Writer: Jaakko Ahonen
Artist: Lauri Ahonen
Publisher: Dark Horse
Release Date: September 3, 2014
Dark Horse is marketing Jaybird, a translation of a Finnish graphic novel by siblings Jaakko and Lauri Ahonen, as “Disney meets Kafka.” The Disney allusion is apt only if they’re referring to the myths that ol’ Walt was cryogenically frozen after death. Although Jaybird holds individual panels and moments that could be accurately described as “cute,” its tone is far more Charles Burns than Carl Barks. Most of the book is dialogue free, a logical choice considering the narrative rarely features more than one character — an isolated, terrified, anthropomorphized bird who lives in a boarded-up mansion with his dying mother. A tarantula who doesn’t speak and an unlucky beggar who knocks on the door are the only other living creatures in the story.
The Kafka comparison is much more fitting, especially if you think of the story as a parable. Short and oblique, it suggests much and answers few of the questions it raises (i.e., how much of this is about Nazis? what is real, and what is not?). Jaybird also falls into the haunted house/paranoia genre exemplified by Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” and the Coen brothers’ film Barton Fink (a corner of sagging wallpaper in the story pays homage to both). The house itself could represent many things, but its most obvious interpretation is as a metaphor for body integrity and fears of violation. Our bird’s contact with death and body fluids is surprisingly frequent, rendered with a combination of discretion (adult diaper-changing takes place underneath the covers) and grossness (the soiled garment also makes a visual cameo).
Lauri Ahonen’s illustrations recall children’s books, with highly-patterned, neat pages full of dusty family portraits and various bric-a-brac. Her panel structure, too, is organized, simple and rarely showy. No element overlaps or distracts from the narrative, an appropriate decision considering how much of the narrative is conveyed through widened eyes and flustered running. She impressively includes near-slapstick physical comedy without undermining the high-strung nature of the book. This tension gives the reader the feeling that the plot could swing either way: comedy or tragedy.
Like many parables, it can seem that there’s not much insight to unpack. The Ahonens aren’t interested in providing obvious interpretations of the few events that take place. Instead, Jaybird functions to unsettle the reader through its folktale-esque structure and building dread. Rather than releasing tension, like many a scary story, it cranks it up, then leaves you dangling, waiting for a satisfying resolution that may or may not ever come.