One of the most talented comics artists of this generation, David Mazzucchelli first came to prominence as a superhero artist before moving on to make his reputation as a cartoonist of rare literary nuance and significance. This month Pantheon is publishing Asterios Polyp, Mazzucchelli’s first original graphic novel and a book about which not much has been revealed over the ten years or so that he’s been working on it. Indeed the publication of Asterios Polyp is also a chance to quickly look at a career in comics that is hard to compare to any other.
Mazzucchelli started out working on various books for Marvel Comics before he moved to DC Comics in the late 1980s to draw Batman Year One, a groundbreaking Batman origin story written by another comics iconoclast, Frank Miller, and hailed for its gritty and dramatic contemporary reimagination of the beginnings of the classic noir superhero. After helping redefine Batman for a new generation of superhero comics readers, Mazzucchelli turned his attention to working on a series of eccentric, literary and highly personal comics.
During these years he published Rubber Blanket, a series of highly regarded, self-published collections of short works, before collaborating with writer Paul Karasik on the comics adaptation of Paul Auster’s novel City of Glass. First published in 2004 by Avon Books under the art direction of Art Speigelman, City of Glass: The Graphic Novel has gone on to be considered one of the great literary graphic novels of its time. (The book is currently published by Bloomsbury USA.) Nevertheless, since its publication Mazzucchelli has not produced another book length work of comics fiction. Yet despite Mazzucchelli’s silence on the matter—he declined to talk about the work in progress, at least to the media—there have been plenty of rumors that he was at work on his first original book length comic
In fact this kind of literary mystique—the artist’s withdrawal from the speculations of the literary media mill—has become synonymous with Mazzucchelli, an artist as serious about his privacy as he is about creating inventive comics. Indeed he continues to decline to discuss the creation of the book. So instead, PW Comics Week interviewed Pantheon editorial director Dan Frank and Knopf/Pantheon designer/senior editor Chip Kidd about the development, publication and likely reception of the book.
So finally the wait is over. The book’s title, Asterios Polyp, is also the name of Mazzucchelli’s protagonist, an acclaimed architect and New York intellectual who designs highly theoretical buildings that are never built. But while the book relates the strange and engrossing life and transformation of Asterios Polyp, the book is also a rumination on the nature of love and aesthetics and on the making of a work of art. Thoughtful, witty and relentlessly inventive, Asterios Polyp is the tour de force of imagination and drawing we’ve all hoped that it would be.
PW Comics Week: People have been talking about Mazzucchelli’s book for a long time. It’s as if J.D. Salinger finally decided to release the secret masterpiece we all like to think he’s been working on all these years. Can you discuss how Asterios Polyp came to Pantheon; who acquired it and who is Mazzucchelli’s agent?
Chip Kidd: David doesn’t have an agent. I’ve been bugging him about this book for literally 10 years. He’s a good friend but after a while I just stopped because I didn’t want to push it. I figured he’ll either do it and contact us or he won’t. I made it quite clear from the beginning that we would be interested in anything he wanted to do. From time to time he would check in and say I’m working on something and it seems to be going okay and Richmond (that’s his wife, she’s a painter) seems to really like it a lot.
Dan Frank: A year or so ago we got the first half of the book around November 2007, like about 180 pages.
CK: It was something. Most cartoonists will either publish in installments or are all too happy to show how things are progressing. Most of the people I work with show you stuff all the time. He just didn’t do that and all of sudden here’s the book fully formed. I had no idea what to expect.
DF: My history with David starts later than Chip’s in the sense that when Pantheon first started doing this [publishing a serious list of graphic literature] in 1999, Chip said there’s this guy, David Mazzucchelli, and you should meet him. He actually came to the building and I have an early letter from David introducing himself and sending me some copies of Rubber Blanket. Sort of putting down his marker and saying at some point I want to do something. So we would periodically touch base with him. The only thing he would say to me would be that he was working in color and he was very particular about what he wanted to do with three or four colors. That’s the only description of the book that I ever had. He was stressing the formal aspects at that moment.
PWCW: There was no editorial process in the traditional sense? There were no drafts or rewrites; no carefully weighed editorial comments?
DF: It’s a process called patience [laughing].
CK: The only input I had on this was with the cover a little bit. Because, believe it or not, the cover was a lot more abstract in terms of the title’s design. So I really urged him to pull back. I said, ‘you’ve got a very odd title, which we would never dream of asking you to change, but you’re presenting it in a very odd way so its become odd squared. So let’s make it a little less abstract so it reads as Asterios Polyp. But what really matters the most is that finally, here’s the David Mazzucchelli book that everybody’s been waiting for.
PWCW: That’s interesting because the cover seems to mimic the 1960s modernist aesthetic that’s featured in the book’s domestic scenes and really connects. So there was some editorial input.
CK: [Laughs] A little. Then it became a production issue and exactly how the cover was going to work. He was very insistent about using recycled paper which believe it or not actually complicated things. It’s literally more expensive to use, which is pretty ironic.
PWCW: The book is the latest in a string of important books that Pantheon has published that really define the graphic novel category. I see this book as an incredible love story that is also fascinated with aesthetics, philosophy and the workings of art. What’s your reading of Asterios Polyp?
CK: That’s a big part of what I love about the book. I wrote a novel myself that deals with a lot of this stuff. So it was particularly fascinating to how the book looks at how architecture works; about how we think about spatial relationships. There’s a wonderful scene in the book where Hannah [whom Asterios Polyp falls in love with] is teaching a sculpture class and she presents a sculpture that has two rising forms—sort of like the twin towers—and she asks the class, how many shapes do you see? And the one student says there’s two shapes and another says, no, there’s three: the two physical shapes and the negative space in between them. That to me is what it’s all about. He’s not just writing about architecture or sculpture but the experience of how we learn about these things. Then there’s the whole dynamic of the principal characters’ relationship.
DF: David loves ideas and this may sound a little silly—all along he’s wanted to do something that integrated form and content in an unusual way and he was going to look at everything: negative space, color, the page; he wasn’t going to use panels and he was going to look at how he uses the text itself, what’s in a box, it’s all been thought out to the degree that he’s saying, “I want this book to be read in the same way that you’re taught to read a novel in school, where every sentence matters and every decision an artist makes is of consequence.” That’s what he’s done and he’s done it without drawing attention to it. You can read the book all the way through without even thinking about why is the color this way or the type that way. And I know he’s interested in seeing how this book is received by novelists. You can go back Laurence Sterne to people who were doing graphic things in the novel form, there’s a seriousness to David’s ambition without a doubt. And a confidence about what he can do.
CK: There’s so many angles to this story. Nobody’s had a career like David has. It’s very unique. But we didn’t really know what the career was until this book appeared. He started his career as the best superhero artist, ever. The only other example that comes to mind is [famed superhero artist] Alex Ross going from his work on [superhero epic saga] Kingdom Come to [to social satire of] Uncle Sam, where everyone wanted the Kingdom Come sequel and Ross is like, “no, I want to explore America through this [Uncle Sam] character.” Ross didn’t change his style and he didn’t write Uncle Sam, where as here David had this incredible mainstream career [Batman Year One] and what he wanted was to evolve and totally change and he did.
PWCW: A few years ago myself, Jessica Abel, Matt Madden and Paul Pope organized Comix Decode, a series of public conversations with comics artists, and we were able to lure David to one of our forums at SVA and got him to talk just a bit about the road from Batman Year One to City of Glass to Rubber Blanket, amazingly, since David always seems a little leery of media, he took part. If only we’d recorded it.
One important element in David’s book is the theme of duality that seems to show up all the way through the book. So many of the characters reflect opposing personalities—Asterios Polyp and his lover and later wife, Hannah; Ursula Major and Stiffly, her husband, the folks from the town of Apogee that put him up; even the name of the town, Apogee, that Polyp escapes too, indeed everything in the book, every name in the book seems to matter in some subtle but overarching way. Can you talk a bit about how the book is constructed?
DF: One of the major themes in this book is who you are and who you are not; who you are and who you want to be. I don’t want to over analyze the book, but it starts with the fact that Asterios had a twin brother and I think that twinning is a theme that plays out throughout the book.
PWCW: Polyp’s twin brother, said to have died at birth, is a ghostly voice that reinforces itself throughout the book.
DF: The life you might have wanted to have—jumping into someone else’s life—is a popular American literary theme. I think that’s one thing that fascinates David enough that he wanted to use it in a story and play it out. How these shadows hover over our lives. It’s not something you want to go into in much detail because you don’t want to reduce the book to a single theme. This is a book, as Chip says, that goes out in so many directions and this is only one thing that’s going on.
PWCW: It’s the experience of encountering these themes in the book that produces an acute sense of literary invention and pleasure in the reader, rather than the kind of after-the-fact parsing that we’re indulging in here. But let’s take one of the things you mention, the sense that the reality we believe we perceive of the world is really just an extension of ourselves. David’s protagonist Asterios Polyp seems to present a vision of the world that is slowly removed and debunked over the course of the book. As the reader proceeds through the book, there are continuous hints and suggestions of the stuff that perhaps we aren’t really seeing—emotions, deteriorating relations between people, the gathering of imminent, powerful events or even the proximity of meteors to the earth, a topic that becomes a very funny and a very foreboding set piece in the book.
DF: Think of the book’s description of Asterios Polyp as a paper architect. He’s an architect whose work is never built; it just remains on the page. What is the status of those ideas? Do they have a reality of their own or are they just an architect’s fantasy.
PWCW: Very often it seems that big ideas in the book are often addressed or resolved by the introduction of very small things that have tremendous meaning. There’s a scene where Polyp helps to build a simple kid’s tree house and that structure turns out to be a very powerful symbol in the book, a symbol of something that is actually being physically constructed in the world by a man whose structures—complex, stylish and powerfully rational—really exist almost completely in his mind.
CK: Yes, the tree house sequence is a wonderful moment. It represents the pure aesthetic joy that Polyp gets out of actually making something. Structurally the book is a lot different to look at than something like Batman Year One, the best superhero comic book ever. It’s more open and visually there’s a lot more white space, even if it’s [background in several areas is] pink. And there’s the Orpheus/Eurydice sequence in the end. It’s bigger in scope and there are operatic moments within in. But the whole dynamic of the relationship of the two principal characters is poignant and nuanced.
PWCW: There’s a deep undercurrent of emotion and passion in the book and Mazzucchelli also isolates the little things that love can bring out in people—both the good and the bad. But there’s also a side of this book that’s more about the role of nonfiction; almost like a tutorial—the way he’s able to map out and even lampoon ideas visually. It’s almost a textbook about how to present complex nonfiction ideas in comics form. The book features big splash pages about ideas, the passage of time and even the descriptive material he uses outline his characterizations seems to brilliantly and methodically translate their fictional histories into vivid fictional personas. The book is very diagrammatic in the ways he chooses to lay out the personalities of his characters and their history and he does the same for ideas.
DF: David’s engagement with ideas is really part of an attempt to portray a man, Asterios Polyp, who lives in the world of ideas, as he interacts with the real world. Whether it’s the fire at his apartment at the beginning of the book that ultimately leads to him being thrown out of his own life or whether its his meeting with his future lover and wife, Hannah; what we’re constantly seeing is the intersection of how someone wants life to be and the reality of a life as it really is.
CK: David’s a teacher so in that capacity he sort of has to think about all this stuff; so why not commit it to paper? So in that sense it has aspects of a textbook.
PWCW: In a time where authors often have to be the lead voice for their own works, what happens when you have an extremely talented author who would rather not do an excessive amount of media, or any media at all? How have you dealt with this, beyond this particular interview?
DF: The fact is an author’s input on promotion is voluntary. The only situation I can think of where an author’s input is really critical is when a publisher has paid a huge amount of money for a publicity-driven book and they want the author to commit to doing publicity. The publisher will often put a clause in the contract stipulating that. Given what you’re asking authors to do today, which is not a lot of fun, it’s really hard to twist their arms and say you’ve got to do this or that. I actually have tremendous respect for the authors that step away and say, “I may be hurting myself but I want the book to be out there.”
We’ve published the English writer John Berger for 40 years and he’s never come to this country. Over at Knopf, the novelist Cormac McCarthy is never involved in publicity; you mentioned the J.D. Salinger comparison. I think in David’s case you have someone whose standing and reputation within the comics world is quite high because of his past work so it’s not like you’re dealing with someone who is completely unknown. The fact that we can put his name on the cover is a huge thing. So I was not going to twist his arm saying you have to do X&Y.
PWCW: Of course the response to that is that he’s articulate, personable, warm and he’d be fabulous speaking to the media about his own book if he wanted to do it.
CK: There is a sort of interesting integrity about David’s decision to withdraw from the promotional stuff.
PWCW: Pantheon has had such an impact on the comics category, whether you point to works by Art Speigelman or others, your list has become something of an indicator of where the medium is going.
DF: We’ve been incredibly fortunate in what we’ve done over the last 10 years. It has a lot to do with Chip Kidd.
CK: I don’t want to do anything that I’m not 100% passionate about and we’ve been very lucky.
DF: Historically we’re a generation after the publication of Art Speigelman’s Maus, a generation of artists who were given some sort of new artistic chance by Art and by R. Crumb and by a number of other artists of that generation who were expanding on the possibilities of mainstream comics. There is this sense that comics still remain a medium of great possibility and we’re sort of rediscovering that sense of possibility. There’s a lot of hype about comics right now but the fact is that this is a moment full of first-rate artists and first-rate talents. It’s an amazing moment for comics.
CK: Now you have someone like Dash Shaw [creator of the acclaimed Bottomless Belly Button and the forthcoming Body World, also to be published by Pantheon] who was David’s student at SVA, who will publish his book with us next year, which is very exciting in terms of the next generation. As for Asterios Polyp, do I hope this becomes some sort of touchstone in the history of the form? Well of course. What’s been really exciting to me is that we were literally the first to read it. But I was also like, ‘I love it but will other people get it,’ because our job is to get the book an audience. I’ve been cautioning the sales force: yes, he did Batman Year One but this is not Batman Year Two or anything like it. There’s very little comparison when you have an artist who does a 180 like this. It’s been a joy to see other people at the house gradually read it and say, 'Oh my God, this is amazing.' I’m predisposed to think it’s a masterpiece but to have other people—whether it’s an editorial assistant who sneaks a copy to read or our head of publicity or whoever. The reaction has been universal.
DF: I also like to think about the activity of the last 10 years or so. People have been laying down amazing books and it’s almost like that moment when the Beatles and Bob Dylan were competing with one another: this is what I can do with this one and hey, I can do you one better. So Chris Ware comes out with Jimmy Corrigan and Dan Clowes says, ‘Oh I can do something exceptional too.’ Each artist is feeding off one another but there is a creative energy that is proving to be a positive force for comics literature.