For more than 70 years, Tove Jansson’s Moomin characters have been a worldwide sensation, with books, comic strips, animated series and even a theme park devoted to them. And yet, the very first story with the Moomins has never been available in America.
That’s changed this week with the new reprint of The Moomins and the Great Flood from Drawn & Quarterly. Originally published in 1945, the slim illustrated novella introduces the characters as they wander through a dreary-yet-dreamlike landscape as a deluge ravages the land. The tale predates Jansson’s Moomin comic strip and the Moomin novel series by a few years, and the characters are very different in appearance than their final forms - but the building blocks for the sweet-but-surreal universe she created are present from the very beginning.
For the last decade, Drawn & Quarterly’s Tom Devlin has overseen their English-language printings of the Moomin comics, and helped give them a new audience in North America. Newsarama spoke with him about bringing the very first Moomin story back into print.
Newsarama: Tom, for those unfamiliar with the concepts, give us your perspective on The Moomins and the Great Flood.
Tom Devlin: The Moomins and the Great Flood is the first appearance of Tove Jansson's beloved Moomin characters.
As for what the Moomins are, they are Tove's creation, hippo-like trolls who find themselves in all sorts of mischief as they balance their happy-go-lucky outlook on life with their humanistic desires and faults. They are the central characters in her body of work, whether she was producing comic, chapter books, or picture books.
In The Moomins and the Great Flood, Moomin and Moominmamma venture out to find a home to escape the cold winters. They encounter some friends along the way and search for Moominpappa, all the while facing the dangers of a sinister forest and the overwhelming disaster of an enormous flood. Because it picks up the central themes of her work, it is a wonderful introduction to the characters.
Nrama: Now, has this book ever been available in the United States? I was surprised recently rereading the first novel, Comet in Moominland, and the opening lines refer to the Moomins settling in Moominvalley following the flood.
So, it's definitely the first work in the Moomin series, which made it very surprising how long it's been out of print, given how prolific the characters are internationally. Why has the book not been more widely available
Devlin: I'm not really certain why. Maybe because of its slimness? There have been English editions, just none published by English-language publishers. For example, somewhere around here I have an English edition by a Swedish publisher.
Nrama: And clearly, Tove Jansson is still figuring out the characters and her visual style in this story - a surprising number of concepts from the later books come up, but the combination of whimsy and darkness tilts a little more towards darkness, and there's a more fluid, dreamlike style to the art - even an element of sexuality with the character of Tulippa. I'm interested in your perspective - what do you feel this work represents in terms of Jansson's evolution as a writer and illustrator, beyond just the creation of the Moomin characters?
Devlin: I think like any artist even one as gifted as Tove there is the “figuring out” period. Clearly, she is in command from the start, but it's not uncommon for a writer or an illustrator to have the characters demand how they should be represented as the artist tells their stories.
This kind of development or even inconsistency has always been a favorite part of any art for me. We can see the characters growing!
Nrama: For that matter, the story was written in 1939 and finished/published in 1945; do you feel World War II had an influence on the story? There's certainly a refugee element with the Moomins wandering this devastated landscape trying to find Moominpappa.
Devlin: WWII almost certainly had an effect on the work. Tove was also drawing covers for the magazine GARM, and those were often overtly political, depicting Hitler in caricature and the like. This is some excellent close reading you're doing!
Nrama: Are there any other Moomin or just Tove Jansson-specific projects that you'd like to release through D&Q, such as Jansson's cartoons or books she didn't write but illustrated?
Devlin: Years ago, I was hoping to publish all her works, but honestly, the New York Review of Books and Farrar, Straus & Giroux have done such a fine job publishing her prose that it would be silly to complain.
I do keep searching for overlooked Tove work. I would certainly one day like to see a complete collection of her GARM work.
Nrama: What do you feel have made the Moomins such enduring characters?
Devlin: I think that mix of whimsy and darkness is an important factor. Of course, her drawings are always gorgeous, but the way the characters interact - often selfish, sometimes benevolent (is) very identifiable. And Tove has such a interesting imagination.
Nrama: Which are your favorite Moomin characters/books, and why? I'm oddly fond of Who Will Comfort Toffle? myself.
Devlin: Of the comics, I particularly love "Moomin and the Golden Tail." Just a very funny take on fame. Clearly, Tove was enjoying and then feeling trapped by her success. I do love her memoir, "Sculptor's Daughter" an awful lot, one of my all-time favorite prose books actually. I agree with you about Toffle- that is my favorite picture book as well.
Nrama: What are some other books/creators you'd like to recommend?
Devlin: I also really love The Dangerous Journey, which is a picture book of Tove's from later in her career. It's all about a grouchy little girl who wants adventure and gets swept away to Moominvalley, where she meets many familiar faces from the comics, but without the benefit of knowing how sweet and silly they are. The watercolor work is really lovely and distinctively different from her earlier work.
Nrama: What's next for you?
Devlin: We are currently working on a complete Little Lulu series that I am very excited about. I think this will be the definitive version!
We're also beginning work on the complete works of Yoshiharu Tsuge who is one of the all-time great modern master manga-ka. This was a long time coming and it's really going to surprise a lot of people.
Nrama: Anything else you'd like to talk about that we haven't discussed yet?
Devlin: I'm very happy that Moomin seems to have slowly spread and become more popular over the past decade. We had no idea when we started the project. We just liked the comics. It's very shocking and gratifying.