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Origins of a Style: David Mazzucchelli’s “The Boy Who Loved Comics”

I have a terrible confession to make. Somehow, even after spending a year writing my thesis on David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp, I overlooked a crucial point in his development as an artist. In my thesis, I outline Mazzucchelli’s artistic evolution. He goes from his great successes in mainstream comics with Batman: Year One and Daredevil: Born Again to experimental art comics in his own comics magazine Rubber Blanket. While working on this, he also collaborated with Paul Karaski on an adaptation of Paul Auster’s City of Glass.

“The Boy Who Loved Comics” was first published in The Comics Journal Special #1 in 2001 and then was republished in 2006 in An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, & True Stories. I’ll admit it; I wasn’t looking for Mazzucchelli’s work when I bought the anthology. I just happened to find it at Half Price Books a while ago. So you can imagine my surprise when I found it while I was flipping through the books pages. The art is so distinct; I didn’t need to check the name to know who had made it. “The Boy Who Loved Comics” is remarkable because, even though it was published eight years earlier, it possesses many of the distinct stylistic and thematic elements of Asterios Polyp.

the boy who loved comics page 1

the boy who loved comics page 2

Page Layout

While some artists, such as Chris Ware, design pages that are filled to the brim with boxes and arrows, Mazzucchelli lets his pages breath. In “The Boy Who Loved Comics” he plays with the open page layouts that became a trademark of his graphic novel. His panels hang on the surface of the page like paintings in an exhibition. Mazzucchelli has made a few extended trips to Japan and it’s easy to see how the country’s art has influenced his approach to page layout. A common concept in Japanese art, in disciplines such as ikebana or calligraphy, is the idea that the space around an art form should be just as aesthetically pleasing as the art form itself (Hana even mentions this in Asterios Polyp when she discusses her approach to sculpture). Furthermore, Mazzucchelli includes paneled images and images lacking frames, which creates a nice rhythm while reading the pages.

Coloring

Cyan and magenta, the main colors used in Asterios Polyp, take center stage in “The Boy Who Loved Comics.” However, instead of using these colors to distinguish the character’s personalities as he does in his graphic novel, Mazzucchelli uses them to define the boundary between two worlds. The boy resides in a world made up of cyan, magenta, and yellow, while his creation, the girl with the cat mask, lives in a world of black ink on white paper. After establishing this division, Mazzucchelli breaks this boundary on the second page. The black ink invades the boy’s world. It rains down on him and an overturned inkwell eventually engulfs him. This technique of utilizing color to symbolically overlapping two worlds is reminiscent of the moment in Asterios Polyp when Asterios and Hana’s perceptions of the world intersect with one another.

Asterios and Hana Meet

Themes

Another important similarity to Asterios Polyp, “The Boy Who Loved Comics” has elements of meta-art. The story is essentially about an artist’s obsession with his work and how it completely takes over his life in the end. Mazzucchelli is definitely this type of artist. He worked on Asterios Polyp for nearly a decade. When you think about it, that’s both amazing and a little scary. I also find this line significant: “He invented his own characters and made up stories about them.” This was the creativity Mazzucchelli was seeking. After working in the mainstream comics industry, he wanted to leave superheroes behind and create comics where he could be both writer and cartoonist.

It’s amazing how a two-page comic contains many of the elements of a graphic novel that won’t be released for another eight years. “The Boy Who Loved Comics” stands as a testament to the amount of artistic meditation Mazzucchelli put into Asterios Polyp, his masterpiece.

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