Comic review: Stolp by Daniel Odija and Wojciech Stefaniec
Daniel Odija - writer, Wojciech Stefaniec - artist
It doesn't take much imagination to consider that humanity as a species is facing a crisis at the moment, one that it is looking increasingly likely to have a major impact on how we live our lives in the future. It's a little more difficult to imagine any creative solutions to those problems - if there is even time to implement them and turn things around - and it's even more difficult to imagine how humanity as a species will react when it is forced to adapt, but chances are that it probably won't bring out the best in people.
Writer Daniel Odija and artist Wojciech Stefaniec push those boundaries to their limits in imagination, in writing and in visualisation of a realty that humanity potentially faces in Stolp, the first volume of a proposed Bardo tetralogy. If the circumstances of the fictional dystopian city of Bardo are somewhat fantastical and surreal rather than conventional in terms of depiction of a pre-apocalyptic society teetering on the brink of collapse, in Stolp Odija and Stefaniec ambitiously strive to find an appropriate language that depicts the psychological impact on humanity and its response within the decline of the city of Bardo.
Once thriving, Bardo is now less of a living city and more of a mausoleum or crematorium. Here people burn from the inside out, victims of a drug known as Styx, one of a number of drugs that people are turning to which may even be the cause of the rather hallucinatory aspect of the city and what takes place there. Glowing children float down the dark claustrophobic and largely empty streets towards the sea off Suicides' Pier, twisted bodies lie in agonised positions instantly disintegrating on the pavements with insects devouring them. The city itself is dying under a black sun and Stolp, a detective searching for lost children, is there to witness what looks to be humanity in its final throes.
It was probably inevitable. A slow corruption has developed into a rapid decline in civilisation, sport reduced to betting on the number of daily deaths, rapes and how many buildings will crumble to dust each day. There is an increase in earthquakes, clones are rebelling, animal species are dying every day and - perhaps the most significant sign of the impending extinction of humanity - children are no longer being born, the population suffering the twin curse of infertility and increasing mortality. Like every dire situation there are those who will exploit it as an opportunity to make money and consolidate power. Drugs seem to be being manufactured to help control society and even experiment with create a new kind of human being.
As the first part of a tetralogy Stolp is far from a standard graphical novel narrative and it's something more than merely an illustrated story. The 144 pages of the first volume Stolp alone are dense, Daniel Odija's poetic meditations on the condition of the city dystopia and its vanishing inhabitants draw from numerous visionary and dark visionary references, hinting at a wider malaise of civilisation. With mass consumption and degeneration of entertainment of leisure activities into increased promiscuity and drug consumption, Bardo encapsulates all the cacophony and chaos of life, one where metaphorically or otherwise, insects appear to multiplying even as humanity retreats to extinction.
Wojciech Stefaniec is the artist up to the impossible task of capturing that sense of chaos and decay, blending the metaphorical with the underlying reality. Always capable of adapting his style to the requirements of the work, Stefaniec merges thick smears of black (not unlike his graphic novel Noir, and not unlike the similarly themed Ted McKeever's Metropol either) with bold blocks of colour and Bill Sienkiewicz-like explosive sprays of expressionist and almost abstract expressionist painting. His work continues to have an experimental hallucinogenic edge, the chemical induced kaleidoscopic nightmares of Stolp and Bardo even more experimental than those of his work on Come Back To Me Again. The artist employs a kinetic approach that holds to no strict panel construction but is a swirl and riot of colour unconstrained by form, alive to context, to movement, to noise and a deeper sense of existential insecurity. Bardo has less of a physical presence and is more a concept or a state of mind. Its inhabitants have to go with the flow and the artwork does that too.
Going with the flow is necessarily what the reader has to do also. You have to throw off the comfortable familiarity of knowing where you stand and comprehending the physical laws that govern our lives. It's a necessity not only to get you through the dense, dark and disturbing nature of the Bardo and the world of Stolp, but it's probably just as necessary to be open to the idea that life in the future is not going to be a comfortable ride for humanity.
Stolp, the first volume of the Bardo tetralogy is currently only available in a Polish language edition, although the artist kindly provided a English translation for this review. One hopes that this first volume and the completed second part Rita might soon be made commercially available in English.