Mazzucchelli on behalf of Asterios (or Ignazio in abstentia) asks in words and graphics whether dividing lives into dualities and opposites is simply easier for than accepting "a sphere of possibilities." As Asterios states as he bends his head over his cigarettes, which are an unusual addiction for such a structured person, "It's just a convenient organizing principle." "As long as one doesn't mistake the system for reality," answers Ignazio. Although Asterios believes that he can handle the human tendency to simplify and sever, it is this division that breaks his emotional attachment with Hana, causing their relationship to dry up with neglect and boredom.
The scenes of disharmony between Hana and Asterios are text- and graphic-filled and colorful and morphing. In exaggerated graphics that portray how each person is thinking, Mazzuchelli shows how individuals build walls around themselves and become introverted as they are placed on the defensive and dealing with personal conflict and pain. Differences between the two are scattered throughout the book. Where Asterios sees two shapes, blocks laid out next to each other, looking like two tall towers, Hana sees three, or both the right and left blocks and the negative space that simultaneously divides and joins them. When he draws into himself Asterios turns into an architectural drawing in crisp blueline, Hana instead turns into a rounded spatial lines defined in red-magenta.
In one particularly emotional scene, Hana and Asterios are in bed when Asterios reveals that he has been taping everything in his apartment, as befits his structural, mechanical self. This video "doppelganger" makes him feel like he is not alone, "it's comforting to know they're there, in the next room." Asterios explains how he always knew something was different about himself, perhaps something wrong. He felt isolated, as if he were not there at all. Yet, he always felt something was with him. Then, when he was a teenager, he learned about his twin and it made sense. This should have eased his mind, says Asterios, but instead, the older he became, the more haunted he felt. In this scene Hana starts as bright pink as she tries to understand what he is saying, but then changes over to purple as she truly realizes the ramifications of this act. The two figures become separated not only by color and construct but also by the lines of the panels. Their communication is first disjointed and then builds to being broken.
Then, however, on the next page, the action is reversed. Hana remains purple, but her hand reaches out to Asterios and the two curl up as one on the bed. Hana seeks refuge in the stories of the Egyptian tombs or of the first Chinese emperor with the rows of clay soldiers, like a shadow of the living world. Yet, even as they lay together after Hana's acceptance, the visual, without Hana's normally representative red, shows how two people intertwined can still feel alone and isolated together as one, but still not as one Graphically, each character's voice is distinctly written and varied to match their individual personalities. This is accentuated in the scenes of turmoil between Asterios and Hana, where their appearances transform into their most basic character traits and demonstrate the difference between them.
As is the case in many marriages, the isolation between Asterios and Hana becomes greater as the couple lives together longer and the "honeymoon" comes to an end. In one six-page sequence, the mundane trivialities of married life, although heartwarming when thought of in flashbacks by Asterios, are drawn one after another. In different sizes and angles, Hana brushes her teeth and bends over to zip up her dress and a single hair sticks curls up on a bar of soap. The rectangles come closer and closer together as the thoughts come faster and faster across the page. As the sequence continues, the rectangles fill up the page at what feels like an increasingly rapid pace: Hana flossing, waving away cigarette smoke, applying lipstick, farting, bathing, throwing up in the toilet, popping a pimple
It is in Apogee, "apology," that Asterios finds redemption. Away from his earlier life and faced with a loving family who are well grounded in the here and now, he begins to see another side of existence. His scholarly mind, which only used words and never constructed anything but sentences, quickly uses its intelligence to shift into the mechanical world of automobiles and trucks. As he gets to know the family, a close-knit mother, father and son, he helps out with another major development -- the first building he has ever constructed -- a tree house, made with his own hands along with Stiff.
When explaining his relationship with Hana to Stiff, Asterios compares it to the theory of Aristophane who said, "Mankind, judging by their neglect of him, have never at all understood the power of Love." Aristophane contested that if humans had understood him they would have constructed elaborate temples and altars and offered solemn sacrifices in his honor. He attempted to describe his power and to instruct everyone else what he hoped for them to learn. He spoke first of the nature of man and what had become of it and the changing form of human nature and relationships. Originally, the sexes were three in number: Man, woman, and the union of the two. There was a special form, with a bodily shape and a name of its own, created by the union of the two genders. However, only the word "androgynous" remains, and only as a term of censure. Says Asterios to his brother: "Aristophanes would have probably seen in us the vindication of his purported theory. By consolidating our individual designs, we erected an edifice of eloquent equilibrium, but it turned out that reality, as I perceived it, was simply an extension of myself."
Yet, it was Ursula who surprisingly had the most down-to-earth advice. "The mistake most people make is that they look at the wrong things," she explains. Somehow humans have lost touch with the things around them and had to invent new words. For example, Stiff has a good nose for people. Actually, she explains, people are not that difficult to figure out. It is just best to ignore what they say and watch what they do. Ursula tells Asterios she sees the sadness in him, despite all his talk, and recognizes that he has suffered a great loss and is trying to run away from it. The scenes at Apogee are bright and cheerful, in yellows. As soon as Asterio walks into their home, he is confronted by a typical family look, with scattered toys and messes here and there. The structure is lacking, until he is taken to his new room, which, as Ursula explains, "is the "Most auspicious arrangement with a I could come up with, so I advise you not to move anything." The room is complete with dream catchers, upside down tables, and burned candles. Here is everything that Asterios has always been against, including the talk of shamans, astrology and rebirth.
Another main theme in this book is the Odyssey, or "Ithaca," where Asterios taught. Asterios' trip away from Hana is similar to Odysseus's journey in several ways. As Asterios searches for answers, he heads into the netherworld. To attain absolution, he must turn into Orpheus, the play on which Hana is assisting, and rescue Eurydice from the grips of Hades. This very graphic, but dark scene that continues for several pages, is one of the more interesting in the book. In a downpour of rain, Asterios climbs down the stairs into the flooded subway station and passes by all the one-dimensional people with whom he once chatted at parties. He finally reaches the theater and watches as Orpheus forgets and turns back at Eurydice. Once again, Asterios has thus lost Hana, and he is truly heartbroken.
The book also includes the song of the siren in the form of a seductive student, as well as Ursula Major, a corpulent earth mother who lives in a house surrounded by water, who is part Circe and part Calypso, the goddess who holds Odysseus captive until Zeus allows him to return home. Willy Ilium, or Troy, Asterios' competitor, causes the division with Hana. The bar fight leaves Asterios blind in one eye as the Cyclops. However, the greatest similarity of all is the final return home to see his wife Hana and his final redemption.
Asterios also realizes that his pomposity was misplaced. He may have been a good architect on paper, or even in real life, but he was no Frank Lloyd Wright. Giving up the truth of the one thing that had defined him his only life is more difficult than he ever would have imagined. More than anything, however, Asterios learns that the duality was unified: That he and his twin made up a whole, that Ursula and Stiff did the same, as did he and…