Moomin: The Complete Comic Strip Volume 4
by Tove Jansson
Drawn & Quarterly
I genuinely can’t remember if I’ve ever read any Moomin tales before or whether I just know of them in some pop culture generalist knowledge base. I may have read them as a child, picking them up along with Tintin and Asterix books in the local library. I may not.
But whether I’d read them before or not, the simple imagery of the Moomins; hippopotomous nosed white troll creatures, with wide open eyes full of innocence is something deep in my cultural memory and, I’d imagine, yours as well. At first glance, it’s the simplicity of Jansson’s artwork that entices you into the book. It looks just like a classic old strip should look and just to add to the effect, Drawn & Quarterly have printed it on a subtle yellow page, making it immediately feel of some other time.
Reading the Moomin strips with a child is as delightful as you feel it should be. With the emphasis is on the loveable Moomin family and their adventures, Jansson always ensures her strips are full of wonderfully fantastical situations: The time machine taking them back to the Wild West, Moominmama’s quest for romance dressed up in full 18th Century French wig and ringlets or Moominpapa’s quest for a perfect tail. And it’s these that children love (or at least mine did).
(The Moomins get themselves ready for a trip back to the Wild West. Using a time machine Moomin-papa’s rigged up accidentally from the clock and the sewing machine naturally. From Moomin Volume 4 by Tove Jansson.)
But reading Moomin as an adult is a very different experience. Tove Jansson’s observations of the world around her fifty years ago now are obviously enchanting whimsy for children, with the incredibly cutesy Moomin family and their adventures, but there’s also a darker undertone to it all that Jansson explores. The Moomins are the dreamers of their world; complete innocents used to make poignant and critical comments about modern life. And although these strips were drawn by Jansson back in the 50s they still resonate today; with themes of social mobility, an environmental message, rejection of the rampant consumerist lifestyle and most of all, the fear and distrust that the outside world harbours towards anyone daring to be simply happy, free and without a care. The Moomins represent freedom, optimism and hope for the future, true innocents abroad.
The perfect distillation of this and my favourite moment in the book comes in the middle story: “The Conscientious Moomins”. A member of “The League Of Conscience And Duty” comes to the Moomin’s front door, all dour and dressed in black, the puritan spirit writ large:
(Moomins meet The League Of Conscience And Duty. Real life rudely impinges upon the Moomin utopia for at least a while. From Moomin Volume 4.)
“So you do not work, to you life is not even a struggle”
“You earn no money!”
“We need very little”
“As soon as you earn some you will need it”
So Moominpapa, wracked with guilt, decides that “Ours shall be a life of industry and privation” and begins his quest for a job and a life of misery, soon followed by Moominmama and Moomintroll, all attacking the problem with typically Moomin-like innocence and all finding that they really aren’t cut out for life this way. It’s littered with comedy moments, as each Moomin comes up against the realities of the real world in some way and finds themsleves wanting. But the Moomin’s sense of freedom and optimism always finds a way until all of them are reunited, manoeuvred into giving up their lives of duty and thoroughly enjoying the simple life once more.
And to me, that’s the spirit of the Moomin books; a lesson on the way we could all live our lives a little simpler, with a little less driving ambition and perhaps just a moment to stop and realise how lucky we all are just to be here.
The one proviso with the Moomin comic strip is that it’s one of those things that reads far better is small chunks. Taken together, the whole thing gets a little bit too samey and repeated ideas and feelings are far too noticeable. But take each strip on it’s own and the delights are palpable.
Moomin: The Complete Tove Jansson Comic Strip is being reprinted in it’s entirety by Drawn & Quarterly. They’re up to Volume 4 and it’s another one of those wonderful books that speaks so well to all ages. Children will love it for the simplicity and the adventure. Adults will find it far deeper and far more relevant to life today than they’d ever have dreamed from their ideas of the fat little white hippo-trolls they may remember from years gone by.