Best Of British: Sean Azzopardi’s 50

by Richard Bruton

Oh, the end of the year, a time for relaxing, eating too much, drinking too much… and catching up with many, many comics I really meant to read but managed, terribly, not to get around to until now. However, it’s now, officially, catch-up time.

First up, something from one of my favourite Brit self-publishers, Sean Azzopardi. You might, just might have heard of him before, perhaps through his self-published works, or his collaboration with Daniel Merlin-Goodbrey, the monster/spy mashup series, Necessary Monsters, maybe his back-up in an issue of Phonogram Volume 2. But, if you’ve never heard of him before, welcome, you’re in for a treat.

This is 50, a melancholic celebration of sorts, published by Azzopardi around his 50th birthday. Although, perhaps celebration is the wrong descriptor of this…

I guess it started with a missing teenager and ended with a dead father. This is a record of the twenty-six years in-between.

That should give you a feel for the work. It’s a reflection on time’s past, on mistakes, decisions made, and not made, on relationships, family, friends, and a deliberation on Azzopardi’s life to this point. As with many of us, he’s prone to looking back with a certain amount of regret, at things not done, at the drift of his life.

Composed of eight tales, connected through time and characters, with Azzopardi narrating, 50 has that sense we all might get at times, that we’re mere observers in the world and in our lives. But, it never veers into maudlin, this is effective, beautifully observed melancholia, complete with some of Azzopardi’s most evocative and impressive artwork to date. Most of the pages are double spreads, with the artwork often without panels, and without need of them, as Azzopardi guides our eye with movement of his characters, or the perfect arrangement of speech bubbles.

The opener, Life After Death, tells of that missing teen, possibly a friend of Azzopardi, we’re never quite sure. But, what it does do is introduce the idea that the work, across all the stories, will shift forward and back in time, revisiting those milestones in his life. But, like many of us find, the milestones we remember might not be, on reflection, the things often considered important by others. No, instead, Azzopardi nails the actual experience of memory here, with seemingly unconnected events all building into a picture of his life. It’s a drifting thing, much as Azzopardi considers his life to be…

Places and people would drift in and out,
Life would keep re-shaping.

So, we see young Azzopardi moving around London, in and out of jobs, in and out of housing, falling foul of the benefits system, ending up in squats. He’s drinking too much, partying too much. It all gives a picture of a man slowing falling into a crisis. But, there are moments of sheer, glorious, youthful joy. And never more so than a moment in a club, almost the pivoting moment of the entire book, an ending of youth, the shift to the next phase. But, on that night, Azzopardi absolutely nails the sense of elation, a drug-fuelled near religious experience, the ascension through chemicals…

You know what makes that page? It’s the bubbles, just enough to make you realise there’s something going on, a perfect artistic choice, not over-doing it. And then we reach the end, to his father’s death and a funeral he has no desire to go to. Despite himself, he goes, more for his sister than anything else. A broken relationship is the key, those final words spoken a decade and more ago, angry words, that match the angry abusive nature of his father. There’s a cathartic sense about this ending, as Azzopardi closes his tale, moving on, past 50.

50 is a moving, evocative thing, something that builds in the reading, makes you think, makes you reflect for yourself. It’s an excellent piece of storytelling, a wonderful case of an artist developing and finding release.

50, written and drawn by Sean Azzopardi. Available from his website.

You can also find more of Azzopardi’s work, including The Voice Of The Hall, his graphic novel alternate history of Hornsey Town Hall, narrated by the building.

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