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Sean's Show: Chatting with Azzopardi

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Small Pressganged is Broken Frontier’s weekly column designed to shine a spotlight on the often overlooked world of small press and self-published comics. Every seven days we’ll be providing a mix of review round-ups of the best of current small press comics and spot interviews with some of the movers and shakers of the scene.

This week I’m chatting to that splendid British small press stalwart writer/artist Sean Azzopardi. Sean’s body of work ranges from his distinctive autobiographical comics that deal with the frustrations and minutiae of the daily grind, through to memorable collaborations with the likes of writer Douglas Noble on the macabre urban horror comics Built of Blood and Bricks and Sightings of Wallace Sendek. After our interview I'll also be taking a quick look at Sean's latest project Eight Tablet Dream with a short review.

BROKEN FRONTIER: To begin with Sean, can you give us a potted history of how you became involved in small press publishing?

SEAN AZZOPARDI: I wanted to tell my stories in a comic form. Utilising the photocopier at my workplace, around 2001 I made my first mini comic Grey Sky. It was a long road to get to this point. I then had no idea what to do with it really.

A friend invited me to Angouleme in 2002. After that experience I realised there was a big comics community out there.

BF: Could you tell us a little about some of your recent and past comics projects and the genres they’ve covered?

AZZOPARDI: Well Grey Sky was horror. That then bled into diary work and biography fiction in Twelve Hour Shift. Ed was a gentle romantic wish fulfilment story. Necessary Monsters, horror spy action. The list goes on.

BF: Your solo work, like Twelve Hour Shift or Nine Months of Beige is a mix of autobiographical (or semi-autobiographical) musings about the mundanities, frustrations and insecurities of life. Small press/underground comics have always been an open venue for those Pekar-esque reflections on the minutiae of daily life. Do you have any thoughts on why that slice-of-life style of storytelling remains so appealing on both sides of the creator/reader divide?

AZZOPARDI: Well as a reader I enjoy nosing through other people’s lives, having a good rummage in their dirty laundry basket. Who doesn't ?

As a creator it's good to write material about a subject that you have in depth knowledge about. You can seem very informed and savvy.

                

Above, and above right, a selection of Azzopardi projects highlighting the diversity of Sean's output

BF: On the subject of semi-autobiographical characters a number of your protagonists, like Steve Jones of Twelve Hour Shift and the titular hero of Ed, are extensions of yourself and your own personality. Why did you make the creative decision to distance yourself one step away from those characters and the narrative?

AZZOPARDI: Well I didn't really want to write in the first person as it would have been a bit dull for me and would have reflected in the finished work. Writing through an avatar in Twelve Hour Shift (as Steve Jones) allowed me to be more direct in my views about myself and my work colleagues. I didn’t like the character Steve Jones. As an extension of my own persona it isn’t difficult to work out the state of mind I was in at this time.

Ed was more a wish-fulfilment piece. I was trying to imagine what an idealised freelancer lifestyle would involve. I was hoping to bleed fiction into reality. 

BF: The supernatural thriller series Necessary Monsters with Daniel Merlin Goodbrey and your horror collaborations with Douglas Noble mark a significant shift in tone and emphasis from your autobiographical output.

How did those projects come about, how much fun was it flexing different artistic muscles and, as a writer/artist who normally has complete control of the creative process, how difficult is it to adapt to working on someone else’s scripts?

AZZOPARDI: Well for a long time Daniel and I had talked about collaborating on something. I wanted to work on a script that was a fictional world outside my output at that time. I think it's always a positive to work with different cartoonist and genres. I got to draw lots of mad shit and really enjoyed that. It also made me improve as an artist. As a solo creative I miss that kind of push.

With Douglas there is a more collaborative approach to developing material. We started with a trad script approach on Sightings of Wallace Sendek then with Built of Blood and Bricks [you can read my review of Built of Blood and Bricks in a previous Small Pressganged here - Andy] I sent a bunch of images and Douglas wrote and designed with them. Our final piece is more intriguing. I have sent some text and images and as of writing have no idea what the end result will be.

It’s exciting.

BF: Thinking a little more about the differences in presentation between projects, your published work ranges from comics with a sketchbook influence to art with a digital input. Which medium are you happiest working in?

AZZOPARDI: Everything really. Whatever is to hand. Drawing Is the best though. Pencil and paper.

BF: Time to choose the favourite child… is there one particular project that you’re most proud of? And, if so, why?

AZZOPARDI: I really suffer from too much self-deprecation and hate saying I am proud of anything. But Eight Tablet Dream, my most recent mini comic found a balance that was pleasing. Tone is very important and there was a lot of tonal variation in this comic.

                  

Sean's range displayed in pages from the horror collaboration Built of Blood and Bricks with Douglas Noble, the romantic drama Ed and, finally, the anecdotal Nine Months of Beige

BF: You’re a very established presence within the UK small press scene now. Looking back on your years as a creator in that environment what would you summarise as the major changes for self-publishers during that time period?

AZZOPARDI: They’ve gotten better. I actually feel like I’m a cartoonist dinosaur now with my black and white comics. There has been such a major growth in output, which is inspiring.

The quality of recent anthologies is one placeholder of the current state self-publishing and the enormous variety of cartoonists. Paper Science, Solipsistic Pop and now Words and Pictures are publications I’m thinking of. They all seem to contain some of the giddy excitement of recent years. But there is also a real sense of wanting to shout about what is happening at the moment. By shouting I mean the quality of output and having a hands-on editorial approach as well as curatorial. This is valuable in encouraging newbies to come forward and take part.

So the change is more opportunity to get published. There are also more conventions and more online coverage. Really a cartoonist can become an overnight sensation on the back of a well made mini, if that is their desire.

But the larger book seems a difficult step. Making a 200-page-plus OGN with no backing is a big ask. This is a rare beast outside the next tier of Blank Slate/Nobrow/Selfmadehero/Cape.

BF: Thinking more generally about the small press, what books/creators are you currently enjoying that you’d recommend?

AZZOPARDI: Well there is a lot, But off the top of my baldy head: Josceline Fenton - Hemlock, Howard Hardiman - The Lengths, Alec Longstreth - Phase Seven, Adam Cadwell - Blood Blokes, Gareth Brookes - The Black Project, Francesca Cassaveti - Re Members.

Above: Necessary Monsters - the supernatural thriller series written by Daniel Merlin Goodbrey and illustrated by Sean.

BF: And finally, what’s coming up next for Sean Azzopardi? What future projects are you working on?

AZZOPARDI: Well this is a time out year for me. I’m trying to work out where I want to go with my my ideas. So I doubt that there will be great deal of output. But there is a collected book of myself and Douglas's collaborations. Then there is an anthology of comic people I have met during my trips to Malta and France; some different names. There is also a sketchbook I am finishing up. Both these projects will be colour - something I am excited about. All this work is in preparation for TCAF in May, which I am massively excited about.

The rest of the year will involve working on Black Leather, a project that has been ongoing for a while now.

For more information on Sean's work check out his website here. You can also buy a selection of Sean's comics at his online store here.

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Eight Tablet Dream

Sean Azzopardi (writer/artist)

As mentioned in our interview above, a large portion of Sean Azzopardi’s small press output, specifically his solo work, consists of autobiographical, slice-of-life comics. Eight Tablet Dream is his most recent comic, released at the tail-end of last year and, for those familiar with his books, is similar in presentation to earlier work like Nine Months of Beige.

Eight Tablet Dream is not so much a collection of strips as an accumulation of vignettes of isolated moments in Sean’s day-to-day life; some of these are recounted as very short stories, some in the form of brief encounters, and some as simply mood-setting sketchbook-style pages. Those little frustrations commonplace to us all as we plod through the daily routine are a frequent feature. Presented with an affable, everyman perspective, topics like pedestrian rage, hospital waiting rooms and bigoted bosses are the type of life challenges depicted in a relatable and recognisable manner.

Beyond these accounts of the more onerous travails of habitual existence, there’s an appealing mix of observational pieces here that will serve as a strong introduction to Azzopardi’s work for the uninitiated. From maudlin crises of confidence to that pleasant feeling of post-pub anesthesia when all seems right with the world, all the way through to the black humour of an unexpected house guest named Rupert the Mouse, there’s a constant shift in emotional tone and dramatic emphasis to Eight Tablet Dream that makes this an engaging and very human read.

        

For all of Sean Azzopardi’s self-effacing modesty as a creator there’s a reason why he is regarded as such a respected mainstay of British small press comics. I suspect there’s something slightly cathartic for him in the creative process - as I would conjecture there is for most autobiographical creators - but his semi-regular comic tours through life’s drudgery, and its contrasting little triumphs, are always more than worth the price of entry. Eight Tablet Dream is a strongly recommended starting point for those readers wanting to explore his work further.

Eight Tablet Dream can be bought priced £2.50 from Sean’s online store here.

###

Andy Oliver is Broken Frontier’s Managing Editor and a contributor to Paul Gravett’s 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die.

If you are a small press comics creator, or self-publisher, and would like your work to be reviewed in a future edition of Small Pressganged then e-mail Andy at andyoliver@brokenfrontier.com for further details. You can also follow Andy on Twitter here.

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