New World Finn | K. A. Laity | March 2, 2007
Moomin Book One in New World Finn
The world of Moomin Valley has won fans around the world for its tales of gently eccentric folks, from the sweet Moomintroll family to the persnickety Hemulens and the enigmatic Groke. Author Tove Jansson spun stories of the singular world where lessons of sympathy and thoughtfulness arise effortlessly from the events without moralizing or finger-pointing. Her characters lead by example, and their tales have found fans in many countries. The Moomins proved so popular in England that a newspaper publisher commissioned a comic strip to delight readers. Unlike the books, these comic strips have not been available to fans in the United States and Canada.
It was with great delight that I heard Drawn & Quarterly (drawnandquaterly.com) would be publishing Tove Jansson’s comic strips featuring her beloved Moomins. Although held in high esteem among comics fans, D&Q doesn’t have the high profile of mainstream publishers like HarperCollins or Random House. What they do have is design sense and a recognition of rare talent. Their books are always exquisite, beautiful works of art with gorgeous coloring. They publish artists whose work has won fans and prizes across the world, from Julie Doucet and Debbie Dreschler to David B. and Chris Ware. If anyone could capture the beauty of Jansson’s comics work, it’s the folks at D&Q.
Sure enough, the book itself proves to be a beautiful object—one of which Jansson would surely approve. The wrap-around illustration on the cover introduces us to a good number of the Moomin folk, including Moomintroll himself looking characteristically apprehensive. The first volume reprints the stories “Brigands,” “Family Life,” Moomin on the Riviera” and “Moomin’s Desert Island.” For folks like me who have seen, at most, an occasional strip here and there, the collection is a real treasure trove of stories with the Moomins and their friends that will supplement the dog-eared story books sitting on the shelves of so many Finnish-Americans.
In the strips we’re treated to much more of Jansson’s visual storytelling. While the chapter books feature a good bit of artwork (and wouldn’t be the same without it!), the comics allow her pen to soar imaginatively across the page and the delight is evident in every panel. Jansson has been celebrated so long as a writer, it’s almost a shock to remember what an amazing artist she is. Each of these stories starts with the same circular image—Moomintroll’s behind! In the first story the caption reads “What’s this?” A dizzy looking Moomin explains in the next panel that he has been attempting to stand on his head. In the fourth story, the same impish figure features a balloon asking “Heads or tails?” While we’re clearly seeing Moomin’s tail, we find he’s also tossing a coin to decide whether the family would picnic that day.
This playfulness fills the panels, where picture elements—whether trees, bones or flags—often become the lines between panels, giving a wholeness to each row of panels even as the sequence of events unfold. The stories veer from the homey problems like too many houseguests and the complications of Sniff’s plans to get rich, to truly exotic situations like the family vacationing with movie stars along the Riviera or meeting pirates on a desert island. Yet the Moomins remain our familiar figures—Papa still dreams of adventure and the Snorkmaiden of glamour, while Moomin Mama tries to make even the strangest places feel like home, and Snufkin grumbles and goes his own way.
The inventiveness of Jansson’s imagination is clear. Consider the first story: we begin with Moomintroll overwhelmed by houseguests. Sniff’s crazy suggestions for getting the relations to move on include everything from flooding the house to bringing in the voracious Stinky. He lands Moomintroll in jail, then they make an elixir of life that has many surprising effects on small creatures and old women. After forays through fortune-telling and modern art (with a sly commentary from art school veteran Jansson), the two end up just about back where they started—yet almost everything has changed! The simple yet expressive drawings charm the reader every step of the way.
These beautiful collections from D&Q will bring the Moomins to a new audience. First commissioned for the London Evening News in 1954, the strips quickly gained fans and publication in forty countries around the world—but not here! It’s hard to believe that we have been deprived so long. But the long drought is over at last—and there’s always room for more friends at the house in Moomin Valley.