Review: ‘Bjornstrand’ by Renée French

Two elements that I can definitely walk into a book ready to love are the giant, mysterious monster genre and the furry, soft-focus art of Renée French. Her comic “Bjornstrand,” which I picked up at SPX last weekend, delivered on both counts, and it was every bit the plushy, bizarro children’s book belonging in a box alongside David Lynch’s “Eraserhead” that I would have expected it to be.

I remember one of the first indie titles I got to review for Wizard Magazine when I was on staff there back in the day being a Renée French book (2007’s “Micrographica,” I believe), and that was my introduction to her work.

“Bjornstrand” the book is an extension of the creature/character exploration French has been doing in her webcomic “Baby Bjornstrand.” In one sense it’s a little reminiscent of “Cloverfield,” in that it’s about a mysterious, potentially deadly creature emerging out of nowhere—and the story is being told through the lens of French’s art, which endows any comic story she’s telling with a slight sense of vagueness.

The tale is playful, due to the inherent contradictions being implemented. Every page is devoid of any anger or wrath, though the language of the tiny speck characters is full of obscenity. Bjornstrand is gigantic and capable of rampant destruction, but his eyes are cute, shiny balls that make him look like a blown-up Pokémon critter. Even the art style, which is soft and dreamlike contrasts with the realistic banter and harsh tension that drive the comic.

Like Tom Spurgeon, I found myself wondering about the significance of the title character’s name and whether or not it’s a nod to Gunnar Björnstrand. (I wondered about this ahead of SPX, but neglected to bring it up when I had the chance.) I have seen a lot of Ingmar Bergman movies starring Gunnar Björnstrand, and it’s certainly noteworthy that many of those films take place in isolated locales near the water, much like the setting in French’s comic.

Additionally, I am going to break out my Swedish knowledge here and point out that if you split that name into two pieces—”björn” and “strand”—those words mean “bear” and “beach.” So there is a possibility the name is just there to poke fun at the dichotomy that is Bjornstrand (or embody the essence of a beast emerging from the water).

Personally, I like to think that all of these competing ideas are in play, helping French’s narrative to keep the reader on their toes as she treads carefully, writing a cute story that could topple and plunge into horrific chaos at any moment.

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