Last March, New York asked the city’s top comics figures to vote for the ultimate New York graphic novel. The winner, in a landslide, was a slim book that’s been in and out of print since 1994: City of Glass, an adaptation of Paul Auster’s metaphysical noir. Its co-creator, David Mazzucchelli, has long been a cartoonist’s cartoonist, having evolved from illustrating crummy Marvel kung fu comics to drawing Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One to writing and inking his own gritty superhero-less work. So it’s no surprise this time that the comics world is abuzz over Mazzucchelli’s first solo book, Asterios Polyp. Rightly so: It’s terrific.
Mazzucchelli tells the story of architect Asterios Polyp—whose renown is only enhanced by the fact that not one of his designs has ever been built—in multiple visual styles, from jazzy, snazzy pop to the rough-edged, sorrowful inks of Asterios’s descent into the underworld. (For real.) I’d like to describe Mazzucchelli’s artistry as “effortless,” but Asterios Polyp took him a decade, and the effort, happily, shows. Asterios’s story, as he flees his burning Manhattan apartment, travels to the Midwest, becomes an auto mechanic, and reflects on his failed marriage, is intricate and complex. We see vivid depictions of academe, Commie punk rock, awful feng shui (pictured), tender middle-aged love, tree-house construction, and destruction from Heaven above.
What’s best about Asterios Polyp is that it succeeds so wildly at being what it is: a great graphic novel. Mazzucchelli doesn’t seem worried about competing with “real” literature. Nor does the book read, as so many contemporary graphic novels do, like a treatment for a future movie deal. Mazzucchelli is still a cartoonist’s cartoonist, and Asterios Polyp—maybe even more than its predecessor—is a cartoonist’s cartoonist’s masterpiece.