Recently I've really been getting into comics and graphic novels. They're interrelated genres that one sees bits of in places like the New Yorker or the editorial page of the NYTimes, but it's quite a different thing to sit down and read a whole one by itself.
I think some fiction readers view comics as either universally lightweight (like the Sunday supplements), or as overwrought kids' stuff. Of course, neither is remotely true, though the genre is different from prose fiction. The distinction between a novel and a comic is sort of like that between a stage play and an opera. There's more room for dialogue, description, just sheer words in a stage play than in an opera. In an opera the music takes over much of the deep emotional and narrative function of language, so enormous stories like Wagner's Ring Cycle can work brilliantly on the opera stage, while they would be unwatchable as plays.
In the same way the drawings of comics allow much more information to be got across much more quickly by eye, so comics are denser and usually therefore shorter than equivalent books. Often as a result comics appear overwrought, since stories tend to develop quicker than they would in prose.
At any rate, my topic today is a graphic novel written by David Mazzucchelli, a guy with a background in comics. (Back in the 80s he illustrated Frank Miller's excellent Batman: Year One). It's certainly one of the best books I've read all year, written in a way that should be approachable to an enormous number of potential readers. I'm talking about Asterios Polyp.
It's not superheroes or SF, that's for sure. It does, however, have elements of fantasy and particularly of Greek myth. It's the story of an arrogant professor of architecture and his failed marriage to a young artist. But it's also a story of redemption, following something like the time-worn hero's journey of self recognition and change.
I say the theme is time-worn, but the treatment is fresh, interesting and lively.
It's also gorgeously drawn. Apparently Mazzucchelli worked ten years on the project, and it shows in the artwork as well as the depth of characterization. Each person is given his or her own visual style, and even his or her own font, to help reveal personalities.
I can't recommend this book highly enough. And thanks to the folks at Midtown Comics who recommended it. I can see why they've had trouble keeping them in stock.