There is a certain aura of the romantic poet about Alfonso Zapico, the 32-year-old son of miners with fine hands and lofty dreams who won the 2012 National Comic Book Award for Dublinés, a passionate exploration of the no less passionate James Joyce.
It was the kind of institutional embrace that cartoonists are grateful for, with the kind of humble gratitude shown by people who pour streams of talent into products that earn modest sales.
But something is afoot. Dublinés is already into its fifth print run and about to hit the 10,000 sales mark, quite an achievement in an industry where the average comic book sells around 2,000 copies. The graphic novel has already been translated into French, Polish, German and English. In Ireland, the true testing ground, it is being celebrated with a dose of nationalistic sorrow. "They think it's kind of wrong that the author is not Irish," says an amused Zapico.
His work exudes an infectious admiration for Joyce. "A lot of people have told me that they got this urge to read Ulysses after reading the comic book," he says. Then, after a pause, he smiles sarcastically. "I don't know whether that's a good thing or a bad thing."
For his latest project, El otro mar (or, The other sea), Zapico has turned to history once more to recreate the expedition of the conquistador Vasco Núñez de Balboa. The original proposal came from a foundation called Mare Australe, which asked nine creators from Panama and Spain to personally embark on the same journey as the 500-year old expedition.
"It was very interesting, but a total disaster. We managed to avoid the rain but we suffered everything else: terrible heat, long treks by the river, nights out in the open sleeping in hammocks. I did not enjoy a single minute of it, and would have returned home if I could, but when I did get back I started viewing it in a different light and thinking that it was a unique experience," he says about the 12 days it took him and his group to cross the 110 kilometers separating the Atlantic from the Pacific.
His Núñez de Balboa at times comes across as bloodthirsty, and occasionally heroic. "He is a very contradictory character, and I didn't want to create an idealized story. I drew an epic story but I also talked about the devastation of a land and of peoples who disappeared just a few years after Balboa's arrival."
It is the same kind of balanced view that he wants to use on his next work, La balada del Norte (or, The ballad of the North), a graphic novel in two volumes about the socialist revolution in Asturias of 1934 and the unique society in which it took hold. "It was something neither heroic nor romantic nor condemnable. It was more complex than all of that," says Zapico, himself a native of the region in Spain's north.
And indeed it sounds like a final ballad, a farewell tribute to an industrial culture — mining — that is on the brink of extinction. "It is a world that will disappear because in two years the mining operations will shut down," says Zapico, who represents the first generation of a mining family who turned his back on the trade to embrace art instead.
He ended up doing what he does through a combination of childish pleasure, adolescent tenacity and psychological refuge. "I am a solitary type, very shy and withdrawn. I discovered that comic books helped, that I could create something alone at home and later have it reach lots of people. And I am interested in sharing what I do."
His first book, La guerra del profesor Bertenev (or, Professor Bertenev's war), was published in France in 2006. Showing the boldness of someone who has nothing to lose, he knocked on the doors of French publishers, the great producers of comic books for mass audiences. "We all thought that publishing there must be the most amazing thing, but it was a lie. It wasn't so pretty after all. It turns out things went much better for me getting published in Spain and later selling the rights," he explains.
Zapico now resides in the French city of Angoulême, a sacred place for cartoonists the world over because of its festival and devotion to the genre. He moved there four years ago. And while he is not unhappy, it may be that he will soon be putting an end to this period in his life. "I feel like going back."