Strongly recommend this new graphic novel, David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp. It’s being hailed as a landmark of the genre, and I agree — it strikes me as among the best graphic novels I’ve read, along with the likes of Maus, Charles Burns’ Black Hole, Ghost World, Persepolis, Jimmy Corrigan, and I’m not sure what else (I’ve never gotten too into the neo-superhero stuff like Watchmen).
Mazzucchelli got a BFA at RISD and became a successful comics artist at Marvel Comics in the 1980s, then started doing non-superhero stuff, like the graphic novel version of Paul Auster’s City of Glass. He’s apparently being working on Asterios Polyp for a decade. Here’s the NY Times review, which dubs the book “a big, proud, ambitious chunk of a graphic novel, with modernism on its mind and a perfectly geometrical chip on its shoulder” and “a dazzling, expertly constructed entertainment.”
It’s a novel of academia, in part; Asterios Polyp is a famous “paper architect” and professor at Cornell who’s become famous for designs that are never actually built. The story is told in circular, recursive cycles with a bit of a film noir type set-up: we begin with the collapse of Asterios’ elite life and his fall into impoverished obscurity, and then re-trace the steps that led him there. These include his marriage to a shy, talented sculptor who feels overwhelmed by him (until her own success begins to threaten him), his obsessive-compulsive behaviors and deeply ingrained intellectual snobbism. As with any really successful graphic novel, the art is thoroughly embedded in the story and vice versa; in this case the art is quite spectacular and even show-offy — it definitely repays close scrutiny and multiple readings, with different characters, plots, and time frames all given their own distinct styles. (It probably reminds me most of Chris Ware’s work in the brilliantly fussy/minute attention to graphic design and the interest in retro and recherche 40s-50s style; kind of amazing that Mazzucchelli worked for years on Daredevil, although in fact I’m sure doing comics for Marvel was ideal training for this).