Chapter 1

 

Everything is filtered through some kind of interpretation.

-David Mazzucchelli[1]

While some may find Asterios’s death at the end of Asterios Polyp bewildering, I argue that, through his narrative, David Mazzucchelli makes the claim that no matter which method a person may take to perceive the world there will always be excess details that he or she will miss, and that the only way a person can prepare for the unexpected is to accept the limitations of his or her perception. He demonstrates this through Asterios’s journey. He starts by showing that Asterios’s choice to perceive the world through a dualistic lens is based on his need to find comfort in equilibrium. Mazzucchelli then exposes the inadequacies, or the blinds spots, in his perception through his interactions with Hana. The cast of characters represents a variety of worldviews that Asterios has the option to accept or reject. Mazzucchelli’s ultimate lesson, as the ending shows, is not that a person should develop a better way of perceiving life by trying to perceive everything at once, but that he or she should realize the inherent limitations of his or her—or any—perception. Acknowledging one’s limitations prepares us to accept when an excess detail, like the asteroid, comes hurtling down out of nowhere.

Asterios’s Perception: A Search for Equilibrium

Mazzucchelli structures Asterios’s perception around both the character’s conscious choice to split concepts into dualities and his deep-seated need to find equilibrium in the chaos of life. The tensions between these two aspects of the character manifest themselves in his work as a professor of architecture and the experience of losing his twin brother at birth.

Asterios admits that he makes a conscious decision to perceive the world through a filter that splits everything into its dualistic qualities. In a conversation with Ignazio, he explains his choice:

Of course I realize that things aren’t so black and white—that in actuality possibilities exist along a continuum between the extremes…It’s just a convenient organizing principle. By choosing two aspects of a subject that appear to be in opposition, each can be examined in light of the other in order to better illuminate the entire subject. (120)

He admits his dualistic method disregards the possibilities that exist between the extremes, while also arguing it is a necessary sacrifice in order to understand complicated subjects. In a conversation with a colleague, he tries to explain the world through pointing out its dualistic qualities: “Duality is rooted in nature: the brain is divided into right and left hemispheres, electrical current is either positive or negative—our very existence is the result of humans being male and female” (119). By dividing nature into its dualistic parts he organizes complicated subjects into systems based on binary logic. It soon becomes clear where Asterios stands within the realm of dualities.

Even though Asterios’s method of perception seems like an objective way to organize information, the bias in his outlook shows through in his work as a teacher and architect. When lecturing to his students, he presents them with two ways of viewing a subject and then argues for what he perceives as the right way. For example, in one of his lectures, Asterios says that art can be either factual or fictional. Factual art doesn’t disguise that it is a piece of art, whereas fictional art presents an illusion to the viewer. He ends the discussion by clearly coming down on the side of factual art: “Anything that is not functional is merely decorative” (115). Asterios’s designs, which have titles like “Parallel Park” and “The Akimbo Arms”, show his penchant for valuing functionality and symmetry over everything else.

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Figure 5. Asterios Polyp (33)

Mazzucchelli compares how someone chooses to perceive the world to how an artist chooses the style of his or her work of art. The panel of apples in figure 5, a tableau that marks a new section of the book, represents the parallel between perceptual and artistic choice. In each of the sixteen squares within the panel, Mazzucchelli draws an apple in a different visual style. While each drawing represents the same apple, the difference in the way they are drawn makes each one unique. The placement of the squares alongside one another in the formation of a grid draws attention to the multiplicity of ways that an artist can represent the same thing. And just as he or she can choose one style over another, someone like Asterios can prefer one way of organizing his perception of the world over another. In figure 6, Mazzucchelli expands on the visual metaphor of the apples tableau by drawing a crowd of college students in wildly different visual styles. Ignazio’s narration helps to reveal that each style is supposed to represent a different worldview: “What if reality (as perceived) were simply an extension of the self? Wouldn’t that color the way each individual experiences the world?” (34). In figure 7, he draws Asterios as a gigantic configuration of symmetrical shapes lecturing a class of tiny students. It is easy to figure out which students follow Asterios’s way of thinking and which ones reject it based on whether they’re drawn in the same style as their professor.

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Figure 6. Asterios Polyp (34)

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Figure 7. Asterios Polyp (36)

While Mazzucchelli highlights the similarities between perception and artistic representation, he also asserts that it is much more difficult for someone to change the way he or she perceives the world in comparison to an artist’s decision to switch drawing styles. In the narration at the top of figure 7 Ignazio questions if someone’s perception can be changed by the influence of someone else. Later on, he continues his narration by suggesting that the process is not as easy as we may wish: “This would suggest it’s possible for someone to freely alter his own perception of reality in order to overlap with that of another…Wouldn’t that be nice?” (40–1). The irony of Ignazio’s question demonstrates that even if someone like Asterios tries to change his method of perception for the one he loves, the process is very difficult. This is due to the fact that the root of Asterios’s way of perceiving the world goes much deeper than a preference for one organizing principle over another.

Asterios’s conviction that a part of himself is missing causes him install a network of cameras in his apartment. After spending their first night together, Asterios explains to Hana that the cameras aren’t for depraved purposes, but for something much more personal. He says that growing up he always felt there was something wrong within himself. When he was in a crowd he felt alone, but when he was by himself he always felt as if someone else were in the room as well. It wasn’t until he was a teenager that he found out about Ignazio. Instead of making him feel better, knowing the reason for his strange feelings, the realization that he had a twin brother who died at birth made him feel even stranger. To try to deal with this feeling of incompleteness, he installed the cameras: “It’s not like I ever watch the tapes—I’ve never seen one minute of them…Somehow, though, it’s comforting to know they’re there, in the next room…my own video doppelganger” (126). The cameras serve as a comfort for Asterios. They make him feel as if the part of himself he considers missing, Ignazio, is somehow closer. This personal need for a sense of wholeness extends to his dogmatic insistence on aesthetic equilibrium.

By splitting everything between the functional and the decorative Asterios believes he can come closer to designing a world where everything functions rationally. Mazzucchelli provides a short scene of Asterios idealizing the world at a young age. After his teacher asks if he’s ever tried to draw something from real life, Asterios responds, “I don’t like drawing from life. Things are never in the right place” (112). The desire for putting things in their “right place” carries into his adulthood. Ignazio describes the peace that Asterios finds in his philosophy of design: “In the certitude of symmetry, the consonance of counterpoise, Asterios found a measure of solace” (118). Much like the cameras in his apartment, but on a more subconscious level, the symmetrical designs help Asterios fill the void left by Ignazio’s absence.

Mazzucchelli shows why it is hard for Asterios to change his perception by revealing that he’s aware of it as a conscious choice, but that it is also a symptom of a deeper need to replace the missing part inside himself. Even after Asterios starts to change how he perceives the world, Mazzucchelli shows that progress only comes from accepting that all methods of perception have limitations.

Asterios and Hana: Blind Spots

While every method of perception requires that a person filter out excess details, Asterios’s failure to acknowledge these blind spots in his own perception causes his downfall. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his relationship with Hana. His refusal to acknowledge that his way of looking at the world may possess inadequacies, and his constant thirst for attention, weighs on her until she can’t take it anymore. Even when Hana tries to show him the consequences of his behavior, Asterios does not see the pain he causes her. In the end, he must go on a journey of personal discovery in order to realize the value of acknowledging that there will always be blind spots in the way he looks at the world.

Ignazio warns Asterios that his dualistic method for viewing life may get him into trouble. After Asterios defends his method of splitting a concept into opposing elements in order to better understand it as a whole, Ignazio says it is a valuable approach “as long as one doesn’t mistake the system for reality” (120). And later he points out that this method oversimplifies the complexities of life: “Some might argue that such simplification is best suited to children’s stories, or comic books” (121). Though Asterios agrees with Ignazio, he still falls into this trap. The dualistic method works well in his career, where, even though none of his designs get built, his colleagues praise his work for its achievement in the theoretical realm of architecture. However, his theoretical process proves less than functional in reality. When Asterios uses the same dualistic method in his relationship with Hana, it proves far less effective, and eventually causes the end of their marriage.

At first, Asterios and Hana’s divergent qualities complement one another in a way consistent with Asterios’s theory of how dualistic forces work. On the night they meet, Mazzuchelli shows their different ways of perceiving the world overlapping (Figure 8). Hana’s violet crosshatched perception fleshes out Asterios’s hollow symmetrical perception. This kind of combination, two seemingly opposite things forming equilibrium, is the basis for how duality works. Ignazio further demonstrates how the two characters bring equilibrium to one another by saying, “Asterios’s and Hana’s lives folded into each other’s with barely a wrinkle” (82). Mazzucchelli provides another visual metaphor of the couple’s dualistic harmony when he draws them lying together in bed in the formation of a yin-yang, which of course is the Asian symbol for the equilibrium of opposites (Figure 9). While this portrays Asterios and Hana as compatible through their differences, it soon becomes apparent that Asterios’s narrow-mindedness causes major conflicts between them.

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Figure 8. Asterios Polyp (63)

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Figure 9. Asterios Polyp (127)

Asterios’s tendency not to acknowledge the blind spots in his perception causes his relationship with Hana to fall apart. When they first meet, Asterios makes Hana feel as if she’s the center of attention, but this soon changes. Figure 10 shows a scene where Asterios admires the artwork in her studio. While he starts by praising her technique, his powers of aesthetic analysis soon become the center of attention. Mazzucchelli uses the visual metaphor of a spotlight steadily changing focus from Hana to Asterios within the sequence of four panels to show the shift. Furthermore, his analysis imposes his dualistic philosophy of art onto her work: “There’s this palpable tension between order and chaos, the concrete and the imagined, man and nature…the rational and the irrational, humor and horror, fragility and fortitude…” (149). In the background, Hana tries to tell him that this isn’t the way she sees things, but he doesn’t notice. He’s so involved with his own thoughts that he does not see the damage he causes. If this were a one-time occurrence perhaps Hana could live with it, but Mazzucchelli shows us that Asterios’s ignorance of his own perceptual blind spots causes problems on a daily basis. In a two-page spread, he presents a montage of six two-panel scenes where Asterios’s narrow perception causes Hana to feel belittled (Figures 11 and 12). The last two panels in the montage end with Hana asking why he always assumes she’s wrong. Asterios’s conviction that he knows best causes her to feel like her opinion never gets appreciated.

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Figure 10. Asterios Polyp (149)

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Figure 11. Asterios Polyp (116)

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Figure 12. Asterios Polyp (117)

After Hana leaves him, Asterios starts to see the value in the excess details his perception filtered out. At the beginning of the book, he’s alone watching the videotape from their first night together. The cameras in his apartment have captured many of the excess details he missed or ignored. By watching them, he’s not only trying to hold on to his memories of their relationship, but also trying to find where things went wrong. Near the end of the book, while Asterios is in a state of unconsciousness, Ignazio gives a monologue on the nature of time: “Every memory, no matter how remote its subject, takes place ‘now,’ at the moment it’s called up in the mind. The more something is recalled, the more the brain has a chance to refine the original experience” (287). Underneath these words, Mazzucchelli provides a 4 panel sequence of Hana saying the same basic phrase, but her wording changes with each new panel (Figure 13). She goes from saying, “It’s just a matter of paying attention” in the first panel, to “You just don’t pay enough attention” in the last panel. Now that he’s separated from her, Asterios is in the process of clarifying his memories. He soon realizes that he really wasn’t paying enough attention to the effect his narrow perception had on their relationship.

Even though at first it appears their divergent qualities complement one another, Asterios’s insistence that his way of perceiving the world is always right causes Hana to leave. It’s not until she’s gone that he begins to realize the harm he’s done. He realizes that his way of perceiving the world filtered out valuable excess details, which may have helped to save their marriage. While Asterios goes on a journey to change the way he perceives the world, his real success is his realization that no method of perception is perfect and that there will always be valuable excess details that will be missed.

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Figure 13. Asterios Polyp (287)

An Array of Perceptions

            Throughout the narrative, Asterios meets a cast of diverse characters who perceive the world in different ways. His rejection of these characters’ philosophies reveals his unwillingness to admit the inadequacies of his own perception. By eventually realizing the importance of acknowledging his blind spots, he’s able to change his approach to perceiving the world.

The contrast between Asterios’s insistence on function over form and Hana’s talent for finding art in things most people don’t notice highlights his tendency to take her for granted. Other than using discarded objects to make sculptures, Hana also demonstrates her ability to see art where most people see nothing in her role as a teacher. Standing in front of a class of college students, she places two bricks next to one another and asks the class to identify how many there are.  At first, most of the students say two, but one student notices that the space between the two bricks, through its size and shape, forms a third brick. Hana’s point is that sculpture is not just about making forms, but it is also about “designing a finite area of space” (215). She sees value in what most people would see as empty space. On the other hand, Asterios does not pay attention to anything that does not present itself as functional. His cold approach causes Hana to feel unappreciated. In an argument at the end of this section of the book, she says, “Just because somebody seems shy doesn’t mean he doesn’t exist! Maybe all that person wants once in a while…is a little recognition” (228). Asterios’s disregard makes Hana feel as if her opinions and accomplishment, like the space between the bricks, go unrecognized. The tableau Mazzucchelli provides at the beginning of the section is a visual analogy for Hana’s sense of invisibility in the eyes of Asterios (Figure 14). At first, the tableau may look like just a panel of two tulips, but if the viewer pays attention to the shape of the space between the flowers he or she will notice that it forms the outline of Hana’s head and shoulders. The lesson is not that Asterios should see the world in exactly the same way as Hana, but instead he should recognize that her perception is just as legitimate.

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Figure 14. Asterios Polyp (213)

In the Orpheus sequence, Mazzucchelli shows the price Asterios pays for not valuing Hana’s way of approaching life. Orpheus (Underground) is Willy Ilium’s reimagining of the myth of Orpheus traveling to the underworld to rescue his lover Eurydice. While we never get to see Willy’s theatrical production, the ancient story gets reenacted in Asterios’s dream, which Mazzucchelli presents through a sequence of wordless panels. The dream follows the same basic plot of the myth. Asterios travels to the Underworld, which has been replaced with the subway station from earlier in the plot, where he meets Willy, who represents Hades. After Willy demonstrates to him that he can only depart from the Underworld with Hana if he does not look at her, Asterios and Hana start exiting hand-in-hand. The sequence ends with Asterios losing his grip on her hand and looking back to reassure himself that she’s still there. His disobedient look sends Hana back to the Underworld, separating them forever.

Mazzucchelli’s choice of the Orpheus myth, which hinges on a disobedient look, represents Asterios’s unwillingness to place his trust in Hana. When he loses his grip on her hand, he looks back at her to reassure himself of her presence instead of trusting her to follow him out of the Underworld. While Hana believes that it is important to view the empty space between two forms as a third form of finite space, Asterios does not permit himself to view the space between them in the scene as a bond of trust. He instead views the space as nothing but an empty gap separating them, and he is unwilling to have faith that she will follow him. This reflects his unwillingness to trust her judgment in their marriage. In the scene immediately following the Orpheus sequence, Mañana, the waitress from the Apogee café, argues that contrary to Asterios’s assertion that a combination of physical and mental attraction keep a couple together it is really three things: “Love…trust…respect” (273). To demonstrate her point, she props three beer coasters against one another, and says, “Take any one of those away and the whole thing falls apart” (273). Asterios admits earlier to Hana, “I don’t think in terms of three” (157). With the motif of revealing two things to actually make three, Mazzucchelli shows that Asterios’s unwillingness to recognize the value of perceiving the world outside of his dualistic lens is the reason for his downfall. The Orpheus sequence displays the damage he causes through his inability to trust in Hana.[2] Indeed, she later enjoys spending time with Willy Ilium because he acknowledges her talents.

Even though Willy also proves to be self-obsessed, he still notices an intimate aspect of Hana’s character that goes unseen by Asterios. Willy approaches choreography by reassembling the works of old masters into new interpretive pieces. To poke fun at this approach, Asterios calls him “Willy Chimera,” a reference to the mythical creature made up of many different animal parts. By not taking him seriously, Asterios demonstrates his unwillingness to give tribute to anyone else’s way of perceiving the world outside his own. Willy, on the other hand, though pompous, still notices an intimate detail in Hana’s work. After examining the sculptures in her studio, he turns to her and asks, “Tell me, were you abused as a child?” (186–7). While Asterios angrily claims this cannot be accurate, Hana’s noncommittal response hints that Willy is somewhat correct. His question exposes an aspect of Hana’s personality that Asterios never noticed. This is another example of a valuable excess detail that Asterios misses due to a blind spot in his perception. While it is unfair to claim that he should have noticed this secret about his wife, it is reasonable to assert that he’s unable to anticipate it due to his conviction that he already knows everything about her. Willy’s question would not come as such a shock if Asterios admitted that his way of perceiving life causes him to miss valuable details about Hana.

Asterios’s meeting with Kalvin Kohoutek serves as another demonstration of his unwillingness to appreciate how someone else may perceive the world. While Asterios believes that art should be clean, straightforward, and symmetrical, Kalvin’s approach to musical composition embraces chaos in order to send the listener on a journey of musical discovery: “In a cacophony of information, each listener, by focusing on certain tones and phrases, can become an active participant in creating a unique…polyphonic experience” (221). He goes on to explain that it is the listener’s job to notice the unique patterns of sound within the cacophony. In this scene, Mazzucchelli visually demonstrates how Kalvin’s concept works by overlapping the panels across one another (Figure 15). In doing this, Mazzucchelli presents the reader with a cacophony of visual information that he or she must sort out. This also reflects Kalvin’s assertion that “Simultaneity—the awareness of so much happening at once—is now the most salient aspect of contemporary life” (221). The overlapping panels similarly make the reader aware of how many different things are simultaneously taking place in the scene. However, these ideas are lost on Asterios. Just like his encounter with Willy, he quickly shows his disdain for Kalvin’s way of perceiving life: “Some things, alas, are probably better left unnoticed” (222). The irony of this statement is that Asterios does not notice Hana standing in the background obviously upset by his disrespectful attitude. His conviction that he’s always right once again blinds him to the problems in his narrow perception. While it is impossible for Asterios to see every detail, the awareness of the simultaneity of life would prepare him to be proven wrong once in a while.

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Figure 15. Asterios Polyp (221)

Once Asterios meets Ursula, he starts to show signs that he’s considering other ways of perceiving life. Even though she has some views involving reincarnation and the zodiac that he finds outlandish, he still shows more respect for her ideas than he does for Hana and the other characters. At first, when Ursula claims that “everything in the universe is linked to everything else” Asterios disregards her with his usual sarcasm (106). However, once she finishes explaining the reasons behind her belief in the zodiac, such as the fact that electromagnetic waves from the sun affect the way vegetation grows, Asterios admits that Ursula’s ideas are “worth considering” (108). While on the surface this may not seem like a big change, the acknowledgement serves as his first significant step toward open-mindedness.

Eventually, Asterios even admits to Ursula that his way of perceiving the world might be excessive. This occurs later in the book when they visit the canyon, which Asterios describes as a “hole” (174). After Ursula mentions that many origin stories involve a “sky father” and an “earth mother,” Asterios says, “It always comes down to male and female doesn’t it? Like two sides of the same coin” (176). Ursula politely rebukes his claim by pointing out that in some cultures they believe in multiple sexes. She goes on to debunk Asterios’s dualistic way of thinking by saying that it can create fanatics, who basically only see the world in terms of black and white. Instead of trying to defend himself, which he does earlier in the plot when Ignazio accuses him of oversimplifying reality, Asterios admits, “I’ve probably engaged in some of that simplistic thinking myself” (177).  The setting of the scene next to a giant hole reinforces the theme of noticing the hole, or blind spot, in one’s own perception of the world (Figure 16). In this scene, he finally acknowledges that his narrow mindedness is the cause for many of the conflicts in his life.

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Figure 16. Asterios Polyp (174–5)

Through his rejection of Hana’s and the other character’s methods of perceiving life, Mazzucchelli exposes Asterios’s dogmatic belief that his way of doing things is always correct. It isn’t until he loses everything that he starts to see the error of his ways. It takes Ursula’s influence for Asterios to finally acknowledge the blind spots in his own perception. While this acknowledgement does not save him, it at least prepares him to accept the likelihood that an excess detail may prove his perception to be lacking.

Learning to Expect the Unexpected

At the end of the graphic novel, when the asteroid shoots down from the sky, it is Asterios’s awareness of something approaching that reveals Mazzucchelli’s ultimate lesson. While, at first, someone may think Asterios’s perceptual journey is an allegory for how all people should strive to develop more perfect perceptions of life, the real knowledge to be gained from the story is that no matter how hard a person tries to improve there will always be blind spots in his or her perception. Furthermore, by acknowledging that these blind spots will always filter out important information a person can prepare themselves for the thing that comes hurtling out of the ether to prove him or her wrong.

While admitting to Ursula that his perception is not perfect represents a huge step toward open-mindedness for Asterios, it takes a more radical internal shift for him to change the way he perceives the world. As stated earlier, his perception is not just constructed around a choice of duality as a convenient organizing principle, it is also a symptom of his deep need to find comfort in equilibrium. The killing of Ignazio in a dream sequence symbolizes Asterios freeing himself from this need. Throughout the narrative, he has a series of dreams involving Ignazio, and the final dream occurs while he’s unconscious after undergoing an assault from a man he disregarded earlier in the plot. In the dream, he finds Ignazio working in Stiffly’s auto shop. When Asterios asks him how he got there, he recounts the events that led up to the end of Asterios’s marriage as if they happened to him. Before he can finish his story, the dream ends with Asterios swinging a tire iron at his head. By killing Ignazio, Asterios destroys the part of his psyche that gives him the conviction he’s living an incomplete life. Over the years, he’s tried to make his life seem less incomplete by installing cameras in his apartment and upholding the principle of equilibrium in design, but in the end, these actually prove to be the obstacles that kept him from a healthy relationship with Hana. Furthermore, the violence of the killing shows that he’s truly fed up with trying to fill the void left by Ignazio. Instead of holding onto the image of his brother that he’s created in his mind as a type of comfort, he violently destroys it in order to move on with his life. When Asterios awakes from his dream, Mazzucchelli reveals that the assault in the bar has resulted in the loss of the character’s eye.[3] Both violent events, one physical and the other mental, result in Asterios’s learning to perceive the world in a different way.

Mazzucchelli shows that killing Ignazio and the loss of his eye marks a change in the way Asterios perceives the world through both a shift in the color palette of the graphic novel and Asterios’s choice to repair and drive the solar powered Cadillac. Throughout the book, he uses two main color palettes to define different sections of the narrative. In Asterios’s journey to Apogee, Mazzucchelli uses a monochromatic yellow and deep purple palette, while the flashbacks of his old life with Hana are in cyan and magenta. However, after Asterios awakes in the hospital, the storyworld possesses an array of new color tones, including greens and oranges. The difference in color palette becomes more pronounced when compared with a panel from earlier in the story (Figures 17 and 18). The shift in colors from the monochromatic to the more diverse palette visually signals that Asterios has shifted his perception from looking at the world in terms of dualities to opening himself to notice some of the things between extremes.

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Figure 17. Asterios Polyp (319)

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Figure 18. Asterios Polyp (235)

Asterios also demonstrates his new way of perceiving the world through the choice to repair the solar powered Cadillac. If he were to follow his previous way of thinking, where anything that’s not functional is merely decorative, Asterios would find the idea of driving a solar powered car across the country as simply ridiculous. However, in a fashion similar to Hana’s belief that “nature gets it right every time,” Asterios wants to fix the car because he likes the fact that it runs on the power of the sun (81). Paralleling Asterios’s shift in perception, Hana reveals that her way of perceiving the world has also shifted a little closer to Asterios’s approach. The new sculptures she shows him in their last meeting together incorporate the five platonic solids, shapes Asterios admires for their simplicity and functionality (Figure 19). In their time spent apart, both characters discover merit in how the other perceives the world. In the end, however, even though Asterios develops a new perception of the world that’s more pliable, it does not save him from the asteroid.

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Figure 19. Asterios Polyp (323)

The asteroid is an excess detail that Asterios filtered out earlier in the plot. On his first day in Apogee, Stiffly takes him to the local café where he meets Steven, a.k.a. Spotty Drizzle (a character from Mazzucchelli’s earlier project, Rubber Blanket), who warns him about the possibility of a large asteroid crashing into the earth: “All the observatories, they have their telescopes focused on deep space—they’re not paying attention to what’s happening right here! Somebody’s gotta be prepared. Somebody’s gotta be on the lookout. We don’t wanna end up just like the dinosaurs!” (74). Nobody in the café takes his warning seriously, including Asterios. And it is fair to say that not many people would think one man’s warning about the possibility of a giant rock falling out of the sky is important enough to spur them into action. Nonetheless, Steven’s urge for people to pay more attention to what’s happening “right here” gets at the meat of the problem in Asterios’s relationship with Hana. She similarly tells him that he does not pay enough attention (Figure 13). However, Mazzucchelli demonstrates with the approach of the asteroid that even when Asterios finds a new way to perceive life it does not give him the ability to notice everything; he still possesses blind spots in his perception that make him unaware of important excess details.

While the asteroid destroys Asterios and Hana, Asterios’s victory is in his anticipation of its approach. His awareness of the asteroid shows that he has prepared for an excess detail to disrupt his perception, something he was not willing to accept in the past. The asteroid makes its appearance during a peaceful moment between Asterios and Hana. While reminiscing about their previous time together, Asterios shows Hana that he’s more open-minded and she admits that no one else has appealed to her the way he did. They sit together on the couch in Hana’s living room with their hands almost touching. Mazzucchelli’s focus on their hands in this scene draws attention to the Orpheus sequence, where Asterios lost Hana after losing his grip on her hand. Now, Mazzucchelli depicts their fingers almost touching in order to show that the couple is close to reuniting once again.  The sequence of panels pulls out through the living room window showing the exterior of the cabin, and just when things couldn’t seem calmer, Asterios says, “What’s that noise?” (331). Asterios’s almost clairvoyant observation of the noise of the asteroid’s approach demonstrates that he’s succeeded in becoming aware of the limits of his own perception. The walls of sarcasm and condescension he used as a shield against those who tried to show him a different way of perceiving the world have broken down. This new awareness of his limits has prepared him to anticipate the excess details he has missed, which makes him pay attention to the noise. On the next page, Mazzucchelli reveals a two-page spread of the giant asteroid hurtling toward the tiny dwelling. With this image he portrays death not as an evil menace, but as an inescapable truth of life. The asteroid hangs in the air above the cabin as a reminder that every person has an asteroid hurtling toward him or her that could make impact at any moment. Even though Asterios is powerless to stop his death, his victory occurs in his newfound willingness to accept his own fallibility. He, like everyone else, is not able to change the time or fashion of his death, but he achieves a personal victory in his ability to change a crucial part of himself for the better.

Mazzucchelli emphasizes the limits of perception in Jackson’s observation of a shooting star in the very last section of the graphic novel. Sitting in their backyard tree house together, Jackson points up toward the night sky and says, “Mommy look! A shooting star!” And Ursula, sitting with Stiffly, replies, “Make a wish” (336­–7). The panel sequence then ends with a frame that puts the reader in the little boy’s point-of-view, looking up at the vast amount of starts in the sky (Figure 20). By drawing the reader’s attention to the night sky, Mazzucchelli reminds him or her of the limits of human perception. No matter which way we try to look at the night sky we inevitable can’t see all the stars above. There will always be constellations we won’t recognize or shooting stars soaring just out of our line of sight. Similarly, in daily life we are confronted by an overwhelming display of information from the world around us, which cannot be perceived in its entirety. Mazzucchelli argues, however, that even though our perception of the world is restricted, by acknowledging our own limitation, as Asterios eventually does, it prepares us to accept the excess details that may prove our perception to be lacking.

Through Asterios’s journey, Mazzucchelli not only explores the limits of human perception, but also argues that acknowledging the blind spots in our perception better prepares us to deal with the unexpected events of life. If we hold on to the knowledge that no matter how we try to perceive the world there will always be important excess details that we miss we eventually become more willing to accept when something proves us wrong. He accomplishes this by establishing that Asterios’s perception is based both on his choice of duality as an organizing principle and a symptom of his need to find comfort in equilibrium, exposing the conflicts that arise in his marriage because of the blind spots in his perception, showing Asterios’ unwillingness to consider other people’s ways of perceiving the world until he ends up alone, and, finally, demonstrating that, although Asterios’s new way of perceiving the world does not save him from the asteroid, it does prepare him to notice its approach. Ultimately, Mazzucchelli asks us not to find a new way to improve our perception of life, but instead to stay aware of the vast sky of possibilities overhead.

Figure020

Figure 20. Asterios Polyp (337)


[1] Quote from interview with Christopher Brayshaw in 1997 for The Comics Journal (69).

[2] In Chapter 2 of this thesis, the significance of the Orpheus sequence is expanded to include an analysis of Mazzucchelli’s shift in visual style and how it presents an alternative approach to interpreting his work.

[3] The loss of Asterios’s eye is a reference to his family’s original last name, Polyphemus (the name of the cyclopes from Homer’s The Odyssey), which he says was “cut in half” when his father immigrated to America (20).  See Douglas Wolk’s review of Asterios Polyp for his discussion of Mazzucchelli’s references to the Odyssey. 

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