Tove Jansson is a member of Finland’s Swedish-speaking minority who rose to international fame due to her “Moomin”-based youth comic strips. Her character, Moomin (or, as he was originally billed in Swedish, Mumintroll) and his family look like a cross between somewhat anthropomorphic hippopotami and one of the title characters from Jeff Smith’s excellent fantasy comic, Bone.
Despite Jansson comics predate Smith’s Bone by decades. The subject of this review, Moomin’s Desert Island was originally published in comic strip form way back in the year of 1955.
It could be that there is something lost in the translation from the original Finnish/ Swedish, or it could be the mere fact that comics and children’s stories have changed a lot since 1955 (for example, some older Mickey Mouse comics actually feature the happy cartoon rodent carrying a pistol). Whatever the reason, Moomin’s Desert Island hardly feels like any current kid’s story in certain points and, in the modern world’s sanitized version of where our food comes from, one must wonder how average the somewhat dark undercurrents of the story were for the zeitgeist of the time.
Perhaps Finland’s rural children were not so alarmed. And perhaps the message is a good lesson for today’s children of certain means, who are far removed from the natural world.
This is not to say that Moomin’s Desert Island is any kind of “mature” title, or something more akin to DC Comics’ disturbing Beautiful Stories for Ugly Children. On the contrary, Moomin’s Desert Island, a story of Moomin and his family being temporarily stranded on a strange plot of land in shark-infested waters, is rife with positive ideals, like family togetherness and the urge to help one’s friends and family through a rough time.
On the other hand, there are many frames and, in fact, entire pages that could cause any parent (or even casual reader) to raise their eyebrows. These moments begin when the family’s living helicopter friend abandons them on the island on page nine and continues on page ten when Moominmamma (Moomin’s appropriately-named mother) decides to stalk, kill, slaughter and cook a wild boar (which is equally as anthropomorphic and articulate as Moomin’s family) so that the castaway’s can have something to eat.
These surreally oddball moments don’t end there, either as the pig’s wife is soon asked “Can’t you forgive us for eating your husband?” and replies “When I come to think of it – yes. In fact he was an awful bore.” Somehow that makes such an act forgivable on this island, making one wonder if Moomin and family managed to get stuck on the Island from Lost and are now amongst “The Others”.
The subsequent pages include the unearthing of Moomin’s mummified (yet somehow still living) ancestors, who have maintained the strange tradition of leading ships to crash by creating false beacons. This act adds a couple of “manly” pirates to the cast along with their former captive Mymble, who suffers from the worst case of Stockholm Syndrome I have ever seen on the gridded page (it must have been a scream to read in the original Swedish). This is, of course, much to the chagrin of Moomin’s tag-along girlfriend Snorkmaiden who is instantly jealous of the “beautiful” Mymble.
With this many characters, including Moominpappa, a Professor, to go with the “Ginger” haired Mymble and a series of dolphins, sharks and other cute animals (not all of whom end up barbequed for dinner), it’s hard to really understand who these creatures are and how they relate to each other without some kind of glossary (which is not provided). It’s safe to say that Moomin’s Desert Island is hardly the fabled “jumping on point” for new comics fans, although comprehension is aided by Moomin’s Wikipedia page (which, last time I checked, had not been yet launched back in 1955).
That said, the artwork is enchanting and rather adorable with simplicity in character, but complexity and detail in many backgrounds. Jansson is skilled at knowing what to detail and what to leave simple, as if she knew exactly how to focus the eyes of a child on the characters, scenes and objects that she wants. This alone works excellently for those parents reading these comics to their ostensible target market, children of four to ten years.
In fact, the sturdy construction of the cover with the thick pages does make the book ideal for those ages, however, mom and dad might have some explaining to do when Moominmamma kills a cute, talking pig and the family all gathers around to get drunk on the pirates’ recovered rum supply. (After, of course, the gardening is done. One must not rush to drink their rum.) While these moments are made explicitly clear, other dark parts are only suggested as we lead up to our happy ending.
Again, this is not to say that Moomin’s Desert Island is some too-dark exercise in bizarre children’s fantasy that is sure to give nightmares for weeks. In fact, the story can often be enchanting and is truly never boring at any point. While Moomin’s Desert Island can be confusing for new readers and a bit too simple for the older “young adult” crowd, this collection does represent a well-done story from an artist who earned her fame, including the Hans Christian Andersen Medal in 1966, well. That said, parental guidance is suggested.