Moomin Book Four: The Complete Tove Jansson Comic Strip
(Drawn & Quartely)
Adults often have an irresistible urge to fetishize things intended for children. Whether it be the violent smirking at not-so-subtle nods to grown-up humor in Shrek or the sprawling bibliographies of the philosophy of Harry Potter, we, the well post-pubescent, delight in letting each other know just how in touch we are with culture. This fascination with dissecting cartoons, pop-up books, and the like is so widespread that every new Pixar release begs the question, “Was anything besides the medium intended for the thumb-sucking set?”
Nowhere is this contrast more evident than in Tove Jansson’s internationally popular comic Moomin. Having enjoyed almost fifty years of publishing and adaptation in nearly every form of media, Jansson’s Swedish comic has penetrated generations of Nordic Europe and beyond with its quirky humor and sincere ethics. Beginning in 2006, Drawn and Quarterly began collecting Jansson’s serial British manifestation of the comic and recently released this fourth volume.
To appreciate how fully surreal and “adult” the strips in Book Four are, one hardly needs to go beyond a description of the cast of characters. Moomin revolves around a family of trolls (Moominpappa, Moominmamma, and Moomintroll), who look far more like hungry hippos than their conventional, fairy-tale counterparts. As of Book Four, they live in Moominvalley with shy ghosts, tunneling, mute, and ethereal wormish beings named things like Hattifatteners and Snufkin, who is ostensibly the offspring of a Final Fantasy black mage and a pilgrim. It is difficult to flesh out the characters of Moomin as they relate to the strip as Jansson exercises much greater fidelity to her bizarre and endearing thematics than to plots or personality.
By Moomin Book Four the strip is so aggressively anti-realist that it becomes unclear whether or not there are any consistent laws governing the going-ons in the Moomin universe. Time machines can be accidentally built from sewing machines, tidal waves extinguish comets, and the tails of our hippo-troll protagonists may turn into gold given the right ingredients. How is this different than any of the other leaps of whimsy that children’s fiction happily throws itself into?
The Moomin strip is merrily bereft of any logic that would regulate such magical invocation. This absence is made all the more glaring by its framing of what we would consider “real” situations. The Moomin family explores topics of the novelty of romanticism versus the enduring affection of long-term relationships, the merits of a rational, pragmatic work ethic as opposed to a carefree life of simple pleasure, and the pitfalls of debutante lifestyles.
Moomin owes much of its unique brilliance to its inversion of traditional argumentation. Whereas it is not unusual for an essay to recourse to fantastic thought experiment to complement its strict reasoning, Moomin builds strictly verisimilar situations out of an aesthetics of wild illogic. What’s remarkable about the effect of this opposite approach is that it produces similar consequences. By making its world into a fun-house mirror of our own, Moomin is able to penetrate the elaborate semantics that guard against any concise and profound address of social issues. If, for instance, a hippo-troll, a Mymble, and tar-colored biped fox find Enlightenment rationalism to be absurd, who am I to disagree?
Compared to the adult cult ambitions of Shrek and Harry Potter, Moomin exceeds their dual-audience constructions by taking on a form that is really intended for no specific audience. Unlike most children’s fiction, the Moomin strips appear to have very little to offer children. It is verbose and complicated and features very few relatable elements. The child-like structure of the comic is what gives its perspective such power. The difference is that while Shrek and Harry Potter wink at adults and tell them that there is more than meets the eye, Moomin seems somewhat unaware that it is going to be read and instead satisfies itself with playing around in its very free world. Much like the meditation of theoretical science, which resembles the world only incredibly abstractly, Moomin Book Four trumpets the insights won by playing with structure and embracing some suspension of common sense.
Drawn and Quarterly has done an admirable job of collecting the strip in their handsome hardbound volumes. If any critique can be found, it is only that the publisher chose to release
in five thin tomes rather than one or two trades. Alas, our world is not that of the Moomins, and financial concerns intervene. We cannot resolve economic strife through jam bottling, as in ‘The Conscientious Moomins’ story in this collection.