Earlier this year UK small press mainstay Sean Azzopardi spoke in length to us at Broken Frontier here about the creative process behind his (then) upcoming autobiographical comic 50 – a project that was put into motion to celebrate the artist’s titular landmark birthday. 50 is another tour through anecdotal vignettes in Azzopardi’s life but this time around the subject matter is, perhaps, far more profound in delivery and more carefully introspective in its attempts to – if not quite make sense of the past – to come to terms with it and accept it.
It’s an oft-repeated piece of advice for self-publishers to avoid producing work in A4 format for the very simple reason that it’s a less appealing size for shops who may only have limited space for small press sections. In the case of 50, however, I’m going to argue that this was entirely the right decision in terms of presentation.
Azzopardi’s layouts have never looked as good as they do in these pages, the extra room giving a far deeper sense of emotional scope to his double-page spreads and space for his art to breathe in the more densely panelled pages.
An Azzopardi comic is, of course, never anything less than bleakly honest in delivery. That’s very much the case in these pages, whether that be in the darkly funny throwaway humour of ‘The Dildo’ (below) – in which a mischievous Azzopardi breaks up the tedious rubbish-collecting routine of his porter’s job by delivering an unlikely found object to his boss – or in exploring his reactions to one of life’s largely inescapable rites of passage.
Indeed, mortality is a theme that bookends the comic from the opening story ‘Life After Death’ through to the concluding shorts that look back on the artist’s reaction to the passing of his own father. In between Azzopardi juxtaposes the present and the past, taking the opportunity to revisit periods of his past when life was perhaps more unsettled and unpredictable.
‘The Swimmer’ begins with a contemporary Sean and with a middle-aged impulse to learn how to swim which acts as introductory metaphor to an examination of points in his younger days where existential drift, and a directionless ebb and flow, saw him move from one temporary residence to another. It’s a tale of angry landlords, squats and kipping on friends’ couches that segues into the aligned story ‘Indydelia’ through the brilliant visual metaphor of the double-page spread below. That latter short also reminding us of the camaraderie of friendships and the connective power of music through more of the evocative double-page spreads that are such a staple of this issue.
A few weeks back I reviewed the most recent edition of Simon Moreton’s zine Minor Leagues which largely concerned itself with Moreton coming to terms with his father’s death earlier this year. The latter pages of 50 focus on the same experience but from a very different perspective, looking back on Azzopardi’s father’s passing from a slightly later point in time and in the context of his fractious relationship with his parent.
Just like Moreton’s account it’s an honest – brutally candid even – and raw portrayal of events but polarised comparativelu in terms of the father-son dynamic. There is a moment leading into this sequence of oddly disengaged metaphor that both impacts on the reader and yet provides an appropriate air of thematic disconnection as well, mirroring the gulf between father and son.
But it’s his account on the day of the funeral of his reflections on his final confrontational meeting with his father (some fifteen years previously) alongside a final funeral service message (“Even in death he still managed a few sickly false words”) that will perhaps connect the most with readers in its depiction of the irreparable and the irreversible. It reads not so much as an exercise in catharsis as in one of compartmentalising the past and it’s all the more potent a piece of storytelling for that.
I’m sure I have said this more or less every time that I have reviewed one of his comics over the last five years or so but when it comes to pure visual storytelling 50 is Sean Azzopardi’s most assured and accomplished comic to date. His inspired use of nine-panel and six-panel grids to showcase individual images invites the reader to dwell longer on their environs and appreciate more fully their significance to the narrative while his expressive visual characterisation perfectly complements the uncompromising nature of his narration.
As we reach the final two pages we encounter a Sean ready to embark on a new adventure, having given up the day job to concentrate on his art. And yet even here the symbolism of 50 weaves itself in and out of panels, echoing the past, underlining that we are all subject to life’s caprices, exposing the illusion of control and the dual myths of direction and purpose.
Next year sees Sean Azzopardi moving away from autobio work as his major graphic novel project The Voice of the Hall – alluded to in 50 – is published by Soaring Penguin Press. Given that development this may well be the last autobiographical comic we see from him for some time. Don’t miss out on it because this is prime Azzopardi at the absolute top of his game. Without a doubt, one of the standout graphic memoirs of 2017 so far.
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