Review: Baby Bjornstrand, by Renee French

I’ve been slowly catching up with books published in 2014,and while I’m not in ‘the struggle is real’ kind of territory, it does mean it’s
taken a while to get around to books I’ve been meaning to read for months,
including the enigmatic Baby Bjornstrand
from Renee French and Koyama Press. The Koyama book collects and completes the
Study Group webcomic of the same name.

Baby Bjornstrand
is the story of three boys, a strange bird monster, and their “adventures,” a
term I put loosely in quotations – there’s not much adventuring here, but there
is plenty of weird stuff going on.  The
boys pick at each other in the way that middle school children know best, but I’d
estimate the setting of the story is an apocalyptic wasteland before I’d say it
was set in a 4th grade classroom. Still that banter goes back and
forth, setting a tone in dialogue that is not necessarily matched by French’s
soft graphite art. There’s a silliness to Baby
Bjornstrand
as much as there is a gravity to it.

The real question is what is Baby Bjornstrand? From a plot perspective, the book is part boyhood
butt-crack humor, part existential horror, and part growing up fantasy, but it
doesn’t seem to fit into any of those characterizations well. French seems to
be blending pieces and parts from each. And what is Bjornstrand the monster? It
looks like an embryonic chicken, all bulbous eyes and tiny beak, but its role
changes from character to character; to Cyril, Bjornstrand is a friend and
companion, to the two other boys, Bjornstrand is a monster, and to a strange dragonfly-looking
character, Bjornstrand is a foe and murderer.

That assigning of values feels essential to this story with
its dark landscapes and depressed mood.  Bjornstrand is everything everyone wants it to
be, until it isn’t, casting itself off of a cliff and into the water below.
Later, Cyril, the boy who was closest to Bjornstrand finds its deflated skin
floating in the water. “That’s ok.” he says, and he wraps the skin around him
like a cloak, trying to pretend like a mockery of the creature he once relied
upon is the same as the real thing. The childlike joy Cyril found in the
strange monster Bjornstrand is deflated, just like the monster itself. It’s
clear that Bjornstrand’s corpse will be no good substitute for the real thing.

There’s a danger and a weight to assigning personal needs to
external things, French seems to say. Not only a danger to the assigner, the
little boy looking for a friend, but to the assignee, the monster driven to
suicide. Despite its jokes and its horseplay, Baby Bjornstrand is a somber work. French builds a portrait of
three different boys growing up in a strange world that is as much terrifying
as it is exciting, and in that way shows a different version of the terrifying and
exciting world we live in. Baby
Bjornstrand
is growing up with the unknown, it is the recognition of ever-near
tragedy, and it is earned grief.

——————————————-

Renee French renee-french is a cartoonist and illustrator whose work has
been published by Top Shelf, Oni Press, Fantagraphics, and now Koyama Press. A
version of Baby Bjornstrand was published on Study Group prior to its
publication in paperback form.

Koyama Press koyamapress is a small press based in Toronto Canada – you can
see their Spring 2015 slate at their website.

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