Tove Jansson was born in Helsinki in 1914. Her family belonged to a small group of Swedish speakers who lived in the Grand Duchy of Finland which, until 1917, was ruled by the Russian Empire. To say Tove was born to become an artist might be a cliché, but it certainly makes sense given, that Jansson’s father, Viktor, was a Swedish sculptor, and her mother, Signe, a prominent illustrator and graphic designer.
Her childhood was marked by events both extraordinary and heartbreaking, the former of which included having a pet monkey called Poppolino. The latter had more to do with the unstable situation of Finland under the Russian Empire, and a subsequent Civil War that broke as the country fought for its independence.
While it’s almost impossible to pinpoint just one reason why people go into the arts, there were two key moments in Tove’s life that made her realize her potential. The first happened when her mother asked her to help her finish an illustration work she wasn’t able to complete; the second was when she decided to create characters to help her younger brother understand the political chaos that surrounded them.
Having realized she had a gift for creating effortlessly charming illustrations and also a natural talent for storytelling, she created the Moomin, a family of fantastical creatures with large round snouts that make them look like hippopotamuses, and a free-spirited world view that often makes them seem careless. The Moomin family is formed by the father, Moominpappa, the mother Moominmamma and the young Moomintroll. While the father tends to be more relaxed and likes to spend his time writing and discussing the more important issues of life, the mother tends to run the house and imposes order where it has disappeared. The Moomintroll possesses a desire for adventure that more often than not gets him in trouble, yet he always tries to find the most optimistic way out.
Jansson’s first book The Moomins and the Great Flood was published in 1945 and became an almost instant success that was translated into countless languages, and gave path to almost a dozen more books and a comic strip that ran from 1954 to 1975, which has now been collected in a luxury tome titled Moomin: The Deluxe Anniversary Edition, to coincide with the centennial of Jansson’s birth.
To call this edition gargantuan would be an understatement, since at a whopping 448 pages and six pounds, not only is it quite impressive from a physical point of view, but it’s also overwhelming in terms of “where to start reading it”. Organized in chronological order, the comic strips feature commentary that inform us, for example, that before its run in the London paper The Evening News, the strip was given a short chance at life in political magazine called Ny Tid, which was published for the Swedish speakers in Finland. Historically, what’s most important about this transition from book, to political magazine, to daily newspaper is that Moomin went from being a children’s character, into something much more universal and adult.
Because the strips don’t necessarily follow long plots, it’s easy for anyone to approach them for the first time without feeling intimidated, the characters’ round faces and kind eyes make them welcoming, which is why the series became so beloved by children (there’s a Finnish theme park named after them). But while the children might laugh at the simplicity of the non-sequiturs uttered by the characters they like so much, adults will inevitably be drawn to the droll sense of humor and their unique brand of optimism, which is based not on idealistic notions and delusion, but on something akin to hedonistic nihilism.
It’s common to see the Moomin characters engage in violent activities, when Moominmamma tries to defend her son’s behavior by telling someone her son didn’t mean to kill him, Jansson focuses on the angered Moomintroll who grunts “yes I did”. It’s a moment both hilarious and quite dark, considering the same character whose life was just threatened is later denied a keg of rum for his misbehavior.
Moomin: The Deluxe Anniversary Edition feels quite similar to the collection of Charles Schulz’s The Complete Peanuts which similarly compiled Charlie Brown’s gang’s misadventures throughout the years and made readers realize how the protagonists’ existentialism, which was adorable and sometimes dismissible in the small doses of daily newspaper publication, suddenly takes on a more epic feel when seen as a larger project. Jansson, like Schulz seems to have been putting more emphasis into pointing out that the characters’ complexity was in their minds and not in their shapes, which were also quite delightful to observe.
Moomin: The Deluxe Anniversary Edition is a compilation that serves longtime fans of Jansson, as much as it should engage newbies, who will undoubtedly have a hard time putting the book down. One would think that the fact that they are black and white illustrations would render them monotonous at some point, but Jansson’s greatest talent always lied in coloring our thoughts, not coloring cartoons.
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