The term "graphic novel" is a misnomer for many reasons. Besides the fact that some of the best examples of the form, like Maus and Palestine, aren't even fiction and so therefore can't technically be called novels, the term also sounds condescending, like a politically correct sop to a medium that can't quite muster the intelligence and artistic weight of a real novel. Even worse, it's inexact: "Graphic novels" are almost never novels. They are ordinarily short stories (Dan Clowes's Ghost World has about as much weight and narrative thrust as one of Salinger's Nine Stories, but we're supposed to compare it with The Catcher in the Rye?) or, at most, novellas (even Craig Thompson's enormous romance, Blankets, reads too quickly, like a prose book a fifth of its size).
Until this month, the only American comic book that successfully achieved the depth and complexity of a novel was Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. Now, David Mazzucchelli's beautiful new novel, Asterios Polyp, is a second book to place on that shelf. If Ware is a Dickensian author, dutifully sketching in every square inch of every page with idiosyncrasy, Mazzucchelli is pure Dostoevsky, an interior-minded writer of huge ideas.
When we first meet Asterios Polyp, he is sitting in a New York apartment on his 50th birthday, apparently watching pornography. A lightning bolt strikes the building ("KKLAPP!"), and Polyp only has time to grab a few personal effects—a Zippo lighter, a watch, and a Swiss Army Knife—before he runs to the street to watch his entire life turn to black smoke. We learn about Polyp (he's a renowned professor of architecture admired for his artful building designs, none of which have actually been built), and we watch him as he drifts away from the city and begins a new life as an auto mechanic in a small town named Apogee.
It's impossible to describe the story without praising Mazzucchelli's art: He uses color, text, and innovative page layouts with mod flourishes to push the story forward and backward in time. Polyp and several other characters, most notably his nemesis, choreographer Willy Illium, are usually viewed, Dick Tracy–like, in profile, to indicate their single-minded view of the world. Mazzucchelli illustrates concepts with the natural ease that other masters of the form use to draw action: A conversation about duality is as engaging and dynamic as any epic Jack Kirby superhero battle (even as the narrator notes that duality "is best suited to children's stories, or comic books"), and a dream sequence about the Orpheus myth—Polyp bursts with references to art and literature, from Calvino to Aristophanes to Rothko to Mies to Francis of Assisi—is drawn in a primal, scratchboard style that brings the raw emotional center of the book right up to the surface for one melodramatic moment.
Polyp reportedly took 10 years to make, and the book is so layered with bold artistic choices that it will create students as much as readers. Why does a rearview mirror block Polyp's eyes in the scene where his (future ex-) wife asks him if he'll look after her when she's old? Is the narrator—Polyp's twin brother, who died in the womb—completely unreliable? The more you study Polyp, the more there is to discover. This is a book that stands with works by Updike, Roth, and other giants of American literature. It is undoubtedly one of the best novels of the year.