August 24, 2009
August 12, 2009
To the delight of Anglophone Moomin fans everywhere, Montréal's Drawn and Quarterly have published the fourth volume of the classic Moomin comic strip. Originally created by artist and writer Tove Jansson (1914 — 2001) at the request of the British Associated Newspapers comic strip syndicate in 1953, the strips have since appeared in some 120 publications in 40 countries, reaching over 20 million readers daily worldwide: likely the most successful Finnish comic ever published. The D&Q reprint, published in yearly instalments since 2006, provides readers with no knowledge of Swedish with an excellent introduction to the world of the Moomin trolls, having been created specifically for an international audience.
The quarto hardcover volume, largely resembling the classic Scandinavian ones, is quite beautiful in itself; printed on thick paper subtly tinted light yellow with pictorial cloth grain paper covers. Unnumbered, distinguished (as the previous three) mainly by the colour of its spine, and slightly different jacket bands, it features the same introductory essay by art professor Alisia Grace Chase as do its companions, as well as an impressed quote on the back board, unique for each volume. The sole complaint would be the utter lack of bibliographical information; particularly pertinent to the fourth volume which collects the first stories written by Tove's younger brother Lars Jansson between 1957 and 1958. Nevertheless, the thoughtfulness and philosophical slant of the Jansson's stories will likely be enough to keep parents awake long after the little ones have gone to sleep.
Tove Jansson's brilliant Moomin novels — from which the settings and characters of the comic are drawn — are considered classics for readers of all ages, though unfortunately many adult readers entirely miss the references to the adult world, the parody and satire of its culture. They helped usher in a golden age of Swedish children's literature, with the first being published in 1945, the same year the other two giants of Swedish kid-lit, Lennart Hellsing (Krakel Spektakel) and Astrid Lindgren (Pippi Longstocking), published their first works. The popularity of the Moomin trolls and their escapades have made Tove Jansson the most read Swedish-speaking Finnish writer, translated into 34 languages, with the comic strip introducing readers far beyond Scandinavian shores to the happy-go-lucky troll family.
The Moomin valley is a paradisiacal utopia with touches of both enchanted exoticism and familiar - from a Scandinavian perspective - coastal archipelago. The stories, in the novels as well as the comic, are characterised by their dynamic alternation between the sheltered life in Moominmamma's aegis and various threatening perils and catastrophes, the plot only lightly obscuring various existential queries. It's perhaps their anarchy that captivates in particular; the Moomin trolls continuously challenge and break with convention. Like a Winnie-the-Pooh with brains, they appear completely devoid of that particular gene that encourages practically everyone else to cower before authority.
In this volume, the Moomin family's adventures commence when Moominpappa decides to simultaneously repair Moominmamma's sewing machine and the family clock. Neither need repairing, but Moominpappa feels that as the man about the house, repairing them is precisely the kind of thing he should be doing. In the process he manages to inadvertently construct a time machine. And as there's few things the Moomin family like better than an outing — complete with a picnic basket prepared by Moominmamma — they're soon off on adventure. First they travel to the Wild West, which isn't quite as they expect it to be. Its settlers are less concerned with adventure than getting the time-travelling trolls off their property and keeping them away from the cattle, while its natives seem entirely preoccupied with commerce. Eighteenth century Moominvalley proves equally unromantic, its inhabitants so persistently preoccupied with either reason or etiquette they actually accomplish very little of essence.
"I'm off to the shore.
Think of all the seashells
we haven't found yet."
Though the Moomins set off with good intentions, they can't help but alter the past, the most important lessons learned being that bygone days are rarely what one imagines them to be, and that the Moomins can scarcely inhabit a past era when they are considered too liberal and emancipated even in their own. As if aware of this constant (and obvious) criticism aimed a their creation, the Janssons address the Moomins perceived lack of responsibility in the episode on conscientiousness. The family of bohemian trolls try hard, though not successfully, to conform with societal norms - and it's Snufkin (Moominvalley's proto-slacker) to the rescue. The most apprehensive, and perhaps therefore most rewritten story, is Moomin and the Comet, the comic strip version of the second Moomin novel, Kometjakten (Comet in Moominland).
Originally published in 1946, and finally rewritten in 1968 as Kometen kommer, it was in fact the basis for the very first Moomin comic strip, which ran in Folktidningen Ny Tid (at the time a publication belonging to what practically was the Finnish Communist Party) between October 1947 and April 1948 (collected in a book as Jorden går under! (Moomintroll and the End of the World) in 2007). The comic version included in this volume, originally published in 1958, shares the premise of a comet apparently heading for the Moomin valley, though the details of the plot are quite different. However, at its core it remains an allegory of nuclear warfare, constructed in a manner similar to the very first Moomin novel, Småtrollen och den stora översvämmningen (The Moomins and the Great Flood), which sought to provide an outlet for the anxiety war and invasion causes in the minds of those not quite yet grown-up enough to grapple with the complexities of such conflict.
Though the Moomins can currently be found on sneakers, towels, mugs, jewellery, t-shirts, pens, stationary, beverages, as a variety of toys, in their very own Moomin World near Naantali (drawing some 220,000 visitors yearly during the two summer months it's open), a museum in Tampere - and besides the novels and comics even in a cook book - they're not quite as common currency as other children's favourites from around the world. Moomin Characters, chaired by Lars Jansson's daughter Sophia, is charged with protecting the Moomin legacy and tends to be quite strict with how the characters can be applied. Not that continuing in Tove's spirit has hindered the company from becoming one of Finland's most successful businesses, with a yearly turnover of nearly C$ 3 million. Disney did offer to buy at one point, but was turned down. The Moomin trolls aren't an expansive venture, after all. The interest in them may be international but far from global, the core audience residing mainly in Scandinavia, Japan, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, and to a somewhat smaller extent in Germany, Great Britain, and Poland.
"It's sometimes better to
look at things than own them.
Owning means anxiety and
lots of bags to carry around."
Tove Jansson delighted in scaring those even smaller and more frightened than she was herself. She didn't enjoy being an idol, and imagined inhabiting a gilded pedestal rather dull. Like most of the greatest children's writers she wasn't one for sitting around telling stories to litters of little kids. Her father, sculptor Viktor Jansson, was a bohemian artist who desired to create freely, without much concern for the economics of family survival. It was Jansson's mother, Signe Hammarsten-Jansson, who put food on the family's table through her commercial work as an illustrator and cartoonist (she designed 173 Finnish postage stamps, as well as bank notes and bonds). Young Tove too, though encouraged to indulge her talent and imagination, felt pressure to contribute.
Which may perhaps explain why she turned her family environment into the playful fantasy that is Moominvalley, a place where work and responsibilities have a remarkably small presence. With the exception of Moominmamma of course, constantly attending to the welfare of her family, their various relatives, friends, guests, and acquaintances. Quietly working in the background, she's always prepared to lend an ear or extend a comforting embrace, a measured voice of reason in their midst. Though Tove made the Moomins' indifference to material possessions a key part of their charm, she also steered clear of idealising their bohemian lifestyle. Making the Moomins not only ideal observers of modern capitalist society, but also of the "alternatives" that regularly populate its fringes.
Despite publishing thirteen books that had nothing to with Moomin trolls, they remain Tove's most famous creation. Throughout her artistic life she'd remain torn between trolls and paintings, between duty and the desire to create something new. As the Moomins grew (clearly discernible to those who compare the trolls' waistline in the 1940s to that of the late 1960s) they sapped more of their creator's energy, their success smothering her. Trollvinter (Moominland in Midwinter), the sixth novel published in 1957, is generally viewed as a pivotal moment. Suddenly, there were serious problems in Moominvalley, there was more fear, more brooding, and more introspection, as Moomintroll, having woken up from hibernation in the middle of winter, was forced to deal with his loneliness and make his own way until spring with his family still deep in sleep all around him.
Though Jansson occasionally referred to the trolls as an "artistic straightjacket," the reality of her relationship with them wasn't as black and white, just as things never are in Moominvalley. Though she sought the kind of privacy popular artists can rarely have, she was involved in the commercialisation of her creation right from the very beginning: as early as the 1950s there were Moomin toys, bed sheets, curtains, wallpaper, wrapping paper, neckties, candles, mugs and plates. The Moomin comic strip began its regular run in London's Evening News on September 20, 1954. Tove enjoyed the assignment at first, as it entailed a steady income, euphorically confiding to her brother Lars that the paper only demanded six strips per week. But with time, the work became a chore of constantly looming deadlines, and after struggling alone for five years Tove enlisted the help of Lars.
For the most part her travails aren't easily discerned in the comics themselves, except in the final episode included in this volume, which deals with sudden celebrity. It's the volume's most personal story, the last written by Tove before her brother took over — though she illustrated another seven stories Lars wrote — but it's by no means gloomier than the rest. Tove genially satirised her own life, family, and career, as well as everything around her in the guise of the softly rounded Moomin world. Though regardless of how many cuddly toys the carefree family of trolls have inspired, Tove's images always contained a little darkness. Black crags surround the flower filled meadows (a truly Scandinavian image), looming shadows fall on a blooming corner of the garden.
Overall, Tove's and Lars' comic strips remained cheerful, simple, and elegant, with as many references to ancient myths as to contemporary pulp fiction. Even without delving into the underlying significance of the stories, the drawings themselves are rewarding to study - despite methodically sticking to three frames per panel. Their playful framing breaking the fourth wall, the simple lines of the Moomins' noses and eyes, their ability to express a wide range of emotions with a simple cocking of a hat, a concerned eyebrow, a curious ear, or two happy eyes being some of the many reasons generations of children and adults alike have cherished immersing themselves in the tales of Moominvalley: a world so different yet so similar to our own.