Drawn and Quarterly is celebrating the 100th anniversary of Tove Jansson’s birth with Moomin: The Deluxe Anniversary Edition, a beautiful, slipcased book that collects all the Moomin comics drawn by Jansson in a single oversized volume.
The Moomin comics were sort of hiding in plain sight: Jansson’s fanciful, hippo-like creatures appeared in children’s books (originally published in Swedish and quickly translated into English) and an animated television series, but for some reason the comics, which were originally published in English in The London Evening News, were not only out of print but rare. In the introduction to this book, Drawn and Quarterly creative director Tom Devlin tells of how he discovered the comics: Dylan Horrocks gave him a photocopy of the first English collection, which Horrocks in turn had gotten from critic Paul Gravett. There’s an almost mythical aspect to that story, and it makes a fine introduction to the comics.
If you already know of the Moomins, this book may be redundant; it collects all the strips written by Jansson, which Drawn and Quarterly has already published as separate volumes. On the other hand, you might want this book all the more because of its deluxe presentation: It’s a beautiful, oversized volume, with a new introduction by Devlin, reflections by several creators, including Horrocks and James Kochalka, and 25 pages of Jansson’s ink sketches, which are quite rare, coming as they do from an era when comic art was routinely discarded after publication.
For those of us who are, like me, new to the Moomins, it’s a bit overwhelming on first approach, but the comics quickly pulled me in. They are children’s comics all right, with fanciful characters and an absence of “adult” themes, but there is a sophistication to them that adults can appreciate. The stories are episodic and a bit choppy, as one would expect from a newspaper comic strip, but they also have a weirdly dark edge. In one story, Moomin, the main character, is reunited with his long-lost parents (it’s not clear from the strip how or why they were separated), but within a short time, his father, Moominpapa, gets bored and drags Moominmamma off to a cave without any warning to Moomin. Moominmamma is distressed by this but Moominpapa (who craves both whiskey and excitement) isn’t having any and thinks it will do the boy good to be left alone. In the end (spoilers!) everyone gets back together again, but it’s a bit disturbing to read as an adult—especially as the comic starts with Moomin trying to drown himself because he is lonely.
Jansson fills the comics with oddball side characters and imaginative little details, and her draftsmanship is amazing. Although the Moomins appear to be a simple collection of curves, Jansson brings a full range of emotions to their faces with just a few strokes. She often fills her panels with complicated, carefully drawn backgrounds that echo traditional Scandinavian design, with flowers and other motifs that are derived from nature but not quite natural. She also does some clever things with the comic strip format, occasionally using images from the story (guns, chains, a garden hose) to form the panel borders. The last few stories in the book are drawn by Jansson’s brother, Lars, who ended up taking over the strip completely in 1961.
Like most collections of comic strips, this is a book to dip into from time to time, not read cover to cover. It’s broken into chapters, and even within the chapters, the stories are episodic. Nonetheless, it’s a surprisingly meaty comic that bears re-reading, and this beautifully produced collection is an excellent way to experience them, whether for the first time or the fortieth.