Review of Literature

In Asterios Polyp David Mazzucchelli explores the subject of human perception through his title character’s struggle to modify his outlook on the world. Asterios’s choice to perceive everything through a lens that splits concepts into dualities leads to the end of his marriage and the loss of his job. In order to set things right, he goes on a journey to try to change his way of perceiving things. Throughout the graphic novel, Mazzucchelli portrays each of his characters as possessing a unique outlook on the world. Many of the characters are artists: Asterios is an architect, Hana makes sculptures, Willy Illium is a choreographer, and Kalvin Kohoutek composes music. By giving each character a unique way of approaching his or her art, Mazzucchelli draws parallels to his own craft and the variety of ways it can be analyzed.

In the field of comics studies, scholars put forth a variety of approaches that may be used to analyze comics. Much of the scholarship is based on semiotics and narratology. In semiotics, both words and images are considered cultural codes, or signs, that a reader interprets to find meaning. In narratology, scholars investigate the shared techniques that writers use to create narratives and how these techniques affect the reading experience. Scholars of the comics medium combine the theories from both fields in an attempt to investigate the different codes of signification in the medium and to support their arguments regarding how someone should approach comics analysis. Each approach emphasizes that the reader should pay attention to certain qualities in the medium, such as the combination of words and images or the specific artistic style that the creator of the comic uses to compose their drawings. These diverse approaches provide the reader of the comic with different options for how he or she may analyze a creator’s work.

While the analytical approaches have no official titles agreed upon by the scholars, titles are needed to help separate one approach from another. In the following review of literature, four main approaches are discussed: (1) the dichotomous approach, (2) the interdependent approach, (3) the stylistic approach, and (4) the braided approach. I explain each approach using evidence from the scholars that have contributed to its formation. In order to illustrate how the approaches work, I then apply each to an excerpt from Mazzuchelli’s graphic novel. Following this discussion, I evaluate the critical reception of Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp and its relation to the overall argument of the thesis, which centers on Kristin Thompson’s theory of excess in critical analysis.

1.   The Dichotomous Approach

The dichotomous approach asks the reader to treat the words and images in a comic as two separate narrative threads. This separation is based on the assumption that words and images are two separate modes of representation that cannot be assimilated into a single representational mode. In their introduction to the winter 2006 issue of Modern Fiction Studies, Hillary Chute and Marianne DeKoven describe this dichotomous relationship between words and images in comics as rooted in the “cross-discursive” quality of the medium:

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)

By emphasizing that a comic is split between its visual and verbal narrative threads, Chute and DeKoven assert that the reader should analyze each thread as representing a separate piece of the narrative. Each thread remains distinct from the other based on their dichotomous relationship as two modes of representation that the reader switches between. With this in mind, a reader using the dichotomous approach focuses on how the creator of a comic composes the visual and verbal narrative threads. Later in the review of literature, I discuss another group of scholars who assert that the visual and verbal narrative threads should not be considered as separate modes of representation.

The scholars who employ the dichotomous approach point out what they perceive as the fundamental differences between words versus images. For instance, in Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (1993) Scott McCloud says that a gap in time exists between how we read words and how we look at images. The gap lies within how these two codes present information: “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). The “message” that McCloud refers to is the meaning that the word or image conveys through its recognition as a code by the reader. He distinguishes between the two by how much time it takes for someone to register the meaning presented by each thread. As I will discuss later, Charles Hatfield rallies against McCloud’s argument regarding the duration in time separating words and images. However, there are also scholars who support McCloud’s assertion. In their introduction to The Language of Comics: Word and Image (2007) Robin Varnum and Christina T. Gibbons base the difference in the duration in word and image comprehension on the way the codes are arranged: “While words must be spoken or written one after the other in time and are apprehended sequentially, the elements of an image are arranged side by side in space and are apprehended all at once” (xi). The linear arrangement of a word versus the non-linear composition of an image causes slower comprehension of the words than the images.

Along with their difference in duration regarding reader comprehension, scholars claim that words and images possess different constraints in terms of signification. Using the semiotic theories of Roland Barthes, Barbara Postema claims in “Draw a Thousand Words: Signification and Narration in Comics Images” (2007) that words and images differ in their signification because images are based on forms that exist in reality, while words are not: “Representations of a cat are not arbitrary, as semiotic signs are assumed to be, since they usually show some resemblance to actual cats. Pictures of cats are not arbitrary signs that we recognize as a cat by convention; they are mimetic, referring to a real shape and form” (488). She uses the term “arbitrary” to indicate that words possess meaning based on our shared agreement that a word like “cat” signifies the real life form of a cat. However, as Postema points out, the image of a cat is mimetic, which means that the form of the image imitates the form of a cat we might see in reality. In Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean (2007) Douglas Wolk elaborates on the difference in signification that Postema puts forth. He claims that the domain of poetry, as he calls it, is constrained by vocabulary, while the domain of painting is constrained by the inability to signify things outside the realm of the visual: “If you want to describe a particular shade of yellow, poetry will get you as close as a modifier or two, but no closer, and painting will get it exactly; if you want to describe a particular psychological state, poetry will get you very close indeed…and painting will do its best by way of visual association or metaphor” (128). In this distinction between what words and images can do, Wolk demonstrates that words are constrained by their inability to mimic the form of the subject they are describing. Images, on the other hand, are composed to show the reader exactly what he or she is supposed to see. Alternatively, Wolk claims that words can more accurately describe mental processes outside the visual, such as emotions and physical sensations. Scholars claim that the creator of the comic uses the constraints presented by both codes to form the visual and verbal narrative threads for the reader.

The differences between words and images described by Chute and DeKoven, McCloud, Postema, and Wolk are the backbone of the dichotomous approach. By characterizing words and images as deviating from one another, these scholars are able to analyze comics in terms of what the visual thread of images show the reader and the verbal thread of words tell the reader. The following section provides an example of how to analyze an excerpt from a comic using the dichotomous approach.

Applying the Dichotomous Approach

The dichotomous approach requires that the reader separate the verbal and visual narrative threads in a comic to analyze how the creator uses each to compose the story. In figure 3 (a page selected from Asterios Polyp) Mazzucchelli’s words start at the top of the page with a caption of narration from Ignazio. This is one of several sections in the graphic novel where Asterios’s dead twin provides context for the scenes taking place in the narrative. His comment that their father “thought little about religion” introduces one of the main themes of this section, which is the exploration of how religion affects how we view life. Ignazio’s narration continues two pages later: “Our mother, on the other hand, had been a practicing Catholic” (146). The contrast between Asterios’s parents’ beliefs parallels the vast differences between how Hana and Asterios view life.

The dialogue in figure 3 serves as an example of Asterios applying his obsession with twins and duality onto religion. He argues that Eve is a clone of Adam because, according to the Bible, she was created from his rib, which means she had the same DNA. The conversation ends with Asterios claiming that this makes them twins. This is one of several moments where Asterios lectures Hana on how to look at the world. On the next page, figure 4, the toll of Asterios’s lectures is made clear when Hana describes her dream of someone smothering her to death with a pillow. The attacker says, “Stop making so much noise. Someone will hear you.” Living with Asterios has clearly had a stifling effect on Hana’s self-worth. His tendency to push his opinions onto her without taking into account the damage that he’s done is one of the reasons Hana eventually leaves Asterios.


Figure 3. Asterios Polyp (144)


Figure 4. Asterios Polyp (145)

Mazzucchelli makes the same point through the structure of the images in figure 3 by overlaying two panels across a splash page. The panels provide two different views inside Asterios’s car. The top left panel shows Hana sitting in the passenger seat petting her cat Noguchi. Hana’s wide-eyed gaze is turned to the right. In the next panel, Mazzucchelli reveals Asterios sitting in the driver’s seat. The splash page reveals the exterior of the car traveling through wilderness. Mazzucchelli composes the images in figure 4 using a square panel and a panel in the shape of a large violet word balloon. The square panel shows Hana gazing away from Asterios as she reflects on her dream. Mazzucchelli draws Hana’s dream in a sequence of five images within the violet word balloon, showing a figure smothering Hana to death. While the figure’s face is in shadow, the silhouette of his head has the same distinct half-circle shape as Asterios.

The preceding analysis demonstrates how it looks if the reader focuses exclusively on either the creator’s writing or drawing. By treating them as separate modes of representation that never cross-pollinate, the interpretation of the comic is split between what is told and what is shown.

2.   The Interdependent Approach

Scholars who follow the interdependent approach stand in stark contrast to the scholars in the dichotomous approach. Instead of existing as two narrative threads, as Chute and DeKoven claim, they argue that the words and images in a comic form one overall narrative. In The Art of the Funnies (1994) Robert C. Harvey is avidly against the separation of word and image. He says a work of comics must be interpreted through negotiating the meaning that’s created between taking in the visual and the verbal: “Comics are a blend of word and picture—not a simple coupling of the verbal and the visual, but a blend, a true mixture” (9). His use of the word “blend” and the phrase “a true mixture” implies the inseparability of the words and images in the reader’s mind, like two different kinds of sand poured together that can never be taken apart. Harvey uses comic strips where a joke makes no sense without the reader comprehending both the words and the images as his prime example of how words and images are interdependent upon one another.

Roy Bearden-White explains in “Closing the Gap: Examining the Invisible Sign in Graphic Narratives” (2009) that even though a comic is composed of seemingly fragmentary elements that possess gaps in their arrangement, the reader’s interpretation acts as a bridge across the gap between the signs: “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). By emphasizing that a new sign and a new meaning is formed in the gap between reading the words and images, Bearden-White asserts that they become inseparable. Even in certain comics where the gap in comprehension is small, such as when the words and the images seem to be telling the same information, he says that they stick together in the reader’s imagination. On the other end of spectrum, Charles Hatfield in Alternate Comics: An Emerging Literature (2011) expands on Bearden-White’s claims by arguing that even when the words and the images are telling and showing totally different narratives at the same time, the reader can’t help but make a new meaning out of their combination. He describes the effect of when the words and images go in different narrative directions as a “tension” that’s presented to the reader. Hatfield claims that the tension between the words and images causes the reader to gain a new understanding of both narratives. He uses Chris Ware’s short comic “I Guess”, where the images show a superhero fighting a mad scientist, while the words tell a personal story from Ware’s childhood, as an example of how this tension works:

The iconography of the superhero genre informs and deepens the autobiographical narrative, while the autobiography invests the clichés of the superhero with a peculiar resonance, inviting the reader to reconsider the genre’s psychological appeal. Thus the interplay of the two suggests a third, more comprehensive meaning that the reader must construct through inference. (37)

Both Bearden-White and Hatfield emphasize that the creator of the comic forces the reader to try and make meaning out of the words and the images by placing them within the same space of the of the page. Even if the words and images seem to match or if they are totally divergent, the meaning produced by their combination is fixed in the reader’s mind.

While the dichotomous scholars claim that words and images are vastly different from one another, interdependent scholars argue that they share more similarities. As Charles Hatfield makes clear in Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature the assumption upheld by McCloud that images take a longer duration of time to comprehend than words is complicated by the ability of images, when aligned in a sequence, to communicate ideas and stories in a similar way as written words: “Images can be simplified and codified to function as a language…Pictures are not simply to be received; they must be decoded” (37). In his reference to “simplification” in terms of images, Hatfield refers to the cartoon style that many creators use to present their characters and storyworlds. With the term “codification” he refers to the meaning we give to certain visual icons in comics, like the stars that float above a character’s head to indicate that the character feels dizzy. He says that by making the images less elaborate and more symbolic they become more like a form of writing that the reader decodes.

In Theory of Comics & Sequential Art (1985) Will Eisner explains how the text in a comic can possess image-like qualities: “Lettering, treated ‘graphically’ and in the service of the story, functions as an extension of the imagery. In this context it provides the mood, a narrative bridge, and the implication of sound” (10). In using the term “graphically”, Eisner refers to the hand drawn technique that many creators use to infuse their lettering with a distinct visual style. This stylistic approach to the text gives it an extra pictorial meaning beyond its status as a verbal sign. Eisner’s concept is similar to the term “expressive typography”, which scholars use to describe the visual manipulation of text to express emotions or tone in a comic. They often associate expressive typography with the lettering that comics creators use in superhero comics for sound effects, such as “POW!” and “ZAP!” Therefore, not only can images be decoded like words as Hatfield claims, but also the text in comics is often hand-drawn and expressive.

The scholars that follow the interdependent approach use the similarities between how words and images are composed and read to support their argument that a reader should pay attention to the meaning signified through the combination of these codes.

Applying the Interdependent Approach

In analyzing a comic with the interdependent approach, the reader investigates how the words and images interact with one another on the page. In figures 3 and 4, the reader may start his or her analysis by pointing out that Mazzucchelli’s hand drawn text and word balloons visually reinforce the differences that exist between the characters’ personalities. He draws Asterios’s lettering in all capital letters to express the character’s tendency to state everything as if it’s a fact that cannot be argued. The square shape of the word balloons reflect Asterios’s tendency for picking clean, straight lines over anything too messy, or expressive. Hana’s lower-case lettering shows that she’s far more apprehensive in the way she puts forth her opinions and can easily be dominated by those closest to her. Her rounded word balloons further show that she’s less restricted than Asterios in her approach to life. Mazzucchelli’s choice to contrast the visual style of the characters’ lettering and word balloons helps convey that each sees the world in a different way.

In figure 4, Mazzucchelli blurs the line between the verbal and the visual in his presentation of Hana’s dream. He structures the story within a word balloon to signify that Hana is telling Asterios what happened; however, the story gets communicated to the reader through a sequence of images within the balloon. These images show each step of her recollection of the night before. Mazzucchelli manifests Hana’s words into images in order to place the reader within Hana’s mind and show the horror that she experienced. The images also reveal that the shadowy figure holding the pillow has the same half-circle profile as Asterios. It’s unclear if Hana includes this detail to Asterios in her spoken recollection or if this is only revealed to the reader. If she includes it, then his ambivalent response on the next page would mean that he has truly blinded himself to the stifling effect he has on her or he simply does not care about the damage he’s done.

Through an investigation of how Mazzucchelli’s words and images are interdependent, the reader reveals details about the structure of the narrative that he or she would not notice using the dichotomous approach.

3.   The Stylistic Approach

Rather than focusing on analyzing the combination of words and images in comics, the scholars that utilize the stylistic approach concentrate on how a creator’s visual style may influence a reader’s interpretation of a comic. They associate the creator’s visual style with his or her hand-drawn line, or what is often referred to as linework. Wolk, who calls comics creators cartoonists, explains why a cartoonist’s linework amounts to his or her visual style:

The line itself is an interpolation, something the cartoonist adds to his or her idea of the shape of bodies in space. In a cartoon, every object’s form is subject to interpretive distortion—even when what’s being distorted isn’t a real image but a distant cousin of something real. A consistent, aestheticized distortion, combined with the line that establishes that distortion, adds up to a cartoonist’s visual style, no matter how intentional or unintentional it is. (123)

As Wolk points out, a creator’s visual style develops through his or her consistent use of a distinct line. Over time, a well-known cartoonist’s line becomes as unique as a signature. He goes on to point out that there are general drawing styles that are not associated with only one creator but with a certain genre or category of comics. For example, readers expect mainstream superhero comics to have a more realistic and dramatic style than Sunday morning comic strips. He uses mainstream comics companies, such as Marvel, as examples of places where a “house style” was encouraged throughout the 1970s. All the artists working under these companies were expected to draw the characters in a similar style so that comic book readers were not disoriented when a superhero, such as Spider-man, looked different from one issue to another. This practice culminated in the publication of How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way in 1978, which taught fans how to draw Marvel superheroes in the house style. The emphasis on house style changed in the ‘80s, when executives realized they could sell comic books more effectively to their target audience by advertising the talent of new artists and writers who use unique styles to portray iconic characters (a good example being Todd McFarlane’s run on The Amazing Spider-Man in 1988). Whether focusing on one creator’s visual style or a general style across a genre of comics, style is made present through the creator’s linework.

Pascal Lefèvre pushes Wolk’s discussion of style further in “Some Medium-Specific Qualities of Graphic Sequences” (2011) by arguing that visual style, or graphic style as he calls it, provides ontological and contextual meaning to the work. Similar to Wolk, he notes that a creator’s line is a distortion of reality that can be as unique as a signature, however he also suggests that the line presents the reader with a visual ontology of the story world:

A graphic style creates the fictive world, giving a certain perspective on the diegesis…The artist not only depicts something, but expresses at the same time a visual interpretation of the world, with every drawing style implying an ontology of the representable or visualizable. The viewer is obliged to share this figurative view of the maker, since he or she cannot look at the object in the picture from any other point of view. (16)

In other words, the creator’s visual style presents the reader with a subjective way of looking at the world. To explain how this works, Lefèvre uses examples of comics where one story is told in two different styles. He demonstrates that even though the comics are both telling the same basic story, the differences in linework and composition convey a different visual ontology to the reader. He also points out that a visual style may also provide contextual meaning. Lefèvre says that by recognizing one artist is imitating the style of another well-known comics creator a reader gains a different interpretation of the work:

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, style amounts to more than just a creator’s unique way of drawing. It is also an important tool at their disposal that controls the reader’s access into the storyworld and may be used to reference other creators through imitation.

In “Storylines” (2011) Jared Gardner focuses on the way the artist’s linework, besides signifying meaning through its visual ontology and relation to other styles, provides thematic meaning to a narrative and gestures at the physical work that was put into the production of the art. He uses Eddie Campbell’s work as the illustrator for Alan Moore’s From Hell (1991­–96) as an example. He says that Campbell’s crosshatched lines embody the theme of community associated with the women that live in fear of Jack the Ripper. Softer lines are used in the scenes that take place in the richer neighborhoods to indicate the theme of aristocratic indulgence. Gardner says the artist’s line adds another layer to the narrative by indicating the artist’s physical relationship with their work: “We cannot look at the graphic narrative and imagine that the line does not give us access to the labored making of the storyworld we are encountering” (64). In other words, the linework can signify both the themes of the narrative and the process the artist used to compose the images in the comic.

Together, Wolk, Lefèvre, and Gardner provide an approach for how one should analyze a comic by paying attention to the creator’s visual style and what it may signify through its distinct quality as the creator’s artistic signature, its ontological view on the storyworld, its contextual relation to other styles, and its thematic meaning.

Applying the Stylistic Approach

While many creators use one visual style to present a consistent outlook on the storyworld to their audience, Mazzucchelli makes strategic changes in style throughout Asterios Polyp. In fact, not only is each character drawn in a different fashion with his or her own uniquely shaped word balloons and lettering, but Mazzucchelli also demonstrates Lefèvre’s concept of visual ontology by showing the difference in how Hana and Asterios perceive the world. Figures 3 and 4 present a good example of how Mazzucchelli changes visual ontologies. With Hana’s description of her dream in figure 4, the style suddenly changes from the standard, fairly objective, drawing style that dominates the book to a more subjective style personal to Hana’s way of looking at the world. Mazzucchelli first indicates this shift through a change in color from the standard style, where purples with some blues and violets dominate, to a style drawn in all violet. Then Mazzucchelli’s linework changes. Suddenly the storyworld is made up of wavy, crosshatched lines instead of the more conventional lines used in the standard style. By shifting from one style to another, Mazzucchelli gives the reader a look into how Hana perceives the world. The stylistic approach helps the reader focus on how the creator uses his or her visual style to add another layer of narrative information to the work or imitate another type of visual style.

4.   The Braided Approach

A scholar uses the braided approach to identify and analyze recurring iconic motifs within a comic. He or she views the medium as a network of panels, which are linked through their placement on the page alongside one another. A creator braids iconic motifs into the network by repeating a visual symbol within the sequence of panels. The braided approach is centered on the theoretical work of Theirry Groensteen. In The System of Comics (2007) he claims that a single panel should be considered the basic unit of signification when analyzing a comic: “The comics panel is fragmentary and caught in a system of proliferation; it never makes up the totality of the utterance but can and must be understood as a component in a larger apparatus” (5). He makes this argument in response to the scholars that break down the image in a comic to smaller and smaller units of signification, which he believes is not a practical approach.

After establishing that the panel is the basic unit of signification, Groensteen says that an entire comic should be viewed as a “multiframe”, where many frames, or panels, are placed alongside one another. The placement and location of the panels on the space of the page is the foundation for his argument that the medium of comics is a network:

It has been often repeated in these pages that within the paged multiframe that constitutes a complete comic, every panel exists, potentially if not actually, in relation with each of the others. This totality, where the physical form is generally…that of an album, responds to a model of organization that is not that of strip nor that of the chain, but that of the network. (146)

By defining the medium as a network, he pushes the analysis of a comic beyond the meaning that is gained from the linear progression the reader makes from one panel to another to how a creator weaves thematic meaning across the many panels within the mutliframe.

Groensteen explains braiding as a series of iconic motifs, or visual symbols, that appear throughout the comic: “Braiding is generally founded on the remarkable resurgence of an iconic motif (or of a plastic quality), and it is concerned primarily with situations, with strong dramatic potential, of appearance and disappearance” (152). Groensteen uses Watchmen (1986­–87) by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons as an example of a highly braided work of comics. In explaining how they braid the iconic motif of circularity into their work, Groensteen notes that the yellow smiling badge (an emblematic image of that graphic novel) gets placed in strategic panels throughout the book. He points out that the badge appears in both the first and last pages of the first chapter, and the last page of the last chapter. He says that the recurrence of this iconic motif strengthens the graphic novel’s theme of circularity.

In “Teeth, Sticks, and Bricks: Calligraphy, Graphic Focalization, and Narrative Braiding in Eddie Campbell’s Alec” (2011) Craig Fischer and Charles Hatfield apply Greonsteen’s braided approach to Eddie Campbell’s body of work. They describe Groensteen’s theoretical model of the comic as “an architectural visual space…[Where] everything can connect to everything else. Symbolic and metaphoric repetition can occur, often unobtrusively, in the context of page and publication design, as part of the architectonics of the total work” (82). They explain that braiding is unobtrusive in the sense that the reader may not always notice the recurrence of an iconic motif unless he or she is looking for it. With their analysis of Eddie Campbell’s Alec, Fischer and Hatfield argue that Campbell has braided certain iconic motifs (teeth, sticks, and bricks) into many of his comics throughout his career. After examining how each motif is repeated in a complex amount of ways in different comics, they conclude that Campbell’s method of braiding these images into his work helps to thematically enrich and unify his body of work as a whole.

Applying the Braided Approach

In approaching Asterios Polyp with Groensteen’s theories of braiding, the reader may be overwhelmed with the amount of iconic motifs packed into Mazzucchelli graphic novel. Throughout the narrative, he repeats certain symbols like the twins, the yin-yang, the lightning bolt, and others. In figure 4, the iconic motif is subtler and requires that the reader connect it with panels in other pages. While it may at first seem arbitrary, the bean shape of the violet word balloon in figure 4, where Hana recollects her dream, is actually highly significant. In fact, it represents a divide between Hana and Asterios. The shape of the violet word balloon gets repeated in other panels in the comic. For example, Mazzucchelli repeats it three pages later. In a scene where Asterios visits Hana’s art studio, the sculpture in the lower right hand corner of the page has the same bean shape as the violet word balloon. Eight pages later, the shape appears again in the form of a coffee table that Hana brings into Asterios’s apartment when she moves in. On the surface level, the scene centers on whether or not the table fits into the décor of the apartment. When Asterios questions why she brought it, Hana replies, “There are so many straight lines in here, I thought this would be a nice change” (157). The rounded shape of the table is important, it serves as another example of Hana’s different way of perceiving things. More importantly, the repetition of this shape in association with things that are intensely personal to Hana (her dream and her sculpture) further builds the significance of the table. Its addition to the apartment upsets the symmetry of straight lines that Asterios has built and also serves as a visual representation of the changes that she brings to his lifestyle.

Asterios Polyp: Meta-art and Excess

While little academic scholarship exists on Asterios Polyp, upon its release in 2009 many of the scholars discussed thus far provided critical reviews of Mazzucchelli’s work. A number of them note that he draws attention to the medium of comics throughout the narrative. In her review, Chute notes that Asterios’s status as a paper architect (someone who is renowned for his designs on paper, but never gets them built) is analogous to the job of a comics creator: “This is ultimately what the book is about: comics form, which hovers throughout as the absent referent.” It is “absent” because Mazzucchelli never makes the discussion of the medium explicit in the book. Wolk adds that Mazzucchelli draws the reader’s attention to how different mediums of art compare to comics. He does this by providing scenes where the characters discuss the different ways they approach music or sculpture. Wolk says that this aspect of Mazzucchelli’s comic is a type of “meta-art”, meaning that comments on its own status as a piece of art (“Shades of Meaning”).

Both McCloud and Dan Nadel say that the construction of the cover and binding of the book  (which was designed by Mazzucchelli) draws attention to the physical process of printing and publishing a comic. McCloud says the book has a “raw” and “honest” quality that emphasizes its status as a comic and not any other medium (“Some Thoughts on Asterios Polyp), while Nadel says that its “lush paper tone and rough-hewn, elegant design” make the reader pay more attention to the book’s physical construction (“Space Odyssey”). The shared observation among critics that Mazzucchelli references the medium of comics throughout his narrative, without any assertions as to why he does so, opens the door for further analysis.

In this thesis, I argue that Mazzucchelli references the medium of comics in Asterios Polyp in order to provide a guide for how to read his graphic novel. My first chapter asserts that the central lesson of the book’s narrative is the value of acknowledging the limits of human perception. My second chapter argues that Mazzucchelli uses each of the main characters’ unique perceptions as a model for how a reader may approach analyzing his comic. The ultimate message is that even though there is no complete way to perceive the world, or to analyze Mazzucchelli’s work, the acknowledgement that all perceptual and analytical frameworks possess limitations prepares a person to accept when excess details prove his or her perception of the world, or simply the reading of the graphic novel, to be lacking.

Guiding my argument is Kristin Thompson’s theory of excess in her article “The Concept of Cinematic Excess.” Drawing upon the work of critics including Russian Formalists, Stephen Heath, and Roland Barthes, she claims that, while analyzing a film, a scholar focuses on the elements that fit into his or her analytical lens, while ignoring or not noticing the components that do not fit. She refers to the elements that fall outside the unity of an analytical lens as the excess:

The idea that the critic’s job might include the pointing-out of this excess may startle some. But we have been looking at the neat aspects of artworks so long that we may forget their disturbing, rough parts…For the critic, this means the realization that he/she needs to talk about those aspects of the work that are usually ignored because they don’t fit into a tight analyses. (489)

Even though Thompson’s argument focuses on film analysis, I contend that her claim that a scholar ignores or does not notice the excess details that do not fit his or her analytical framework translates easily to comics analysis as well. Whether a scholar analyzes a film or a graphic novel, he or she typically pays attention to the elements that fit well into a particular interpretation of the work. The idea of focusing on the excess elements may “startle” a critic because the excess is composed of the elements the scholar overlooked or deemed unnecessary to pay attention to in the first place.

I argue that in Asterios Polyp David Mazzucchelli draws attention to the importance of accepting the inevitability of excess in both perceiving the world and critically analyzing his work. Mazzucchelli’s narrative of Asterios’s journey and his references to the different approaches a reader may use to analyze his graphic novel assert that no framework is devoid of excess. Even though by definition we almost always miss it, excess is inevitably present. Mazzucchelli raises this issue to serve as a constant reminder of the limitations of perception. By acknowledging these limitations, instead of ignoring them like Asterios does at first, a person starts to anticipate when the evidence of excess will reveal a limitation in his or her framework.

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