“Asterios Polyp” is the first graphic novel I have ever analyzed in depth, let alone read. Throughout high school and my first semester of college, I was always writing literary analyses of novels, particularly focusing on such topics as the author’s technique, the actions of the character, or even the setting. I was unsure how to approach this paper since I was unfamiliar with any style of comic book writing and detailed illustrations. It was difficult for me to make sense of why the author was using certain colors or specific layouts; however, after comparing different illustrations in the novel and relating the styles of various pages, I was able to make sense of what a particular page was trying to portray. Furthermore, this type of analyzing was complex because people interpret graphic novels differently; someone may interpret a certain illustration or style of font in a completely opposite way compared to another person. Graphic novels are designed specifically by the author to allow the reader to create the story in their mind, hence why writing an entire analysis on such a novel can be worrisome. As a writer, I was unsure whether my professor would agree with my interpretations of the novel. However, this encouraged me to use as many specific examples from the novel as I could in order to support the explanations I made regarding the author’s page layouts and designs. Overall, I enjoyed analyzing such a unique novel, and I am better at grasping the meaning of specific design layouts in graphic novels.
Through his use of bleeding, specific transitions, and detailed voice bubbles, Mazzucchelli is able to show the drastic identity change that the main character, Asterios, experiences throughout his varying life experiences in Asterios Polyp. In order to focus on the theme of identity change, scenes such as the opening apartment fire, Asterios walking downward into the empty subway, and finally the reuniting with Hana at the end, all display essential moments key to recognizing Asterios’ change in identity. Through seeing the initial depressive state of Asterios to the final pleased and in love Asterios, the reader is able to distinguish the ultimate identity change that takes place.
At the outset of the book, Asterios’ life is turned upside down in mere seconds as a devastating fire spreads rapidly through his apartment. Asterios grabs three personal items, a lighter, a watch, and a pocket knife, before running down the stairs and out of the apartment, while the flames thereafter engulf his entire life, including his library of taped videos of him and his past wife, Hana. After flipping over three detailed pages, the reader is able to recognize the fear in Asterios, while also seeing the overall destruction of the fire. In relation to identity change, this scene instantly orients the reader with the chaos and depression of Asterios’ present stage in life. After separating from Hana, which first destroys his entire personality and emotional stance, the fire then takes away what remains of his life including his home, personal belongings, and overall identity, bringing him from sadness to an even deeper depression. This presents an initial understanding of his present identity, which allows for change in the future. In this particular scene, Mazzucchelli emphasizes Asterios’ present characteristics of fear and hopelessness through the use of action-to-action progressions. In Understanding Comics, McCloud defines this as “those transitions featuring a single subject…”, thus apparently used as Asterios initially hears the fire alarm, scurries to gather personal items, and then runs down the stairs (70). By the end of the scene, the action-to-action progressions display the fire spreading throughout Asterios’ apartment until the flames finally engulf everything. These different progressions highlight the theme of identity change; the flames burn and destroy Asterios’ life, setting him up for even more devastation and depression. Each moment the fire spreads more and more, Asterios’ identity is falling apart, just like his apartment.
To further display Asterios’ identity drastically shifting, Mazzucchelli draws Asterios walking from the cold, pouring rain down into a dirty, empty subway station. At this moment in time, Asterios’ character is as low as he can possibly be; he finds shelter in a cardboard box, instantly displaying irony due to his occupation as an architect, and then walks with his head down through the pouring rain to the subway station. As he makes his way down the first of four levels of stairs, the outline of Asterios’ twin brother walks next to him, thus emphasizing how truly alone Asterios feels at that moment. To further stress his present state of character, Asterios attempts to stay warm by holding himself and blowing into his hand. The surrounding subway station is completely empty, only populated by rats and scattered trash among the ground. Mazzucchelli uses the technique of bleeding, or when “a panel runs off the edge of the page,” to accentuate how big the world around him is (McCloud 103). This draws more attention to Asterios’ state of depression and the dominance of loneliness in his personality at that time, thus underscoring the low state Asterios’ character has developed and maintains for a period of time. Since this scene displays such a low self-acceptance level for Asterios, the ability for identity change to come is only more emphasized and desired.
At the very end of the book, Asterios’ life has finally come full circle and his identity has reached a level of happiness and security that once certainly distinguished him as an individual a while before. After trekking through the winter storm and working through the lowest point in his life, Asterios approaches Hana’s house hoping to become the man he once was again. During their conversation, Hana helps to warm Asterios by providing tea and blankets; she even shows him her platonic solids sculptures that Asterios used to constantly discuss. After much conversation, the two drink wine next to each other on the couch and slowly get closer as their thoughts intertwine. For such a major moment in Asterios’ life, Mazzucchelli uses various techniques to emphasize the drastic identity change in Asterios as his life finally reaches a blissful and satisfied point. Mazzucchelli uses both action-to-action transitions and plays with different forms of voice bubbles to emphasize the coming together of the two characters and the rise of Asterios’ identity. Through the action-to-action transitions, the reader is able to see how Asterios and Hana slowly but surely come closer together, especially when Mazzucchelli draws only their hands almost touching. Through the use of distinctive voice bubbles, the author can show their connection emerging through the intertwining voice bubbles and overlapping of speech. Such techniques succeed in emphasizing the connection between the characters, therefore raising the personality and self-worth of Asterios much higher; this illustrates the drastic difference between Asterios’ past self with his present persona.
The story of Asterios Polyp’s life-altering experiences throughout the book, require much observation and attention from the reader. In order to perceive such themes as identity change, readers must understand how Mazzucchelli specifically designs layouts, uses certain colors, and adds specific details that all together create a meaningful story. Through carefully reading and analyzing significant scenes throughout the book, the reader is able to make sense of action-to-action transitions that display step by step, Asterios’ life going downhill. This specific transition easily allows readers to picture each moment that Asterios either slips into a further depression or slowly develops cheerfulness, hence highly emphasizing his extreme change in character. Additionally, the reader is able to understand and feel the emotion of Asterios at the lowest point of his life; the bleeding in the subway scene emphasizes his loneliness and certain stance in life and as a person at that negative point. Furthermore, the connection between Hana and Asterios at the end of the book bursts off the page through such captivating and meaningful transitions and creative voice bubbles. Asterios’ identity change is evident when the reader pays attention to such noteworthy scenes and how the techniques used underscore the initial downfall of Asterios; his extreme low point thus follows, and he finally comes to a content and happy moment, all of which explicate upon the theme of identity change.
Mazzucchelli, David. Asterios Polyp. New York: Pantheon Books, 2009.
McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York:
HarperPerennial, 1994. Print.
Editorial Team’s Note
In this essay, Schmidberger performs a close reading of a graphic novel by identifying a particular frame, in this case “identity,” and examining what kinds of specific details contribute to this construction of identity and how it is perceived by the reader. In order to find a vocabulary for analyzing graphic novels, Schmidberger uses Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics to idenitify specific aspects of the novel that can explain how she sees identity forming – for example, terms like bleeding and action to action progression. This enables her to show her reader the connection between technique and meaning, for example how the action to action progress of the fire represents the dissolution of Asterios’ identity: “Each moment the fire spreads more and more, Asterios’ identity is falling apart, just like his apartment.” A close reading is not just a matter of pointing out details or summarizing a text; close reading requires the writer to identify a frame or point of inquiry that allows for the analysis of those details. This essay is a great example how these elements can work together.