[20 July 2009]
Moomin Book Four is the latest installment in Drawn and Quarterly’s collected edition of the comic strip which Tove Jansson created in the 1950s for the syndicate British Associated News. It offers readers a chance to visit a comforting cartoon universe populated by Moomins: trolls who look like anthropomorphized hippos and act like charmingly eccentric cousins. These are all-ages comics: simple enough to be enjoyed by kids, yet with enough philosophical depth to keep adults interested as well.
The Moomin tales are set in Moominvalley, the central characters are the family group Moominpappa, Moominmamma and their child Moomintroll, and they live in a Moominhouse. If you’re already starting to gag this might not be the series for you, because the cuteness factor can be pretty extreme. But if you can get past that, there’s something addictive about these comics: the Moomin universe is a nice place to visit (and remember, these strips were created in the 1950s) and a good antidote to the jangly modern world most of us live in today.
The characters don’t evolve so you can rest assured that Moominpappa will retain his misguided belief that he can repair anything (while his actions demonstrate the opposite, unless by “repair” you mean “render unrecognizable”), Moominmamma will remain unflappable, indulgent, and maternal, and Mummintroll will remain wide-eyed and open for adventure. But while they continue repeating their characteristic behaviors, they’re also self-aware enough to comment philosophically on their lives, and Jansson has a knack for treating serious topics with a light touch.
My favorite in this volume is the delightfully subversive “The Conscientious Moomins” in which a grim visitor from the League of Conscience and Duty tries to make the Moomins dissatisfied with themselves and their paradise on earth. They don’t have to work, life is not a struggle, they’re not wanting for anything—how did they ever get in such a fix? They don’t even seem to hear the menace in the stranger’s warning about money: maybe you think you don’t need money now, but “as soon as you earn some you will need it!” So pretty soon everyone is rushing around trying to find a job and Moominpappa even studies a self-improvement book entitled How to Be a Magnetic Personality—take that, Dale Carnegie! Fortunately they have enough of this pointless getting and spending before any real harm is done and soon return to enjoying the lives they have rather than chasing after some unending goal of “more”.
That’s the basic form of all the stories: they begin and end in the ordinary world and some kind of adventure occurs between, which often involves one or more characters chasing after some sort of false value. In “Moomin and the Golden Tail”, Moomintroll sprouts a tuft of golden hair on his tail which makes him the toast of the town: soon paparazzi are camping out under the bed and the Moomins are being invited to boring parties (best line of the comic: “Who are those strange individuals who are enjoying themselves at a cocktail party?”) with no time to go fishing with his pal, Snufkin. In “Moomin and the Comet” a threatened comet strike turns some people into hucksters and killjoys (“Dancing! When the earth may be doomed!”) rather than enjoying whatever time may be left. On the side of the angels is series regular Little My, who concludes that it was good that a search for buried treasure came to nothing because “sometimes it’s better to look at things than own them ... owning means anxiety and lots of bags to carry around”.
Two tales feature a time machine which the always enterprising Moominpappa inadvertently builds out of a clock and his wife’s sewing machine (he was supposed to be repairing them). In “Moomin Goes Wild West” the family visits the American Wild West, which they hope to be like the movies. It is, but not in the way they expect: it turns out that everything is fake and even the Indians are hired entertainers who present a bill for their services. In “Snorkmaiden Goes Rococo” they visit 18th-century France where for some strange reason everyone speaks modern English. Half the fun in this one is spotting the historical references, so here’s a few to watch for: Fragonard’s painting “The Swing”, the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, and culinary advice from the monarchy to the peasants.
Jansson’s art is nothing spectacular, but she has a distinctive style which is endearing in its clunkiness. The strips are well-presented in a beautifully-produced large-format (8.2” by 11.25”) volume with cream-colored pages and a one-page biography of Jansson by Alisia Grace Chase. All in all, if you have a high tolerance for whimsy you could do worse than to spend a few hours in Moominvalley where nothing really bad ever happens and everything is put to rights by the end of each story. Or as Snorkmaiden puts it after they survive in rapid succession a comet strike, earthquake, and tidal wave: “Didn’t I tell you nothing could happen to Moominvalley?”