Much has been said, this past week—not to mention and this past year or so—about David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp, and I feel I don’t have much to add to the discussion of the work itself that I haven’t already said in my earlier examination of the book. However, I think much of the discussion in the present forum has highlighted how excitingly—albeit also frustratingly—open discourse on comics is in these times of redefinition. My contribution, thus, will at least initially concentrate on this discourse rather than on the book, which is perhaps fitting in that Asterios Polyp itself can be seen as meta-discourse on comics.
I agree fully with Caroline’s Sunday post that the binary of visual and literary is ultimately a false one, not the least in comics, but it remains central to contemporary comics discourse, and critical approaches that do the form justice as a synthesis of word and image have yet to develop beyond pubescence. Caroline rather cavalierly accuses Mazzucchelli and his critics of missing the point by perpetuating this pernicious binary, while bluntly claiming that the book “pays disproportionate attention to one side of the binary, the “visual.”
I see Mazzucchelli’s aspiration precisely as the “performative enactment of the ways in which comics defies the binary between literary fiction and visual art” that Caroline solicits from progressive comics. As she rightly points out, ‘literature’ does not necessarily equate ‘words only’, and Mazzucchelli follows that insight in order to craft comics as literature. Reducing Asterios Polyp’s thematic core to a set of trite literary clichés, as several of the present pundits have done, is symptomatic of how vigorously said false binary animates comics criticism—like so many important works of art, Asterios Polyp’s originality lies exactly in how it presents these common tropes in highly sophisticated comics form.
Furthermore, Asterios Polyp is hardly a manifestation of “delayed modernism”—I don’t believe there is such a thing: comics as we know them are gloriously a creation of modernity and they experienced ‘modernism’ along with all the other art forms, long ago. Rather, Mazzucchelli’s project is emphatically post-modern, in that he addresses the modern(ist) legacy of comics in an attempt to assert its value, as well as to suggest its current limitations. His choice of protagonist, plot structure, and symbology is patently deliberate and highly self-reflexive—in order to examine the notion of comics as literature, what could be more natural than approaching some of the most tried tropes of modern literary fiction in the exaggerated, simplified form developed and refined historically in comics?
As I wrote in my essay, Mazzucchelli reveals his post-modernist hand in a crucial feat of obfuscation. Presenting us with a self-consciously heavy-handed refutation of his protagonist’s dualist worldview in lucid, fully-realized comics form, he leaves unstated essential aspects of his story. When probing these, his “formalism” takes on literary meaning in the broad sense of the term, and the book ends up, on one level, as a deconstruction not only of its constitutive tropes—literary as well as cartoony—but of comics as literature in the narrower modernist sense.
As metadiscourse, Asterios Polyp as bold and sophisticated as anything in comics, but its success ultimately might have to be gauged elsewhere and on more uncertain terms. The readings made here of the main characters, Asterios and Hana, have tended toward the ungenerous, and this is no doubt in part Mazzucchelli’s own problem for miring them in this seemingly prescriptive construction of a story, which threatens his larger ambition of transcending the limitations of his form. It’s arguable how well he succeeds, but I, for one, find the lives they live beyond what he makes visible recognizably affecting. Asterios’ worldview doesn’t provide a satisfying framework for understanding his actions, but we can try by going beyond it. And for Asterios, and therefore the reader, the true Hana remains intuited rather than stated. But they are both there, beyond the binary.