By David Mazzucchelli
Dry technical work or comic masterpiece? Plotless ramble or subtle story (or a miniplot)? Narcissistic jerk or lovable asshole? Or should we heed the warnings of ‘Asterios Polyp’ and move past dualism? Find out here while taking in a Roman wedding, ‘flower sunshine’-powered cars, and the interruption of some mutant Nazis.
OK. Yeah – there’s serious comic books and fun comic books (as with most things). Fun comics just want to entertain you. Superheroes and action and whatever (I think some people call these “genre” books – which (wow) is like a whole barrel of monkeys that I’m gonna try not to open): bright colours and mindless explosions. Etc.
A bit more seriously, I did just read Art Spiegelman’s foreword to City of Glass (hey, Ilia!) and he has some really interesting things to say here about the birth of the “Graphic Novel”. The gist (if I have it right) is that Maus was the only one around for a while and that it begged for work of a comparable standard which would justify bookshops having a “graphic novel” section. This got mixed in with Spiegelman’s personal frustration at the fantasy and role-play stuff that Maus was shelved with in these sections in the meantime, despite his initial scepticism about the thirst for respectability evident in the “Graphic Novel” rebrand. So, he put the team that made City of Glass (including David Mazzuchelli) together…
Comments on AP:
I haven’t reread it yet, but I really did love the bit later in the book where we find out what film AP was watching at the very beginning of the book.
I did love the way the art supported the story, AP all in blue geometric lines, Hanna all in red lines, and the way the room around them matched each person, but also segued/switched from one to the other. I think that got the effect of the dolly-zoom, and it shows how in an argument you focus in on your own point of view, becoming unable, when you are hot and bothered, to even see that there might be another point of view.
I love the artwork style of AP- from an artist to artist perspective I can really appreciate what Mazzuchelli has done. I’d probably say that most comic artists create one visual language and roll with that – but he’s created a visual language for each character which is pretty amazing. That being said, if the book hadn’t been so beautifully drawn, there’s no way in hell I would have finished reading it. It’s like he spent so long creating this aesthetic challenge that he forgot he needed to create a narrative that would hold. More than just being weak, I find the narrative damaging. To me it says even if you’re a completely narcissistic self-absorbed jerk-bag don’t worry because there will be a woman who will love you regardless. It’s basically a message about being a shitty person and that’s completely ok because someone is gonna love you for it and see it as these adorable idiosyncrasies. I have a real problem with comics like that because I think it reinforces sexist thinking and abusive relationships. Also, I didn’t feel like I really got a sense of what Hana is about- she seemed like a manic pixie dream girl/ facilitator. When you bring in the racial dynamic as well of Hana and AP and the way that Hana is portrayed – well I’m just gonna say I’m feeling sketchy about the way her character was created altogether.
I think background facilitator, manic pixie dream girl is a bit strong. As far as I remember I thought Hana was well enough drawn to be a step above that, we saw her teaching, she had her big project which AP felt very left out of and was acting badly over (so perhaps he was acting a bit worse than normal in the scenes we are shown, not an excuse though).
On the other hand you do raise a very good point as I was thinking yesterday, what did Hana see in AP? I couldn’t really remember much. Good food? Of course there is a reason given for why Hana was attracted to AP in the first place, but that couldn’t explain why she stuck round.
Unless it was just the way she was neglected by her parents so coming second place was ‘comfortably uncomfortable’? Truth in television, but not very edifying, if it applies to Hana.
Also I should point out that being a manic pixie dream girl is quite a serious condition, there is a video here :-).
For awesome story over amazing art check out the webcomic ‘Order of the stick’. All stick figures, but plenty of story.
Right. Ok. I had a reread of AP last night and basically it feels like I’ve got a billion things that I wanna say:
And taking on James’ other issue: (“But the consequential problem is that the story becomes unbelievable. Why does a mere house fire destroy such a colossal ego? His personal crisis and self-reinvention – after which I recall he is depicted in more rounded artwork – then seem equally incredible, sourced from nowhere.”)
On the other hand perhaps a tape collection like that implies that you should be watching the tapes, and though he evidently watched a few good bits, he certainly wasn’t watching anything like the whole collection.
So maybe that was clutter-induced psychic weight. Always hanging over you that you SHOULD be doing something or other with the tapes. That would drive me crazy.
So maybe having those tapes forcibly stripped away was initially traumatising but in the end freeing and better.
(I can’t imagine what I would do with my time if I didn’t have a stupid giant e-mail inbox looming over me, constantly needing to be read, constantly filling up with 77 unread messages and 567 things I ought to do).
There’s that really cool bit (well – in this book there’s lots and lots and lots of really cool bits) where’s he on the greyhound bus and that dude asks him if he’s married and Asterios’ speech bubble breaks up into three parts that go “uh yes no”?
Barbican Comic Forum
I thought it was interesting that he goes from a purely theoretical person (designing buildings that will never be built) to a practical one (working with his hands; fixing cars and building treehouses). That treehouse is pretty important, I think. There’s a reason it appears right at the end as a sign of the good that Asterios’s practical work brings to other people. This stands in sharp contrast with his derogatory comments about his students’ building designs. You can argue that the treehouse is a good symbol of human endeavour (which Asterios represents) building around the natural world (that’s Hana, naturally. Her name literally means Flower Sunshine!). I think fixing up the solar-powered car is another example of this.
What do we think of the meteorite, btw? I thought it was a bit surreal as an ending, but I read it as a parallel for the fire that destroys Asterios and lets him rebuild as something better. Did anyone have any other readings?
Technically speaking, the book is brilliant. Mazzucchelli builds an incredible visual language that’s more effective at telling a story than most comics could ever dream of. I almost feel that any story would struggle to live up to that. Or maybe the fact that people think the story is weaker than the way it’s told is the ‘Polyp effect’ coming up again – he’s able to conjure brilliant things on paper, but can’t deal with humans and their emotions properly.
There are so many incredible techniques and subtle touches in there. More than I could ever cover, but I was just looking at the end, when Asterios turns up at Hana’s place. She covers him with the blue (pre-fire Asterios) blanket, then, as she warms to him after he tells her he’s given up smoking, she puts a neutral yellow blanket on top of it. The blankets come off altogether after she reveals the platonic solids and the two of them stand, bathed in a blue glow. It’s a nice moment that shows he’s had as much of an effect on her as she has on him.
It’s clever, and it’s funny and I like it. And no, I wouldn’t like it more if it were called ‘A Serious Plop’ or if it had mutant Nazis in.
Barbican Comic Forum
I don’t really look at comics as serious or fun because I think “serious” comics can be fun (intentionally or unintentionally) and the same goes for “fun” comics being serious. If I ever walk into a comic book shop and see them grouped into those genres then I might rethink my stance :). Like some of the previous contributors to this thread, I focus first and foremost on story. If I’m going to really really get excited about a book/comic/film it is usually because the story resonates with me and/or get some part of me animated.
Story: From a high level perspective, AP’s story is somewhat simple: materially successful man, is brought to his knees, goes on a trip of self-discovery and eventually realises what is important (sees error of his ways). There isn’t a lot in there to make this story extraordinary. What I found different from most stories that follow this format, and allowed me to appreciate it more, were the small detours it makes into philosophical questions. I enjoyed thinking about some of his theories and the questions his dead twin raised about his perception of reality. I must admit I spent far more time than I should have thinking about which views I agreed with and which ones I disagreed with. I couldn’t help pausing to consider Willy Ilium’s statement about life and death not being opposites. Not incredibly original, but in the context of the book I felt the need to revisit it. It felt like different theories were thrown out by the characters (Asterios, Ursula, Ignazio, Willy) just to give the reader something to think about as the story progressed. If I didn’t enjoy thinking about these things, the story would have been a lot weaker. Before I say anything else, I would like to say how much I dislike Willy Ilium! I know his character is there to be a dick (very successful), but whenever his character appeared I couldn’t shake the feeling Mazzuchelli was trying too hard to be clever and seemed (to me) self-indulgent. As far as stories go, it wasn’t amazing but there was enough in there to keep me interested and it wasn’t completely predictable (I smiled when I saw the asteroid in the end). I never really got excited or shocked, but that was fine because sometimes a nice drive down a country road is preferable to a roller coaster ride.
Artwork: I like how the artwork was used to tell parts of the story and to convey meaning. The transition from clashing shapes to more harmonious ones as characters came to understand one another was cool and something new to me. It was a great example of one of the advantages this medium has over others. It added an extra layer to the narrative because not only could you feel a growing connection between Asterios and Hana from their dialogue, but you could actually see it happening from the way they were drawn as well as the clever use of thought bubbles near the end.
As a story I thought it was alright, as a showcase of what you can convey in a comic book it was great. That’s probably why people are either very impressed or underwhelmed… it mostly boils down to what you were looking for. AP has a lot of layers to it and it’s almost like there is a little something for everyone. Whether you like it or hate it, I feel you will engage with the material on several levels. I would definitely recommend it to someone.
Ok – yeah: there’s this thing that’s been bugging me – I know I kinda mentioned it at the Barbican Comic Forum on Thursday night (so sorry to those of you who’ve already heard it before) but I guess it would be nice to get it down in written words:
‘Why is a wedding considered the END of the story, it’s the BEGINNING of the story for those two people’.
Emphasis on the last three words.
Before people get together, it’s all ‘will they won’t they, who will you pick.’*
Who gets together with who is interesting to other people, who have their own ideas about it and might try to make their own ideas happen.
But the work of building the relationship? Who cares. The two people get on with it.
Like in Rome where the mother asked her daughter how she was getting on with her husband and she said ‘oh we’ve had our problems but we are working our way through, I think we’re much happier now’ and her mother was all ‘tough sh*t, get divorced, I need you single for further political marriages’.
So yes we definitely DO discount the internal stuff in favour of the external wizzing and crashing. I’m not saying that is right. So maybe we are slowly getting more stories that consider us growing as a person, and some people don’t get/enjoy that (Brene Brown is great on this topic, albeit not a comic, but a thin book, so that’s almost as good).
Sometimes we say there is not much story when the events are on a small scale, e.g. Castle Waiting Volume 2. (Highly recommended)
Somebody has a [broken ankle] and is on crutches for a while, two people move house (within 100 meters), They knock a hole through the wall. There is a disappointing lack of zombies** in the secret tunnel, which is sunlit with a reading nook with cushions. The hole in the wall is paid for with some new clothes. The Dr misses his wife and has a Venus Fly Trap.
So maybe we are learning to pay more attention to our internal lives and in 20 years time people will rewatch Breaking Bad and feel, ‘Oh there is one brilliant episode, Fly, where SO MUCH HAPPENS, but the rest of the series is just people blindly running around. God I’m glad we’ve got proper health care and social security nowadays. How could they live like that!’
*In the olden days, in some classes, a woman’s choice of husband could determine her whole life and career: political hostess, diplomat travelling the world, living in a quiet vicarage, poverty, abandonment etc. [a lot of these old jobs were actually partnerships with a very definite, albeit unpaid, role for the wife].
**I love the anomalies in Castle Waiting: ‘someone should write a book about this castle’ in the same scene where the characters, set in medieval Europe, mention kangaroos! Also zombies, also Alice bands (named after Alice in Wonderland in vol. 1).
*** I’m only doing stars because Joel told us off for potty mouths, not because I actually write like that.
On Joel’s story angst: always find it helpful to use a schema I learned in GCSE Media Studies when we were being introduced to film: you can break down visual narrative into plot, character, themes and mise-en-scène. Every film has all four of these. “Story” is actually a really vague term, so splitting it up like this helps me quite a bit, in that you can start talking about plot-heavy or character-heavy stories, and also about your own preferences (I for example find plot the least interesting part of a story: character and theme are the top dogs for me). Incidentally, it’s also the formula a lot of critics use for reviews: brief synopsis, a look at the characters and the way the actors realise them, an appraisal of the visuals and finally a brief discussion of what it’s all about.
I read the asteroid in a meta direction – the obliteration of the narrative and the world that has been created in the book. It’s just a neat little ribbon to tie things up, and I don’t attach a great deal of significance to it. The hand of the author is quite visible throughout the book: pushing his characters around with freak acts of nature. The call back to the beginning is therefore OTM. To push that further: it’s a reminder that the story we are reading is an artifice, the characters are not as complex as real people, and the ideas presented are subjective rather than true.
Argh, sorry for being late. Thanks for all the emails. And sorry for blurting mine in one go at the end.
As for the asteroid at the end: the page-turn reveal did initially surprise me in a bit of a WTF way. Like, oooookay! But then the crazy guy in the diner did warn everyone about asteroids… And all the ‘external whizzing and banging’ is, to take Christine’s phrase literally, forever these violent interruptions, like Zeus zapping people with lightning; so it’s thematically on point: the major events that we more traditionally think of as being more storylike, are in fact arbitrary, so the comic takes this to a logical extreme and throws in a lightning strike here, a bottling there. Is there meaning to it? The guy that bottles Asterios is the same one that he gave his dad’s lighter to on the coach. The coincidence invites us to draw meaning. To me, it’s like a comment on the desire to make stories: to make sense: to make safe. But what if the gods weren’t trying to teach you anything? What if it was just for fun? Or worse, to provoke you into searching for some meaning? (Speaking of, I’ll do just that: what’s in the Asterios/Asteroid verbal association?)
Ilia’s right, the gender question is a meta question – why another story about a middle-class straight white guy? So for example, one of the things that bugged me initially, going back to the whole Different Styles for Different Characters thing, was why did the man have to be the straight-lined, geometric one, and the woman the sketchy, flowing, messy, arty one? That seemed a bit trite: men are like this! women are like this! (Similarly, Mañana’s no-nonsense simple relationship wisdom versus the guys’ systemising theories.)