1 The Art of the Comic Strip
This is, you may have noticed, the centenary of Tove Jansson's birth. The creator of the Moomins has been the subject of not one but two biographies published this year (Boel Westin's authorised biography Tove Jansson Life, Art, Words, and Dr Tuula Karjalainen's Tove Jansson: Work and Love), and Philip Pullman, something of a fan, has even claimed she should have won the Nobel Prize for literature, writing that she "responded to the world with a freshness and originality that have hardly ever been matched in the field of children's books".
(In 2012 she was also the subject of a BBC film by Eleanor Yule which I wrote about here.)
Jansson's writing for adults has also been rediscovered in recent years, but it is the Moomins she is still best known for and it was the Moomins - these huge, sweet, cuddly, vaguely hippopotamus-shaped creatures - that made her name. And it was the Moomins comic strip she started writing and drawing for the London Evening News in the 1950s that was key to that fame. Within two years it had been syndicated to 120 newspapers around the world reaching a readership of around 12 million - a reminder of how far reaching comic strips (and newspapers for that matter) were in the middle of the last century.
The publisher Drawn & Quarterly has now published all of Jansson's comic strips together in one deluxe volume; a beautiful, lush presentation of Jansson's art, a suitable setting for a Nobel should-have-been. Admittedly, you need strong wrists to read it. Or a clean table to rest it on.
2 On First Encountering Tove Jansson as an Adult
A confession. I never read Jansson's Moomins comic strips or novels as a child. I think there was a cartoon - Japanese in origin - but that passed me by as well. So the strips prompt no childhood nostalgia in me.
More than that, I bring an adult sensibility to them that may or may not be appropriate. And so when I read about Pimple the dog telling Moominmamma about his little secret - "I only like cats" - the temptation is to map that notion onto some notion of Jansson's own sexuality (she had a brief affair with a married woman, Vivicka Bandler, at a time when homosexuality was still illegal in Finland and later met a fellow artist Tuulikki Pietila and they lived together for decades).
That's a reductive idea of course, and to be honest it doesn't even map very well when you think it through. But such is the danger of a little knowledge.
Would it be better to have read them as a child, to steep yourself into that world without any foreknowledge or prejudices, to simply delight in the meandering rhythm of the comic strip? Probably. It's the reason so many writers admire Jansson. They were exposed to her early.
"I didn't realise it was set in a real place," Frank Cottrell Boyce has said of his own boyish first encounter with the Moomins. "I thought she'd made Finland up. Finland was like Narnia, with these incredible characters that were so strange but instantly recognisable because you had met lots of them - noisy Hemulens or neurotic, skinny Fillijonks."
3 Bohemian Like You
But that doesn't mean I can't find something to respond to in these strips. There's a lovely, human quality to Jansson's creations. She is fascinated by the idea of family, but what that word might represent to her seems thrillingly broad. The presence of relatives can be a nuisance in Moominvalley but the Moomins are happy to welcome waifs and strays such as Little My into the family home.
There is also an easy bohemianism on show here. Pimple's owner Misabel- employed by the Moomin family as a servant - is horrified by their laissez faire attitude to life: "You think everything is fun!" She says at one point. "You don't know life is duty and privation ..."
The Moomins don't agree. Moominpappa is the Moomin version of a manchild, always seeking adventure. Moomintroll is a dreamer, the opposite of an alpha male, and Moominmamma is happy to allow all her family their individuality, even if it can lead to problems. Life is for the living of it.
In short, there is no Protestant work ethic being endorsed here at all.
4 The Delight is in the Detail
The thing that I find myself liking most about the strip, though, are the tiniest of details. An example. The way Jansson divides up the panels according to what is happening in the story. And so barbed wire, rope, even a cartoon tail frame the action.
5 On the Presence of Hard Covers
Hardback remains a form of literary endorsement in our culture. Those things we consider important we print on quality paper and place between thick card. And when we do this with children's material it is both a statement and an assertion. An assertion that this stuff matters. In Jansson's case such an assertion is hardly needed. Even so it's a fine endorsement of the art to be found in what was once seen in a disposable art form. The best comic strips are forever.
Moomin: Deluxe Anniversary Edition is published by Drawn & Quarterly.