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Review of Moomin: The Complete Tove Jansson Comic Strip. Vol. 1, by Tove Jansson

By Philip Nel
Jansson, Tove. Moomin: The Complete Tove Jansson Comic Strip. Vol. 1. Afterword by Alisia Grace Chase. Montreal: Drawn & Quarterly, 2006.

The color and size of a smallish tabloid newspaper but produced with the care of an art book, Moomin is a delight to hold and to read. It is 12 inches tall, hardbound in a colorful panorama of Jansson's characters, and printed on thick paper subtly tinted light yellow. As with each volume in the attractively designed Walt & Skeezix series, Drawn & Quarterly has again created a beautiful book that, through its high quality, honors the art of comic-making.

Indeed, if there is one flaw in Moomin, it is visible only because the Walt & Skeezix books set such a high standard. Reading Moomin, one wishes for contextual material comparable to that provided by Jeet Heer in the volumes of Frank King's strip. Alisia Grace Chase's single-page afterword provides a helpful capsule biography of Jansson and suggests connections between the author's life and her fictional creations, notably that the satirical comments on the art world may derive from her own life. More information of this sort would have been welcome, as would have dates for the comic strips – Chase indicates that they ran in the London Evening News in 1953, but no specific dates appear on the strips themselves. However, this is a quibble, derived from the desire to know precisely where the Moomin strips fit into both the lore of Jansson's Moomin Valley and their contemporary historical moment. (Or, to put this another way: Like the Nibling in Moominpappa's Memoirs, your reviewer likes educational games.)

Even without those dates, we can nonetheless place these strips at a crucial juncture in the development of the Moomin world. The comics in this first volume appear to have been written roughly in the middle of the Moomin saga – after the fourth of the series' nine novels, and after the first of its three picture books.[1] Appearing at this moment, these strips fall in between the earlier, more playful Moomin works and the later, more existential ones. Early in the first of four episodes in this book, Moomin (as Moomintroll is called in these comics) laments his lot: "What an unfortunate boy am I, not having a Pappa and a Mamma to arrange these things for me" (8). Until his long-lost parents show up at the beginning of episode two, readers new to the series could be forgiven for thinking him an orphan. In the novels up to this point, Moomin has always had parents –  parents who are more than a little eccentric, and who, in Moominsummer Madness (1955), get separated from their son for several chapters. But they are always around. The loneliness Moomin experiences early in these strips – especially in the first two episodes – looks ahead to Moominland Midwinter (1958), in which Moomin wakes up during the winter, while the rest of his family continues to sleep (Moomins hibernate during the coldest months). In that book, he feels "frightened" and "so terribly lonely" (7). In Moomin, he confesses to even darker feelings: "So I said to myself: Death is preferable to being alone when everyone but me has fathers and mothers and wives" (34). Significantly, however, he voices this thought only in retrospect, while walking comfortably between his two parents.

Like the novels and picture books, these comics treat serious themes with humor. Jansson's light touch for dark subjects emerges in the second episode when, after Moomin is reunited with his parents, they promptly wander off again. Moominpappa, enticed by the adventure of living in a cave, persuades Moominmamma to join him, even though she worries about leaving their Moomin by himself –  an anxiety that she expresses through housecleaning. When Moomin wakes up to find himself alone again, he says, with a tear in his eye, "Father and mother have been lost in the spring cleaning!" Leavening Moomin's sadness with a joke, Jansson has Sniff reply, "There you are, never tidy up!" Snufkin wisely adds, "I expect they have just gone off for a while. . . . Have you never wanted to run away from home? Even parents need a change sometimes" (42). With parents prone to childishness, and children given to philosophical musings, the Moomin strips – like the books – offer pleasures for readers of many ages.

The differences between the philosophies of each character provide a venue for Jansson's satirical impulses. Sniff, who is most interested in making money, concocts an "elixir of life" made of milk, water, honey, and pepper. Moomin asks, "You believe this will rejuvenate people?" Sniff responds, "Main thing is to make the buyer believe" (13). Jansson's sly caveat emptor is as relevant today as a half-century ago, as is her good-natured mockery of artists and celebrities. Providing occasion for an amusing commentary on modern art, Sniff breaks a statue, then glues it back together again. Looking at his accidentally cubist achievement, he observes, "She's more modern now" (19). Moomin's third narrative, in which Moominpappa and the Snork Maiden (Moomin's girlfriend) drag Moomin and his mother off to the Riviera, offers a gentle satire of the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Of particular interest are Jansson's caricature of Audrey Hepburn (as "Audrey Glamour") and the story's commentary on the tendency to tolerate, from a rich person, behavior for which a poor person would receive censure. When the Moomins move into a hotel, the hotel staff assumes they are eccentric millionaires: "They act very queer in room 883. But one is used to millionaires," observes a bellhop (58). Not at all wealthy, the Moomins thought they were staying not in a hotel but as guests in Audrey Glamour's home.

An indifference to material things – a key part of the Moomins' charm – also makes them ideal observers of modern capitalist society. And yet Jansson does not idealize their bohemian lifestyle. She seems at once bemused by their naïveté and pleased by their innocent enthusiasm for living life on their own terms. After the Moomin's helicopter (which, not unlike the cat bus in Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro, has a personality of its own) decides to abandon them, stranding them without any provisions, Moominpappa declares, "We'll manage! . . . With imagination and faith all problems will be solved!" (79). His sense of possibility speaks to the Moomin family's ability to endure: their underlying hopefulness sustains them. Yet, in the next panel, Moominmamma provides a reality check to her husband's romantic sense of adventure. With furrowed brow and (as always) handbag at her side, she hurries off, thinking "Food – food . . . food for my dear family" (79). Understanding that dreams cannot overcome hunger, she provides the physical nourishment that keeps the family going. The practical partner, Moominmamma, kills a wild boar, and, since she always carries salt and matches in her handbag, is able to roast and season it – all the while worrying whether their dinner had a wife (80). Injecting comic fantasy into the seriousness of this endeavor, the boar's angry wife shows up and chases the family until they ask, "Please, can't you forgive us for eating your husband?" The boar considers the question and says, "Yes. In fact he was an awful bore" (81). The pun-ny humor and sudden narrative twists allow the story to oscillate between peril and chuckles in a single strip.

These comics also highlight Jansson's delight in metanarrative, a prominent feature in her first picture book, The Book About Moomin, Mymble and Little My (1953). In a strip from Moomin, one little character stands in front of the boundary between two panels, and addresses another little character who stands to the right of the final panel, looking in. The first character says, "Oh, I'm so glad to see you Cousin Shadow! Would you take my place in the story, I'm getting married!" (35). He does, and the story continues. Jansson also delights in calling attention to her own artifice by playing with the boundaries of the panels. Many are straight lines, but Jansson also creates the boundary with wood, a tape measure, broom, hose, barbed wire, rope, door, pearls, curtain, and tree. These boundaries create a visual unity by weaving story elements into the layout, but they also break the fourth wall, as items from the narrative step out of the strip and into the frame. Her flexible sense of natural laws offer both humor and narrative opportunity in Moomin, as when, sailing along, the Moomins find a floating crate filled not with whiskey but swear words. (No actual curses appear: scrabbly little creatures personify the rude words.) As Moominpappa explains, "Must be some sailor who's stopped swearing and tossed all his swear words overboard" (39). As a "fun" way to get rid of them, Moominpappa sends the nasty words to Aunt Jane, since "she's always bullying us" (40). This gift does not please their wealthy aunt, who threatens to disinherit them. When Moominpappa explains that they only sent the curses "for fun" and they are in fact "really very fond" of her, Aunt Jane is touched: "Fond? Nobody has ever used that word to me before."

As Aunt Jane's response suggests, Moomin is ultimately about love – the love that nurtures friendship and creates community, the love of creative interplay between words and images, and, above all, the love of laughter. All the more reason to applaud Drawn & Quarterly's publication of this volume, and to eagerly await the volumes to come. Up until now, only one collection of these comics had ever been published in English: Moomin 1 (1957), long out of print, gathered only the first three narratives. Fifty years later, Moomin reacquaints us with the Moomin family's adventures on the comics page. What's more, as the best comic strips do, Moomin should please the young, the old, and everyone in between – children, parents, grandparents. Even Aunt Jane.

Notes

[1] The translation and publication history make establishing a chronology a little tricky. However, Jansson appears to have created these strips before Farlig Midsommar (1954; published in English as Moominsummer Madness, 1955), and after Muminpappans Bravader: Skrivna av Honom Själv (1950; in English as The Exploits of Moominpappa, Described by Himself, 1952; revised version [1968], in English, as Moominpappa's Memoirs, 1994), Trollkarlens Hart (1948; in English as The Happy Moomins, 1951; Finn Family Moomintroll, 1965), Kometjakten (1946; in English as Comet in Moominland, 1951), and Småtrollen och den stora översvämningen (1945; The Little Trolls and the Great Flood, not published in English). Likewise, the strips in volume 1 appear after Hur gick det sen?(1952; in English as The Book About Moomin, Mymble and Little My, 1953), but before Vem ska trösta Knyttet? (1960; in English as Who Will Comfort Toffle?, 1960) and Skurken i muminhuset (1980; An Unwanted Guest, not published in English).

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