of Mazzucchelli’s pedagogical agenda, there are further depths to the character and story—postmodern, mythological, and self-consciously literary depths—and it is the reader’s burden as well as her prerogative (with all implications of play and desire intended) to plumb them. Within just a few pages, the graphic novel offers us a plunger: Asterios’ monograph, Modernism with a Human Face, a tome so heavy the winged cherubs lofting it up to the clouds are visibly wincing and sweating under its heft.
An overlapping triptych beneath the book on the same page positions the viewer among the sleepy generations of Asterios’s students. The only speech visible from the most contemporary version of our soporifically dry pontificator invites us to apply the dualities between the Apollonian and the Dionysian tendencies in Asterios’s lecture and book to the graphic novel through which Mazzucchelli mediates them: “Thus, we see the Apollonian—as opposed to the Dionysian—tendencies expressed via…”
And so much hangs in the balance of those ellipses, much more than merely the effect of our drifting beyond a dull talk that drones on in its own empaneled past time. On a formal level, that page is like the students’ flagging attention: it wants desperately to be turned. But there is still plumbing for us to do in the gutters of those ellipses clogging up forward momentum.
A moment like this takes on inflated pedagogical meaning after repeated exposure. In it, we are cautioned about the philosophical underpinnings of our seeing. Verbal evidence for the ostensible dominance of one visual aesthetic over its supposed counterpart gets lost in the ellipses—“tendencies expressed via…” Just how and where the Apollonian supersedes the Dionysian eludes explanation, so long as we search for clarity in the alphabetic. Weary perhaps of not finding it there, we might turn the page in order to escape sleepy identification with Asterios’s students, but we would miss a more intriguing plot that develops.
In this moment of reading and seeing instruction, the lecturing text plays a favorite trump card of the comics. Our assumed reliance upon printed language fails us, deliberately so. For it is not in words but in pictures, and better yet, in their frequently antagonistic resonance, where we must go for semiotic plenitude, the whole picture. Although such thinking has become nearly formulaic for understanding the word-image relations in comics, the thinking that these relations do goes unexamined. We seem to lack a language for talking about this metalayer of comics thinking.
Asterios Polyp, on the other hand, has no difficulty articulating the ineffable, exhibiting a veritable fluency for abstraction, paradox, and the palpable significance of omission. In the final pages of the graphic novel, having lost his vehicle as well as one eye, the protagonist perseveres in his Odyssey through a snowstorm that brings him straight to Hannah, his estranged beloved. Whereas earlier panels of the couple stress their dichotomy, these highlight their resolution even at the atmospheric or stylistic level of color. Gone are the stiff cyan pencil lines that compose Asterios and his unyielding sense of the cold geometry of the world. Gone are the crimson hues that sketch Hannah’s emotionality, her warm uncertainty. In their place is a chromatic plenitude of brown, green, and orange. These richer colors tell a story, a journey from primary separation to tertiary wholeness. The same story imbues the narrative with its heavy-handed references to Platonic ideals in Hana’s sculpture or in the subplot of Asterios’s twin Ignazio.
With one eye overlarge and blank, Asterios embodies the sudden liberation from a binocular view of the world to a monocular one. Instead of eliminating depth, this change announces his release from a crippling philosophical orientation towards duality as a psycho-cognitive fixation. Thus ridded of his physiognomic capacity for a parallax view, Asterios seems able to achieve with Hana the very human depth that binocularity was supposed to afford.
Only here, at the end, can Asterios come to her, like Noguchi the dead cat that Hana eulogizes for going to her while it was dying “like he was trying to comfort me” (emphasis in the original). These final intimacies are heightened by Mazzucchelli’s composition of the entangling tails of their speech bubbles (formerly another instantaneously recognizable difference between them). With their hands nearly touching on the couch, the two enjoy the tranquility of a self-conscious ending. Indeed, the graphic novel is so anxious about the end that it includes a scene of their two faces, speaking the words “rest in peace” in a conjoined speech balloon that is doubly framed: it is rectangular (as are all of Asterios’s balloons) as well as circular (as are all of Hana’s). But while the framing of the balloon fuses the two distinct styles, the lettering of “rest in peace” is in an altogether new style, a tertium quid of script not seen before in the text.
All omens presage the doom that comes after a few more pages and a series of three exterior shots of the cabin in the woods, pictured further away with each iteration. In the first of the three panels, we know by virtue of balloon shape and font style that Hana says “This is nice” followed by Asterios’s rectangular reply of “What’s that noise?” One more page turn reveals a two-page spread of a fiery meteor on a crash course for our couple’s serene cabin.
That two-page spread conveys one ending of Asterios Polyp. It is an apocalypse that has been heralded by the symbolic crater found in the middle of the book, which is both a literal and symbolic aporia, calling attention to all the other gaps in the text. One earlier breach that this one re-calls punctuates Asterios’s encounter with Spotty Drizzle, or Steven, at the diner, in which the doomsday prognosticator informs the group of an asteroid “A few years ago, one about the size of a house [that] whipped past us – just sixty thousand miles from Earth – and nobody saw it till the day before!” And to ensure that readers will not miss this cue of instruction, Mazzucchelli brings us in close on the oracle’s perspiring face as he warns: “Somebody’s gotta be prepared. Somebody’s gotta be on the lookout.” As readers of this narrative, we ought to be that somebody; we must become lookouts and cautious watchers of the stars.
For more, see the rest of my introduction–Reading Lessons in Seeing