MOOMIN in Comic Book Resources

“Eisner Nominated Reviews (I Love Led Zeppelin, Hotwire, Moomin, Woodsman Pete)” / Comic Book Resources / MarkAndrew / May 9, 2007

So, Wow! I’m Wikipediaing these Moomin critters and they’re apparently HUGEly popular in Finland. And Denmark. And Russia. And Japan. And the UK. And most of Not-America. There are books about them, a movie, a freaking Moomintroll theme park, even. Strange, then, that I’d never heard of Moomin.

Well, until now. Here’s the first four-complete-stories-worth of the long running Moomin strip, translated into English, an’ stuck in a spiffy looking oversize hardcover. These early fifties srips aren’t the first to feature the Moomins and their literary roots date back even further, to The Moomins and the Great Flood from 1945. But they were certainly one of the driving forces that imbeded these Hippo-lookin’ heroes in European popular consciousness. (Sez Wikipedia.) So. Moomins. Been around a while, very popular. But that doesn’t mean that these strips are any good. And I’m not sure that in this case even “Very well executed” makes it good. At least to my 30 year old and deeply cynical eyes.

The stories, which are definitely intended for all-ages, are ’bout equal parts comedy and adventure. The hero is the Hippo-esque Moomin, pictured above…

Who I guess is supposed to be a troll, and not to be nationalistic or anything, but our good old hairy American trolls are VASTLY superior to your damn junky hippopotamus-resembling foreigner trolls.

Anyway, where was I… family comedy… Oh yeah. Each of the four stories contain one specific adventure. In this book they excise Moomins unwanted guests, fend off the Moomin’s harsh (but very rich) Aunt Jane, take a holiday on the Riviera, and get marooned on a dessert island with pirates. There’s certainly a lot of content in these 95 pages.

The Moomins engaging personalities shine through nicely, but the real star of the show is cartoonist Tove Jansson’s narrative skills. The strips are short; only three to four panels long, with none of ‘em running longer, ala American Sunday Comics. (And in a cute Watchmen-esque touch, each strip begins with Moomin’s plump, plump rumpus, just as pictured above.) But in each and every one of the well over 300 strips Jansen sets up the scene, introduces and spotlights some characteristics of her cast AND advances the overall meta-plot of the big, big story. And THEN the last panel ties it all up with a cliffhanger or punchline. Honestly, I’ve never seen an American comic DO that. The continuitized strips on this side of the pond tend to end weakly and move glacially, and even Real-Time strips like for Better or for Worse often offer up simple character pieces that don’t really tie into any on-going plots.

OK, since it’s a crappy scan, I’ll fill you in on the plot. The Moomins (not pictured) are in hiding, and their rich (and EVIL) Aunt Jane is askin’ Moomin’s buddy Sniff where they are. The relevant points are (A) the beginning of the first strips neatly reprise the beginning of the next strips while every panel advances the narrative, and (B) the especially cool cliffhanger, with Moomin and friends heading towards Aunt Jane with a roll of barbed wire.

So what’s with the discontented tone up above if the cartooning is so top notch? Two things: Some of the language feels a little off. Now this ain’t a UNIQUE problem… The economy of language needed for successful strip cartooning means that every word has to be perfectly chosen in order to maintain the rhythm of the piece. And when translated, y’tend to end up with some linguistic clunkiness. This might be unavoidable, really, but it but it felt particularly noticeable here.

The second problem is the presentation. Like I said, these are VERY good daily comic strips. And this is a problem in itself. Moomin is almost perfectly designed to fit in the daily paper.. And suffers when removed from that environment. Constant re-introduction of the characters and re-setting the scene is needed to keep the daily audience up to speed, but the collected edition reader doesn’t need it, and might find it downright annoying. (Well, he does if the reader is me.) I’d hope that for the next collection Drawn and Quarterly would go with a squatter format, maybe displaying a nice, Garfield-esque two strips per page. This might comes closer to recreating the feeling of reading them in the dailies, and give the page-turning cliffhangers some Oomph.

But all that’s forgiven, ’cause, Hey! Pirates! Awwwww Yeah. Ain’t nothin’ awesomer than Pirates.

So Moomin earns my highest possible recommendation. Of course “Has Pirates in it” *IS* my highest possible recommendation. But kids and comic craft aficionados should eat this up with a spoon. Overall, the sheer mastery of craft overcomes the format an’ translation flubs. And just look at those cute l’il pirates!

(Moomin is nominated for best Collection of Foreign Material and Best Kid’s Comic.)

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