A thing comes into three lives, without warning or explanation. A thing leaves those lives in much the same way. The time between: Baby Bjornstrand, the new Renee French graphic novel completing and collecting the webcomic of the same name. In the past, I’ve written that the hazy, watery wasteland inhabited by Baby Bjornstrand‘s masked, hooded protagonists and monstrous fauna evokes a post-apocalypticism that is, if not belied, then at least transfigured by the comic tone of the proceedings. Now that the series is finished, that’s only true to a point. As the uniform proscenium staging of its panels suggests, Bjornstrand remains much closer to Samuel Beckett than Stephen King, despite French’s astonishing proficiency with painstakingly penciled menace. Yet its morose ending has a bite that doesn’t require the jaws of a monster.
There is a monster, though: the title character, an amphibious, bulbous, black-eyed bird-thing who appears one day on the shore of a largely featureless land inhabited by three Stooge-like friends. Each character is offset by a glowing color that tracks to their speech, a simple and striking device that often lightens the mood, literally and figuratively. Green is the color of Bjornstrand and his sole vocalization, “Hoooooo,” which presages similar pop-culture Johnny-one-notes like Game of Thrones‘ Hodor or Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Groot. It’s to French’s credit that her visualization of the creature and its world imbues a word we can’t hear with a loneliness we can’t mistake.
Of the three friends, it’s Cyril, the one who first discovers Bjornstrand, who forms the deepest connection with the creature. He touches it, attempts to feed it, hangs out with it until nightfall, breaks a nebulous rule by swimming into the dark water with it, spends much of his time waiting for the creature to return from its many lengthy sojourns beneath the surface. The pervasive stillness of French’s pointillist landscapes, stately paced at two rectangular panels per page, lends each of these actions a methodical mien, as if everything Cyril does in his attempts to befriend Bjornstrand is preceded by several solid minutes of quiet reflection.
By contrast, his pals Marcel and Mickey, though seemingly well-intentioned enough guys, busy themselves staging an over-the-top play in which a wooden Bjornstrand stand-in functions as a dragon, destroying the character foolhardy enough to seek its friendship. Where Cyril sees a companion, they see the parable of the snake; where Cyril attempts to get to know Bjornstrand better, they’re content to take their basic idea and run with it.
Which is not to say they’re not curious about Bjornstrand, even desirous of his friendship as well. Though at first they’re as likely to run away as to approach, eventually Mickey attempts to climb the creature (he falls and busts his ass), while Marcel is saddened when he comes to believe Bjornstrand prefers Cyril’s company to his own. It’s only when a large, flying, sawtoothed insect of some kind menaces the pair that a true connection with Bjornstrand is forged: They hide behind the bigger beast, and a few “Hoooooo”s — previously shown to have the power to knock Cyril out cold — stop the bug in midair. “Say hello to Bjornstrand,” crows a triumphant Marcel à la Will Smith’s “Welcome to Earth” in Independence Day. Maybe he and Mickey intended simply to use Bjornstrand as an inhuman shield, but the idea of the creature rising to their defense is too irresistible to pass up.
Bjornstrand proves irresistible to the insect as well. Rather than fly away, the bug chats Bjornstrand up, first with dueling nonverbal vocalizations (“Eeeeee.” “Hoooooo.”), then with straight-up conversation. “I dreamed that we were mashed together into one blob,” the bug says while resting comfortably atop Bjornstrand’s head like Snoopy on his doghouse. “What do you think? Maybe you’re a huge butt.” Bjornstrand hooooos the bug off of his head; the insect takes a tumble to the ground that seems like slapstick until it’s followed by a torrent of corrosive bile from the beast’s beak.
Correlation does not imply causality, but nevertheless, having killed, Bjornstrand soon kills himself. Cyril next encounters him in shallow quicksand; after that he disappears for over a month before resurfacing on the edge of a cliff. Mickey and Marcel race to stop him, encouraging him to return to the beach to reunite with his apparent friend Cyril. But whether due to a misunderstanding or deliberate self-destruction, Bjornstrand totters and falls off the cliff as the pair plead in vain. Neither has the heart to tell Cyril, but it’s a moot point: Cyril discovers Bjornstrand’s corpse — just a husk, really, like a deflated balloon — floating in the water. “Ok,” he says, as he retrieves his friend’s “body” and wraps it around himself like a cloak. “That’s ok.”
Is it, though? Think back to the bug: When it presents Bjornstrand with a vision in which the creature is simply a posterior adjunct to its own existence, the reward is death. What the bug did was not that much different from what Mickey and Marcel did in staging their play, right down to the way real-Bjornstrand and fake-Bjornstrand dispatched their victims. Nor is it different from an earlier sequence in which Mickey mocked Marcel’s vestigial tail with a drawing that cast it as a nose on a “butt-face.” Each character collected data, then distorted it into a desired shape.
For all that Bjornstrand clearly meant to Cyril, he never truly knew the creature. What mattered to him is the shape Bjornstrand formed in the space his life allotted for the beast — a life that exists in a gray haze over dark water, two of the most potent and accurate visual representations of depression around. Indeed, even the black quicksand that envelops them in their last living encounter is treated by Cyril like a spa; in Bjornstrand’s company, that’s what it becomes. Without him, though…. “What if he never comes back?” Marcel asks during the long absence that preceded Bjornstrand’s demise. “He always does,” replies Cyril. “Always ends,” Marcel shoots back. What’s left behind is an empty skin we can curl up in, trying to convince ourselves it’s close enough to the real thing.