When Asterios visits the canyon with Ursula and Jackson, he looks out at its wide rim and says, “Now, that’s a hole” (Figure 16). In Asterios Polyp David Mazzucchelli focuses on the holes, or blind spots, in human perception. He draws attention to the excess information that escapes through these holes. When Asterios realizes that his closed-mindedness prevents him from giving Hana the attention and care she deserves, he tries to solve the problem by finding a new method of perception that will fix his blind spots. However, he eventually acknowledges that every perceptual framework has its limitations that stop a person from absorbing all the information from the world. This acknowledgement prepares Asterios to hear the approach of the asteroid at the end of the narrative. With the question, “What’s that noise?”, Asterios demonstrates that he’s finally ready to acknowledge the limitations of his perception and accept when excess details reveal inadequacies in his interpretation.
Mazzucchelli asks the reader to follow Asterios’s path in his or her interpretation of the graphic novel. Through references to the formal qualities of comics, he displays a grid of analytical approaches. Each approach asks the reader to focus on elements of Mazzucchelli’s work in different ways: in the dichotomous approach the reader analyzes how the words and images function as separate narrative threads, in the interdependent approach he or she pays attention to how the words and images work as one mode of representation, in the stylistic approach he or she studies the shifts in Mazzucchelli’s visual style, and in the braided approach he or she examines the repetition of iconic motifs throughout his work. Mazzucchelli’s references to these approaches form a grid that displays the benefits and limitations of each approach. Like Asterios’s lesson regarding perception, Mazzucchelli emphasizes that a reader’s interpretation always overlooks excess details that do not fit into his or her analytical framework. Therefore, he encourages the reader to acknowledge that there is no approach that will offer a complete reading of his work. This acknowledgement prepares the reader to accept when an excess detail sheds new light or proves something to be lacking in his or her interpretation.
My argument regarding Asterios Polyp suggests several avenues for research. There remains no single-author study of David Mazzucchelli and the thematic ties that link his comics together. An examination of his entire body of work would deepen our understanding of what he’s trying to convey as an artist across his body of work. Another possible avenue to explore would be a comprehensive study into the different ways comics creators represent mental processes such as perception. Such a study would shed light on how the formal qualities of comics, such as word balloons and panel frames, present opportunities to visually represent invisible mental processes. Furthermore, Mazzucchelli’s references to the formal qualities of comics in Asterios Polyp opens up the possibility for a project that would focus on how certain comics creators use meta-art in their work. By comparing different artists and what they have to say about the medium, such a project will highlight the meta-artistic discourse running throughout different creator’s graphic novels.
The comics where Mazzucchelli is both writer and illustrator (as opposed to the works where he serves solely as illustrator, such as Batman: Year One) have various thematic links connecting them together. A project that focuses on these links would provide assertions as to what Mazzucchelli is trying to do or say as an artist when he’s in full control of the art rather than collaborating. A place to start is with the three-volume set of Mazzucchelli’s comics anthology Rubber Blanket. The short comics within these volumes have motifs that tie into both the narrative and visual style of Asterios Polyp. The three areas that this project might focus on are the recurring themes in his work, his portrayal of women, and his experiments with visual style.
For example, Mazzucchelli establishes the theme of preparing for the unexpected in “Near Miss,” the first comic in volume 1 of Rubber Blanket. The story centers on a young man named Steven who leaves home in an effort to prepare for the possibility of an asteroid hitting the earth. As I point out in Chapter 1, Steven makes a cameo appearance in Asterios Polyp. His reappearance serves as the most obvious link that Mazzucchelli makes between his previous work and his graphic novel. Another link between “Near Miss” and Asterios Polyp is the use of a canyon as a place of inner-exploration. After leaving home, Steven drives to a canyon where he plans to stargaze. In the canyon he has an encounter with an anonymous half-naked woman. Before he can get to know the woman in the canyon, a pair of jets flying close by distract him. By the time he turns back to the woman, she’s vanished. Similarly, Asterios’s acknowledgment of his flawed perception occurs while visiting a canyon with Ursula and Jackson. “Near Miss” ends with Steven gazing out into the night sky with his telescope. This ending serves as a connection to the final scene of Asterios Polyp, where Jackson gazes out at the night sky searching for shooting stars. A single-author study of Mazzucchelli’s work would attempt to survey how his earlier work in Rubber Blanket helped to develop the concepts he explores further in Asterios Polyp.
In “Discovering America” from the second volume of Rubber Blanket, the protagonist, Chris, has a problem with women that correlates with Asterios. Both characters don’t pay enough attention to their significant others because they’re blinded by their pride. In “Discovering America” Chris can’t even remember what his girlfriend is studying as her major. Furthermore, Mazzucchelli doesn’t reveal her name, which makes her appear as even more forgettable. Chris, who’s in the process of making a giant globe, gets furious when his girlfriend gives him an atlas to use as a reference. Pride blinds both Chris and Asterios to the mistakes they make in their relationships. There’s also a clear link between their artistic pursuits. As a mapmaker, Chris says, “A lot of it is finding ways to make something three-dimensional into something two-dimensional” (22). This approach parallels Asterios’s profession as a “paper architect,” where colleagues praise him for his brilliant designs of three-dimensional buildings on the two-dimensional surface of paper. Finding more links to Mazzucchelli’s portrayal of women, and the characters who underappreciated them, would help develop a more cohesive understanding of his attitudes towards gender and identity in his body of work.
Of all the comics in Rubber Blanket, “The Death of Monsieur Absurde” from volume three is the closest in visual style to Asterios Polyp. Its plot revolves around a running gag of people distracting and frustrating Monsieur Absurde into a rage. In the comic, Mazzucchelli draws in a cartoon-based style that that uses a minimum amount of lines and visual details to depict the characters and setting (Figure 31). His goal is to present these characters, especially Monsieur Absurde (who’s similar in stature and attitude to Willy Illium), as caricatures rather than realistic people. The visual style of Asterios Polyp is not quite as caricature based. However, Mazzucchelli’s character design of Asterios with a half-circle shaped head evokes the same flat, minimalist, approach to cartooning. In “The Death of Monsieur Absurde” we also see Mazzucchelli playing with different typographies. The practice of giving each character a different style of lettering is something Mazzucchelli carries into Asterios Polyp. On a thematic level, Monsieur Absurde is another character that is blind to what’s really going on around him. While lecturing an admirer of his work on philosophy, he does not notice that his wife is having a sexual encounter with the bellboy behind him. Like Chris from “Discovering America” and Asterios, Monsieur Absurde’s pride gets in the way of his ability to notice what’s happening in his relationship with his wife. By examining these shared qualities of Mazzucchelli’s work, his recurring themes, his portrayal of women, and his visual style, the single-author study would provide a new perspective on what Mazzucchelli is trying to accomplish as an artist.
Figure 31. From “The Death of Monsieur Absurde” in Rubber Blanket vol. 3 (68)
Going beyond an examination of Mazzucchelli’s work, I propose a project that focuses on how the particular formal qualities of the comics medium allow creators opportunities to represent human perception and other mental processes in unique ways. In the artform of fiction writing, authors will occasionally switch the first-person narrator in order to show the difference in perception between characters. In film, a director may use several different point-of-view shots to convey how various characters perceive the world in different ways. The unique formal qualities of the comics medium (which presents the reader with sequences of images like film, but allows his or her eyes to wonder back and forth across the panels on the page) possesses methods for representing mental processes that have yet to be examined fully by scholars. The unique formal qualities of comics include: the page layout, the panel frame, the space between the panels (called the gutter), word and thought balloons, and others. For an example of how an artist can use these formal qualities of comics to portray complicated mental processes, I provide an example of a two-page spread from writer Scott Snyder and illustrator Yanick Paquette’s Swamp Thing series (2011) for DC comics (Figure 32). In this scene, Swamp Thing, who is a plant-based entity, links his mind with Eric Holland’s in order to show him visions of The Rot, a force of destruction that he needs Eric’s assistance to stop. To represent Eric’s complicated state of mind as he’s linked with Swamp Thing, Paquette uses highly stylized panel frames that look like plant cells under a microscope. The manipulation of this formal quality of the medium helps convey how Eric perceives these events through Swamp Thing’s plant-based mind. The project focusing on these formal qualities will collect a series of examples similar to figure 32 from different comics creators to show the techniques creators can use to represent various mental processes of their characters.
Figure 32. From Scott Snyder and Yanick Paquette’s Swamp Thing #2 (9–10)
The third project I propose is an analysis of how other comics creators use meta-art in their work. This project will focus on writers like Grant Morrison and Alan Moore, whose work also references the medium of comics and the culture surrounding it. In Morrison’s Animal Man series (1988–90), the main character, Buddy Baker, eventually realizes he’s living the life of a character inside a series of superhero comic books. The story arc of the series culminates with Buddy meeting his creator, Grant Morrison himself. Morrison raises interesting questions about how mainstream comics deal with complicated issues of seriality and continuity. Alan Moore’s Watchmen (1986-1987) is a deconstructionist superhero tale, which posits what it would be like if superheroes existed in a more realistic world. Moore references the medium of comics and the culture surrounding it by not only deconstructing society’s concept of the superhero, but also including a comic within the graphic novel called, “Tales of the Black Freighter.” The method of having the reader read a comic within a comic heightens the meta-art of Moore’s work. This project on meta-art in comics will attempt track the meta-artistic references running throughout these and other graphic novels in order to focus on how comics writers and creators use meta-art in their work.
I want to end with a reflection on what my experience developing this thesis project on David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp has brought to my attention. While the medium of comics is accepted as a legitimate artform by the world of academia, and there’s a growing body of critical analysis and theory in the field of comics studies, there remains a missing component in comics scholarship. In other fields of study, such as film or literature, there are many textbooks designed with the goal to assist university-level scholars in writing about these mediums and their formal qualities. However, in the field of comics studies, there remains an absence of helpful texts. There’s a need among both comics scholars, and professors that teach courses on comics, for a book that defines the formal qualities of the medium and assists scholars in how to write about comics at the university-level. My goal is to fill this need by developing a textbook that provides accessible definitions of the formal qualities, such as page layout and expressive typography, and discussions of various analytical approaches, such as the stylistic and the braided approach. By providing this missing component in comics studies, I hope to make a significant contribution that will help the field continue to grow and thrive.