The autobiographical works of Sean Azzopardi recently found a new “home” under the banner imprint of Life’s a Party. One of the UK’s greatest, yet still criminally underappreciated, proponents of autobio/slice-of-life comics, Azzopardi’s output in terms of both comics material and wider, socially active art projects has been prolific in recent times. Before we embark on today’s review of Once There Was Dancing it’s also worth checking out our recent interview with Azzopardi, conducted as part of Broken Frontier’s 20th anniversary celebrations.
There have been a couple of recurring themes that have been running through Azzopardi’s work in recent years, with the kind of uncompromising candour we have come to expect from his practice. The first has been a wistful series of reflections on getting older, our connection with the past, and how it has shaped us. The second has been his relationship with alcohol. Both of which are central to the ruminations of Once There Was Dancing.
In these 40 or so pages Azzopardi jumps backwards and forwards in time from a trip to Hull (in the North of England for our non-Brit readers) in the mid-1980s, to his time in London running an indie club night in a Covent Garden bar in the late ‘90s, through to his new life having moved to Hull a few years ago. Azzopardi juxtaposes those club experiences, where alcohol became a debilitating factor on many levels in his life, with events a quarter of a century later. In that latter narrative a Gosh! Comics signing of his work leads to an evening of intoxicated revelry in London, and Azzopardi subsequently finds himself stranded miles from home in the early hours of the morning after missing the last train back to Hull.
Once There Was Dancing is another clever take on coming to terms with the ageing process, with that title phrase echoing through the comic from its mid-Eighties scene into the present day. As has become so crucial to his communication of the motifs of his tales of late Azzopardi is at his most effective when he brings in those powerful moments of visual metaphor to hammer home the reality of his experiences. In this case a particularly intense sequence where beer becomes an overwhelming sea of wild abandon engulfing him, and time itself takes on an uncaring, anthropomorphised presence as alcohol entrenches itself in his life with seemingly unshakeable roots.
It’s here that raw honesty of Azzopardi’s work shines. There’s a certain knowing acceptance of his own foibles and the idea that he is getting too old to live like this, but with an inevitable realisation that he will keep on making those same mistakes to at least some degree. Once There Was Dancing is Azzopardi showing a toleration of his own self-destructive impulses without actually embracing them; a sense of self-deprecation without self-pity. It’s pure Sean A work; both familiar and yet still providing the reader with new food for thought.
Sean Azzopardi (W/A) • Phatcomics, £6.00
Review by Andy Oliver