Substrata is a collaboration that sees two generations of UK indie comics coming together as stalwart of the British small press scene Sean Azzopardi teams up with Olivia Sullivan, undoubtedly one of the most important new talents in alt/art comics practice and a boundary-pushing voice. Published under Douglas Noble’s Strip for Me imprint it’s an experimental zine that is as fascinating for the ambiguity of its creative process as it is for its haunting subject matter.
Written by Sullivan, with art from both creators (including a cover by Azzopardi), Substrata employs Sullivan’s by now recognisable stream-of-consciousness approach to something bordering on visual poetry, while also reminding me of some of Azzopardi’s unconventional takes on collaborative narrative construction alongside Douglas Noble.
What’s different here to some of Sullivan’s more recent work is that we’re given a more direct summary of Substrata’s themes as a starting point. On short comics like Muscle Memory, Escapades and Present. Tense Sullivan has left meaning to the reader’s interpretation, placing as much importance on the individual’s interaction with the page as with ultimate authorial intent. It’s made for an intriguing experience, with subsequent re-readings throwing up different reactions and redefining our perceptions of our relationship with the page.
With Substrata, though, we’re told from the start from the comic’s summary online that it’s “a visual diary of an unknown narrator attempting to understand the underlying nature of their mind by re-playing dreams, misinformation and fragments of conversations with people that linger and cause unease.” This foreknowledge changes our connection with events on the page in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, placing an emphasis on applying that information to the dizzying array of fragmented text and abstract imagery here rather than creating our own narratives in the way we may have done from some of Sullivan’s other recent work.
Substrata is drifting and oblique, and yet simultaneously somehow immediate and direct. Lingering but shrouded truths sit just below its surface, niggling us with their hazy familiarity as the unseen narrator’s reflections and fears oppress and engulf them. It’s a journey of not so much self-discovery as self-analysis; a dive into the psyche as that central voice seeks to comprehend the workings of their thought processes and interactions with the world.
For the UK small press aficionados there will no doubt be further interest to be found in unpicking the visual components, and considering how Azzopardi and Sullivan’s styles heighten the intensity of the piece. It’s the kind of experimental practice that obviously won’t appeal to readers looking for a distracting comfort read but for those who like their comics/graphic narrative to challenge their preconceptions of what the form can do this is a highly recommended offering.
Review by Andy Oliver