Based on my experience with Finnish films, Finnish creative works seem to have a pace of their own. In the films, there seems to be a general bleakness mixed with glimmers of absurdity and most noticeably a terseness that make every word and gesture feel a tiny bit awkward but all the more meaningful because of the space and extended silence between every dialog or plot event. The films do not represent this style alone. In the comic book ream, Jaybird by Lauri and Jaakko Ahonen transfer this distinctively Finnish tone into a somber tale about a jay stuck physically and psychologically in his childhood home.
Jaybird, the first comic book and winner of the 2013 Comic Book Finlandia prize by the Ahonen brothers, develops a unique amount of dread and sorrow for a story centered on probably one of the most adorable and heartbreaking animated birds. There’s a lot of Yorgos Lanthimos’s Dogtooth seasoned with a dash of William Faulkner’s A Rose For Emily and even a sprinkle of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho in here, creating an unrelenting, unsettling feeling heightened by the dark and lush illustrations of the decrepit house. And, to push the creepiness further, the Ahonens include very little dialog and spend a great deal of the book focused on Jaybird’s house. Consequently, with less plot structure and dialog to focus on, the bleak atmosphere climbs out of the book, pulling you in the house where hundreds of paintings of ancestors hang on every hallway wall with their eyes perpetually devoid of life yet eerily able to follow and watch Jaybird’s every move.
Left alone in a large, once glorious, now ramshackle Victorian house, Jaybird spends every moment of his day taking care of his ill mother and meeting every demand she makes. Jaybird cooks for her, changes her diapers, and responds to her requests made by ringing a homemade chain of bells, empty cans, and silver plates hanging from the ceiling of the halls. He has no world outside of his home and his mother, and he never will. No sunlight enters the home, and it never will. Jaybird’s mother has boarded up every window and has kept Jaybird from ever wondering what lies beyond the boards by instilling a paralyzing fear of the “Bad Birds” who live outside of the house who will torture and murder innocent birds who cross their paths. Jaybird himself has no desire to test his mother’s claim and does not develop any curiosity about a world beyond, so he remains in his home in the constant fear that the Bad Birds may even find him inside of his home.
Living a life of pure isolation and knowing nothing about the world beyond the little information his mother relays to him to remind him why he needs to stay quiet and clean the house, Jaybird is unable to understand any facet of reality beyond his own. Consequently, one day, when he befriends a tarantula in the house, Jaybird’s world begins to fall apart as he asks more questions and explores the forbidden parts of his home. And through Jaybird’s response to the things he discovers, we also begin to see traces that perhaps Jaybird was not just a dutiful son.
Possibly a pure psychological horror story exposing the perversity and damage (both psychological and physiological) parents can inflict on their children, Jaybird leaves many open questions for the reader to infer. By the end, we wonder what exactly is real or a figment of Jaybird’s all-fearing imagination. Does his mother even exist? Who are the relatives on the walls? Who is alive, and who is dead in the Jaybird house? Who is responsible for the decline of Jaybird’s once triumphant and noble family? The only concrete information we have to piece everything together is Jaybird’s paranoia and agoraphobia stemming from his mother’s tales of the Bad Birds. This information has thrown him deeper into his crippling alienation, but the paranoia and isolation may have existed before in a hidden form of psychopathy, so his mother’s tale may have only exacerbated his condition.
By the end of the book, it is uncertain who is the villain in Jaybird because the Ahonens do not lead us in any absolute direction to decipher where the line between Jaybird’s imagination and reality lies. We have sympathy for Jaybird but suspect he serves as an unreliable and unstable narrator. We know his mother protected him from the world at the cost of his psychological well being, but some uncertainty remains on how much of his antisocial tendencies stem from her alone. Jaybird almost leaves a little too much unanswered by the end of the book, but it deserves an applause for the amount of mystery, horror, and gloominess it accomplishes with few pages and minimal dialog and plot; I have yet to encounter such a simple yet cryptic book where almost any interpretation of the end leads to such grim and severe outcomes.
Jaybird establishes an unwavering melancholic mood and atmosphere to explore some terrifying corners of the human mind through the adventures and possible illusions of a potentially psychotic cartoon bird. That sentence definitely sounds insane and absurd, but I think it means you should take a look at Jaybird. Bravo Lauri and Jaakko; you have created an absurd, horrific, and tragic story told from a perspective far from American or French ones, which currently dominate the graphic novel and comic book scene. Please do keep the distinguishable and unique Finnish tone and style going in comic books to come.
Jaybird is written by Jaakko Ahonen and illustrated by Lauri Ahonen. It is available via Dark Horse Books.