In this column, I feature comic book reviews written by my students at Oxford College of Emory University. Oxford College is a small liberal arts school just outside of Atlanta, Georgia. I challenge students to read and interpret comics because I believe sequential art and visual literacy are essential parts of education at any level (see my Manifesto!). I post the best of my students’ reviews in this column. Today, I am proud to present a review by Damien Cavallo.

Damien Cavallo is a first-year student at Oxford College who is currently studying political science. He was born in raised in Queens, New York, where he enjoys watching college basketball and binging shows on Netflix. Damien’s favorite writers include Vladimir Nabokov and Jon Bois.

Asterios Polyp by David MazzucchelliAsterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli

Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli represents a crowning achievement in the modernist approach to comic book writing. Mazzucchelli does a masterful job of presenting style as plot — every panel and every line is dripping with symbolism and is able to say so much more than what meets the eye.

The story revolves around Asterios Polyp, an architect of towering intellect and colossal ego whose life is upended when his New York apartment goes up in flames. Forced to confront his own existential crisis, Asterios embarks on a journey of self-discovery that takes him to a small town in middle America, reflecting on his past relationships, his career, and his very understanding of reality. However, this is not all we see of Asterios — interspersed throughout the plot are flashbacks to his past, especially regarding his relationship with his ex-wife Hana, to show us how Asterios ended up where he is now.

At the heart of the novel is the disconnect between form and function. Asterios, in his arrogance, does not see any use in anything that does not serve a specific purpose — “anything that is not functional is merely decorative,” in his words. However, in the wake of his house burning down, he is forced to find his place in a world where form is often even more important than function. Mazzucchelli brilliantly translates this theme to his artwork, as each character gets a unique artistic style and color palette to call their own. For example, Asterios is drawn in a cool blue with all sorts of sharp lines and right angles to represent his intellectual rigidity, while Hana is drawn in a much more vibrant and vivid red to represent the passion and emotion that she has and Asterios lacks.

Also at play throughout the novel is a meditation on duality. Asterios is only capable of seeing the world in binaries, to the point where even the book’s unnamed narrator chides him at times. This emphasis on duality is perhaps best explored through his relationship with Hana. Asterios exists as a sort of Apollonian ideal with his focus on rationality and order in both his architecture and in his life; on the other hand, Hana represents the Dionysian side of creativity, as her work as a sculptor is modeled by passion and instinct. This fundamental conflict drives much of the struggles of their relationship and is a major part of the reason that Hana eventually leaves Asterios. However, the focus on dualities does not end there, as binaries and Asterios’s obsession with them expand to every aspect of the book.

Additionally, Mazzucchelli’s artistic prowess is on full display throughout the graphic novel. His use of color, line, and form not only serves the narrative, but also enriches it with layers of symbolism and meaning. Each page is meticulously crafted, with visual motifs and recurring symbols adding depth and resonance to the story. The visual storytelling is innovative and dynamic, with panel layouts and compositions that often mirror Asterios’ shifting perspectives and internal struggles.

Furthermore, “Asterios Polyp” delves into the nature of art and creativity, examining the role of the artist in society and the pursuit of artistic expression as a means of grappling with the complexities of existence. Through Asterios’ interactions with other artists and intellectuals, the graphic novel explores the tension between innovation and tradition, as well as the ways in which art can serve as both a reflection of and a response to the human condition.

One of the most striking aspects of Mazzucchelli’s art is his use of color. The graphic novel is suffused with a rich and at times eclectic palette that shifts and evolves to reflect the emotional tone of each scene. Warm hues dominate moments of introspection and connection, while cooler tones convey a sense of detachment or melancholy. Mazzucchelli’s judicious use of color symbolism adds layers of meaning to the narrative, inviting readers to interpret the visual cues and draw connections between the artwork and the story’s themes. The book’s unique palette also serves to give it a very distinct feel compared to almost every other comic book on the market — you’d be hard pressed to find another book that uses purple in place of black.

Overall, Asterios Polyp is a tour de force of graphic storytelling that rewards multiple readings and deep contemplation. Mazzucchelli’s mastery of both art and narrative elevates the graphic novel form to new heights, creating a work that is not only visually stunning, but also intellectually stimulating and emotionally resonant. It stands as a testament to the power of comics as a medium for exploring complex themes and ideas, cements Mazzucchelli’s place as one of the preeminent talents in the field, and is more than deserving of the five star rating I have given it.


  • Brad Hawley

    BRAD HAWLEY, who's been with us since April 2012, earned his PhD in English from the University of Oregon with areas of specialty in the ethics of literature and rhetoric. Since 1993, he has taught courses on The Beat Generation, 20th-Century Poetry, 20th-Century British Novel, Introduction to Literature, Shakespeare, and Public Speaking, as well as various survey courses in British, American, and World Literature. He currently teaches Crime Fiction, Comics, and academic writing at Oxford College of Emory University where his wife, Dr. Adriane Ivey, also teaches English. They live with their two young children outside of Atlanta, Georgia.

    View all posts