I try to make stories…I don’t make them to necessarily have one specific reading, because often when I’m creating them I’m not sure of what that one reading would be.
In this chapter I argue that, through both his narrative and his visual style, in Asterios Polyp David Mazzucchelli not only illustrates the journey that Asterios must take to realize the limits of his perception, but also provides a guide for different ways of interpreting his graphic novel. He does this by comparing how someone might interpret the meaning of his comic to how the characters in the narrative approach different art forms, such as sculpture and music. By providing this spectrum of interpretive approaches, Mazzucchelli urges the reader to read his work with the awareness that no particular interpretive approach will provide a complete explanation of an artwork’s meaning. He or she should instead approach it with the knowledge that there will always be excess details he or she misses that can contradict or shed new light on his or her interpretation.
As Kristin Thompson argues in “The Concept of Cinematic Excess,” when a scholar uses an interpretative approach to analyze a piece of art he or she necessarily overlooks the excess details that do not “fit into a tight analysis” (489). In his graphic novel, Mazzucchelli refers to four different ways the reader may interpret his work. In presenting these approaches, he not only encourages the reader to approach life with the knowledge that excess can prove his or her perception of the world to be lacking, but that he or she should also approach interpreting his work the same way. He models the alternative interpretive approaches through his characters’ outlooks on life and art. And, through this variety of approaches, Mazzucchelli asserts that no matter which one someone uses there will always be excess details that may prove upon further readings to shatter the placid surface of his or her interpretation. Instead of trying to develop an all encompassing approach to interpret his graphic novel, Mazzucchelli’s lesson is that we should stay aware of the excess created by our analysis so that we’re more prepared for when an unexpected detail proves our analysis lacking.
Splitting Words and Images
Mazzucchelli’s decision to characterize Asterios as someone who perceives the world through a lens that splits concepts into their dualistic qualities parallels the dichotomous approach of reading comics. Mazzucchelli uses this parallel to show the excess created through approaching the words and images as separate narrative threads. Just as Asterios’s perception causes him to miss valuable excess details, using only the dichotomous approach to read the graphic novel will cause the reader to miss the meaning created through the imbrication of the words and the images.
Asterios’s perception parallels the dichotomous approach through his organizational method of splitting concepts into dualities. The scholars in the dichotomous approach similarly split words and images up into two opposing methods of representation. In Understanding Comics Scott McCloud claims, “Pictures are received information. We need no formal education to ‘get the message.’ The message is instantaneous. Writing is perceived information. It takes time and specialized knowledge to decode the abstract symbols of language” (49). His distinction between pictures as received information versus words as perceived information demonstrates Asterios’s method of focusing on the two opposing aspects of a subject “in order to better illuminate” the entire thing (120). In other words, focusing on the seeming duality of something, whether it’s comics or architecture, allows a person to open up conversation regarding these two opposing forces. The parallel between Asterios’s dualistic perception and the dichotomous approach is further emphasized through the use of the visual metaphor of the scale. When Asterios discusses his dualistic perception of art, Mazzucchelli uses a scale to show how “factual” and “fictional” art get separated and weighed in the character’s mind (Figure 21). When discussing how words and pictures function in comics, McCloud also uses a scale to separate these opposing modes of representation (Figure 22). While it is highly unlikely that Mazzucchelli intends for this connection with McCloud, the overlap still reveals that a similar thought process of splitting a subject into its dualistic aspects, and weighing the value of each, takes place in both Asterios’s perception and the dichotomous approach.
Figure 21. Asterios Polyp (115)
Figure 22. A panel from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics (157)
As Mazzucchelli demonstrates in the narrative, Asterios’s dualistic perception of the world causes him to miss important excess details. Similarly, if the reader of Mazzucchelli’s work only uses the dichotomous approach to analyze the graphic novel, he or she misses the excess meaning created through the interdependence of the words and images. Asterios refers to his own tendency to overlook excess when he admits that “possibilities exist along a continuum between the extremes.” However, because his dualistic method serves as a “convenient organizing principle,” and it is a deeply rooted part of his personality, he overlooks the excess (120). In the dichotomous approach, a similarly strict method is used in the separation of words and images as two narrative threads. In their introduction to the winter 2006 issue of Modern Fiction Studies, Hillary Chute and Marianne DeKoven argue that there’s a clear “picture/word divide” in comics (772). Furthermore, they state that this divide makes the reader consider the words and pictures as presenting two separate narrative threads:
In comics, the images are not illustrative of the text, but comprise a separate narrative thread that moves forward in time in a different way than the prose text, which also moves the reader forward in time. The medium of comics is cross-discursive because it is composed of verbal and visual narratives that do not simply blend together, creating a unified whole, but rather remain distinct. (769)
Chute and DeKoven focus on words and images as separate narrative threads that do not function as one mode of representation. In treating these threads as separate, a reader following the dichotomous approach will not pay attention to how the words and images create new meaning through their unification. They will ignore, what Asterios would call, the “possibilities”, or the excess meaning that reside between the threads.
Mazzucchelli emphasizes the inadequacies of reading his work through the dichotomous approach by pointing out the limitations of Asterios’s perception. After Asterios defends his way of splitting subjects into dualistic parts by explaining that humankind has studied the nature of duality throughout literary history, Ignazio says, “Some might argue that such simplification is best suited to children’s stories, or comic books” (121). Ignazio is accusing Asterios of oversimplifying complex subjects. Even if duality is a convenient organizing principle it still causes him to overlook important excess details. While I will soon provide an example of the excess created by reading Asterios Polyp through the dichotomous approach, it is important that I first discuss the reference to “comic books” in this scene.
The reference to “comic books” as an artform conducive to duality is Mazzucchelli’s way of presenting a facet of the comics medium where the dichotomous approach to reading the words and images is most appropriate. The term “comic book” connotes what Wolk describes as “mainstream comics,” which are typically superhero or other genre-based stories that are released on a serial basis. He describes the method that a group of people uses to make comic books as an “assembly-line style—one writing, one penciling, one inking, one lettering, one coloring—under the aegis of an editor who hires them all individually” (31). This “assembly-line style” makes the words and images appear as separate threads to the reader because of the tendency for one thread to repeat the meaning of the other. Figure 23 provides a clear example of this repetition. These three panels from The Amazing Spider-Man # 23, written by Stan Lee and drawn by Steve Ditko (1965), show Spider-Man trying to break his fall through the air after failing to stop his archenemy the Green Goblin. In each panel, Lee’s words and Ditko’s images repeat the action happening in the scene. For example, in the first panel Ditko shows Spider-man trying to grasp a billboard light to stop his momentum, but it breaks under his weight. Lee’s dialogue for Spider-Man narrates what’s happening: “If I can just grab that billboard light, I’ll—It’s too thin! It snapped off!” A similar repetition continues in each panel as Spider-Man eventually figures out how to break his fall. The repetition of the words and images make them appear as two narrative threads that repeat one another, which makes it possible to read either the words or the images and still gets a clear sense of how the story moves forward.
Figure 23. A strip from Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s The Amazing Spider-Man #23 (18)
Wolk contrasts the assembly line style of mainstream comics, with the “auteur style” of what he refers to as “art comics” where the words and images are composed by a single creator (27-28). He says that for these creators, like Art Spiegelman (Maus) or Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis), “‘writing and drawing’ sometimes didn’t even seem like separate activities” (26). For creators who both write and draw their comics, like Mazzucchelli, their words and images tend to depend on each other more to convey the meaning of a scene. In pointing out that Asterios’s perception is more suitable to approaching comic books, where the words and images tend to repeat one another because of their assembly line style, Mazzucchelli demonstrates the limitations of the dichotomous approach. While it may work for analyzing certain parts of his work—as with any interpretive approach—it still possesses limitations that cause the reader to overlook excess details. Mazzucchelli became familiar with the assembly-line style and its limitations while illustrating for Marvel and DC comics in the 1980s. The restrictions inherent to the collaboration process are what led him to eventually leave the industry to write and draw his own comics.
For example, if a reader interprets the scene in figure 10, where Asterios discusses Hana’s artwork, using the dichotomous approach he or she will examine the words and images as separate narrative threads without paying attention to how they sometimes work as one mode of representation:
The thread of images in the four-panel sequence of figure 8 reveals a spotlight gradually moving from Hana to Asterios. With the change in lighting, there is also a change in Hana’s facial expression. In panel 1, she looks happy and satisfied. In panel 2, as the spotlight shifts away from her, she suddenly becomes tense and unemotional. In panels 3 and 4, she looks confused and somewhat disappointed. The panel frame in the transition from panel 2 to panel 3 pulls back to reveal Asterios standing nearby looking at Hana’s sculptures. With the transition to panel 4, the distance between the characters increases, leaving Hana standing in the dark background. With the consecutive shift of the spotlight and Hana’s facial expression in figure 8, Mazzucchelli establishes a change of attention away from Hana to Asterios through the visual metaphor of the spotlight.
In the dialogue between Hana and Asterios in figure 8, Mazzucchelli displays the main character’s alienating habit of trying to force everything he sees to his dualistic way of perceiving the world. When Asterios says that Hana’s work is “grappling with the reconciliation of opposites”, she responds that his interpretation is “one way of looking at it.” Not paying attention, Asterios continues to rattle off his analysis. While Hana tries to get her opinion heard, she eventually gives up until she’s not even speaking words but only mumbling. The elliptical ending of the dialogue indicates that the scene continues with Asterios ignoring Hana.
The analysis above examines the words and images in figure 10 as separate narrative threads. Using this method, the scholar can focus in on how each thread functions, but he or she does not pay attention to how the threads may fuse together to create meaning for the reader. For example, if a scholar took the interdependence of the words and images into account he or she would notice that the visual metaphor of the spotlight shifting attention away from Hana and onto Asterios corresponds with Asterios overpowering her in the dialogue. In panel 4, Mazzucchelli emphasizes this by overlapping their word balloons. Asterios’s square word balloon cuts into Hana’s smooth round balloon, visually emphasizing Asterios overpowering her with his words. Mazzucchelli’s combination of the visual and the verbal in this panel strengthens Hana’s sense of alienation due to Asterios’s narrow perception. He uses a similar technique in other scenes in the graphic novel. When Hana tries to tell a story earlier in the narrative, Asterios’s word balloons cut across her, visually reinforcing the irritation of his interruptions (86). Conversely, when Asterios and Hana reunite near the end of the narrative, Mazzucchelli visually reflects their newfound cohesion by melding and twisting their word balloons together (327). However, if the reader uses the dichotomous approach to interpret Mazzucchelli’s work, he or she will not notice how the visual and the verbal threads fuse together to reinforce, and also add to the meaning of certain parts of the narrative. Elements such as the shape or placement of word balloons, or the shapes of the letters themselves, are part of the excess information overlooked by viewing the work through a lens that encourages the reader to focus on certain aspects of the work. However, it’s important to keep in mind that no matter which approach a reader uses to interpret the artwork there will always be excess.
By demonstrating the limitations of Asterios’s method of splitting subjects into their dualities, Mazzucchelli simultaneously shows the reader the limitation that come with interpreting his graphic novel through the dichotomous approach. The excess ignored not only by Asterios looking at the world through his narrow perception, but also by approaching the words and images as separate narrative threads, has the potential to reveal the certain inadequacies of an interpretation. Mazzucchelli symbolizes the other approaches to reading his graphic novel by showing how other characters’ perceptions of the world correspond with how someone may interpret his graphic novel.
Between Word and Image
While if a reader imitates Asterios’s thought process he or she will interpret Mazzucchelli’s graphic novel as composed of two separate narrative threads, Hana’s perception demonstrates an alternate way for the reader to interpret the words and images. Her habit of finding meaning in things that most people do not notice highlights how a reader may approach the words and images as working interdependently to form meaning for the reader. While this approach may seem to cover much of the excess overlooked by the dichotomous approach, it still, like any analytical lens, ignores certain elements of the graphic novel.
Hana’s perception demonstrates the interdependent approach through her ability to find meaning in things that most people overlook. Her sculpture lesson is a prime example of how her method of perception demonstrates the interdependent approach. When Hana puts two bricks in front of her students and asks how many they see, the majority of the students respond that there are only two. However, she soon makes it clear that her intention is for them to notice a third brick, which is formed by the equal size and shape of the space between the two material bricks. Her lesson is analogous to the scholars in the interdependent approach, who argue that within the comprehensive gap between reading the words and images in a comic a reader gains a new meaning from interpreting how these two narrative threads work together. In “Closing the Gap: Examining the Invisible Sign in Graphic Narratives” Roy Bearden-White asserts, “From a semiotic viewpoint, both words and pictures operate as individual signs and each provide meaning to the reader. When one sign, however, is placed beside another, as in a comic panel, a new sign emerges and extra significance is conveyed to the reader” (347). While the scholars in the dichotomous approach separate the narrative functions of words and images, the scholars in the interdependent approach view words and images as working together to form meaning by their placement on the page next to one another. It is within the gap between reading the words and seeing the images that a reader, according to the interdependent approach, understands a new meaning. Since a third brick could not be formed without placing the two other bricks next to one another, Hana’s lesson reflects how words and images work interdependently through their placement together on the page.
By paying attention to the meaning made between the words and the images, a reader using the interdependent approach examines much of the excess overlooked by those scholars that use the dichotomous approach. Mazzucchelli references this through Hana’s ability to notice the things that Asterios often ignores. For example, Hana shows Asterios the importance of paying attention to nature by pointing out the benefits of using the shape of a pinecone in architectural design, which is something Asterios would typically overlook because of his tendency to only pay attention to the things he deems functional. In Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature Charles Hatfield points out the inadequacies in McCloud’s assertion that words are perceived information and images are received information: “Comics, like other hybrid texts, collapse the word/image dichotomy…Images can be simplified and codified to function as a language…[While] pictures are not simply to be received; they must be decoded” (36–7). Just as Hana tries to show Asterios the importance of the excess that he ignores, Hatfield, by breaking down the seeming dichotomy of words and images, exposes the excess overlooked in McCloud’s approach to interpreting comics.
Figure 6 serves as a strong example of Mazzucchelli utilizing the interdependence of the words and images in his work. In this scene, instead of the words and images repeating the meaning of one another (like the Lee and Ditko Spider-Man example), they act as fragments that the reader fuses together in his or her mind to produce the intended meaning of the scene. By themselves, Ignazio’s questions are abstract and ambiguous: “What if reality (as perceived) were simply an extension of the self? Wouldn’t that color the way each individual experiences the world?” (34). Without further elaboration, these questions appear as fragments. However, the images of the students drawn in a variety of artistic styles complete the meaning of the scene by showing what it would be like if people’s unique perceptions were “extensions” of themselves. Neither of these fragments can stand alone to represent the concept that Mazzucchelli tries to get across in this scene. Each fragment is dependent upon the other to form the unified meaning for the reader. In other words, rather than repeating the meaning between the words and the images like Lee and Ditko, Mazzucchelli unifies the meaning of the scene through the interdependence of the words and the images.
While it may seem as if someone will get a complete interpretation of Asterios Polyp by following the interdependent approach because it examines some of the excess created by the dichotomous approach, it is crucial to remember that no matter which approach the reader uses there will always be excess. By focusing on the interdependent relationship between the words and the images, the reader will necessarily overlook significant excess details outside this relationship, such as the significance of Mazzucchelli’s visual style and the repetition of iconic motifs that he weaves into his work, such as the yin-yang and twins motifs. He represents how the reader should pay attention to these aspects through Willy Ilium and Kalvin Kohoutek. The methods each one of them uses to perceive the world presents a different way that the reader may interpret the graphic novel.
Examining a Patchwork of Styles
Mazzucchelli uses the character of Willy Ilium to represent how a reader may interpret the variety of visual styles presented in the graphic novel. As with Asterios and Hana, the analytical approach is demonstrated through Willy’s artistic methods. In his narration, Ignazio describes Willy’s unique technique for composing choreography: “Essentially, his pieces were formed by excising sequences from famous dance compositions and reassembling them into new works…So that Balanchine, Perrot, Graham, and Tharp (to name a few) rubbed elbows and asses onstage” (184). And this method of putting sequences of different arrangements together into one piece is what leads Asterios to call him, “Willy Chimera” (184). By using this patchwork composition technique, Willy represents the stylistic approach to interpreting comics, where the reader pays attention to how the creator of the comic combines different visual styles in his or her work. In focusing on the different visual styles and their connotations, the reader employing this approach gains a new meaning from their combination. In “Some Medium-Specific Qualities of Graphic Sequences” Pascal Lefèvre describes how this process works:
The contextual knowledge the reader can draw on, including his or her familiarity with the range of visual styles used in comics, is thus important when it comes to studying drawing styles. Indeed, how a particular reader reacts to a particular style may be quite personal, since it will be influenced by previous experiences with similar styles. (16)
Therefore, if the creator’s visual style mimics qualities from another well-known artist’s work or if the style is reminiscent of a certain genre of comics, it brings a new contextual meaning to the reader’s interpretation. Just as a creator seeks to imply contextual meaning through his or her choice of different visual styles, Willy uses pieces from various masters of choreography to stitch together a new work of dance. Mazzucchelli presents Willy’s unique composition technique as a way of demonstrating that his work also possesses elements inspired from well-known artists.
A reader using the stylistic approach focuses on the sequences in Mazzucchelli’s work where he mimics other artists’ styles. After identifying what style he’s imitating, the reader then tries to determine why Mazzucchelli chooses to use this particular style in the book. For an example of this type of analysis, I discuss why Mazzucchelli imitates the style of the artist Lynd Ward in the Orpheus sequence of Asterios Polyp:
While Mazzucchelli imbues his work with many different visual styles, the Orpheus sequence stands out as a strong example of a stylistic shift that provides contextual meaning to the reader. By mimicking the visual style of Lynd Ward, Mazzucchelli not only provides an appropriate atmosphere for Asterios’s decent into an urban underworld, but also strengthens the central lesson of his narrative. Born in 1905, Ward is considered by many comics scholars to have produced the first American graphic novels. Will Eisner, the creator of A Contract With God (1978), the first comic to be called a “graphic novel,” describes Ward’s work as a “forerunner of the modern graphic novel…He stands out as perhaps the most provocative graphic storyteller in this [the twentieth] century” (qtd. in Herb “Lynd Ward Graphic Novel Pioneer” 92). After meeting the inventor of the wordless woodcut novel on a trip to Europe, Flemish artist Frans Mansreel, Ward started producing his own woodcut novels in the late 1920s. The method for producing a woodcut novel requires the artist to cut the desired image into a block of wood and use it as a stamp. Each page of a woodcut novel consists of one stamped image devoid of words. Despite the onset of the Great Depression, Ward’s first woodcut novel, Gods’ Man (1929), sold quite well (Spiegelman x-xii).
Mazzucchelli’s standard visual style throughout most of Asterios Polyp is a composition of clean and meticulous linework in monochromatic colors. By leaving the backgrounds of his images blank and providing little to no shadows, he often forgoes realism and chooses to only present the details needed for the reader to understand a scene. With the transition into the Orpheus sequence, the visual style suddenly becomes much more like Ward’s expressionistic wood engravings. Figure 24 provides an example of one of Ward’s engravings from Gods’ Man. Mazzucchelli replaces his clean linework with scraggily crosshatched lines, and steeps the scene in deep purple shadows that often obscure Asterios’s face. In mimicking the qualities of Ward’s wood engravings, Mazzucchelli not only sets a darker tone for the scene, but also gestures at a more handmade approach to storytelling.
Figure 24. An excerpt from Gods’ Man Lynd Ward’s first woodcut novel (n.p.)
Mazzucchelli’s imitation of Ward’s style in the Orpheus sequence exposes the universality of Asterios’s downfall: his pride. He taps into this universality by not using any words in the sequence. Just like all of Ward’s woodcut novels, the story in the Orpheus sequence is devoid of written dialogue or narration. The reader instead follows the progression of the narrative solely through the images. With no translation needed, the wordlessness allows the themes of the story to be understood across language boundaries. He also taps into the universality of Asterios’s pride by interconnecting Asterios’s story with Gods’ Man and the Orpheus myth. Anyone familiar with Gods’ Man will notice that the narrative of Asterios Polyp possesses many of the same themes. As Art Spiegelman points out in his introduction to the collection of Ward’s work, the main character in the novel takes a journey from the city to the country, where he eventually learns the importance of putting aside his prideful nature before his untimely death:
Our Hero, a destitute artist seeking fame and fortune, accepts a magic brush from a Mysterious Stranger. His rapid rise proves hollow, but he flees the corrupt City, meets a beautiful goatherd, and lives a life of Edenic beatitude until the Mysterios Stranger comes to collect payment and Our Hero dies…Gods’ Man is a cautionary tale about the Sin of Pride. (xii)
By using Ward’s visual style to re-tell the Orpheus myth in his graphic novel, Mazzucchelli acknowledges that the lesson Asterios learns at the end of the story is not new, but it is something storytellers have explored throughout history. Not only do Asterios and Our Hero from Gods’ Man learn the importance of putting aside one’s pride and admitting his limitations, but Orpheus also learns the price of a prideful nature when he looks back at Eurydice. In their ascent out of the Underworld, his pride stops him from trusting her to follow and causes them to be separated forever. Of course, this theme is explored throughout many other stories across history, including The Odyssey, which Mazzucchelli references throughout Asterios Polyp. He interconnects these stories in the Orpheus sequence to emphasize that, while pride is an ancient sin that man has explored throughout literature, it’s still a universal failing present in modern life. Furthermore, by linking the visual style of his graphic novel to Ward (a foundational graphic novelist), Mazzucchelli acknowledges that he’s continuing to explore the possibilities of the American graphic novel.
Through Willy Ilium’s artistic technique of combining pieces of choreography from different composers to form new pieces, Mazzucchelli shows the reader how he or she can approach his graphic novel by focusing on how the different visual styles bring contextual meaning to his work. On the other hand, with Kalvin Kohoutek, the musical composer, he represents another approach the reader may take to interpret the narrative’s meaning.
Unbraiding the Comic
Mazzucchelli shows how the reader can interpret his graphic novel using the braided approach through Kalvin Kohoutek’s polyphonic musical composition method. When Hana and Asterios first meet Kalvin, Mazzucchelli makes a strong connection between the composition of music and comics. After Hana admits to Kalvin that she can’t read music, he points to the transcriptions on his wall and, in his tendency to repeat himself, says, “All these, these dots and squiggles just stand for sounds and, and pauses” (219). By describing the music in visual terms such as “dots” and “squiggles”, Kalvin draws the reader’s attention to the way Mazzucchelli represents forms and sounds in his comic through strategic lines on paper.
The connection to the craft of comics design is further strengthened when Kalvin responds to Asterios’s assertion that musical composition is like Gregg shorthand: “Actually, actually not, really. It’s more like each page is a record of time passing in a certain way. This one, for example, represents about thirteen seconds, while this one is about, about four and a half minutes” (220). With Kalvin’s observation, Mazzucchelli furthers his meta-artistic commentary on how his graphic novel is constructed. He’s drawing the reader’s attention to how the words and images on the page are composed to convey the passage of narrative time. On one page there may only be one image representing one moment in time, while on another there may be several images to represent a long passage of time. He does this in order to set up his argument for how the reader can interpret his work through the braided approach.
The braided approach to reading comics, which asks the reader to analyze the repetition of iconic motifs in a creator’s work, is represented through Kalvin’s description of his musical composition methods. He emphasizes that the listener must focus on certain parts of the music in order to engage with it: “Simultaneity—the, the awareness of so much happening at once—is now the most salient aspect of contemporary life. In a cacophony of information, each listener, by focusing on certain tones and phrases, can become an active participant in a creating a unique, unique polyphonic experience” (221).
The “simultaneity” that Kalvin describes, where the listener is confronted with a “cacophony of information,” is analogous to the multiframe in comics.
Theirry Groensteen points out that a comic presents the reader with a multiframe: “The strip, the page, the double page, and the book are multistage multiframes, systems of panel proliferation that are increasingly inclusive” (31). His concept of how the reader interprets the multiframe contrasts with Chute and DeKoven’s model, where the reader “moves forward in time” at different rates when he or she reads the words and images (769). Instead of being pulled forward linearly in time when reading a comic, Groensteen claims that the multiframe confronts the reader with many nonlinear relationships: “The network that they form is certainly an oriented network, since it is crossed by the instance of the story, but it also exists in a dechronologized mode, that of the collection, of the panoptical spread and of coexistence, considering the possibility of translinear relations and plurivectoral courses” (147). In other words, as opposed to film, where the viewer watches a sequence of images that progress the narrative forward independently from the viewer’s control, the multiframe of the comic frees the reader to pay attention to how certain images relate to one another outside of the constraints of their intended sequence. This “dechronologized mode” of the multiframe is what creates a visual “cacophony of information” for the reader.
To draw attention to how comics can provide the reader with a cacophony of visual information, Mazzucchelli overlaps the panels in Kalvin’s scene while he discusses his musical composition theories (Figure 15). The overlap of the panels prevents the reader from viewing the panels as forming a linear relationship; it instead displays multiple frames of visual information simultaneously. In the following section of the book, Mazzucchelli provides another strong example of how his graphic novel provides the reader with a cacophony of visual information. In this section, which focuses on one of Asterios’s memories of Hana, Mazzucchelli uses the multiframe to overwhelm the reader with a cacophony of visual information. Across seven pages, he represents Asterios’s recollection of one moment spent with Hana by constructing a linear sequence in the middle of the page. Around this sequence, he provides a multitude of panels that depict Hana performing various actions. Figure 25 is an example of one of these pages. The panels of Hana surrounding the main sequence in the middle of the page cannot be read as a linear or chronological narrative. They are instead meant to evoke various moments of Hana flitting across Asterios’s memory while he recollects this one particular moment. The nonlinear quality of these panels confronts the reader with an overwhelming amount of visual information.
In his philosophy of musical composition, Kalvin says the listener focuses on “certain tones and phrases” within the cacophony to become an active participant in the experience of the music. Similarly, in his explanation of the braided approach, Groensteen explains that the reader must pay attention to the series of certain iconic motifs within the sequence of the multiframe in order to analyze how they strengthen the meaning of the graphic novel as a whole. The creator of the comic braids iconic motifs into his or her work through repetition: “Braiding is generally founded on the remarkable resurgence of an iconic motif (or a plastic quality), and it is concerned primarily with situations, with strong dramatic potential, of appearance and disappearance” (152). The reader’s objective is to recognize the iconic motifs in a comic, which sometimes appear and disappear across many pages, and interpret the thematic meaning they brings to the work. Kalvin goes on to say, “I’m setting the conditions for a sonic expedition…It’s like the, the discontinuity of quantum effects: something only occurs if you pay attention to it” (222). Since an iconic motif often resurges across many pages in a graphic novel, the reader must be paying attention to it; otherwise the braiding becomes a part of the excess that goes unnoticed.
Figure 25. Asterios Polyp (241)
In Asterios Polyp Mazzucchelli braids both basic and more complex iconic motifs into his work. The basic iconic motifs are specific shapes and symbols that get repeated throughout the book. For example, as Wolk points out in his review, the way Mazzucchelli draws the shape of Asterios’s head is thematically significant: “His head is a drawn as a two-dimensional construct: half a perfect circle, interrupted by two equally proportioned curves” (“Shades of Meaning”). The two-dimensional quality of Asterios’s head reinforces Mazzucchelli’s characterization of Asterios as someone who splits the world into dualities.
Another iconic motif that Mazzucchelli braids into his work is the symbol of dualistic twins. Images of twins appear throughout the book and they often appear as dualities. The image of Asterios’s apartment building is the first twin image in the narrative (4). The building has two towers that mirror one another exactly. With the knowledge that Asterios upholds symmetry as one of the most important factors in design, it’s easy to see what attracts him to this building. In the next section, he starts with a circular tableau of Asterios that gets doubled on the next page (15-16). While both images are circular and show Asterios in profile from the same distance, each depicts Asterios at a different time in his life. The first tableau shows Asterios facing to the left in a business suit, looking satisfied, and smoking a cigarette. The second image shows him facing the opposite direction in the rain, unshaven, and depressed. These dualistic double images help show how Asterios’s life has been turned upside down since Hana left him.
Later in the section, Mazzucchelli provides a panel of Asterios as a child. On his bedroom wall are pictures of Tweedledum and Tweedledee from Alice in Wonderland and Romulus and Remus from Roman mythology—also, sitting on his table are the books The Prince and the Pauper and The Man in the Iron Mask, which all feature twinned characters (20). On the next page, Ignazio, Asterios’s twin brother, describes that when they were born, “One was alive, the other dead” (21). Mazzucchelli accompanies these words with images of two infants: one in light and the other in shadow. Similar to the circular images at the beginning of the section, Mazzucchelli symbolizes duality through the differences between the two images. Together, the images of the infants form a yin-yang. Bookending this section is another tableau, which shows Asterios walking away from his apartment in the rain (23). The tower he lived in is now billowing smoke, while its twin remains untouched. In weaving the iconic motif of dualistic twins into his work, Mazzucchelli strengthens the influence that Ignazio’s death has on Asterios. The repetition of this symbol serves as a constant reminder of Asterios’s loss and his sense of incompleteness, which cause him to find comfort in symmetrical designs that promote equilibrium.
Mazzucchelli also braids more complex iconic motifs into his work. Instead of a distinct shape or symbol, specific panels also get repeated throughout the book. For example, he braids the same panel of Asterios’s living room across many pages of the story in order to represent the different stages of Hana and Asterios’s relationship. The panel of the living room first appears at the very beginning of the plot (Figure 26). In this scene, the apartment is covered in trash, all the plants are dead, and even the windows are left open during a storm. The disarray of the living room parallels the messiness of Hana and Asterios’s divorce and his subsequent spiral into depression. When the apartment catches fire later in the scene, Mazzucchelli repeats the same size and angle of the first living room panel (Figure 27). In consuming the filthy living room, the fire creates a clean slate for Asterios and sends him on a new course that will bring him back to Hana. The same panel gets repeated again when Hana visits Asterios’s apartment for the first time (Figure 28). Here the room is presented in Asterios’s signature modern style, consisting of minimalist straight-lined furniture. The cleanliness of the room conveys the blossoming of their relationship. The panel gets repeated a fourth time when Hana moves into the apartment (Figure 29). The boxes, new furniture, and plants obscuring Asterios’s immaculate living room represent Hana’s invasion of his space. The transition into living together is messy as they try to figure out how to integrate their different styles together. The final appearance of the living room panel occurs just before Hana and Asterios have a major fight (Figure 30). Ironically, in this scene, Mazzucchelli shows that Hana and Asterios have found a way to harmoniously combine their clashing styles. Hana’s plants and furniture have been integrated into Asterios’s modern setup, creating a warmer and more balanced atmosphere to the living room.
By braiding the iconic motif of the living room panel throughout the graphic novel, Mazzucchelli not only shows the status of Hana and Asterios’s relationship at different times in the story, but he also provides an example of how Hana influences Asterios’s perception of the world. When discussing the nature of perception, Ignazio says, “Maybe one person’s construction of the world could influence someone else’s” (36). Asterios’s living room serves as a microcosm of his preferred way for constructing the world. In figure 28, the straight lines of the furniture and the lack of any extraneous details reflects his philosophy of only focusing on the functional rather than the decorative. Hana’s invasion of the apartment in figure 29 shows the messy and awkward transition of allowing decoration into his meticulously constructed space. Figure 30 represents the couple’s attempt at integrating their perceptions together. This is similar to the scene where Asterios and Hana first meet, and Mazzucchelli visually represents, through the integration of two different drawing styles, the overlap of their perceptions (Figure 8). The trashed version of the apartment in figure 26 signifies how the divorce throws his construction of the world into disarray. It causes him to question the principles he once relied on to guide him through his life. And finally, figure 27 represents the destruction of his meticulously constructed reality. Its destruction leaves room for Asterios to find a new way of perceiving the world. When examined together, all five of the different panels of Asterios’s living room show how Mazzucchelli depicts Hana’s influence on Asterios’s construction of the world at different points in the story.
Mazzucchelli parallels Kalvin’s musical composition methods with the braided approach, which analyzes the repetition of iconic motifs, in order to suggest to the reader another way he or she can interpret the work. This approach, along with the three others represented by Asterios, Hana, and Willy, form a guide to the different ways to read his graphic novel. However, Mazzucchelli makes it clear that none of these approaches provide someone with a complete reading of Asterios Polyp.
Figure 26. Asterios Polyp (4)
Figure 27. Asterios Polyp (12)
Figure 28. Asterios Polyp (87)
Figure 29. Asterios Polyp (156)
Figure 30. Asterios Polyp (225)
A Grid of Lenses
Together, the four approaches to reading Mazzucchelli’s graphic novel (dichotomous, interdependent, stylistic, and braided) form a grid similar to Mazzucchelli’s grid of apples (Figure 5). Each approach examines the same book, but through a lens that asks the reader to pay attention to different elements of the work. Mazzucchelli’s references to these approaches throughout his graphic novel form the grid wherein the reader sees the methods and limitations of each lens. By choosing to analyze the work through one lens, the reader necessarily disregards the methods used in the others. No matter which one he or she chooses, it causes what Thompson describes as the “excess” that the reader overlooks due to his or her “tight” analytical approach (489). Mazzucchelli asserts at the end of Asterios Polyp that no approach will provide a reading of his graphic novel devoid of excess, but that the acknowledgement of the limitations of any analytical framework prepares the reader for the excess that proves his or her analysis to be lacking.
Asterios’s triumph at the end of the story does not occur in his discovery of a new way to perceive the world, but rather in his acknowledgement that all perceptions possess limitations that create excess. He demonstrates this valuable lesson when he hears the approach of the asteroid. Even though his question of “What’s that noise?” does not save him from the asteroid’s destructive path, it epitomizes his newfound acknowledgement that no matter which method of perception he uses there will always be excess details that can prove his interpretation to be deficient. In accordance with this central lesson of the narrative, Mazzucchelli’s grid of lenses draws the reader’s attention to the excess created by any approach he or she uses to analyze his graphic novel. The dichotomous approach encourages the reader to focus on the separate narrative threads of the words and images. Alternatively, the interdependent approach asks him or her to examine how Mazzucchelli uses words and images as one mode of representation. The stylistic approach zeroes in on his linework and its allusions to other artists’ visual styles. And finally, the reader using the braided approach tries to identify and map out how Mazzucchelli braids iconic motifs in his work.
None of these approaches provides a complete reading of every element of Mazzucchelli’s work. There are still details of his graphic novel that go unexplained no matter which of the four approaches a reader utilizes, such as his choice not to include page numbers, his design of the cover and binding of the book, and his tendency to design his panels on unusually large amounts of white space. While these excess details may not seem relevant at first, upon further reading they may prove a reader’s analysis to be lacking in a vital way. Mazzucchelli’s ending image of the night sky symbolizes the vast amount of visual information his graphic novel presents to the reader (Figure 20).
No matter which approach he or she uses to interpret the meaning of the comic there will always be excess details that go unnoticed. Instead of remaining overwhelmed by this large amount of information, Mazzucchelli encourages the reader to acknowledge that an excess detail that he or she ignored or overlooked before may prove valuable upon further readings.
 Quote from interview with Christopher Brayshaw in 1997 for The Comics Journal (71).