Saturday, November 08, 2008

Tove Jansson – ‘Moomin: the Complete Tove Jansson Comic Strip’ (Vols. 1 & 2)

Sorry, I was miles away. Googling ‘Moomin’, finding a whole franchise of which I’d only been dimly aware until recently. Brought about largely by the garish Japanese cartoon from 1990, which triggered what Wikipedia alarmingly calls ‘The Moomin Boom’. Poor Moomin! To suffer commercialisation, to find himself modelled in plastic, printed on t-shirts, emblazoned on the side of Finnish aeroplanes. Surely all of that would only embarrass him? There has also been a counter-boom, bringing him back down to size. There is a 2003 album of songs which ‘became the core for Moomin music in the 1950s and 60s on the theater stage’ (what did the music accompany? The website doesn’t say). There are these Drawn and Quarterly reprints of Moomin as a daily newspaper strip in the 1950s, which I found through Anne Bacheley’s infectiously enthusiastic blog posts about their French translations. Also worth mentioning is the pre-boom Polish stop-animation TV series which I can just about remember from its second UK screening in 1986, though I didn’t like it much then, probably because it wasn’t Battle of the Planets or Knight Rider. Watching it now, it actually is rather lovely, like The Clangers on a bigger and greener planet.

The comic strips ran in The Evening News between 1953-9, until, as Alisia Grace Chase’s afterword says, Jansson ‘realised that the gruelling schedule of a daily and being creative on demand did not suit her meandering attitude towards life’. You wouldn’t guess it from reading them. The daily comic strip is usually quite a constrained medium: its three or four panels make it suitable for short gags, and though its regularity makes continuity possible, you can never be quite sure that your reader saw yesterday’s strip, so each episode also has to make sense in isolation. Maybe there are other examples, but it’s the first time I’ve seen entire stories told in this way (both of these books contain four). They are picaresque tales, loose and episodic, and... the trouble with writing about them like this is that for one thing I’ll only end up boxing them in when they should be free to fly, and for another, it avoids the main thing I want to say, which is that these are the best comic strips I have seen since Douglas so magnificently responded to my request that he find me something jangly to read by producing some extremely rare volumes of Krazy Kat in about 1998.

Almost instantly I fell in love with Krazy’s – well, with his / her meandering attitude towards life (to the extent of not even having a fixed gender), the dumb wordplay, the great gaggles of characters in the 1920s Sunday strips, the lunatic (non)sense it all made. Reading Moomin now is as thrilling as that. There are similar gaggles (stranger here, as Jansson’s creatures are invented, and often cross – I particularly like her authority figures), but otherwise the drawing styles are quite different, Herriman’s lines scratchy where Jansson’s are smooth as she emphasises shape over texture. Or sometimes even design over drawing: there is a lot of detail in some of these strips, the hotel interiors in ‘Moomin on the Riviera’ are beautiful. It is a comic strip of rare good sense, which can remind you how ridiculous society’s expectations are, and how little you need to be bound by them. In ‘Moomin and Family Life’, Moomin reports that ‘Father and Mother have been lost in the spring cleaning!’ and Sniff advises him, ‘There you are, never tidy up,’ but Snufkin sees the truth of it: ‘Have you never wanted to run away from home? Even parents need a change sometimes...’

In the second volume the life lessons are more explicit: ‘Moomin’s Winter Follies’ has Snorkmaiden and Mymble swooning over Mr Brisk, a skiing nut. Which is shocking, because Snorkmaiden is supposed to be Moomin’s girlfriend (except that it isn’t, because she’s always doing this kind of thing). Mymble over-does her attempts to impress Mr Brisk by beating him in a ski jump competition. He gets depressed and sits desolate on a cliff edge, from which Moomin nearly rams him into the abyss until he realises, ‘I can’t. He’s down already.’ In ‘Moomin Begins a New Life’ the inhabitants of Moominvalley are entranced by the Prophet, who teaches them that ‘You’re tied down by traditions and narrow ideas! Do only what you want to do instead!’ Once he has gone Moominmamma wonders, ‘Do you do what you want to do?’ and Moominpappa responds, ‘I don’t know... I’ve never thought about it...’. After he has thought about it, he climbs into a tree with a basket of food and an Agatha Christie novel, and he won’t come down again: ‘No dear, the prophet says we must be free.’

What links these two stories is the satire on the idea of achievement which Mr Brisk and the Prophet share. Mr Brisk is too absorbed in sport to notice the people he impresses whilst doing it (or anyone at all, except competitors who beat him), so what good can it really do him? The Prophet takes an idea, freedom, and wants to see it quantified. It’s as though he’s a government inspector, checking up to see that everyone is sufficiently free – which, as Moominpappa’s justification for staying up his tree implies, is a nonsensical view of freedom. Moominpappa has many nonsensical views. He is the least self-aware character, the most endearing, and the funniest too (I laughed for days at his insistence during ‘Moomin on the Riviera’ that his family refer to themselves as the De Moomins). Taken on his own he is just as flawed as Mr Brisk or the Prophet, but the point about him is that he isn’t on his own, he is part of a family and a community which wouldn’t work nearly so well without him. This is the great thing about the Moomin stories: they draw you in to the fond family circle, but they do it lightly, there’s no obligation. Relax, don’t do what you want to do, be where you feel at home.


Anonymous said...

Oh my word. However did I reach the age of 32 with nary a trace of Moomin in my life?

Thanks for the gift, Chris. I can't believe how bright and wise and funny and sweet the strips are - somehow I always had Moomin down as a cutesy kids thing.

Needless to say, the remaining volumes are now on order.

Chris said...

I was wondering much the same thing. But it'd be rubbish to find everything by the time you were 25, wouldn't it?

Glad you enjoyed it.

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