Introduction

Born September 21st, 1960, David Mazzucchelli is a comics writer and illustrator with critically acclaimed work in both mainstream and art comics. He started drawing professionally in 1982 while attending the Rhode Island School of Design, where his main interest was the movement of solid forms in space (Nadel “Space Odyssey”). After a couple years of illustrating a mishmash of different comic books for Marvel Comics, he became well known in the world of mainstream comics for his collaborations with writer Frank Miller. Together they worked on Daredevil: Born Again (1985–86) and Batman: Year One (1986–87). Miller’s fame as the writer of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (a graphic novel about an aging Bruce Wayne who returns to crime fighting after a long hiatus), which came out while he and Mazzucchelli worked on Daredevil, helped gain attention for their run on Batman. Mazzucchelli’s formal artistic training at RISD helped him develop a style that incorporated a sense of realism into the typically flamboyant superhero genre. For example, Mazzucchelli’s composition of the characters in figure 1 (a panel from Batman: Year One) reveals his ability to depict the human form moving through space in a way that conveys a realistic sense of weight and gravity. His understated design of Batman’s costume and detailed visual style give the characters a physical presence in the gritty texture of their urban environment. In “Space Odyssey,” an article that provides a short and concise review of Mazzucchelli’s career, Dan Nadel says, “Mazzucchelli’s work was revolutionary. He brought to the [superhero] genre a sense of space, mood, and human scale it had not seen since the midcentury work of artists like Alex Toth and Jesse Marsh.”

 batman figure002

Figure 1. A panel from Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One (31)

Despite these successful collaborations with Miller, which likely would have guaranteed Mazzucchelli steady work in mainstream comics, he soon left the industry behind in order to start creating comics where he was in full control of both the illustrating and the writing. In an interview with Dash Shaw (a former student of Mazzucchelli and a professional comics creator) Mazzucchelli reflects on his reason for leaving the mainstream comics industry: “Once I had achieved those comics with Frank Miller, I had gotten to a point where I doubted I could go any further in that genre in a satisfying way” (“TCJ 300 Conversations: David Mazzucchelli & Dash Shaw”). He spent a year searching for a new and gratifying direction for his art. During this time of exploration, he took a printmaking class at New York’s School of Visual Arts (Nadel). Eventually, he created an annual comics anthology called Rubber Blanket. As Nadel explains, the name of the anthology derives from the tool used in printmaking “to transfer ink from printing plate to paper,” and thus reflects Mazzucchelli’s interest in exploring the fundamental tools of his art. The three volumes published between 1991 and 1993 feature comics in which Mazzucchelli experiments with drawing styles that are wildly different from his realistic work in Daredevil and Batman. Furthermore, his stories feature protagonists who are ordinary people dealing with internal struggles, instead of superheroes battling villains.

In the midst of working on Rubber Blanket, he also collaborated with the artist Paul Karasik on a comics adaptation of Paul Auster’s novel City of Glass, which was published in 1994. Describing his shift in artistic focus in an interview with Bill Kartalopoulos about City of Glass, Mazzucchelli says, “What I arrived at was also informed by my growing interest in comic book drawing as cartooning…as a system of mark-making that creates its own credible reality.” He had mastered the strategies of realistic representation in his superhero comics and wanted to investigate and deconstruct the basic formal qualities of the medium. While some of the comics in Rubber Blanket are more cartoon-like than others, the comic strip series Mope & Grope, which appears in all three volumes of Rubber Blanket, is an extreme example of Mazzucchelli’s experiments in “mark-making(Figure 2). The newfound focus on the printing process, writing stories about ordinary people dealing with internal struggles, and drawing in a cartoon-like style would carry into Mazzucchelli’s biggest and most ambitious project—the graphic novel Asterios Polyp.

Mope and Grope Example

Figure 2. An excerpt from Mazzucchelli’s “Mope & Grope” in Rubber Blanket vol.1 (31)

After Asterios Polyp’s publication in 2009, the Museum of Comics and Cartoon Art in New York City hosted an exhibition of his work called Sounds and Pauses: The Comics of David Mazzucchelli. In an interview at the exhibition, Mazzucchelli explains that after publishing the third issue of Rubber Blanket he realized that the story he wanted to tell in the fourth volume was too long to fit into the format of the anthology (Showers “David Mazzucchelli at MoCCA”). The fourth volume of Rubber Blanket turned into Asterios Polyp, a 338 page graphic novel.

In the following thesis project I argue that in Asterios Polyp Mazzucchelli highlights the limitations of human perception through his narrative and his visual style, and he asserts that by acknowledging these limitations we can prepare ourselves for when excess details prove our initial perception to be lacking.

Mazzucchelli’s protagonist, Asterios, a “paper architect” renowned for his innovative designs that never get built, views life through a filter that divides complex concepts into dualities. And among dualities, Asterios values the utilitarian over the expressive. This method proves fruitful for his career at the university, but inadequate once Hana, an artist who makes sculptures out of found materials, catches his eye. Her ability to see the value in discarded things contrasts sharply with his passion for functionality. While at first it seems as if their differences complement one another, over time Asterios’s unwillingness to open his mind causes their relationship to stall out.

The plot focuses on Asterios’s journey to broaden his narrow perception of life so that he can piece back together his shattered marriage. On this journey, he wanders into the town of Apogee and meets the mechanic Stiffly Major, his hippie wife Ursula, and their son Jackson. Between scenes of Asterios in Apogee, Mazzucchelli includes flashbacks of Hana and Asterios’s relationship before the divorce. These scenes include encounters with artists such as Willy Ilium, a self-obsessed choreographer, and Kalvin Kohoutek, a polyphonic musical composer. The narrator of the story is Asterios’s twin brother Ignazio, whose death represents the origin of Asterios’s fascination with dualities. Convinced his brother is the missing half in his life, Asterios strives to make his presence felt by finding solace in symmetrical designs. Unfortunately, in the process, he overlooks the potential for Hana to fill the void in his life. After learning the value of keeping an open mind in Apogee, Asterios drives a solar powered Cadillac across the country to reunite with Hana in her rural Minnesota cabin. Just as they are about to re-embrace as a couple, an asteroid aimed at the cabin hurtles down from the night sky. This abrupt and violent ending leaves little doubt as to the couple’s fate.

In my thesis project, the review of literature provides a survey of four different analytical approaches to reading comics (the dichotomous, the interdependent, the stylistic, and the braided) that help build a vocabulary for how to identify and analyze the formal techniques Mazzucchelli uses in his work. It also provides an overview of Kristin Thompson’s theory of excess, which serves as a key concept throughout my subsequent chapters.

In Chapter 1, I argue that Mazzucchelli uses the story of Asterios’s journey to change his perception in order to demonstrate that no single perceptual framework will provide a complete understanding of the world. Asterios’s triumph at the end of the book is not in his newfound method of perception, but his acknowledgement that all perceptual frameworks necessarily allow excess details to slip by. The acknowledgement that all methods of perception have inherent limitations prepares a person to accept when an excess detail proves his or her initial assumptions to be inadequate.

In Chapter 2, I argue that Mazzucchelli, paralleling his plot-level meaning, also constructs his graphic novel as a guide for different ways to read his work through meta-artistic references to the different approaches a reader can use to analyze his work. Each analytical approach is referenced through a different character’s approach to art in the story. In creating this grid of different analytical frameworks, Mazzucchelli asserts that no approach will provide a complete reading of his book, but that the acknowledgement of the limitations of all analytical frameworks prepares the reader to accept when an excess detail reveals an inadequacy, or brings new light, to his or her reading. Finally, the conclusion of the thesis project suggests future research projects that could be explored in order to gain further insight into Mazzucchelli’s body of work.

While Mazzucchelli is highly regarded among critics for his work in both mainstream and art comics, there’s a severe lack of sustained critical analysis of his work—especially Asterios Polyp. To date, only one academic article has been published on this graphic novel (“Image Functions: Shape and Color as Hermeneutic Images in Asterios Polyp” by Randy Duncan). My thesis project is meant to help enrich the discourse that’s barely begun and to open avenues for further exploration of Mazzucchelli’s work and the comics creators that experiment with the concept of perception and the formal qualities of comics.

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