Moomin: The Complete Tove Jansson Comic Strip, Book One
Drawn & Quarterly: 96 pp., $19.95
Abandon the Old in Tokyo
Drawn & Quarterly: 194 pp., $19.95
TOVE JANSSON, the Finnish writer, died five years ago at the age of 86. Her best-known creations are the Moomins, a family of hippo-shaped creatures — trolls, she called them — that live in a wooden tower beside a lake in Moominvalley and, with their eccentric friends, have adventures, often involving planet-threatening ecological disasters like floods or comets. Jansson was in some ways the Rachel Carson of the kids-book world, always hip to the big issues. That said, her work is intimate and, though sometimes frightening, finally unthreatening. "Life is like a river. Some sail on it slowly, some quickly, and some capsize," she writes in "Moominvalley in November," one of the eight Moomin novels, which enchant every kid I know who has come in contact with them; her cool, nonchalant wisdom and her alert eye for darkness and danger delight (not to mention educate) adults too.
In Finland, Jansson is a legend, as much a part of daily culture as Nokia, Sibelius and the idlers who congregate outside the state-run liquor stores before the shutters come down on a Saturday afternoon. In Japan, theme parks derive from her fiction. This global fame began not in 1948 with the publication of her breakthrough book, "Finn Family Moomintroll," but in 1953, when a tabloid newspaper, the London Evening News, invited her to create an all-ages Moomin comic strip. This took off immediately and was syndicated worldwide — though not, for some reason, in America. Now, it finally appears here with "Moomin: The Complete Tove Jansson Comic Strip — Book One."
That Jansson should have produced a comic is no surprise. She trained as an artist, did her first work as an artist, came from a family of artists. Her mother illustrated books and magazines; her father was the famous sculptor Victor Jansson. She wrote about them in her "adult" book, the wonderful (and ripe for reprinting) "Sculptor's Daughter." Her family was liberal bohemian, but her father's whims ruled the household, leaving her mother to steady a perpetually unstable domestic boat. This dynamic transposes itself into Moominvalley, where Moominpappa, the dilettante, wears a top hat, engages in the never-ending task of writing his memoirs and thinks life "would be even more wonderful if something exciting and awful happened"; Moominmamma sports an apron, is never without her handbag and responds serenely when those exciting, awful things indeed occur.
The four long stories in this volume (which is the first in a series of five books that will eventually collect the strip's entire run) fill in the gaps in the novels' fertile soil. We see the character Moomintroll's friendship with the loyal but occasionally insufferable Sniff, who, Jansson writes in the novel "Comet in Moominland," forever dreams of money and "shiny things that I can hold and stroke and call my own." We see Moomintroll's attempt to drown himself, resulting in a happy reunion with his father and mother, who, years before, thought they'd lost him forever. We see flocks of tiny and threatening Hattifatteners, milling about aimlessly (a chilling and brilliantly funny metaphor for anxiety) — uninvited houseguests that grow, it turns out, from seeds planted by Snufkin, the heroic wanderer.
Snufkin is a much beloved and charismatic figure, but in Jansson's universe, charisma has unexpected consequences. Good deeds might get punished. Bad ones can likewise have unexpected results. This feels true, doesn't it? There's optimism, sure, but always with complexity. Jansson knew the ugly score and yet creates gorgeous butterflies to fly in its face. Her work soars with lightness and speed, and her drawings only echo her writing: delicate but precise, observant yet suggestive. She always knew what to leave unsaid, what to leave to the reader's imagination. In one episode, Moominpappa transplants the family to the French Riviera, in search of gambling and parties through the night. "Do you think there will be a lot of nobility? How about changing our name to De Moomin?" he wonders. What follows is gorgeous, funny, wise and fast — 20 pages that offer more than most full-length Hollywood features.
Jansson was exceptional, an exuberant explorer of emotional independence and interdependence, a liberating force. After all, the traditional Finnish genius is different. Remember Esa-Pekka Salonen's great gag: "A Finnish introvert stares at his own shoes. A Finnish extrovert stares at yours." Shame is important. Embarrassment and repression too. Ritual. It's why Finns feel at home in Japan; the two societies are in many ways similar. When these people get out there, they really get out there, and when they don't, when the steam builds and builds, watch out. You get the melancholy Moominpappa, excited only by the latest disaster and eagerly taking his family to watch. The situation is reminiscent of the bittersweet world of Jansson's compatriots, the renegade filmmakers Aki and Mika Kaurismaki — or the indelible pages of Japanese gekiga artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi.
Born in Osaka, Tatsumi grew up in depressed and desolate postwar Japan, and started working in comics while still a teenager in the early 1950s. He coined the term gekiga, literally meaning "dramatic pictures," to distinguish the stark and realistic work he published throughout the 1960s and 1970s from the more commercial aesthetic of manga. "Abandon the Old in Tokyo," edited and designed by graphic novelist Adrian Tomine, is the second collection of Tatsumi gekiga to find its way into English. Like its predecessor, "The Push Man and Other Stories," this new collection should come with a health warning: Prepare to be disturbed and blown away. The stuff is remarkable, amazing. Drawing on crime reports and other newspaper stories, Tatsumi deals with life's sour taste when blue-collar guys fail and find themselves in traps. A factory worker loses his arm. A sewer worker's wife has a miscarriage and leaves him. A man abandons his shrewish and sick mother so his girlfriend can move into his apartment. Repression's violent release only makes life worse.
Most of these disasters happen in a superbly realized urban throng and racket (noise actually seems to shake and thunder through many of the frames), although in "The Hole," one of Tatsumi's moon-faced and seemingly passive protagonists makes a rare excursion to the countryside — where he falls into a deep pit and is kept prisoner by a noseless woman with a grudge against men. This tale smacks of a horror that feels both gothic and very contemporary, though on the whole the stories are placed firmly in the underbelly of late 1960s-early 1970s Japanese prosperity. They exude failure and alienation like the stink of cooking oil in a tiny apartment. The style is spare, elliptical and it's sometimes necessary to read two or three times to appreciate the full nightmarish power. But given a richness of visual texture that can at first elude the eye, this is only to the good.
Certain images from Tatsumi's gloomy milieus — a man emerging from the subway, a train roaring through the night, a character walking, alone and seen from the rear, through a darkened alley — inevitably recall the grammar of noir. Still, the overall tone is at once more real and much more desperate. For a literary comparison, think of Georges Simenon at his toughest, or Raymond Carver describing the slow strangulation of dreams and hope. Tatsumi's work is that good, and, like Simenon or Carver, he has immense sympathy for his poor Joes as they go through fate's wringer.
Jansson and Tatsumi: two masters, one from the far north, one from the east; the first joyously focused on life's defiant radiance, the other spelling out the bad luck and grinding cruelty with which that machine otherwise known as the world so often seems to operate. They are, really, flip sides of the same sensibility, point-of-view yin and yang. I like to think that they would have passed each other with a thrilled shock of recognition in the street in Helsinki or Osaka.
The comic book is a genre whose trendy merits are sometimes acclaimed a little too strenuously these days. But not here. Jansson and Tatsumi are the real deal. •
MOOMIN and ABANDON THE OLD IN TOKYO in the LA Times
Moomin: The Complete Tove Jansson Comic Strip, Book One