Comic Review: Come Back to Me Again - Bartosz Sztybor & Wojciech Stefaniec
Come Back to Me Again - Bartosz Sztybor & Wojciech Stefaniec
There's not much of a traditional narrative in Come Back to Me Again (Wróć do mnie, jeszcze raz), the award winning graphic novel (Best Polish Album 2015) by Bartosz Sztybor and Wojciech Stefaniec. It's clear enough what the subject is - that of a young man known as SW trying to come off his dependency on a number of different drugs - but it has the singular and ambitious aim of spending more time inside the head of the man in question as he struggles with his demons than it does in what we might consider the mundane material world. That's a troubling place indeed, but it's also a place that demands a very imaginative artistic response, and in that respect, Come Back to Me Again is certainly anything but mundane.
Come Back to Me Again may be imaginative and responsive to the ebbs and flows of SW's inner battle and struggle to come back down to earth and re-engage with reality, but it's important that there is some compelling reason for him wanting to do so. That's initially hard to see, as we know little of SW's life other than what we see of him living, barely dressed for most of the time, in a run-down and neglected apartment, with occasional glimpses of the people he associates with in bars. There's one reason why he might want to pull himself back together, and it's the risk of losing his girlfriend who is threatening to leave him. Come Back to Me Again can then on one level be seen as a plea to retain his girlfriend and his regain his life, but there's another ambiguous meaning to the title, and that's the call of his addiction to draw him back into its comforting grasp.
And, it has to be said, the way that Wojciech Stefaniec depicts colourfully depicts this world, and the vast majority of the time that SW spends there, does makes it feel like an exciting place where you mightn't necessarily want to stay, but you'd like to be able to come back to it when you need. That however is evidently a dangerous hold for it to have over you, and it's a relationship that is incompatible with the other life that SW also needs to regain and assert control over. There's a challenge for the writer and the artist then to strike a similar balance, and if it's impossible to make the real world as cool and colourful as the world of the mind high on drugs, there is also the downside to those visions that gradually take on a rather darker and more disturbing shape.
For much of the 88 pages of the graphic novel reality is however just an interlude, with only a few panels of SW in his bedroom interrupting the flow of his drug-induced experiences. Each of the drugs he tries produces a different kind of effect on the user, and artist and illustrator Wojciech Stefaniec is not short of ways and art techniques to replicate, approximate or symbolise the experience. He even has ways of visualising the abstraction of the words 'I fall asleep' and 'I wake up', during those dissolves between one state and another, but it's the image of a nightmarish baseball player striking a ball that seems to be key visual for the 'hit' that SW is waiting for, needing and increasingly concerned about when it doesn't arrive.
At times you think that the artist's work is purely experimental; an exercise in imagination, in ways of artistic expression, since although the experiences are clearly autobiographical to some extent, there is little in the way of conventional narrative here or any real depth to the characterisation. There's a play of colour and abstraction that is closer to Klee, Kandinsky and Matisse, contrasted with the rather more fleshy enhanced colour tones of David Hockney or Lucien Freud, as if Wojciech Stefaniec is drawing on modern artists as references for different states of seeing the world, but in the comic-book world you can also see Stefaniec working in the same field of expressionism as Bill Sienkiewicz or Dave McKean. Somewhere in between the fine art and illustration, the influence of Polish Poster Art is also clearly an important reference for the artist, just as it was undoubtedly an influence on many of those more adventurous comic illustrators.
The idea of crossover is also relevant as far as the narrative goes, or the struggle between one state and another that we consider as a narrative. The danger for SW manifests when one of those states mixes with the other, when flashbacks occur, when the drugs no longer work and start having a physical and psychological effect on the user, when there is the risk of mental illness. Wojciech Stefaniec depicts this crossover vividly in explosions of colour creating an energy and vibrancy, the images giving the impression of movement as they expand to fill the page as SW almost becomes consumed by his mind, by his obsession of finding the baseball player again. It's hugely imaginative and technically impressive, never repetitive, using painting, cut-out techniques, collage and multi-media, all of it hand-drawn and created, never having to rely on CGI graphics or PhotoShop manipulation.
We have Europe Comics to thank for making this piece of adventurous graphic storytelling from Poland available in English translation. Come Back to Me Again by Bartosz Sztybor and Wojciech Stefaniec is published by Europe Comics as an eBook and, looking at the work in PDF format, it captures the tones and vibrant colour of Stefaniec's work impressively, with good detail and texture evident in the panels and larger splash pages. The translation reads smoothly, accurately and colloquially.
Buy 'Come Back to Me Again' at Europe Comics