Following links from Noah’s kickoff post through Matthias’ earlier essay on Asterios Polyp and on into the plethora of reviews gives a tour de force of puzzle-book annotation: Hellenistic references, astronomy, symmetry, architecture and fine art, the metaphorical/symbolic use of color and styles of linework, the yin-yang, and so forth. All of this clever, creative, and well-executed formalism works in the service of the book’s themes, which, the critics tell us, are myriad permutations on emotional naturalism and the limitations of duality – pretty much every duality you can think of.
What this emphasis on parsing the puzzle pieces and tracking the themes all adds up to is another tour-de-force: this time of modernist reading. Matthias sums up it up when he asserts, beautifully and certainly accurately, that the “graphic representation happens on a narrative level above that directly experienced by the characters, directing the reader’s understanding of their inner lives and states of mind.”
I’m going to pick on Matthias here, kindly I hope, because I found his essay to be far and away the most sophisticated and compelling articulation of this approach to interpreting Asterios Polyp — but it’s an approach that I find neither sophisticated nor compelling. With attribution to Bart Beaty (although Doug Wolk also makes the point), Matthias describes all this meaning-rich formalism as a “delayed Modernism,” and to some extent it is – particularly the Joycean puzzle-box elements and the self-conscious effort to push and expand the ways the form can make meaning. But for whatever motivation, this Modernism is small in a way that the more timely Modernisms of the early- to mid-20th century were not: it is primarily a modernism of technique rather than a modernism of ideas. Pound’s dictum of “Make it new!” finds its manifestation here not in new ideas about the world, but in new ways of representing and documenting old ideas about the world using the comics medium. Taking on the project of modernism 75 years after its time has passed is art in the defensive mode: starting from the assumption that comics has something to prove rather than something to offer.
I want to posit for the sake of argument that Asterios Polyp is in fact not a work of Modernist fiction that yields its greatest insights and makes its strongest contribution through this puzzle-box formalist reading but that it is a work of Postmodernist fiction that yields equally well to readings of its “deep structure.” This is, I think, somewhat inaccurate: Mazzucchelli clearly intended all those clever references and allusions and manipulations of formal elements, and it is unarguable that they form the most impressive and coherent texture of meaning in the book.
But there is content in the form overall: it’s apparent when we redirect the attention we’ve been paying to Asterios and Hana as archetypes of gendered characters and instead abstract them into archetypes of cultural genealogy and influence: the Hellenistic and the Japanese. The book works passably well – although it is difficult to knit all the elements in – as an allegory for the gradual shift of Western culture (particularly art culture) away from rigid Hellenism to incorporate the more fluid and holistic perspective of the East. Read diachronically, it is a representation of the history of this evolution across the 20th century; read synchronically, it depicts their aggregated and therefore simultaneous presense in contemporary art and culture. (This reading accounts for all those niggling elements that felt anachronistic, but renders many of the specifics of the formalism irrelevant.)
I’m going to pick on Matthias again – I think this is extremely literary. But I want to take a fairly passioned exception to the assumptions about literary meaning – and even to the definition of “literary” – implicit in sentences like this one: “A textbook example for the literary crowd if one is needed — and it might well be — that graphic novels are not, actually, novels with pictures in them.”
There are two obvious ways to respond to the contempt for the “literary crowd” that drips from this sentence. The first is to point out that any literary-minded person who has been paying attention to graphic novels enough to have an opinion at all by now should be fully aware of this fact. The second is to point out that the main reason why a literary-minded person who is paying attention would agree with the statement “graphic novels are not, actually, novels with pictures in them” is that graphic novels are not, yet, consistently rising to the level where a literary person would grant the appellation “novel.” (Asterios Polyp indeed comes closer than most.)
For “literary” people, “literary” entirely stopped denoting “tightly constructed narrative story” sometime between Joyce and Coover. The deconstruction of that idea, of the very concept of narrative coherence as a “literary” attribute, was the project and product of literary Modernism. Statements like these miss that entirely:
Furthermore, the centrality of autobiography as a genre to the development of the European comic book is almost by default primarily a literary achievement. And, almost without exception, the artists who have found greater audiences – the Satrapis, the Sfars and the Trondheims – work within relatively traditional visual idioms and privilege their storytelling over graphic experiments.
“The point being, firstly, that most of the visual innovators of the last couple of decades have primarily explored the already existing visual tropes and strategies of narrative cartooning, rather than go beyond them, and secondly, that they have predominantly done so in service of a tightly constructed, “literary” narrative.
Both the quotes and my stock responses reproduce a contrived and unnecessary distinction — even a hostility — between the literary and the visual. Both ignore the extent to which that binary – that particular binary – is not only just as false as any of the binaries in Asterios Polyp, but specifically, and inherently, and inescapably false in comics more than in any other medium. Claiming that comics are a visual medium and not also a literary one is not only misunderstanding what literature is after Modernism, it is using as the model for “art comics” a “formalism” more like what literature espoused before Modernism.
And that is the great failure of both this book and its critics: this subject matter and medium in the hands of our greatest literary figures would not be just a meditation on history or emotional naturalism or the limitations of binaries; it would be a performative enactment of the ways in which comics defies the binary between literary fiction and visual art. Cartooning by definition deconstructs its “constitutive binary logic.”
The formalist instantiation of that deconstruction is the great opportunity for “metafiction” that is missed here.
As Noah rightly pointed out, this book pays disproportionate attention to one side of the binary, the “visual.” Neither Mazzucchelli nor his reviewers learned the book’s lesson – at least not as anything more than an aphorism. The result is the reiteration – on the level of performance if not assertion – of a hierarchical division between “the literary” and the “graphical”: a dichotomy that is aggressive and dismissive in precisely the same way as Asterios’ treatment of Hana. It is completely uninformed about how literary fiction works. It creates a destructive incoherence at the center of the book.
The “delayed Modernist” project in comics, especially insofar as it describes a formal project focused on making the medium’s visual components more fully saturated with meaningfulness, arrogantly rejects – against the spirit of Modernism – any exploration of the ways in which the experiments in prose conducted in literary modernism and postmodernism are applicable to the graphic form. This disciplinary prioritization of the visual is not delayed Modernism. It is delayed Enlightenment. But comics were always already postmodern. So this is also nostalgia, in academic’s clothing.
Comics rightly should stimulate conversation between the best of literary post/Modernism and the best of visual post/Modernism, with the aim of generating increasingly subtle and sophisticated hybrids and an increasingly subtle and sophisticated understanding of the possibilities and internal logics of those hybrids. For whatever reason – be it the technical demands of drawing, the training of art school, or just plain imaginative disposition – the dominant trend is to privilege and prioritise the “visual” over the “literary” – a category which critics and cartoonists seem incapable of understanding as anything other than a synonym for “well-wrought prose storytelling.” I hope comics won’t have to lose an eye before you figure out how stupid that is.
Note: updated for clarification June 6 1:20pm.
Update by Noah: You can read the entire Asterios Polyp roundtable here.
Update by Noah 6/20/10: This comments thread was damaged in a blog outage. I have manually restored the damage, but time stamps are off and one or two comments may be out of order. Please let me know in comments if you notice errors.