Shiny Shelf

Asterios Polyp

By Mark Clapham on 24 July 2009

While the term ‘graphic novel’ has been around for a while, few books actually justify the term. Most GNs are just compilations of comics, or longer form works with similar contents to the stapled issues that come out every month. Few are actually novelistic, attaining or even really aspiring to the level of character exploration and insight a reader might expect from even a middling literary prose novel.

I can only therefore applaud the talent and audacity of writer/artist/all-round cartoonist David Mazzucchelli, who has created in ‘Asterios Polyp’ not just a true graphic novel, but a credible attempt at the ‘Great American Novel’ in graphic form.

Synopses are deadening and spoilery, so I’m not going to do one except to say that Asterios Polyp himself has all the characteristics of a great contemporary literary character, one who might be at home in a novel by Updike or Roth: he’s an educated man in middle to late age, highly cultured and witty but also a deeply flawed human being, absorbed in his own theories but also troubled by the abstractions of his life. Asterios takes a journey, recalls his life, dreams and discovers. His life has been one of waspish bon mots, great acclaim, bad sex and lots of unbuilt buildings.

What elevates ‘Polyp’ from being just another tale of a very privileged white guy gazing into his aging navel and obsessing over shags past is Mazzucchelli’s use of visual techniques to layer information into the narrative. Different styles of art are used throughout, often within a single panel, indeed the style with which each character is designed says a lot about them – Asterios himself is a brilliantly distinct creation made from straight lines and precise curves, combining classical authority with unyielding modernity. A lot of how Asterios relates to others is conveyed by how smoothly his sharp angles meet theirs.

The narrative hops around in time, skipping between the literal and the abstract, but thanks to the visual language and coding established early on the reader is never lost – the cues are their colour schemes and layouts. Sometimes non-linear narrative effects, either in prose or comics, can complicate matters and require a bit of brain bending effort by the reader to decode it. Mazzucchelli’s mastery of these techniques has the opposite effect – the story moves with absolute clarity, the visual effects within the page reinforcing the main drive of the narrative and illuminating the lives of the characters. For a book about such a spiky, cold protagonist, ‘Asterios Polyp’ is rich in feeling, humanity thrumming off the page.

‘Asterios Polyp’ is a fantastic book, not just a great graphic novel but a brilliant novel, full stop, a stunning achievement by David Mazzucchelli.

‘Asterios Polyp’ is available in an exclusive bookplate edition from our friends at Gosh! Comics.

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By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named

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