Asterios Polyps, Simultaneity, and Subjective Readings of Comics

Because they are bound codexes or digital texts instead of a moving picture, like a film, TV show, or video game cut scene, comics have almost unlimited rereading potential for almost unlimited meanings. For the most part, reading a comic again introduces new nuances and details ranging from the mundane (seeing the 10th Doctor in the background of a Buffy Season Eight panel) to the important (all the twins in Asterios’ room as a boy). And after reading a page, one can go back and see how it fits in with the last panel on the last page or even further back. And no two readers will have the same idea of what goes in the gutters between panels. This subjectivity increases once you add in the context and competency of individual readers. For example, most readers will know about the Orpheus myth, but many will not know about the Greek modes in the scene where Asterios, Hana, and Willy visit the experimental composer Kalvin Kohoutek. This added or lack of knowledge is part of the subjective experience of reading comics along with things, like whether this is first reading or rereading. I think that Kalvin Kohoutek’s ideas about art and music correspond nicely with the idea of the subjective experience of comics reading.

Despite Asterios’ strict adherence to duality (rhythm and melody in the case of music), Kalvin eagerly explains his new take on the Orpheus (Underground) symphony, which involves layers of music playing at the same time. This will create an effect where listeners will listen to different parts of the layers creating a unique, individual listening experience. This type of experience can also be replicated in comics. For example, the pages that show Hana going through her day can be read in a variety of ways depending on the reader. Even if you read the panels in the same order, you can get something different out of the story. For example, I just noticed that when Kalvin is talking about his symphony, he doesn’t get his own panel, but is boxed in between Willy and Asterios’ square panels. This shows how he is marginalized in the conversation even though he is the only composer in the group. There is an added layer of pathos in a rereading because Kalvin broke his leg marching in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. This rereading places Willy and Asterios on the same level because they both stand off to the side and make pretentious comments while this heroic artist has to pick up everything by himself.  A re-reading and re-examination of the art and panel layout of a comic can reveal some hidden things about characters. Mazzuchelli’s art and colors has this effect in Asterios Polyp, which requires multiple rereadings to understand the hidden layers and theories in his comic.

Finally, Kalvin’s idea of “simultaneity” (which he applies to his music) can apply to the subjective reading of comics as well. When you open a comic (unless it’s a splash page), there are a variety of little panels crying out to be read. You know that you have to read left to right, but what panel or images catches your eye first. If the page has a lot of text or panels, do you worry about being able to process everything? One of the best comics that shows this “simultaneity” effect other than Asterios Polyp is The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, which uses small TV screen panels to give a context of what is going on in this dystopian world. You have to remember what’s going on with Batman, Carrie Kelly, the Mutant gang, various supervillains, the US government etc. Reading a comic book is a great balancing act, especially if it is a large graphic novel, like Asterios Polyps or Fun Home, or a long running title, like The Walking Dead, Fables, or the 900+ issues of pre-New 52 Action Comics. However, each time you read or reread your favorite comic, you get a unique experience in a similar manner as listening to Kalvin’s multi-layered, polyphonic Orpheus symphony.