Christmas gift-giving season is long over, but if you feel like buying yourself a present to bust those winter blues, Drawn & Quarterly has you covered. It has been publishing Tove Jansson’s Moomin strips since 2006. Although the Moomin novels and picture books were never unknown in the United States, they remained in circulation primarily as cult objects.Initially unsure whether the Finnish cartoonist’s work could find an audience in the English-speaking world, the books became the fastest sellers in the company’s history. The cult was, blessedly, larger than anticipated. It was even large enough to continue publishing Moominbooks after Jansson’s original run, and into the period after her brother Lars had taken over the strip (the series is currently on volume 9). Moomin: The Deluxe Anniversary Edition (Drawn & Quarterly) features the entirety of Jansson’s run, from 1954-1959.
If you’ve never had the pleasure, the Moomin are chalk-white hippo creatures that live in Finland. There’s a familial resemblance to Al Capp’s Shmoos. Skeptical readers may be rolling their eyes already, but the Moomin are a breed apart from the anodyne children’s entertainment popular in the Anglo-American world. They aren’t always nice and they don’t solve their problems by hugging; they’re just as likely to celebrate never having to work again by getting drunk on berry wine. Young Moomintroll (or, “Moomin” for short) is naive and spirited, albeit often depressed. His parents, Moominpappa and Moominmanna are, respectably, distracted and unflappable. Moomintroll’s best friends are an itinerant wise man with a deep distrust of authority (the impish human Snufkin) and an immature rat-dog (Sniff). Moomintroll’s girlfriend is Snork Maiden, and Snorks are almost identical to Moomins, save for the fact that Snorks can change color.
What sets the Moomin stories apart is Jansson’s unique and endearingly tetchy perspective. Considering how big the Moomin stories were and remain in Europe and across the globe (Japan loves the Moomin, as you might expect), it is remarkable how distinct and personal Jansson’s vision remained throughout the series. The Moomin are by turns vain, skeptical, cynical, gullible, and just as likely to run afoul of the police as they are to adventure across the high seas. The stories themselves are odd and rickety contraptions, beginning at arbitrary points (one sequence begins with Moomintroll sniffing around in the bushes for something with which to start the story), careening from one plot to another until the original conflict and the characters themselves are thoroughly exhausted. Fans of Floyd Gottfredson’s early, freewheeling Mickey Mouse strips will find something similar here.
The Deluxe Anniversary Edition is a formidable volume, a full 448 pages of daily comic strips accompanied by a few pages of sketches and essays. Despite its size it fits neatly in two hands spread across your lap, or you can lay it flat on a table, enabling you to read the book with a friend, perhaps a young one sitting on your lap and pointing at all the funny pictures. That said, these are not strictly children’s strips. There are too many sharp edges and eccentricities for anyone, especially a child, to appreciate immediately. The Moomin world is worthy of many visits.