Thursday, July 16, 2009

Annotations for Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli

The main themes in the graphic novel, Asterios Polyp, are those of separation and the search for completion. Much of the visual and narrative images have to do with either separation or the search for a missing element to form a complete unit. As such themes of symmetry, unity and geometry are explored. It is important to note that the story is narrated by Ignazio, Asterios' twin brother who was still-born.

Elements of Greek tragedy play out in this book and there are many references to specific plays and works of art.

As Mazzucchelli does a great job of explaining several points along the way, I am limiting my notes to places where he has not explained what is happening on the page.

Page 3, Panel 1. Exterior of Asterios Polyp’s apartment. It is important to note the symmetry of both the apartment building and the lit windows.

Page 3, Panel 2. Interior of the apartment of Asterios Polyp. This panel will be repeated often throughout the book. It is important to note how this apartment looks now to compare it to the view of the apartment later in the book.

Page 6, Panel 1. This is Asterios Polyp. The name, Asterios, is probably derivative of the word “asterism.” An asterism is a pattern of stars seen in Earth's sky that is not a constellation (such as Ursa Major). Their mostly simple shapes and few stars make these patterns easy to identify (which Asterios Polyp likes), and thus particularly useful to those just learning to orient themselves when viewing the night sky. (

Page 9, panels 2, 4, and 6. In the fire, he takes three things: A watch, a lighter, and a Swiss Army knife. When all his life is crashing down around him and he has to save the most important, those are what he chooses to save. The fact that he chooses three things to grab is a contradiction to his life. He says later he doesn't think in terms of three, when Hana specifically asks him if he could only grab three things in the event of a fire.

Page 17, Panel 1. We can assume from the narration and the picture that Polyp was a tenured professor at Cornell University.

Page 17, Panel 3. Asterios Polyp is left handed. Yes, this is important. I promise.

Page 18. The seated figure of Polyp is reminiscent of classic Greek figures. But, with it raised above his head, it also invokes the divine. He is over-seeing a plane of classic Greek forms, figures and sculptures. The three columns form a sort of timeline of Greek architecture. From furthest to closest (oldest to most recent) there is The Doric column, the oldest and simplest Greek style. It is found on the Parthenon in Athens. This column features fluted sides, a smooth rounded top, and no separate base.

Ionic columns have the scroll-shaped ornaments at the top, which resemble a ram’s horns. The Ionic column rests on a rounded base. Corinthian columns are the most recent of the three classic Greek styles. The tops are shaped like inverted bells. The Tops are also decorated with olive, laurel, or acanthus leaves. Corinthian columns rest on a base similar to that of the Ionic style. ( By his pose and demeanor, we are to assume that Polyp is sitting in judgment of all that is before him. Polyp spends his life judging everything and everyone by how he sees the world. That which does not fit his view of ideal is crap and worthless.

Page 19, Pane 1. Asterios subscribes to the modernist architectural philosophy that form reflects function. Anything that does not serve a purpose is superfluous.

Page 19, Panel 2. Apollonian and Dionysian refers to Apollo and Dionysus of Greek myth. Both are sons of Zeus. “Apollo is the god of the Sun, lightness, music, and poetry, while Dionysus is the god of wine, ecstasy, and intoxication. In the modern literary usage of the concept, the contrast between Apollo and Dionysus symbolizes principles of wholeness versus individualism, light versus darkness, or civilization versus primal nature. The ancient Greeks did not consider the two gods as opposites or rivals.” However, Asterios uses these two to represent opposites. (

Page 20, Panel 1. An introduction to the ordered pairs in Aterios’s life. There are double helix patterns on his bed, two pictures on the wall (one of a set of twins), two pairs of books (two light blue, two darker).

Page 20, panel 1. Asterios has a photographic memory. This too will be important later.

Page 20, panel 2 narration. An introduction to the concept of a lost or missing half in Asterios’s life. His “real” last name was cut in half, leaving only the first five letters.

Page 20, panel 2 narration. Aglia Olio is a play on “Aglio e Olio”, a traditional Italian pasta dish that is associated with home cooking and rustic or poor life. It is made with local, simple ingredients that can be easily found and adapted. This suggests that, while his father was well-educated (and Greek), his mother was perhaps not (and Italian).

This serves as a further metaphor. The Greeks were the educated and philosophical of the two cultures, while the Italians (Romans at the time) were not as educated, but made the most of what they controlled. They adapted the Greek society to their own, incorporating many of the Greek traditions in to their Roman way of life.

Both the Greeks and Romans served as a foundation for our modern, Democratic society, just as Asterios’s parents serve as a foundation for his life.

Page 20, panel 2 narration. Continuing the theme of missing halves, Asterios was born on June 22, 1950, the first day of the second half of the century, thus missing out on the first half.

Page 21, panels 1 - 3. We are introduced to several important pieces of information here. First being that the narration of this story is by Ignazio, Asterios’s dead twin brother. Ignazio, his brother, is probably based on Ignazio Danti, a figure in the renaissance. He was trained in Mathematics and science, but joined the priesthood. He studied cosmography and spent time mapping the heavens and the earth. ( More on him later.

This is also the introduction of the yin and yang as a visual theme. Yin and Yang are often considered opposite forces, but together they keep each other in check and in balance. Without one there cannot be the other. The light fetus and the inverted, dark fetus fulfill the visual of the yin and yang (light and dark, opposite directions) while also filling the philosophical role as well (life and death seeming to be opposites, but actually being intertwined and giving rise to each other). We can look back to Page 19, Panel 2 for another example of this philosophical comparison.

Page 24, Panel 5. The sign reads “Standpipe Siamese”. Siamese twins was a term used for conjoined twins (popularized by Sang and Eng Bunker in the early 1800’s). However, conjoined twins are often separated due to health issues. Asterios is walking without his twin.

Page 25. More examples of pairs in Asterios’ life: two turnstiles, two rats, four sets of stairs (visible), two handrails (visible).

Page 26. Another Yin-Yang reference. Asterios goes under the turnstile, his missing twin goes over.

Page 27. “Splitting me in two with a smile so Euclidean” refers to Euclidean geometry. (For more information see: One bird question mark, seems to be questioning the validity of one bird. One of something contradicts Asterios's world view.

Page 28. We now see 4 birds in front of the train.

Page 35. The lettering drives home the point that Asterios believes that function is all that is important. Asterios’ words are all lettered in “standard comic book” font. It is all capitals with little style. His is stripped bare. Pure function.

Everyone else in the book has a unique and distinct look to their lettering. While both do the work (conveying the message and information) the decorative additions point out the individuality of each character. It is, as the book narrative pointed out, that the perceived reality (how we, the readers, see their spoken words) is merely an extension of the self.

Page 36. Introduction of the archetype for Asterios. This is Asterios stripped to his barest. There are no extra lines or decorations. He is nothing but shapes and angles which, when placed together, form Asterios.

Floating above Asterios are the Five Platonic Solids. Tetrahedron Cube Octahedron Dodecahedron and Icosahedron. “The faces of a Platonic solid are congruent regular polygons, with the same number of faces meeting at each vertex. They have the unique property that the faces, edges and angles of each solid are all congruent.” ( They are the perfect marriage of form and function. The aesthetic beauty and symmetry of the Platonic solids have made them a favorite subject of geometers for thousands of years. They are named for the ancient Greek philosopher Plato who theorized that the classical elements were constructed from the regular solids.

The shapes making up each student form an elegant way to show which students are following his instructions, and which are not.

Page 37, Panel 2. “I’m thinking about adding fenestration to this planar surface…?” Translation: “I am thinking about putting a couple of windows in this wall.”

Page 38. Here we see the lighter he grabbed during the fire.

Page 39, Panel 4. Asterios is imagining himself as Odysseus lashed to the mast of his ship to avoid succumbing to the Siren’s call. This is a double entendre as siren also refers to an alluring female. Panel shape follows very rigid lines until he starts to slip into fantasy.

Page 40. Cleverly clueing the reader into which panels are fantasy and which are reality with the panel shape.

Page 41. Here we see the first use of Mazzucchelli's art showing the differences between Asterios and his future wife, Hana. Red detailed art depicting his wife, where the simple blue outline shows Asterios' perception. This page is also a good place to point out that Mazzucchelli uses different lettering and word balloon for each person talking. This will be pervasive throughout this book, and shows a deeper layer for both personality and how a person sounds.

Page 43. The Parthenon in Greece. The Parthenon was a temple to the Greek goddess Athena (goddess of strategic warfare, wisdom, and heroic endeavor).

Page 45. Here we see the man who later hits Asterios in the head with a bottle sitting next to him.

Pages 49 – 50. The lighter represents his past. It is representative of his father (seen smoking on Page 49, panel 6) and it is the fact that his ex-wife made him give up smoking. But, this is the first thing he gives up. He gives up this token of his past relatively quickly, and to a complete stranger. Why? Because the piece no longer serves a function. He no longer smokes. It no longer contains lighter fluid, so it no longer works. There is no room for sentimentality in a world dictated by function.

Page 50. Apogee is the point at which an object is at its farthest distance from the object around which it is orbiting. So, for Asterios to be in the town of Apogee it is both literally the furthest point away from his life (he asked how far away he could get in the Greyhound station on Page 31, panel 3).

Page 52, panel 7. Stiff Major is an almost sexual innuendo. It is a clue that he almost gets things right. He has plenty of mis-sayings and almost clichés that, in the end, work out as well, if not better than what was supposed to be said.

Page 53, panel 5. Here is that photographic memory coming in to play.

Pages 58 – 61. Introduction of the visual theme for Hana. Hana’s life and influence will be represented in the book through the use of pink.

This is also the first time we see the use of the spotlight as a metaphor for the attention of others. Hana is always standing just outside the spotlight, desperately wanting it to shine on her. However, she is always passed over for one of her four brothers.

Page 63, panel 4 narration. A return to the spotlight metaphor.

Page 63 – 64 note how the pink of Hana is filling the empty form of Asteros, and Asteros is lending form to Hana’s color. It is Yin and Yang. Each completes and supports the other. This also shows how each person's perception is representing a reality for the other person. They're combined perception of self has become reality for both. This is also a very clever technique to show two people clicking.

Page 66, panel 3. Francis of Assisi is the patron saint of animals, the environment and Italy. This is ironic as Asterios has just swatted a mosquito. It is also a slight nod to his Mother’s Italian heritage. We later find out that this is from a conversation between Asterios and Hana.

Page 73, Panel 6. Spotty Drizzle is probably referring to 1998 DK36. On February 14, 1998 this near earth object passed within 0.0006 astronomical units (AU) or roughly 56,000 miles of Earth. (;hmax=all;sort=date;sdir=ASC;tlim=past;dmax=0.05AU;max_rows=500;action=Display%20Table;show=1&from=1000)

Page 79. The panels here represent a stylized yin and yang. It supports the narrative that people are searching for their missing half. Whereas these pieces do not fit together, the yin and yang mesh together perfectly.

Page 79, panel 1. The woman is referring to Richard Nixon.

Page 79, Panel 2. The song is Feelings by the band Gemini. Gemini, in astronomy, is referred to as “The Twins”, and is commonly associated with the myth of Castor and Pollux.

Page 80, panel 1. Asterios is referring to Hana. This is a playful term, referring back to their initial meeting on page 57.

Page 81, panel 6. Thus we see why Asterios asks this question on page 66. The difference is that Hana chooses not to swat the mosquito.

Page 82, panel 3. Isamu Noguchi (November 17, 1904 - December 30, 1988) “was a prominent Japanese American artist and landscape architect whose artistic career spanned six decades, from the 1920s onward. Known for his sculpture and public works, Noguchi also designed stage sets for various Martha Graham productions.” (

Page 83, panel 5. Typo?

Page 86, panel 1. The Uffizi is the oldest art museum in the western world. It is in Florence, Italy. This also highlights that one of the things that attracted Hana to Asterios, was his storytelling and bravado. Now it is appearing to be somewhat of an annoyance.

Page 87. This is the first time we see Asterios’s apartment since page 3, panel 2. Compare. Great use of the windows' reflection to show the other side of the room.

Page 88. We see that improvisation for Asterios is really more a matter of just choosing something different as opposed to creating something new. Also, his perfect memory comes into play again.

Page 91, panel 4. We learn that the movie Asterios was watching at the start of the book was a recording of this night.

Page 94. More twin imagery. In this case, Asterios and Ignazio are represented as Cheng and Eng.

Page 96. Stiff is singing Rock You Like a Hurricane by the Scorpions.

Page 97. Ursula Major is a play on Ursa Major. Ursa Major (the constellation) is useful to individuals in the northern hemisphere for helping travelers find the north star, and thus their direction.

Page 98, panel 5. Cancer, almost a Gemini. Asterios’s last name is polyp. Polyps are growths that are often cancerous. Asterios was also almost a twin. . Gemini, in astronomy, is referred to as “The Twins”.

Page 99. Here we see his two remaining possessions from his former life.

Page 102, panel 1. Gerry is paraphrasing from “On Protracted War" (May 1938).

Page 102, Panel 3. Gerry is paraphrasing from Introductory note to "A Serious Lesson" (1955)

Page 102, panel 3. Asterios is paraphrasing Mao. “The outstanding thing about China's 600 million people is that they are "poor and blank." This may seem a bad thing, but in reality it is a good thing ... On a blank sheet of paper free from any mark, the freshest and most beautiful characters can be written, the freshest and most beautiful pictures can be painted.” — Mao Tse-tung, 1958

Page 104, panel 4 & page 105, panel 1. Ursula claims tobacco is sacred to her people. But then says that these people were from a past life. Ursula is, in fact, Jewish by birth.

Page 105. Again, this panel is meant to contrast with Asterios’ previous living arrangements.

Page 112 – 113. On this page are representations of the periodic table of elements, visual representations of Plato’s concept of the real vs the ideal, and the Fibonacci sequence.

Page 115. In Plato’s Republic, Plato theorizes about a perfect world where everything exists in its ideal state. It is pure marriage of form and function. There is nothing extra. It is all perfect as is and needs nothing more. Asterios takes the philosophical idea to an extreme. If we swept away everything that is decoration we would have the true form of something, or as close as we could produce in our imperfect world. His example: The Essence of Shoeness. Note that he chooses not to wear the shoes first, but chooses them based on their appearance.

Page 116, panel 2. Tearing lettuce causes less browning than cutting with a metal knife. Asterios is a know-it-all who doesn't respect others' opinions. This is in stark contrast to where we see him in conversations with Ursula, later.

Page 118. All of the buildings have symmetry. They are from left to right, the pyramid at Giza, The Parthenon, Japanese Pagoda, Monticello, Notre Dame, the Taj Mahal.

Page 118. Asterios’s designs demonstrate several of the themes of the story. His architectural designs not only offer symmetry, but offer it in the yin-yang motif of asymmetrical individual pieces joining to make a symmetrical whole. The fact that none of his buildings have been constructed is brilliant. Much like Plato’s Republic, the fact that the building exists in the world of Forms or Ideas is enough. Were it to be translated to the “real” world, it would get lost in translation and not live up to the truly ideal “form” building.

Page 120. Mazzacchelli uses a brilliant method to show the linear thinking of Asterios. His thinking is cartesian, which aligns with his shadow and the shadow of the sphere which are 3 dimensional. But are in fact a 2 dimension representation on a page.

Page 123-126. We again see Mazzacchelli using the perception of self to represent reality, where Asterios is in stark blue outline, and Hana is in detailed red shading. On the last page we see the separation of Hana fading as she comes to understand his explanation.

Page 127, Panel 1. Egyptian Pharaos were often entombed with servants who would look after them and serve them in the afterlife.

Page 127, panels 2 & 3. Emperor Shi Huang Di was the first emperor of China. He had a massive terracotta army constructed to watch over him in the afterlife.

Page 127, panel 4. A return to the yin yang theme.

Page 129. The Washington Monument in Washington, DC. It should be noted that, after the previous page’s discussion about monuments and people watching over others, Washington DC is full of monuments to the founding fathers who now watch over thr country.

Page 130. This is a slightly fictionalized representation of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC.

Page 143. St. Francis of Assisi.

Page 147. Asterio’s father is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. The fact that his father has no memory whatsoever must be terrifying for Asterios. since one theory about Alzheimer’s is that it has a genetic component. Asterios has photographic memory, and loves to be able to pull facts out of thin air about a wide variety of topics.

Page 145. We see Hana's dream and it is in the detailed red shading that depicts her identity.

Page 149. A return to the spotlight imagery from pages 58 – 61. This highlights how Asterios steals the "spotlight" from Hana's own creation. A very subtle way to show a relationship problem.

Page 153, Panel 1. These are the same cups from page 49, panel 6.

Page 156, panel 1. Again, compare to earlier visuals of the aprtment.

Page 156, Panel 1. “Tansu has a long history dating back to the Edo period (1603 - 1867), when it was a luxury available only to the richest samurai and noblemen” ( The design is very symmetrical and serves a particular function.

Page 156, panel 3. The curves of the table do not serve a function and are thus decoration. Asterios does not like it.

Page 157, Panel 3. Hana challenges his thinking and introduces something new to his life. She forces him to think in terms of curved lines, colors, form instead of function. She is the one who asks: if you have to take only three objects, what would they be? For Asterios this is preposterous. He does not think in terms of three. He can’t. It is all about duality. Yin and Yang. Right and wrong. But, as we found earlier he would grab the lighter, watch, and the knife.

Page 158. He drives a late seventies/early eightes saab.

Page 169. Asterios gives away his second item that he saved from his old life.

Page 171. “It’s a goy!” Historically and up to modern times goy is a synonym for Gentile or non-Jew.

Page 172, panel 3. Asterios replies negatively to the question about siblings while a shadow/reflection mirrors him in the car window, showing his twin.

Page 174 & 175 Barringer Meteor Crater – Arizona.

Page 176-177. Asterios and Ursula discuss the duality of the world, and Asterios seems to agree that his view may have been short-sighted.

Page 182, panel 1. Willy Ilium is a play on words. Willy is slang for penis, while the ilium is the largest bone in the pelvis. So, basically, this little man is a big dick. Add to that his constant sexual innuendo and the metaphor is complete.

Page 183, panel 1. Asterios is taking credit for something Hana pointed out to him.

Page 184, Panel 1. “Like Wright and Neutra…” Wright refers to Frank Lloyd Wright. (born Frank Lincoln Wright, June 8, 1867 – April 9, 1959) was an American architect, interior designer, writer and educator, who designed more than 1,000 projects, which resulted in more than 500 completed works. (

Neutra refers to Richard Joseph Neutra (April 8, 1892 – April 16, 1970) who is considered one of modernism's most important architects. (

Page 185. Iridium is a metal from the Platinum family

Page 185. Illuminato is a play on illuminati, or enlightened one.

Page 185. The Hip has double meaning here. It is both a nod to his soon-to-be-new name, Iliuim, as well as a slang term for being current or “with it.”

Page 185. Gilgamesh is a legendary King from the ancient civilization of Ur. Gilgamesh is described as two-thirds god and one-third human. In an ironic twist, Gilgamesh is also a character in a comic book (Marvel’s Avengers) who is referred to as “the forgotten one.” The ballet, produced by Willy Gilgamesh is titles “Forget About It.” No telling if Mazzucchelli inserted this as a comic book reference, but Willy Ilium seems to fit the bill.

Page 185. George Balanchine, Jules-Joseph Perrot, Martha Graham, and Twyla Tharp (possible misspelling of her name) were all choreographers and pioneers of modern dance.

Page 185. Chimera is an amalgam of different animals: The head of a lion, the body of a goat, and a tail that ends in the head of a snake. Sighting the Chimera was an omen of storms, shipwrecks, and natural disasters. In more recent times, the name Chimera is used to describe real life entities which were created as amalgams of separate entities in categories such as botany. The term chimera has also come to mean more generally, an impossible or foolish fantasy. (

Page 185, Panel 3. Orpheus (underground) is a bit of a repetition as the majority of the story of Orpheus takes place under ground.

Page 187, Panel 8 echoes what Asterios says to Ursula on page 179.

Page 190. Panel 1. Notice that the furniture and plants which Hana has added to the apartment are colored in her shade of pink.

Page 194, panel 3. Ilium is probably referring to Carl Jung’s Principle of Opposites. In short, the only way we can know anything is by contrast with an opposite. ( Ilium’s point is that we may be assuming that two things are opposites when they are, in fact, not. Ursula Major made a similar statement on page 176. Ignazio also illustrates the point on page 120.

Page 197, panels 1 – 3. An illustration of the difference between the realm of ideals and the real world.

Page 197, panel 5. Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (October 15, 1844 – August 25, 1900). German philosopher who believed that his works were the “deepest ever.” (Nietzsche describing Thus Spoke Zarathustra.)

Page 199. Walt Disney concert hall designed by Frank Ghery.

Pages 200 – 201. On page 125, Polyp talks about how twins separated lead similar lives taking up similar professions and marrying at the same age. In his dreams, Polyp’s brother is an architect as well, but his architecture is based on Frank Ghery ( the design of the building where Polyp visits his brother is based on the Walt Disney concert hall designed by Ghery). The building is full of swoops and curved lines as opposed to polyp’s straight lines and sharp angels. So, while he thinks his brother would have been similar, he sees that his brother would have been more of an opposite or compliment than an exact copy.

Page 202, Panels 2 & 3. Both Barcelona and Milan are famous for their influential works of architecture.

Barcelona, most famously, has buildings by Gaudi.

Milan was the center and foundation of the Renaissance. Earlier in the book, Polyp’s twin notes that Aterios thought that religion made some of the best paintings. The paintings that came out of the Renaissance were both religious and secular. But, some of the most famous, the Last Supper, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel were religious in nature.

Milan also is home to both Renaissance architecture, as well as modern structures that would be more at home with what Asterios likes, such as Torre Velasca.

Page 202. Ignazio is right handed to Asterios’ left handedness. Remember when I said we would revisit Ignazio Danti? Here we go. Due to his mathematical skills, the Pope appointed Ignazio pontifical mathematician and made him a member of the commission for the reform of the calendar (thus we see him writing on a day planner/calendar).

Page 203. The Pritzker Architecture Prize is awarded annually by the Hyatt Foundation to honor "a living architect whose built work demonstrates a combination of those qualities of talent, vision and commitment, which has produced consistent and significant contributions to humanity and the built environment through the art of architecture". The irony is, of course, that Ignazio is dead.

Page 205, panel 2. Frank Lord Wright is, of course, Frank Lloyd Wright. However, he is held in such high regard that the title of Lord might not be all that far fetched.

Page 205, Panel 3. Windows in this wall is a direct reference to page Page 37, Panel 2. “I’m thinking about adding fenestration to this planar surface…?”

Pages 206 – 207 This is the first time that Polyp has been directly involved in any construction. However, he did not design the building, even though Stiff comes to him for help with the design. The building itself conforms to Wright’s philosophy of integrating the structure in to the surrounding environment.

Page 213. Look at the space between the two tulips.

Page 217. “Rothko from a Rockwell.” Mark Rothko, (September 25, 1903–February 25, 1970), was an abstract expressionist painter. Norman Rockwell (February 3, 1894 – November 8, 1978) was a 20th century American painter and illustrator of everyday life scenarios.

Interestingly enough, there is a band named Rothko as well as a keyboardist/R&B singer named Rockwell.

Page 218 Ctirad Kohoutek (born March 18, 1929 in Zábřeh) is a contemporary Czech composer, music theorist, and pedagogue. (

Given that Kalvin Kohoutek does not look terribly Czech, I believe that is what arouses Asterios’s curiosity.

Page 219, panel 3. Modes are scales mapped to specific notes. Locrian starts on a vii, aeolian on an a

Page 221, panels 3 – 6 are a visual representation of what Kohoutek is describing musically.

Page 224, panel 1. A pith helmet is an old timey british exploration helmet, commonly used in WWI.

Page 227, panel 2. On March 7, 1965, known as "Bloody Sunday", approximately 600 civil rights marchers departed Selma on U.S. Highway 80, heading east. They reached the Edmund Pettus Bridge, only six blocks away, before being met by state troopers and local sheriff's deputies, who attacked them, using tear gas and billy clubs, and drove them back to Selma. (,_Alabama#Civil_rights_movement)

Page 232-243. Shows a montage of daily life with a coherent thread stringing through the middle about Hana losing the tip of a ear cleaner and Asterios using the tweezers from the utility knife to retrieve it. This thread culminates with Hana proclaiming she will never buy that pseudo-somebody brand, admitting to Asterios that he was right.

Pages 245 - 265. This section recreates the story of Orpheus with Asterios in the role of Orpheus and Hana in the role of Eurydice. Ilium plays the role of Hades. The story goes like this: “While fleeing from Aristaeus (son of Apollo), Eurydice ran into a nest of snakes which bit her fatally on her heel. Distraught, Orpheus played such sad songs and sang so mournfully that all the nymphs and gods wept. On their advice, Orpheus traveled to the underworld and by his music softened the hearts of Hades and Persephone (he was the only person ever to do so), who agreed to allow Eurydice to return with him to earth on one condition: he should walk in front of her and not look back until they both had reached the upper world. He set off with Eurydice following and in his anxiety as soon as he reached the upper world he turned to look at her, forgetting that both needed to be in the upper world, and she vanished for the second time, but now forever.” (

Note that Orpehus’s (Asterios’s) harp is created from a drafting square.

Page 272: The drummer’s theory is roughly correct. The cells in a person’s body are in a state of constant rejuvenation. It takes between 7 – 10 years for various cells to rejuvenate and replace. This hearkens back to Asterios’s conversation about Ise shrine on page 210.

Page 273: The three coasters hearken back to Asterios saying that he does not think in threes. The fact that Manana is the one who brings it up and then her moment is overrun by Gerry further reflects Asterios’ relationship with Hana.

Page 274-275. A reappearance of the man with Asterios' lighter.

Page 279: Christoph Willibald Gluck's opera Orfeo ed Euridice (1762)

Page 285. Emperor Qin was Chinese and did not die by Seppuku. He wanted to live a long life, so he took pills containing high levels of Mercury. The mercury was supposed to extend his life, but it ended up killing him quicker.

Page 288. Here is the recurring theme about every memory being a recreation, and therefore reality is through a personalized lens.

Page 294. Aristopahnes purported theory is that men and women form two halves of a whole and that the tension between male and female is essential to human life (The Knights). It is often easier to see flaws in ones life from another perspective. Here Asterios sees a recap of his life as Ignozio tells his own life story. Asterios sees his flaws and understands them.

Page 295. Pantheon - The generic term pantheon is now applied to a monument in which illustrious dead are buried. This is of note because Ignazio is speaking as if he is alive, yet the use of the word Pantheon gives a slight nod to the fact that he is aware he never lived.

Pantheon is also the publisher of the graphic novel, Asterios Polyp. So, in truth, he has joined the Pantheon (publishing house).

Page 295. “Sulivan, and Mies, Wright and Gropius-.” Louis Henri Sullivan (September 3, 1856 – April 14, 1924) was an American architect, and has been called the "father of modernism

Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe 1886- 1969 one of the leading figures of modern architecture

Frank Lloyd Wright (born Frank Lincoln Wright, June 8, 1867 – April 9, 1959) was an American architect, interior designer, writer and educator, who designed more than 1,000 projects, which resulted in more than 500 completed works

Walter Gropius - founded "The Architect's Collaborative", a design team that embodied his belief in the value of teamwork.

Page 300. When Asterios says this is a “Creative Challenge,” he is quoting Hana from page 216. It is important to note that he is finally designing and building something.

Page 302. Parallax = depth perception. It is caused by the eyes of a hman being in two different locations on the head, thus giving two views at once The brain interprets the information from both eyes and allows it to see depth. With only one eye providing the information, depth perception is lost.

Page 304-305. He has shown a certain amount of apathy towards animals. This highlights him seeing things from Hana's perspective

Page 322-323. Here we see that Hana has been playing with the five platonic solids in her art, showing that she sees things from his perspective.

Page 324. We see that the only thing he has kept from the fire is the utility knife, which reminds him of Hana. In the end, the only thing of any real function or importance to Asterios is Hana.

Page 327. They tell a story together and Asterios doesn't have to overpower the conversation. The effect of the conversation is masterfully shown by Mazzucchelli by playing with the word balloon tails.

Page 332 – 333: Echoing the story of Orpheus, before our two lovers are reunited, they are lost forever.


  1. Excellent annotations - thanks! Especially nice to see since I just finished the book myself two days ago... I did note one possible correstion though - on pg. 185, I believe the choreographer "Tharpe" refers to Twyla Tharp (and was just possibly spelled incorrectly) instead of Sister Rosetta Tharpe (a hell of a singer and a guitar player, but not much of a dancer, as far as I know).

  2. Thanks for pointing that out. My knowledge of choreographers is terrible at best!!

  3. Hi,

    Thank you for sharing this excellent analysis! I feel like I'm finding new easter eggs and symbolic goodies every time I look through this book, and thanks to your post, I'm seeing plenty more than I would have on my own!

    A few thoughts:

    In addition to the "asterism" link you mention (and "asteroid" maybe?), I took the name "Asterios" to be another play on the (a-)symmetry theme, with the suggestion that Asterios is essentially "anti-stereo" (one-sided) in his world outlook, even if he claims to be otherwise. (see pg. 115, panel 3)

    As suggested by the Yin-Yang imagery throughout (another example of which might be a possible allusion to Hokusai's "Great Wave of Kanagawa" on p.95), he's an isolated half of a stereo pair (lacking Ignazio or Hana).

    The combining form "stereo-" was borrowed from the Greek stereos ("solid"), and is used with reference to hardness, solidity, and three-dimensionality in the formation of compound words. Asterios dreams up three-dimensional structures, but they remain in the realm of ideas. He is not "solid", not "completed" until he turns his attention beyond himself, recognizing himself in others.

    Significantly, maybe, one of the first usages of the word "stereo" by itself was as a shortening of the word "stereotype".

    Following on this...

    Page 267. One-Eyed Jack's Live Music

    A visual restatement of the "one-sided"/"a-stereo" motif. This is sort of the scene where it all comes to a head, if you can forgive the pun...

    Taken as a whole, this section of the book (p.267-275) seems to be a loose retelling of the Cyclops story from the Odyssey, or else a re-retelling of the "Cyclops" chapter in James Joyce's Ulysses. (Pay special attention to the description of the "citizen" here...)

    Joyce and Mazzucchelli's chapters both take place in a crowded "Celtic Skelter" of a pub, full of clashing people and ideas, socio-religio-politico songs and chatter. Both end in physical confrontations between our protagonist and a brash representative of the rabble.

    The twist Mazzucchelli throws in for the reader is that, despite the truculent troglodyte taunting by the restrooms (like the bigoted "citizen" in Ulysses), it is Asterios who ends up being thrust into the role of the cyclops! It is only by losing himself (his "eye" or "I"), ironically, that he truly becomes himself (A-sterios)...and finds his way. (Contrast the unreflected road on p. 289 with the reflected "I" of the Washington monument on p.129)

    Asterios' ego-shattering is shown in the image of him falling out of orbit on p. 282 (Asterios as asteroid), and in the Empire Strikes Back-styled doppleganger dream-battle on pages 289-97.

    Aside: It occurs to me that the three "vampire sisters" in "Celtic Skelter" might be a slight allusion to the traditional three fates of myth who hold the thread of life? Adds something to Stiff's off-hand exhortation that Gerry "Break a string" I think...

    Similarly, I'd speculate that the lyric "Got a square peg, but the hole is round" could hint both at Asterios' world-view (he sees things in straight lines, but his eye is round) and the ancient geometric challenge of "squaring the circle" (this concept is referenced at the end of Ulysses' "Ithaca" chapter in conjunction with the mythic "roc's auk's egg" of The Arabian Nights).

    1. Regarding "stereo". It's also a term used in printing for a type of relief plate formed in a mould. It's the common form of the original word "stereotype". Mazzucchelli is very interested in the processes of printing and indeed his own magazine is called Rubber Blanket, which is a device used to transfer ink from plate to paper in offset printing.

  4. ...

    -Othmar's Eggshells (also listed on poster, p.267)-

    This band's name presumably refers to Linus van Pelt's teacher in the Peanuts comic strip. Linus gives Miss Othmar egg-shells as a wedding present.

    Other significant Othmars, however, include Othmar Keel (a Biblical scholar and symbologist whose studies include the pagan origins of Easter, the eternal feminine and The Song of Songs), Othmar Ammann (Swiss-born American structural engineer, credited with the designs behind many prominent suspension bridges), and Othmar Zeidler (a German chemist credited, in 1874, with first synthesis of the insecticide DDT). (!)

    p.273 - Manana's coaster tower reminds me of the three-legged table Hana brings to Asterios' apartment.

    -Parallax (p.302)-

    This is a conceptual thread woven through the stream-of-consciousness musings in Ulysses as well.

    From a chapter guide online:

    Episode Eight contains Bloom's thoughts of the word parallax. Bloom has problems understanding this word, as Molly had problems with metempsychosis this morning. [Related: note the lyrics in Asterios Polyp p.271 "I'll be born again - and again and again-"...] Parallax is an astronomical term that roughly refers to the way in which an object seems to be positioned differently when viewed from a different vantage point. Though Bloom does not quite understand this concept, it will continue to appear, and it offers a key to one of the ways in which Ulysses works. As the novel continues, our thoughts and opinions about events and people will become continually revised as we hear about the same events and people from a different character—thus Ulysses features three main characters instead of only one.

    See also:

    The combination of astronomical and psychological readings of the word "parallax" matches Ursula's statement on p.106-7 that "What happens in the cosmos is, like, a mirror of your life here on Earth- -If you know how to look at it. That's what the ancient wisdom teaches us."

    "As above, so below" is indeed one of the oldest tenets in the Corpus Hermeticum and ancient mystical systems of belief.

    Ulysses really seems to be a goldmine for background clues on Asterios Polyp (it even has a comet sighting towards the end, before the infamous Molly Bloom soliloquy). It's full of permutations on the flower imagery, romantic rivalries, pocketed totems, aesthetics and ontological speculation, etc.

    Anyway, I think it's really wonderful to see how all this works in the realm of comics! Thanks again!

  5. That's a thorough and valuable set of annotations. Thanks!

  6. I noticed a couple things to add to your marvelous work here.

    Page 20, panel 1: both the pictures on the wall of of twins: Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and Romulus and Remus, the mythical founders of Rome, suckling at a she-wolf. Also, both the books, The Prince and the Pauper and The Man in the Iron Mask, have twin themes.

    Page 30, panel 2: "couple of windows" is the same sentence Stiff says while building the treehouse.

    Page 49-50: I think the three objects are extremely interesting. First, he gives away the lighter, a connection with his father and his history. This act is part of his rebirth, but he does it without care -- and it comes back badly. The second giveaway is the watch, in which he releases his youthful connection to technology and order. That act goes better, and he does it for the right reasons. He keeps the Swiss Army Knofe, and gets to use it at the very end, to open a reconciliatory bottle of wine -- his rebirth is nearly complete.

    On pages 68-69, note how the Majors' house is the stylistic antithesis of Asterios's apartment. Everything is comfortable and decidedly not modern and minimalist. All the art is native art, which reflects Ursula's non-Western, nonrational spirituality. The rearranged bedroom, which he seems to accept gladly, takes their differences to an absurd level, in which even the functional is rendered unfunctional by putting them on their side and upside-down. Asterios is forced to accept this chaotic world as penance for the overly ordered one he left behind.

    Page 74, panel 5: that comet, and this whole discussion, foreshadows the end.

    Page 106, panel 3: "I have trouble with the idea..." again foreshadows the end.

    So much more to add. And so many things I haven't figured out -- like, why are there so many airplanes seen in the backgrounds?

    Thanks again.

    1. I think the airplane represents inspiration from Ignacio as a parallel to dreams or messages from Apollo. Apollo as I understand represents the realm of the mind, of form and inspiration. Asterios believes himself to be a disciple of Apollo, but it is actually Ignacio who exists only as an idealized form. Asterios is truly a disciple of Bacchus (brother of Apollo!) and this is show both with him in the role of Orpheus as well as opening the bottle of wine at the end.

  7. Page 205, Panel 4 and 5. It may seem that Asterios is being condescending with Majors' blueprint, but it embodies all Asterios' ideas about architecture: no decoration, symmetry, similar twin structures making a whole.

  8. So, building another's project, Asterios at last fulfills himself as an architect.

  9. This is great, thanks. Minor typo: Frank Gehry, not Ghery.

  10. James Joyce wore an eye patch as he aged.

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  24. Page 156, panel 3. The curves of the table do not serve a function and are thus decoration. Asterios does not like it.

    The table is very similar to the Noguchi table and a tie-in to Hana's cat

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