Mazzuchelli’s Asterios Polyp and the Fine Line

Have you read David Mazzuchelli’s Asterios Polyp? If not, you should. This graphic novel exemplifies the type of comic that makes excellent use of its visual components and economic use of language to provide a powerful, valuable reading experience that is on par with many of the best, cutting-edge pieces of fiction today. Martha Kuhlman asserts comics’ potential for contributing to readers’ increased appreciation and understanding of text-based novels through being exposed to graphic adaptations, and readers are certainly positioned to benefit from Mazzuchelli’s updated retelling of the classic Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice [1]. Not only does he breathe new life into an old myth in ways that make it meaningful and relatable to contemporary reading audiences, his work shows readers the the possibilities of the medium through engaging them with his innovative artistic style, simple as it might appear at times.

While Asterios Polyp is an original graphic novel, Mazzuchelli incorporates a number of classical allusions and episodes from Greek myth. In discussing Mazzuchelli’s adaption of City of Glass, Martha Kuhlman asserts, “this graphic novel adaptation is not merely an illustration of scenes from the story but also creatively alludes to the limits of linguistic expression in ways that are unavailable to the prose” (121). Although Kuhlman has a very specific novel in mind as she makes this point, I want to expand this assertion and apply it to the comics medium as a whole. Comics possess a very real ability to transcend the limitations of language, communicate to readers in very meaningful ways, and be far more than “mere illustrations.” And the “Orpheus episode” in Asterios Polyp is one such example where the Mazzuchelli totally eschews language altogether and relies upon visual representation to communicate the tragedy of Asterios’s lost love, Hana.

The Orpheus-Eurydice tale is one that can be arguably seen as starting in romance but ending in tragedy. The episode in Asterios Polyps is one that coincides with the tragic downfall of his marriage to Hana, and like Orpheus, Asterios is to blame for much of the failures in the marriage, as readers discover throughout the narrative. This is highlighted through visual representation of both characters. Throughout most of the book, Asterios possesses a face marked by a sharp outline, rarely has any sort of shading to his face, and has a typically flat affect — all of which underscore his austere demeanor. On the other hand, Hana is typically portrayed with rounded edges, soft and inviting, in the way she expresses herself. Although cliché, it seems opposites do attract in this instance. Yet, in the latter part of the book, there are far more cross-hatching lines that mark Asterios’s face, and this could be interpreted as him breaking from the cool exterior and exhibiting signs of emotion. The pages are inked in purple throughout the entire “Orpheus” section, as he descends into the under-city — a clear parallel to Orpheus’s journey to Hades to reclaim Eurydice — and yet, purple is a sort of shade of red, the standard color of passion. Clearly, the loss of Hana affects the otherwise cool and standoffish Asterios, and Mazzuchelli indicates this through scuffing the pristine-looking face of the otherwise put-together professor and coloring the world he sees.

Due to the use of color and inks, we understand this is an especially trying journey for Asterios, as he becomes Orpheus traveling through Hades. Mazzuchelli noticeably shifts his use of color through implementing a monochromatic approach to this episode. Prior to this point, there were multiple colors used in painting each respective scene. Because Asterios is traveling down into a sort of under-city, it makes sense then that there would be less use of bright colors. Interestingly, Mazzuchelli makes no use of black in his novel; it is purple that takes black’s place. Accidents of this sort rarely happen, but I’m not entirely certain why he made this choice. Perhaps it represents the fact that life is not as cut and dry — as black and white — as Asterios might otherwise wish it to be. And, it could also be a darker shade of the standard color of passion, red, as I alluded to before. What is also interesting to note is that the only other section that is so heavily colored is when the reader is given Hana’s family history, which is set against a back drop of eye-splitting pink — again, another shade of red. So, this shift towards a darker color that pervades the entire section certainly indicates a darker time for Asterios, as he seeks to find a way to bring Hana back, and yet, the fact that it is not a solid black color suggests a possible hopefulness that, unlike Orpheus of myth, he will be successful in reclaiming his Eurydice.

Of course, there is a second color briefly introduced in this section, and that is a bright yellow, which appears when Asterios looks back at Hana and sees her descend back into the depth of Hades. Although he temporarily loses Hana, this bright yellow hardly seems fitting for such a tragic act. And as we see at the end of the novel, this proves to be the case, as Asterios and Hana are reunited. Yet, he must forgo the clean, crisp lines of his well-ordered life at the end of the novel — his means of not looking back as Orpheus did — in order to attain his lost love.

Of course, Mazzuchelli embeds a variety of other visual cues into Asterios’s journey to the under-city so that it seems to run parallel with that of Orpheus’s journey into Hades. There is the requisite architect’s protractor standing in for the lyre, the three-headed domesticated dog in place of the ferocious Cerebus, and a host of other parallels — the city in place of Hades notwithstanding. But the true genius behind this retelling is that those artistic elements mentioned before simply could not be conveyed to a reader through a conventional text. Instead of merely showing us the journey, these artistic elements help convey the emotion behind each step Asterios and Orpheus feel as each descends into the depths to attempt to retrieve his lost love and fails in their respective journeys back to the surface.

Comics literature is perhaps one of preeminent examples of form and content existing hand-in-hand, with each doing its part to support the other. Although many mainstream comics fans know David Mazzuchelli from his collaboration with Frank Miller in the seminal Batman: Year One [2], he also built a career upon lesser-known, yet far more ambitious masterpieces such as City of Glass and Asterios Polyp. Mazzuchelli crafts his narrative with a fine and deliberate line, much in the same way an architect carefully designs each facet of the subject for their blueprints. Asterios Polyp illustrates such a careful, economic use of ink, color, and line to underscore the careful and measured character of its eponymous protagonist, and the “Orpheus episode” certainly demonstrates one such example of Mazzuchelli’s success.


[1] Martha Kuhlman. “Teaching Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli’s Graphic Novel Adaptation of Paul Auster’s City of Glass.” Teaching Graphic Novels. ed. Stephen Tabachnick. New York: MLA, 2009.

[2] Batman #404-07.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr. Forrest C. Helvie lives in Bristol, CT with his wife and two sons. He is an assistant professor of developmental English at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut. He received his Ph.D. in English Literature & Criticism from Indiana University of Pennsylvania where he wrote his dissertation on the influence of canonical American literature on the development of the comic book superhero. His literary interests are broad-ranging from medieval Arthurian to 19th-century American, and most importantly, pedagogy, comics studies, and super-heroes. He regularly writes for Sequart and reviews comics for Newsarama. Forrest can also be found on Twitter (@fhelvie) discussing all things comics related.

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8 Comments

  1. Thank you for doing this wonderful article on a book very close to my heart. This is a fantastic unpacking/comparison between source material and work. It is interesting that when I first read Asterios Polyp I had no idea it was a modern re-telling of Orpheus and Eurydice, but found the work was on the level of a Richard Ford story or perhaps even Raymond Carver. Powerful work that deserves some mainstream attention, that is for sure.

  2. Thanks so much, Kevin. I am continually struck by the difference between Mazzuchelli of mainstream superhero comics (who is still a brilliant artist) and the Mazzuchelli of Asterios Polyp. His work is so… open and airy feeling at times, and I can’t think of many others who are able to elicit this sort of response from their artwork. And when I think of his superhero work, it often has a much more heavy and grittier vibe going on (a la Batman and Daredevil). The use of color and line was just really beyond what I had seen in sometime when I originally read this, and I was just really taken with the approach he used in recasting the classic myth.

  3. The length it would take to connect that Mazzuchelli from Batman and Daredevil to the Mazzuchelli of Asterios Polyp would be about Grand Canyon size I would say. Then again, for some reason, I see super-hero comics in more of a confined space. The borders and everything are just tighter, more restrictive in feeling. You are right about the open and airy feel of his work in A. Polyp. There is something grand going on under each page and his art truly reflects the width and breadth of his themes. If it were more confined and restrictive panel layout wise, this would not have been the masterpiece it is.

  4. That’s one of the great masterpieces. And you get that it was fully created by an artist, instead of a writer, just like you can tell when an old movie was directed by one of those guys who had started during the silent era. It’s a different relationship with the medium.

    I love the colors, I love all the art, I love how he plays with it, how he’s not afraid of using stereotypes and caricatures.

    I have yet to read City of Glass, because I read the novella years ago and part of me wonder what’s the point. What I really want is another Mazzucchelli original. Hopefully we won’t have to wait twenty years for it.

    I remember when he just started in Daredevil, and I read the criticism of how bad he was compared to Frank Miller!

    Like Kevin, I also saw a big relation between Asterios and American literature of the (second half of the) twentieth century. I just thought in terms of Updike and Roth.

    Wonderful, wonderful work. Great article, Forrest.

    • No idea why, but I did not consider Roth or Updike when I read it. Once again, revelation! You are absolutely right. I think the relationships and how raw/dire they were was reminiscent of Ford or Carver for me, but the eloquence, beauty, and anger was more Roth. Especially early Roth that was practically seething through his texts.

    • Many thanks, Mario! I fully agree that AP makes it clear that Mazzuchelli is an artist who has such clear control over his work. And while everything has a very deliberate feel to it, it doesn’t feel contrived or forced. Intentional without being so heavy-handed that it loses touch with the aesthetic. That, to me, is the mark of a truly talented artist and graphic storyteller.

      • Forrest,

        I think above all what amazes me in AP is that it’s image-oriented, instead of words-oriented. We pay a lot of attention to the writers (Moore and Morrison above all), but AP is a different beast. It’s totally visual in a way that the works of these great authors can’t be. I’m not saying that it’s necessarily better, just that it’s damn different, and I was so glad for this difference.

  5. Kevin,

    For me, it’s not really a question of specific authors, but the general spirit. What matters most is that Mazzuchelli was influenced by this literature. And that’s what’s news. Because usually we get comics influenced by noir, or fantasy/sci-fi, or older classics. Or, most of all, lots and lots of old comics. Even the B&W autobiographical independents seem to me more in tune with the independent cinema of the nineties than with literature.

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