There have already been any number of penetrating reviews of Asterios, a tour-de-force graphic novel by Mazzucchelli, whose growth into a true arteur from middling Marvel penciller is almost unprescedented within the industry, and this review will not only try to bring up any number of things that I like about the GN but also try to address the need/desire/aesthetics of the "formalist" Graphic Novel.
David has taken the baton from the esteemed Will Eisner, whose graphic narrative books address the idea of thinking beyond the panel into the page and all of its associative elements as being visual components that can be used to further the story. We're all familiar with the elements that he pioneered in The Spirit, the lucic panel borders, the lettering flowing within visual elements to approximate the intimacy of sound echo that movies have done such a good job of since Citizen Kane, the movement of the panels themselves to try to imitate the movement of the jostling subway car. Mazzucchelli has taken those not only to heart, but to further with differentiated art styles and colors, allowing him to work on any number of different levels withing the same scene. The scene where Asterios meets his future wife Hana at a party is loaded with multiple layers of subtext not only by drawing style, by color but also by the naming conventions used.
The question that Eisner never asks within his books, and that he wouldn't have probably thought to ask, is "does the use of these visual devices make the reader so aware of the page itself and the tricks being used that they ask as a visual distraction?" To this reader, whose last 36 years have been to try and understand all the best possible visual ways to tell a story, this formalist approach may simply be to distancing at times. And it is, make no mistake about it, an aesthetic choice all along the way, one that belies my belief that for the GN format to work it needs works of this level of sophistication and complexity. There is a dearth of works out there that one needs in hardcover, but this is one of them.
So I put out there that while we can debate the names used in the novel (Hana, a flower whose petals only open later in life, Asterios, whose last name places him as an extraneous bit of tissue, knicknames her Daisy, a lightly regarded flower as opposed to a rose or lily), and it is of more importance that we have the debate, in public thank you very much, so that the layers of the onion can be peeled back to reveal the work below. I don't think that this is a book of Joycean levels, and, in fact, believe that the artist who is trying to create "the great work" often misses the fact that he or she will have already created a master piece elsewhere (but it usually came so easily that they regard it much more lightly). Rubber Blanket #2 contains a story that within a much smaller number of pages contains a loose brushwork that has lost none of its visual appeal along with fomalist "choices" such as the deliberate use of minimal and sometimes over-printed colors to make a solid character study with as much depth as the well-regarded "500 Days of Summer" currently playing at a multiplex near you.
While I enjoy that David put as much work into the back story, I'm afraid that that the storyline lacks a lot of punch. More important than the resolution of the story is the trip to get there. Asterios and Hana's love and marriage are the put under the microscope in enough detail to tell you everything that you need to know about many of the choices that the characters make. I question that I need a color overlay to tell me that Asterios moves the spotlight towards himself, literally in Mazzucchelli's vision, while obstensibly praising Hana's art. I'm not sure that i do, but then again, i'm not sure anyone else outside of Eisner would have done it that way.
There is much to admire, and while I'm thinking the work through, I know that it will come off like I disliked the book. Things to love: the lower tier of panels that take in a range of Hana's behavior, depicting all the very human parts of her existence, at once invalidating the unique vision that we men have of the women that we fall in love with, at the same time rounding her out as a fuller being beyond all the incidental character bits that we're used to seeing. It compresses time in a different way than the standard montage. There are any number of interesting vingnettes that will stay with you far longer than the actual story will: the picnic at the meteor crater, that scenes with Hana's Broadway producer, the ordinary and yet revealing moments in the marriage that will ring true to practically any married couple. Alternately I thought that some of the storytelling devices we heavy handed and yet hadn't been done to death, or done at all, by others, and thus were worth doing.
Is it the masterpiece that some are calling it? Or is it merely a really, really good project that might get a little buried under the weight of everyone's expectations? Personally I think the latter, and thats a shame, because many a good project was lost under the heavy pressure that comes with audience expectations. David deserves major props for pulling it all off and creating a solid and inventive book. Only time will tell how many times it gets taken down and read.
Can we revisit this in about 10 years?