ENGL 492: Image and Text
Colour, Chance and Chronology: the three elements that bind Asterios Polyp
Two types of structures wrestle with each other within Asterios Polyp: one synchronistic, the other diachronistic. The first is intimately personal: it operates along an imagistic dream-like grammar, and builds itself around the associative clusters of memory; the second is narrative, both mythic and classical, and it is driven by sequential cause and effect. Whereas the latter has the hero as its pivotal point, the former stitches individual experiences and emotions together in a manner that doesn’t necessarily fold neatly into a discernible chronology. Even though the main narrative is interwoven with the Orpheus myth making it tempting to read the comic as an allegory, Mazzucchelli complicates this by reversing the events of the Orpheus plot. Rather than losing his beloved, Asterios’s looking back in Chapter “Orpheus” eventually results in the genesis of a new life with his beloved. This is mirrored in the structure of the comic itself: events are recycled, and the comic both begins and ends with a deus ex machina-type event in which the inexplicable pierces the veil of the mundane. The fracturing of Asterios’s eye in the prior chapter (that occurs as the result of his looking back), rather than crippling him, results in an extension of his visual scope, which is reflected in the comic’s expanded colour palette. Ironically, Asterios’s bodily affliction is accompanied by a newfound mental sight: he learns to view the world holistically in a way that accounts for varying perspectives. This mirrors the reading process Mazzucchelli encourages, in which one has to draw deductions from association rather than causality. Events aren’t chained to a pre-determined structure, but rather happen contingently, only having significance when viewed relationally from a removed viewpoint.
The colour palette Mazzucchelli uses reflects the transformation of Asterios’s sight from that of a heroic protagonist whose gaze centralizes and determines relations into that of a more neutral onlooker observing life dispassionately. Every colour scheme has a correspondence to Asterios’s relationship to his past, present, and future. His past is rendered in the rudimentary colours of blue, purple, green and red, reflecting Asterios’s schematic, rational view of the world. The entrance of yellow in the prologue with the sound of the fire alarm introduces a dimension of ambiguity that has to be integrated into Asterios’s worldview; yellow, paradoxically, is noticeably absent from the accounting of Asterios’s past. In the prologue, yellow is used to depict the fire, and can be read within this chapter as the psychological, unconscious currents that flood into Asterios’s world, forcing him to reexamine his priorities or perish. Mazzucchelli’s colour palette accompanies this change: it shifts from using the primary colours of blue and purple to that of yellow and purple. Asterios’s world is literally stripped to its minimalist components, as he is forced to confront the ‘5th element’ of ambiguity that he had hitherto failed to acknowledge. Asterios’s subsequent ‘exile’ as he embarks on a quest for identity begins a narrative trajectory in which Asterios will have to rebuild his world from the rabble of the fire. It is only when he is able to forcibly accept the capricious element of Fate that yellow expands to depict sunlight, possibility and the promise of the future. In such a way, Mazzucchelli utilizes colour as an associative tool that the reader can use to map Asterios’s past to his present and the as-yet-vague future within a fluid temporality.
J.T Mitchell mentions in his essay “Beyond Comparison” that, “figurative labels (“blue” moods and “warm colours”) apply as firmly and consistently as literal ones and have as much to do with actual experience. That images, pictures, space, and visuality may only be figuratively conjured up in a verbal discourse does not mean that the conjuring fails to occur or that the reader/listener “sees” nothing” (119). In this excerpt, Mitchell points out that the readerly experience is not only a translation of signs, but also a bodily experience. In the prologue, yellow contrasts with its complementary opposite purple. The jarring contrast between the images rendered in purple (the city; Asterios’s apartment) and those images rendered in yellow (the fire alarm that jolts Asterios into action; the flames) evokes a visceral sensation of discomfort and anxiety. It contrasts with the portions of the comic when Asterios’s ego is still in tact, which are rendered in the calm, cool tones of blue and purple. This change of palette figuratively shows the transformation of Asterios’s identity after the fire. At the same time, it viscerally draws the reader to an underlying dimension of Asterios’s personality (connected to the body and unconscious states) that the narrative at times hides. By framing his narrative with a prelude that is purely expressionistic in colour and form, Mazzucchelli opens up a layer beneath Asterios’s calm facade that the reader will henceforth have to look for. This, in turn, provides an intuition-based counterpoint to the at times distancing, cold rationalism of the narrative.
In addition, Mazzucchelli mentions in a 2009 Comics Journal interview that he seeks to mimic the “flat language” utilized by the modernists, such as Leger, Matisse and Picasso. Such artists produced images that attempted to view a subject from varying perspectives by reconstructing them upon a single, flat plane. However, the fragmentation of their images was unified by the use of a reduced palette of a few colours. While Cubism sought to depict the complexities of a modern life saturated with a multiplicity of perspectives, it also tied these divergent viewpoints together under a geometric framework by the use of simple shapes and colours. Similarly, Mazzucchelli’s use of colour and form can be considered cubistic. Blue appears to represent Asterios’s male, rational outlook; red stands in for Hana and the other female character’s seemingly irrational emotions, but from a male point-of-view. Mazzucchelli’s combination of different colour schemes reveals the comic’s reality to be the result of the convergence of varying viewpoints. Together, they provide a reading experience that is both flexible and abstract, yet geometrically structured. If the colours themselves evoke in the reader a sensory effect, Mazzuchelli’s limited use of colour keeps his comic within the domain of the fictional, preventing his comic from slipping into the purely expressionistic or naturalistic. The effect that results is one of detachment, in which the reader identifies each character’s state emotively, while maintaining a sense of narrative distance not unlike Asterios’s rational gaze.
The colour scheme Mazzucchelli chooses in this opening prologue sets up a connection between Asterios’s story and the cosmic drama that occurs in the background of the comic. This larger context remains hidden from the reader, but ties the diegesis of the comic onto a looser framework that operates cyclically within motions of creation, destruction and recreation. In such a structure, the human being is one of many microcosmic elements within a macrocosm; his agency is limited, and frequently subject to the whims of an invisible, capricious God (on the local level, this is the artist). Asterios Polyp echoes this idea by opening from an aerial point-of-view with the naturalist depiction of a blue sky devoid of any human trace. A torrent of purple rain pitter-patters down upon the the purple city, and a single white lightning bolt jig-jags its way down through the page’s center, bifurcating the image into two halves. These beginning panels play out the naturalist theme of the enduring landscape absent and ambivalent of humanity. Likewise, the splitting of the image echoes the larger theme of bifurcation that will haunt the comic. However, these comic images are also consciously artificial to the point of being cartoonish, as they are rendered in a two-tone blue/purple colour scheme. Rather than achieving a naturalistic effect, the artificiality of these images prevent us from falling into an existential angst that would have occurred if it were depicted in an overly realistic fashion. In a way, the colour scheme has a distancing effect, standing between us and complete identification.
Initially, Asterios’s presence is alluded to but never addressed directly. His presence is abstracted in the image of two white windows suspended within the purple space of the building and the expansive blue sky. The comic’s eye then zooms in on his empty living room, before moving to the kitchen, desk and corridor. The reader ‘hears’ the sound of the videotapes through speech bubbles before actually seeing Asterios. The videotapes initially stand in for Asterios’s body, echoing Asterios’s bifurcated existence. When we are introduced to Asterios in person, his purple and blue figure merges into the mess of his similarly coloured bed. His supine figure is depicted with a kind of resigned despondence, barely emerging from its surroundings. The objects within his apartment, contrasting with Asterios’s static body, possess an uncanny animated quality. They express Asterios’s relation to his inhabited space: he is simultaneously removed yet present. In this opening sequence, the comic’s eye operates like a close-up, showing us “the faces of things… which are significant because they (reflect) expressions of (Asterios’s) own subconscious feeling” (Balazs 119). It reveals “the speechless face and fate of the dumb objects that live with you in your room and whose fate is bound up with your own” (118). Similarly, Asterios’s objects stand in for his personality, revealing the passivity and lack of purpose in Asterios’s life. Till the alarm sounds on the 7th page, the colours used are that only of purple and blue, tonically reflecting his mental detachment. The lightning bolt’s change of colour from white to yellow in the opening sequence signals the entrance of the individual human drama into the larger cosmic drama: cosmic signs are suddenly imbued with personal significance. Yellow, here, denotes both a personal and textual alterity. For the comic, it represents the entrance of Asterios’s symbolic interior world. For Asterios, it represents a psychological undercurrent that ruptures his numbed life and propels him towards a more engaged existence.
The colour scheme used in Asterios’s opening portrait in Chapter “Asterios Polyp” connects it by association to the previous chapter. On the first page, Asterios is portrayed in a state of detached contemplation smoking a cigarette uncolored, as in classical portraiture. As such, it echoes the schematic framework Asterios initially casts upon his life, as well as his solipsistic outlook. On the flip side, however, Asterios’s is coloured in yellow, echoing the anxiety he experiences as his sense of masculine self-identity is destabilized after the fire. The invasion of the colour yellow in the ‘after’ image reveals a hidden tension between the heroic gaze and his fragile ego. This colour change sets up a visual analogy for Asterios’s transformation from insurmountable hero to flawed hero, as the hero’s calm facade is revealed to be a posture. Asterios’s near-hubristic self-assurance is suddenly shattered, and the reader is forced to continuously juxtapose the events of his past in the light of the lightning strike. Moreover, whereas the first portrait of Asterios is rendered in blue and purple, the latter is yellow and purple. From the start, the continuity of the colour yellow in these two chapters joins the comic’s present moment to the shadow of apocalyptic disaster that came before (the lightning stroke), so the past is always interfering with the unfolding of the present diegesis.
If the portraits of Asterios in this chapter highlights the flimsiness of the heroic stance, the text accomplishes an opposite effect. It stabilizes Asterios’s identity, enabling the narrative to proceed forward along a quasi-linear chronology. Ignazio tell the reader “this is Asterios Polyp”. By linking the image of Asterios to a name, Ignazio establishes Asterios’s identity upon something concrete- that of a name-, situating him within a discernible diegetic time and space. Visually, the word “THIS” is rendered in monumental blue and purple font, linking it in colour and form to Asterios’s larger-than-life Roman-like image of himself. The text, here, operates in an Aristotelian manner, organizing events around the classical hero visually and in content.
The text then goes on to tell the reader, “Right now, he’s (Asterios) watching his home burn up” in a comically detached tone, and in smaller font,“today- coincidentally also happens to be his fiftieth birthday”. The spatial arrangement of these two bodies of text echoes a dramatic and metaphysical irony both in content and in form: his house burns up on his birthday; he is not the self-assured figure he is portrayed to be on the prior page. The splitting of the text’s placement also echoes a bifurcation of the narrative voice: the Asterios as he perceives himself to be (as the controlled, heroic protagonist of his own drama) and the Asterios as he is revealed to be within a larger ambivalent cosmic drama.
After the introducing these two contrasting narrative voices, Mazzucchelli inserts the main plot- Asterios’s journey to find himself. The dualistic principles upon which he has hitherto founded his world have proven flimsy, and he will have to henceforth redefine his reality upon something more substantial. The auto-repair narrative, in this light, can be read as a limbo-like space in which Asterios restarts his life and realigns his perspective. It floats in-between Asterios’s recounting of the past, not having any clear causal connection to it. It is rendered only in yellow and purple, echoing a distancing both from reality as we perceive it and Asterios’s previous schematic way of viewing the world that the previous blue, purple and red scheme represents. In its stylistic separation, it operates as a distanced voice commenting from the present, but always in tandem to what has already happened. Unlike the classical heroic narrative, Asterios’s choice of a random path with no clear destination only makes sense when we analyze it in retrospect.
It is, however, tempting to read Asterios Polyp through a dualistic framework in which every colour and artistic style corresponds to a thematic element. Red appears to represent the female unconscious, and blue the male, conscious, centralizing gaze. Purple frames the comic panels, shadowing all of the comic’s content in a semiotic ambiguity (unlike the deterministic black, it hovers between shades of blue and red). Black, to the contrary, never appears except on the cover; here, Mazzucchelli comically reiterates the art school lesson that black is an iridescent compendium of different shades, just as reality is saturated in a multiplicity of points-of-view. The reader is given the rhetorical tools to interpret all of the events happening to Asterios along a single schema- that of the Orpheus and Odyssey plot. This reflects Asterios’s empirical stance towards the world, revealing how easy it is to fall into viewing the world in such a manner.
However, the introduction of a spectrum of colour that is harder to categorize after Asterios loses his eye makes it impossible to read the comic from such an overarching rational framework. Shortly after Asterios damages his eye, the comic’s colour scheme opens up to include subtler variations of green, yellow, and blue while intermittently slipping in and out of the yellow/blue/red colour scheme. The alarm ‘beeps’ in red font; road signs are green. The colour palette, here, doesn’t so much reflect Asterios’s symbolic stance within life as it does his off-kilter emotional state: he is always slightly estranged from his reality. Hana’s new house, unlike any of the other inhabited spaces in the comic, is coloured primarily in earthy shades of orange, yellow and green, reflecting her connection to the realm of the natural. After Asterios turns up disheveled at Hana’s doorstep (the expressionistic depiction of him here echoes this: he is a mess of formless curves and uneven lines), Hana metaphorically ‘cleans’ him up, integrating him into her holistic vision of the world. The comic’s colour scheme and style echoes this reconciliation of male and female, rational and intuitive: speech bubbles entwine, and the colours that Asterios and Hana are rendered in blend together. The ending of this chapter appears to tie everything up into a neat conclusion: the hero is united with his beloved after he accepts the intuitive, feminine voice as equally valid to the masculine, rationalistic worldview.
If such an ending promises closure to the reader, the following chapter shatters such thematic certainty. Stylistically, all shades are reduced to yellow and purple again, before reverting to the same colour scheme of yellow, blue and purple and white that the comic begins with. The comic, by reversing the colour scheme through a second tiered Oedipal ‘double-looking’, ironically suggests that these events may occur again in another lifetime, much like Nietzsche’s cycle of the eternal return. In addition, the panel that follows the neat resolution of the Hana-Asterios story arc abstracts all human figures into distant shapes: we are shown three illuminated yellow windows- the only signifiers of human presence- suspended within a purple house and landscape. The frame then further zooms out in a panel in which the encompassing blue sky fills up most of the page, oppressively weighing down upon the smaller-scaled house and landscape. This melding of the house into landscape (both are purple), and the dominance of the blue sky prepares us from the ending of the comic, in which human agency is proven to be an overall imaginary notion. Hana’s last words within this frame, “What’s that noise?” appears to be the last flimsy effort on the human’s part to establish a lasting presence within the larger, cosmic drama. The comic suggests the fallibility of human existence, by having Hana and Asterios' existence easily erased by the meteorite. This can be read, like the lightning that begins the comic, as the overwriting of the human story by a larger cosmic force; an overwriting that abruptly changes the significance of the whole story. Moreover, the meteorite that falls upon the house is a flaming yellow and purple; yellow, here, widens out not only to define Asterios’s psychological dimension but the larger uncertainty of all life. Closure, here, occurs as the result of the immortalization of Asterios and Hana’s successful union in death, preventing any possibility that their happiness may be disrupted by the mobility and unpredictability of life. Ironically, it is only in death that the couple are immune from Nietzsche’s fated ‘eternal return’.
The last chapter, however, suggests that the semiotic ambiguity of Mazzucchelli’s colour scheme is not necessarily a bad thing. Stiffly’s son calls the meteorite a shooting star, altering the significance of the meteorite’s fall through his magical outlook. The ending, far from being bleak, leaves us with a sense of promise: destruction serves as the foundation for new beginnings and a new way of looking- this time, from a child’s point-of-view. By the end of the comic, the reader is encouraged to embrace a kind of perspectivism, in which the world is viewed not through the hero’s centralized gaze (epitomized by the portrait of Asterios in the beginning), but from a treehouse, like Stiffly’s boy. Likewise, the seemingly straightforward mythic structure the comic hitherto appears to be built upon is revealed to be one of many angles of looking, leaving the reader to come up with their own permutations of what the events truly mean from their individual ‘treehouse’.
1 I refer to Aristotle’s notion of diegesis, in which events are driven by cause and effect and have a beginning, middle and end. His structure confers a development of character contingent on monumental events pregnant with Fate’s intention; it implies a higher agency that arranges events so as to make all details significant.
2 Heroic narratives work within a pre-determined structure in order to deliver a moral lesson: each event has a clear significance within an overarching rational framework. For example, each event is fated in the Orpheus myth, serving to reveal the consequences of Orpheus’s lack of faith.
3 I suggest that the comic begins at two points. While what I will call the prologue introduces the cosmic drama, the first chapter “Asterios Polyp” introduces the human drama.
4 Yellow and purple are, using art school vocabulary, complimentary colours. This means they are diametrically opposite to each other in the colour wheel. When one shades an object, the use of complimentary colors give depth to form when blended together. The stripping down of Asterios’s reality to these two colours reduces his world to that of form and shadow; he himself will have to provide the semiotic depth to his two-dimensional reality.
5 It is interesting to note that the feminine viewpoint is only depicted in red when the blue/purple ‘male’ colour scheme is used. This suggests the use of ‘red’- and its equation to uncontrollable emotion- only represents one point of view- that of Asterios’s. To the contrary, Hana’s femininity is depicted in earthy tones at the end, revealing how Asterios has shifted from a dualistic viewpoint to a more holistic outlook through the progression of the comic.
6 Moreover, Mazzucchelli’s 4-tone colour scheme was also utilized in popular superhero comics to upset high printing costs. By reusing such a palette and giving it an additional symbolic significance, Mazzuchelli subverts the popular notion that such comics were deprived of intellectual and content. This, perhaps, ties in with his own transition from an artist working for Marvel comics to an auteur. It reconciles his cultural ‘elevation’ by revealing his old work in the Marvel assembly line as more similar to his present work than the reader would expect.
7 I use Brecht’s theatrical term. The distancing effect is “a technique of taking the human social incidents to be portrayed and labeling them as something striking, something that calls for explanation, is not to be taken for granted, not just natural” (Millet 3)
8 This bifurcation occurs on two levels: Asterios’s self is split into that of himself and his twin (the comic works in parallel to this: the narration is in his twin’s voice, while the images and colours represent Asterios’s present state). Likewise, his ego is split from the self that he is, and the self he creates apart from himself in the videotapes.
9 The bifurcation of the narrator’s voice echoes the thematic bifurcation that when the Orpheus and Odysseus myths are conflated. The former myth belongs to the genre of the tragedy wherein human agency is proved fallible due to the capricious whims of the gods; the latter is a Homeric epic in which the hero, through the strength of his will, returns home and is united with his beloved. The melange of these two divergent myths, here, reveals the lack of any structure governing life, subverting the notion that the comic is supposed to deliver to us a moral lesson.
10 Irony is characterized by a disjunction between reality and perception. The form the narrator’s voice, here, reflects a self-reflexive irony, revealing multiple identities beneath the speaking voice.
11 Nietzsche’s theory of the ‘eternal return’ suggests that until a lesson is truly learned on a local or collective level, the event will reoccur again and again until it is integrated. Nietzsche’s theory is also tied up with amor fatis or love of one’s fate. Nietzsche challenges the underlining intent beneath all of our actions: if we were to live an infinite amount of times, would we be able to make the same decisions with a clear conscience?
Béla Balázs, “The Close-Up and The Face of Man,” The Visual Turn: Classical Film Theory and Art History, ed. Angela Dalle Vacche (New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2008), 117-126. Print.
Mitchell, W.J.T. “Beyond Comparison.” The Comics Studies Reader. Eds. Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2009. 116-23. Print.
Mazzucchelli, David. Asterios Polyp. New York: Pantheon Books, 2009. Print.
Nietzsche, Friedrich, and Walter Arnold Kaufmann. Basic writings of Nietzsche. New York: The Modern Library, 2000. Print.
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