Asterios Polyp – David Mazzucchelli

The story of Asterios Polyp, as he loses confidence and almost pulls his life apart, is narrated by his stillborn twin, Ignazio, and David Mazzucchelli illustrates it in a muted palette of purples, blues and pinks. It starts as Asterios’ apartment building burns to the ground, leaving him only enough time to grab three possessions. Although he has previously been a celebrated professor of architecture Asterios decided to turn his back on the embers of his past by taking a bus as far away as possible and finding work as a car mechanic. However, Ignazio fills in the details of this past as he narrates and suggests that Asterios is not making as clean a break as he initially claims. The three objects he saves from his home reveal stories about his parents, a failed marriage and past obsessions of Asterios’ personality. 

His relationship with a shy artist, Hana, is also narrated by Ignazio as their two personalities clash at times but also complement each other, with Mazzucchelli exploring how significant little moments can become. As Asterios struggles to rebuild his life while living with those who know nothing about his past his previous status as a celebrated professor of architecture is called into question as none of his designs were ever built and he is not recognised or respected outside of his elite circle. His character flaws also become apparent, as his loss of easy self-confidence reveals an arrogance in remembered past actions. Mazzucchelli sympathetically portrays the frustration of a man who has lost so much through carelessness and therefore turns away from the skills which he had previously also taken for granted to instead live by the work of his hands. 

The book includes a whole range of illustrative styles, with some pages laid out in a traditional way of evenly sized panels while others include overlapping frames, full bleeds and mismatching images. I particularly enjoyed the idea of separate interpretations of reality by each character which Mazzucchelli occasionally depicts through different colours and styles. The lines reach as far as the next character before breaking into a new kaleidoscope of colours and shapes. However, when Asterios and Hana start a conversation their two separate lines immediately merge to create a joint interpretation of blue and pink shaping. At difficult times in their marriage, this sympathetic union quickly separates and overtly visualises the distance that the couple finds between them.

I would definitely recommend Asterios Polyp as although the actual narrative is simple it is very carefully illustrated and there were certain scenes which I felt encapsulated ideas which would not be the same if written. My thoughts have often returned to the characters since reading it and I expect that they will continue to do so. 

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Maus – Art Spiegelman

Maus tells the story of Art Spiegelman’s family’s experience of the Holocaust through depicting the memories of his father, Vladek. Famously the characters involved are drawn as animals, with their species depending on their nationality or religion. The Nazis become cats while the Jewish people involved are mice terrorised by this cats as dogs, pigs and other animals stand on the sidelines. Although I had heard many great things about the graphic novel I found it difficult to believe that this anthropomorphism would not trivialise its subject. Instead, it makes this global narrative of grief personal and individual to Spiegelman’s description and therefore, perhaps, even more devastating because it presents such a fresh account. Almost every page is filled with Vladek’s idiosyncratic turns of English speech and this quickly allows his character to come to life within the portrayal as a mouse. This peculiar phrasing also draws attention to the separation that exists between the lives of father and son.

The narrative swerves between Vladek’s recollections, Art’s interpretation of these events and some of their everyday conversations as they navigate a relationship fraught with difficulties and cultural differences. Art is a post-war child born in America, and cannot understand his father’s compulsive need to be so frugal with everything from paper to cereal and roof insulation. Art’s frustration demonstrates the difficultly that post-war culture experienced in processing the long term effects of the Holocaust when the easiest response was to try and forget the destruction previous generations had experienced. Although Art’s mother Anja survived Auschwitz she is absent throughout the entire graphic novel due to committing suicide after living for years in America. The shadow of the Holocaust, across even Art’s life, becomes more substantial and solidifies until the present and future cannot compete.

Spiegelman constantly references the process behind Maus, as he struggles to keep Vladek on track in their recorded conversations. His idea of how the graphic novel should be shaped is different to the real experiences and there are not always conclusions to the questions that are raised. So many people disappear into concentration camps, ghettos and violence that they can only be mentioned with a question mark over their fate. The anthropomorphic concept is also demonstrated to be limiting as it cannot reflect the multiple facets of individual personalities, as people convert to Judaism or claim they are German rather than Jewish. The futile nature of attempting to divide every character into one attribute also highlights the arbitrary nature of Hitler’s policies on eugenics. There is also an increasing awareness of how Spiegelman’s work adapts in response to the critical acclaim that the first half receives. He is overwhelmed by the attention which is paid and the demands that are made to promote and diversify the work. As his own reaction becomes a part of the graphic novel Spiegelman reaffirms his connection to the trauma of the previous generation even as he becomes aware how separate he will remain.

The Holocaust cannot remain solely in history books and lessons but should be kept as part of society’s culture, however difficult an admission this may be. Maus is a book that will continue to shock people into accepting that the events of the twentieth century will continue to disrupt and destroy lives that did not even exist when the Nazis’ held Europe in their grasp and so I would recommend it wholeheartedly.

Persepolis – Marjane Satrapi

I’ve been meaning to read Persepolis for some time now as I’m trying to widen my knowledge of graphic novels and the book is often mentioned. From the first page I could tell that this would be a book that I would return to again and again – there is a richness to both the story and the pages that will only be discovered on multiple viewings. The book tells is an autobiographical account of Marjane Satrapi growing up under the shadow of the Iranian theocracy.

The illustration is simple to the extent that it is in black and white but beyond that it inventively echoes scenes visually throughout. Without the imagery the story would be diminished as it brings Iran alive to those who have never had a chance of seeing both public and private aspects of its culture.

Her parents were liberal and encouraged Satrapi to be educated despite the theocracy attempting to cut down on women’s rights both through the enforcement of the veil and a restriction of their movements. Satrapi’s parents eventually send her to Austria in the hope that she can experience freedom there that is no longer possible in Iran but this transition also presents Satrapi with difficulties. This is both a bildungsoman and an exploration of the hidden split in Iranian culture – she chronicles her increasing isolation from both cultures and a struggle to understand her evolving identity. Although she adapts to Western culture as she goes to university, lives in a house of gay men and has a boyfriend Marjane remains an outsider to her Austrian life. However, on returning to Iran she finds those friends who she has looked forward to meeting again are now also strangers to her and look down on her “Westernised” ways.

The considered narrative is emotive whilst also restrained,uncovering a side of Iran that remains hidden too those who only experience it through the news. It recalls those who were locked in prison or died at the hands of both the Shah and the theocracy, the continued attempts at rebellion that must become more secretive as protests become too dangerous and parties involving alcohol appear too risky. Instead, in one instance, like minded individuals meet and hold private life drawing classes in response to the regime preventing women attending. They refuse to allow their lives to be narrowed due to close-minded leadership.

If there is any one that sneers at graphic novels they only need to be handed a copy of Persepolis to be proved completely and utterly misguided. This book will remain relevant and fresh for many years and is an excellent entry point for those who wish to understand aspects of Iranian culture, both old and new, better.