imageOne of the last greatly anticipated works of 2006 has to be the first volume in Drawn and Quarterly's presentation of Tove Jansson's Moomin comic strip, a project for which the North American art-comics community had its appetite whet through a profile of the childrens' book author and cartoonist in an issue of The Comics Journal guest-edited by D&Q's Tom Devlin.
Moomin comes to North American audiences boasting a daunting array of pedigrees: the art evokes shape-conscious children's book drawing that made the Moomins famous, the strips are paced and designed a bit like the odder 1950s thin-line offbeat newspaper strip, and they were a hit with audiences overseas, a rich European comics landscape that remains largely unknown to American tastemakers. It is a strange creature that is walking up on shore, and one we should all look forward to meeting.
Drawn and Quarterly's effort is spearheaded by the aforementioned Tom Devlin, a well-regarded art director, editor, sometimes-cartoonist and once-upon-a-time publisher. I spoke to Tom about bringing these comics to a new readership and some of the choices he's made in its presentation.
TOM SPURGEON: Can you talk about how you personally discovered the Moomin material?
TOM DEVLIN: I'm not one of those people who were raised on the chapter books. I actually first encountered the characters in a Tom Hart minicomic. I believe that Megan Kelso elaborated on the Moomin mystique and eventually Dylan Horrocks handed me a photocopy of the only English collection which I believe he got from Paul Gravett. I would actually occasionally make copies of the book to give to friends. I'm pretty sure when I got the comic I still hadn't read the chapter books.
I immediately loved the artwork. Her designs are perfect -- waves, trees, incidental characters. I was really surprised that I hadn't heard of this strip before. And the stories were hilarious and odd and sarcastic. It really struck me as a perfect comic strip.
SPURGEON: Where did the comics material fit into Jansson's overall output?
DEVLIN: It seems she had already written four of the chapter books (The Little Trolls and the Great Flood, Comet in Moominland, Finn Family Moomintroll, The Exploits of Moominpappa) and a picture book (The Book about Moomin, Mymble and Little My) when the London Evening News approached her in the early 1950s to do a comic strip. She had initially done a comic strip version of Comet in Moominland in the Finnish-Swedish paper called Ny Tid but this would be new material. From the pencil roughs that I've seen, it looks like Tove wrote the strips in English and then translated them back to Finnish later. As far as I can tell it seems that Jansson would look at each project as an equal part of the Moomin stories whether it was the chapter books, picture books, or comics.
SPURGEON: How did you secure rights? Was it difficult?
DEVLIN: Getting the rights was relatively easy. I wrote a couple of people and eventually happened upon the Moomin Museum and they put me in touch with Bulls who control the comic rights. They've been easy to work with, approving formats, promotional plans all that sort of thing. They provide me with CDs of the artwork.
SPURGEON:What's the scope of the project as you've been able to work it out?
DEVLIN: As it stands now, we'll just do the Tove work (five volumes) and see how that goes. There's an excellent illustrated biography by Juhani Tolvanen that we may translate at some point and it's possible that we may eventually reprint the strip that Tove's brother Lars did when she stopped (but it's hard to be sure right now.) Lars actually helped write a couple of the last adventures that Tove drew. Tove then handed the strip over to Lars and he carried it on well into the 80s. The story goes that Lars taught himself to draw in order to carry on the strip.
SPURGEON: Has there been a lot of anticipation for the book?
DEVLIN: There was quite a ruckus when we announced the book. I heard from cartoonists I hadn't heard from in ages. A couple of Finnish papers called for interviews. It seems like there are little pockets of fans out there. We're going back to print this weekend and the book hasn't even hit bookstores yet. We also ended up selling a lot of books in the UK -- which shouldn't be a total surprise, I guess.
SPURGEON: Is the work in this first book typical of all the work to come?
DEVLIN: I haven't read too much more of the strip actually. I'm working on the next book now and it does seem like Tove had all the distinctive Moomin ideas in place. The books really seem to reflect her upbringing and views on the world whether they're prose or comics. The story lengths vary slightly ranging anywhere from 51 to 109 days.
SPURGEON: Was there a translation involved?
DEVLIN: No translation. The strips we got were in English which since it ran in a paper in London makes total sense. We did some cleanup and had to reletter one strip that oddly used a font (perhaps there were last minute editorial changes in 1953).
SPURGEON: Can you talk about your decisions as to how you're presenting this material? The way most strips are being done these days is in a smaller style, while this one is almost a full-magazine shape in terms of page surface. Can you unpack some of your design choices?
DEVLIN: I guess I wanted a nice oversized slim book. I didn't want Moomin to slot in with all the other reprint series.
While Moomin was created as a strip for adults, I wanted to take advantage of the fact that the chapter books can be found in the children's sections of many book stores so I wanted something that would eventually be filed there. I thought that a fat oblong book might be a bit daunting for a kid as well and that they might find this shape pleasing. Finally, I wanted to create something that would take a little bit of time to read (there are four-five adventures per volume) but not too much time. I was very worried about creating a book that people might not finish before the next volume came out.
SPURGEON: How would you describe the strip in terms of what you think works best about it? Make the case for its best qualities.
DEVLIN: Well, the first thing is the design of the strip. Every character and object is just so wonderfully conceived and fun to look at. Comics still had a little bit of detail in those days. And Jansson is a master of patterning whether it's flowers, hattifatteners, or treebark. She manages to really stretch out in that limited space. Strip 76 in the first story of Book One shows that really well, as Moomin runs down a length of meandering beach. And she really gets a lot of physical comedy out of those roly-poly Moomins. But besides the strips just being fun to look at Jansson writes wonderfully tight little adventures that are packed with timeless social commentary and funny situations (rather than punchlines). Typically, the outside world confounds the Moomin family and they ineptly try to deal with it. The situations aren't just sitcom bland, though. I think she creates a world that's mostly very sweet but she undermines it a little with selfishness and loneliness. It's pretty complex and probably closer to real life than a lot of stories.
SPURGEON: I understand the sense of multiple characters as a reflection of a childhood with family in a beach area, but I also find it interesting that a lot of the strips put the Moomins on the wrong side of the tracks, foraging, looking for money. Can you talk about some of the personal symbolism that finds its way into the comics?
DEVLIN: Well, from what I know about Jansson's upbringing (mostly from reading her childhood fantasy-memoir, The Sculptor's Daughter) it was very bohemian. Both parents were artists and there seemed to be a lot of parties. I get the feeling that they weren't that well off financially but I couldn't say for sure. I tend to think that Jansson liked to introduce conflict into the sweetness to liven things up a bit.