Cyril, a masked boy, encounters a bulbous, bird-like creature. He stares at it briefly, then falls flat on the ground, unable to feel his face. He remains on the ground for approximately eighteen hours, then gets up, affirms “I’m good,” and runs off. Renée French does not reveal what happened during that eighteen-hour period at the beginning of Baby Bjornstrand, and the rest of the narrative is filled with similarly mysterious jumps in time. During these transitions from 10am to 1pm or “days later,” nothing much seems to have happened at all. Nothing has changed. Time is in soft focus.
French’s pencils are also characteristically soft, portraying a gray expanse with indistinct trees and hills in the distance. Cyril and his two friends wear masks; their faces are always hidden. Even the creature (whom they name Bjornstrand) wears a sheddable skin, its beak protruding through a hole. Like their surroundings, we can never really see any of the characters. One of the boys is said to have a tail, so who can say what they look like?
The characters’ dialogue gives us something to hold onto. It’s concrete, relatable, and funny. French literally colors the gray of her world with it, giving each character a distinct hue (the protagonists get primary colors while Bjornstrand gets an alien green for its hoots). The boys speak like adolescents, calling each other names, discussing bugs, butts, and farts. They talk like Beavis and Butthead, if Beavis and Butthead ever gazed into the abyss.
After that first encounter, all three boys are both frightened and intrigued by the creature. Cyril is the most fascinated; Bjornstrand regularly disappears into the sea and Cyril waits patiently for its return. When it does, he pokes it, talks to it, feeds it, and accessorizes it. Bjornstrand offers nothing in response except for an occasional cryptic hoot. It is impossible for Cyril to know what Bjornstrand thinks about him or their relationship. His friend Marcel expresses jealousy of their bond because, like that with a pet, he cannot see how much of it relies on Cyril’s imagination.
In fact, their bond can be best understood as an extreme version of the relationships we have with our pets. The boys even use Bjornstrand for protection against a nasty bug creature. In another story, a confrontation with the unknown might unlock repressed urges or fears in the protagonists, their reactions to it mirroring larger society’s anxieties about whatever you’d like. But French’s characters embrace this mystery, call it their own, invent stories about it, and impose bonds upon it.
As much as we believe a pet’s love is reciprocal, we are essentially entering into a relationship with another species we can never truly know. I interpret her behavior and ascribe a personality; I describe with authority what she is thinking and invent a dialogue between us. Even if our characters wouldn’t see the creature again after it plunges into the sea (they will, in French’s 30-page comic Bjornstrand), baby Bjornstrand would grow just as large in their minds. Marcel and Mickey perform a play that mythologizes their encounter, turning Bjornstrand into a fire-belching monster. One pet can have different personalities in the same household, where some feel “loved” and others “spurned.”
The images they create will become fixed within a world that is otherwise hazy and unclear, as one friend has a tail you cannot see and another has a language you cannot speak. In the end, Cyril is left with nothing but Bjornstrand’s skin, which he takes as his own. What does the “real” Bjornstrand look like? Like the inexplicable jumps in time, like the events that occur between the panels, the real Bjornstrand is unknowable. The only Bjornstrand we can know exists in the boys’ minds and in the relationships that they invent.