“Two hundred thousand. That’s a serious number.”
Tom Devlin, creative director at Montreal comics publisher Drawn & Quarterly, is talking at his desk in the company’s bustling open-plan office on the eighth floor of a well-appointed converted warehouse in the industrial zone by the tracks just north of Mile End.
The serious figure he’s quoting refers to the number of Tove Jansson books the company has sold. Devlin’s tone indicates that he can’t quite believe it himself, but the ledgers don’t lie. Our setting may be a far cry from the company’s old cramped quarters above a travel agency on Parc Ave., but even so, they’ll soon be relocating to more a spacious office nearby — a move necessitated, in no small part, by the success of a series of books about a family called the Moomins by a writer-illustrator who died in 2001.
Stranger things may have happened in the book business, but there can’t have been many.
Tove Jansson (pronounced two-va yon-son) was born in 1914. A member of Finland’s Swedish-speaking minority, she grew up in an artistically inclined middle-class Helsinki household and embarked on a career as an artist and writer in her early 20s.
In case you haven’t yet encountered her best-known creation, the Moomins are a family inhabiting the remote fictional realm of Moominvalley. Physically, they resemble a cross between an upright hippo and a manatee on land; they’re granted the power of speech though we never see their mouths. In the taxonomy of mythological northern European beings, if we’re being precise, they are trolls. It’s a shame the word has been debased as a name for passive-aggressive online bullies, because real trolls are endlessly fascinating multi-faceted creatures representing a connection to a distant animistic pagan past that modern society, for all its frantic efforts, can never quite bury.
In its fealty to the child’s-eye view and its melancholy awareness that innocence can’t last, Jansson’s Moomin work is spiritual kin to Charles M. Schulz’ roughly contemporaneous Peanuts, with the crucial difference that while parents and all other grownups were barred from Charlie Brown’s world, the realm of the Moomins is very much a family place.
Moomin himself is the nominal star of the stories, but they are ensemble pieces with a rich and multifarious cast. Moominmamma and Moominpappa are Moomin’s loving parents, the latter prone to absentmindedness and pomposity, and in the throes of what seems to be a permanent mid-life crisis.
Notable among their community of fellows are Moomin’s perennial love interest Snork Maiden, the wandering free-spirited artist manqué Snufkin, and tiny, brash Little My, a won’t-take-no prodigy often viewed by Jansson buffs as a portrait of the author as a young girl. Little My points modern-day readers to another useful Moomin parallel: Calvin and Hobbes. Like Bill Watterson, Jansson understands and respects the deep streak of anarchy in the souls of children and the longing of former children to keep that part of themselves alive.
The Jansson essence is hard to pin down. It’s something more implied than stated, and ineffably Scandinavian: spend some time in Moominvalley and suddenly the numinous Nordic sound-worlds of Björk and Sigur Ros make a new kind of sense. But a reasonably quintessential passage can be found in the early pages of the 1957 chapter book Moominland Midwinter, wherein a squirrel is rooting around inside a box in his bathing-house home. “Then all at once someone was trying to bite the squirrel in the leg. Like a streak of lightning he whizzed out of the box, then hesitated for a moment and decided to feel more curious than scared.”
Read that last bit again: a whole affirmative philosophy is in there. It’s the kind of nudge that, if received at the right impressionable time and in the right spirit, can shape a life for the better, and it’s all the more effective for being slipped in, not wielded cudgel-style.
Jansson’s work is full of just such moments. A few pages later, a minor character waxes reflective on a wintertime sighting of the aurora borealis: “You can’t tell if it really does exist or if it just looks like existing. All things are so very uncertain, and that’s exactly what makes me feel reassured.”
From a non-Scandinavian perspective, at least, Jansson often appears 20 years or more ahead of her time — her stories can read uncannily as prophecies of the hippie counterculture, the environmentalist movement and its contemporary iterations, a quality that may partly explain their popularity among adults as much as kids.
Politics is there too, but subtly, and only if you want it. The 1946 book Comet in Moominland has been interpreted as a parable on the fear of nuclear destruction: Finland had suffered terribly in the Second World War, Hiroshima and Nagasaki had just happened, and Jansson, you can’t help but feel, was seeking a refuge for herself and her young (and older) readers. On the other hand, it might just be about a comet, in which light it works equally well.
Lest it be implied that the Moomins were always a cult item, it should be said that in parts of the world they were hugely popular and have remained so, to the point where there are Moomin theme parks in Finland and Japan, and a dizzying range of Moomin-related merchandise. In most of the English-speaking world, though, they had fallen into almost total obscurity until Devlin’s reclamation project.
For many years in Canada and the United States, if you knew about the Moomins at all it was probably because you had a Swedish friend or an elderly European relative. Isolated references, just enough to keep a mystique ticking, dotted pop culture — Chan Marshall, before she became indie-famous as singer-songwriter Cat Power, had a band called the Hattifattiners, named for the vaguely sinister, conformist worm-like figures who move in packs and lurk on the periphery of many Moomin stories. Effectively, though, the Moomins were dormant here.
“I had no idea about all this stuff as a child,” recalled Devlin, and that’s really saying something, as he was a serious comics aficionado from an early age. Gradually he did learn about Jansson and the Moomins through the chapter books that had remained in print in Britain, and became a big fan.
But until the intervention of a pair of cartoonist friends who passed photocopied work hand-to-hand, he was unaware of a crucial segment of Jansson’s life work: the huge cache of weekly Moomin comic strips, commissioned by the now-defunct London Evening News, that ran from the 1950s through the mid-1970s.
For Devlin, the discovery was a Holy Grail moment, but the time for action wasn’t ripe until after he had moved to Montreal from Boston to take a job with D&Q. Founded in 1990 and a cutting edge publisher of alternative comics from the start, the company had recently found itself on a higher financial footing following the American success of two pivotal titles, Guy Delisle’s Pyongyang and Steve Mumford’s Baghdad Journal.
When Devlin made his Moomin pitch, his boss Chris Oliveros was easily sold on the idea. (“I didn’t hesitate at all,” D&Q’s co-founder and publisher recalled. “The work was so beautiful.”)
The first volume of Moomin: The Complete Tove Jansson Comic Strip came out in 2006 and remains the company’s top seller; there have been eight subsequent volumes.
(That Jansson stands alongside Kate Beaton and Lynda Barry among the heaviest hitters in the D&Q catalogue pretty much explodes the popular notion of comics culture as a male preserve.)
“We brought it back,” recalled Devlin of that first volume’s launch, “and a small number of people were like, ‘Oh, there’s that … thing, that I have a vague memory of. I had an aunt who had one of those.’ ”
There’s a live-and-let-live aspect to the way the Moomins live. They’re a tight-knit family but they’re not preachy about it. — Tom Devlin, Drawn & Quarterly
From there, the books’ popularity grew organically; you sense that one reason for their ongoing success is that people are able to feel they have made a discovery, laid personal claim to something that hasn’t been rolled out for them. It’s a feeling corroborated by Devlin when he points out the relatively muted response to Drawn & Quarterly’s relaunching of early versions of another Scandinavian children’s lit icon, Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking. “Pippi didn’t hit in the same way because she had never gone away,” he said. “She’s always been there.”
Given what the Moomin books have meant to Drawn & Quarterly — “They’re essential to our identity, especially in places like England where they may be the first books of ours that people have seen,” said Oliveros — the centenary of Jansson’s birth clearly called for something special, and it’s here with the newly unveiled Moomin: The Deluxe Anniversary Edition.
All the stops have been pulled out: the 488-page brick, bearing a $70 price tag, is the company’s first slipcased volume, weighing in at a hefty three kilograms and comprising not just every Moomin strip from inception through the early 1970s but an illuminating sketchbook of character studies. We hear a lot about world-building, but here truly is a parallel dimension to get blissfully lost in — for days on end, at the expense of work and sleep if you’re not careful.
“The tone feels very contemporary,” agreed Devlin when I said I had to keep reminding myself that these strips weren’t written and drawn last year. “The hippie-like aspect seems to work very well right now, and it helps that there’s a little bit of sarcasm to balance it out. There’s also a live-and-let-live aspect to the way the Moomins live. They’re a tight-knit family but they’re not preachy about it.” That last point is crucial. “As a parent (Devlin and his wife, D&Q associate publisher Peggy Burns, have a 9-year-old daughter and a 7-year-old son) you end up reading a lot of kids’ books, and after a while you’re like (rolls eyes), ‘Oh boy, here comes another lesson.’ That became really strong in the ’80s and ’90s, whereas if you think of earlier children’s classics they’re very often downright odd, not so test-marketed.”
Early in Moomin Deluxe, one finds a perfect embodiment of what Devlin is talking about: a tale of a dog in love with a cat. “On the face of it it’s just a funny story,” Devlin said, “but she’s making a point.” Jansson didn’t so much play down her homosexuality — though she would be forgiven for having done so in a country where being gay was illegal as recently as 1971 — as carry on as though it wasn’t even an issue. Talking to Finns on a visit to Helsinki, Devlin said, “It was never ‘Tove Jansson, The Great Lesbian Artist.’ If it’s mentioned at all, it tends to be later, almost in passing.”
One of the most striking things about D&Q’s revival of the Moomin strips is the pre-Internet, against-the-odds feel of it all. I can’t help but ask Devlin if, given how Google’s all-seeing eye has rendered the notion of buried treasure all but obsolete, he thinks something like his professional experience with the Moomins could ever happen again.
“You never know,” he said. “It’s a big world out there. Something might be gathering dust in someone’s attic in Germany or Japan. But something on this scale, and of this worth? I kind of doubt it.”