Asterios Polyp is a borderline perfect comic book

Asterios Polyp excerpt
Asterios Polyp excerpt (Image credit: David Mazzuchelli (Pantheon Books))

So … we can all stop reading comics now, because David Mazzucchelli has crafted the ultimate comic book statement. Just take everything on your reading pile right now and chuck it out. Asterios Polyp is the modern standard-bearer. Mazzucchelli has somehow managed to jam just about everything great about comics into 340 pages of humanity, soul-searching, graphic design, philosophy, and humor.

Asterios Polyp (Image credit: David Mazzuchelli (Pantheon Books))

The book's star Asterios Polyp is fifty years old, an insufferable know-it-all who just happens to be one of the most renowned architecture professors in the country. And he's having a midlife crisis that just won't quit. Mazzucchelli uses Polyp's architecture background beautifully, often literally deconstructing characters down to their own "architectural" core – solid shapes and lines for Polyp; soft, nuanced cross-hatching for his adoring wife Hana; etc. – while crafting graphically engaging symbols and page layouts that dig into Polyp's philosophies on life. Every element of the book tells you something about the characters; Mazzucchelli even creates individual fonts and word balloon styles for each character to capture the uniqueness of his or her respective voice. Watch Polyp's solid, square balloons and speech in contrast to Ursula's dreamy balloons or Stiffly's slightly sloppy speech.

Technically, Asterios Polyp is an absolute tour de force, with a lesson in cartooning to learn on every page, but Mazzucchelli isn't just showing his virtuosity as an artist and designer. By crafting a series of distinct and internally strong characters, Mazzucchelli enables Asterios Polyp to explore the human condition via his interactions with one of the most memorable casts to grace the comics page. Each espousing a distinct outlook on the world, every character reaches into Polyp's soul to uncover a new facet of the character, his spirituality, his earnest, hardworking nature, his compassion, or his indifference and egoism.

There is a thread dealing with Polyp's stillborn twin brother, a suggestion of missed possibilities, that is the book's only slight misstep. It's an intriguing idea, but is somewhat under-developed. It's a minor quibble in an otherwise borderline perfect book, however, and readers will find themselves revisiting Mazzucchelli's Asterios Polyp many times to uncover the layers and subtleties of this masterful piece of cartooning and writing.

Dive into Mazzucchelli's other seminal work, Batman: Year One.