SPX Spotlight 2014: Renee French and Baby Bjornstrand

Welcome to another entry in the 2014 SPX Spotlight series!  For the next month, Panel Patter will be highlighting creators and publishers who will be at one of the best conventions, the Small Press Expo.  You can check out all of Panel Patter's spotlights for SPX from both this year and prior years here.

Created by Renee French
Published by Koyama Press

I only recently started reading the work of Renee French and each time I finish a piece, I end up scratching my head, grinning, and feeling a wistfulness that I cannot fully articulate.  Reading Baby Bjornstrand, French’s latest book, was no different. French creates a world for her characters, both physically and emotionally, that is unlike any other cartoonist I’ve read. This story focuses on three masked child-like characters Cyril, Marcel, and Mickey, who unwittingly stumble upon a big-eyed, baby bird-esque creature that they name Bjornstrand. If you were to eliminate this major plot point, it would mostly consist of casual and juvenile banter between the three characters. This dry and subversive use of informal language is classic French, and a characteristic of her work that prevents the stories from becoming too fantastical and abstract.

Each page consists of two horizontal panels, and emphasizes the placement of the four characters in the desolate gray landscape. Given that the physical differences in the characters are minor, French makes a brilliant decision to highlight each character and their text (she does not use balloons) in a specific color to direct the reader to which character is talking. Marcel and Mickey provide deadpan comic relief throughout, while Cyril becomes consumed by his interest in Bjornstrand’s well being. Marcel and Mickey are indifferent to Bjornstrand at first and even regard it as a monster of sorts, but eventually join Cyril in keeping track of its whereabouts. Bjornstrand is mostly blank and unresponsive throughout the story, staring vacantly with its big eyes, but occasionally let’s out a “hoooo” and vibrates green.

French’s pacing of the story is uneven, but this works in its favor and adds to its bizarre charm. For instance, chapters 13-16 focus on Marcel and Mickey introducing Bjornstrand to a goofy looking dragonfly. The two creatures stare at each other vacantly, but eventually have a stand off marked by a series of “eeees” and “hoooos.” In this sequence, French zooms in on each character to the point of absurdity and then abruptly pulls back to a wide shot where Cyril says, “What are you guys doing?” Bjornstrand and the dragonfly develop a possibly one-sided intimate relationship which ends with Bjornstrand rebuffing the dragonfly’s advances and vomiting on it. The story could still work without this bit, but simply put, it’s hilarious.

Cyril becomes Bjornstrand’s companion, until one month later when he is unable to locate it. Camping out near the body of water where Bjornstrand usually submerges into, Cyril waits for its return with Marcel and Mickey. Those two eventually head back home, possibly defeated, yet still wondering whether to get a tent for their determined friend. Suddenly, they spot Bjornstrand on the cliff’s edge. Despite their attempts to save it, its fate is sealed. What is evident in this scene is Marcel and Mickey’s empathy and concern for Cyril, as they know that he will be devastated by this event. This bit is necessary in developing these characters into more than indifferent sidekicks.

Cyril is a believer. He believes in Bjornstrand, whatever it is, and this is never truer than in his response to Bjornstrand’s deflated body washing ashore, which I will leave for the reader to discover.

Baby Bjornstrand is a heartbreaking story because it gets at that existential argument of “what’s the point?” What can you make of losing something you love and don’t even understand? And what of Bjornstrand? What was its motivation; it’s story? We do not actually know anything about any of these characters, but we don’t need to. Whatever, or whoever they are, they felt, loved, and lost.