Control Freak

In S/Z, Roland Barthes distinguishes between readerly and writerly texts. Roughly, the former are texts that have been carefully wrought by an author to convey certain ideas, emotions, or experiences to a reader; they’re essentially self-contained objects. The latter, while not necessarily any less well-wrought, are more heteroglossial, fragmented, or even incomplete, offering readers numerous points of entry and inviting them to participate in the text’s creation.

I would hesitate to hold too tightly to these categories if only because, as Barthes and other post-structuralists were only too aware, each side relies on its opposite for identity, so if one looks too closely at the opposition, the whole things starts to shake apart like the car in the Buster Keaton movie that disintegrates beneath Keaton as he speeds in it down the road, but where he gracefully rode it to the ground as it came apart, we would wipe out trying to keep the rattlebox together. Still, I think Barthes’ categories can be useful tools to begin a conversation about a text, as long as one acknowledges that they’re provisional.

Barthes seemed to prefer writerly texts—I’m drawn to them myself—but most texts, like this essay, tend to be readerly. And while they too can afford great pleasure for readers, some go overboard, bullying readers into interpretive positions, alienating them precisely when they struggle most to move them. An egregious example of this can be found toward the end of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, when Oskar Schindler is given a gold ring by a group of Jews who survived the Holocaust because of him, and he launches into a melodramatic speech that is underscored with maudlin music and ends with a group hug, a scene that put me off in direct proportion to the effort it made trying to make me cry, ironically revealing Spielberg’s uncertainty about how to handle such powerful material.

Though he doesn’t go to such extremes, I think that David Mazzucchelli engages in a similar kind of excess in his ambitious graphic novel Asterios Polyp. There is much to enjoy in the book. It’s wonderfully drawn, features some engagingly eccentric secondary characters (New Age “shaman” Ursula Major and the egomaniacal choreographer Willy Ilium come immediately to mind), includes witty and intelligent dialogue, and employs clever visual devices like the color schemes of the chapters to help organize material that moves back and forth across time periods and levels of reality.

Unfortunately, it is Mazzucchelli’s facility with these visual devices that causes some of the book’s problems. For example, the plot focuses on Asterios Polyp, a self-centered yet brilliant architect who is trying to get over his divorce from sculptor Hana Sonnenschein. When the book depicts scenes from their marriage, which are all flashbacks since the novel opens after the divorce, the color scheme is magenta, cyan, and purple. This color scheme becomes significant when Asterios and his wife fight. In those moments, Asterios is limned in cyan (blue), while Hana is magenta (pink), suggesting a gulf between them that is rooted in gender.

As if the colors weren’t enough, Mazzucchelli pushes that implication further with other visual cues. While Asterios’s head is usually drawn with several sharp corners, giving it an angular look that reflects his rationalist personae, Hana has a softer, sloping outline suggesting her more emotional, intuitive nature. As with the color coding, those distinctions are amplified during their disputes. Aterios distills into line drawings of three-dimensional shapes hanging loosely together as if he’s an articulated puppet, making him resemble a technical drawing or a blueprint in reverse. And Hana is rendered in a lush pen-and-ink style that is shaded with intricate crosshatching, lending her a warm three-dimensionality that is imbued with emotion. These moments, while technically wonderful, seem unnecessary and get in the way of the story. In fact, because the overall arc of the plot is somewhat familiar, they tend to simplify the story at those points where it could have used more mystery and nuance.

Asterios Polyp is an admirable graphic novel, but as with the more complex stories that Mazzucchelli published in his comic book Rubber Blanket, it doesn’t quite succeed at what it set out to do, which may be due in part to just how much that is. I look forward to reading more of Mazzucchelli’s work, but I hope that he figures out how to rein in his ingenious, structural imagination, harnessing it more effectively to meet the needs of the story rather than trying to control them, and inviting his readers not merely to gaze at the waking dreams that are his comics but to dream along with him.

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