By Tove Jansson (Drawn & Quarterly)
Tove Marika Jansson was born into an artistic, intellectual and practically bohemian Swedish family in Helsinki, Finland on August 9th 1914. Her father Viktor was a sculptor, her mother Signe Hammarsten-Jansson a successful illustrator, graphic designer and commercial artist. Tove’s brothers Lars and Per Olov became a cartoonist/writer and photographer respectively. The family and its close intellectual, eccentric circle of friends seems to have been cast rather than born, with a witty play or challenging sitcom as the piece they were all destined to act in.
After intensive study from 1930-1938 (University College of Arts, Crafts and Design, Stockholm, the Graphic School of the Finnish Academy of Fine Arts and L’Ecole d’Adrien Holy and L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris) Tove became a successful exhibiting artist through the troubled period of the war. Intensely creative in many fields, she published the first fantastic Moomins adventure in 1945: Småtrollen och den stora översvämningen (The Little Trolls and the Great Flood or more euphoniously The Moomins and the Great Flood), a whimsical epic of gentle, inclusive, accepting, understanding, bohemian, misfit trolls and their strange friends…
A young over-achiever, from 1930-1953 Tove worked as an illustrator and cartoonist for the Swedish satirical magazine Garm, and achieved some measure of notoriety with an infamous political sketch of Hitler in nappies that lampooned the Appeasement policies of Chamberlain and other European leaders in the build-up to World War II. She was also an in-demand illustrator for many magazines and children’s books. She had also started selling comic strips as early as 1929.
Moomintroll was her signature character. Literally.
The lumpy, big-eyed goof began life as a spindly sigil next to her name in her political works. She called him “Snork” and claimed she had designed him in a fit of pique as a child – the ugliest thing a precocious little girl could imagine – as a response to losing an argument about Immanuel Kant with her brother.
The term “Moomin” came from her maternal uncle Einar Hammarsten who attempted to stop her pilfering food when she visited by warning her that a Moomintroll guarded the kitchen, creeping up on trespassers and breathing cold air down their necks. Snork/Moomin filled out, became timidly nicer – if a little clingy and insecure – a placid therapy-tool to counteract the grimness of the post-war world.
The Moomins and the Great Flood was relatively unsuccessful but Jansson persisted, probably as much for her own benefit as any other reason, and in 1946 the second book Kometjakten (Comet in Moominland) was published. Many commentators believe this terrifying tale is a skilful, compelling allegory of Nuclear destruction, and both it and her third illustrated novel Trollkarlens hatt (1948, Finn Family Moomintroll or occasionally The Happy Moomins) were translated into English in 1952, prompting British publishing giant Associated Press to commission a newspaper strip about her seductively sweet surreal creations.
Jansson had no prejudices about strip cartoons and had already adapted Comet in Moominland for Swedish/Finnish paper Ny Tid. Mumintrollet och jordens undergäng – Moomintrolls and the End of the World – was a popular feature and Jansson readily accepted the chance to extend her family across the world. In 1953 The London Evening News began the first of 21 Moominsagas that captivated readers of all ages. Tove’s involvement in the strip ended in 1959, a casualty of its own success and a punishing publication schedule. So great was the strain that towards the end she had recruited her brother Lars to help and he continued the feature until its end in 1975.
Free of the strip she returned to painting, writing and her other creative pursuits, generating plays, murals, public art, stage designs, costumes for dramas and ballets, a Moomin opera, and another nine Moomin-related picture-books and novels, as well as thirteen books and short-story collections strictly for grown-ups.
Her awards are too numerous to mention but consider this: how many modern artists – let alone comics creators – get their faces on the national currency? She died on June 27th 2001.
Her Moomin comic strip has been collected in seven Scandinavian volumes and the discerning folk at Drawn & Quarterly have translated the first four of those into English for your sheer delight and delectation.
Tove Jansson could use slim economical line and pattern to create sublime worlds of fascination, and her dexterity made simple forms into incredibly expressive and potent symbols. In this first volume the wonderment begins with ‘Moomin and the Brigands’ as the rotund, gracious and deeply empathic hippo-like young troll frets about the sheer volume of free-loading visitors literally eating him out of house and home.
Too meek to cause offence and simply send them packing he consults his wide-boy, get-rich-quick mate Sniff, but when all the increasingly eccentric eviction schemes go awry Moomin simply leaves, undertaking a beachcombing odyssey that culminates with him meeting the beauteous Snorkmaiden.
When the jewellery-obsessed young lass (yes, she looks like a hippo too – but a really lovely one with long lashes and such a cute fringe!) is kidnapped by bandits, finally mild-mannered Moomin finds his inner hero…
‘Moomin and Family Life’ reunites the apparently runaway Moomin with his parents Moominpappa and Moominmamma – a strange and remarkable pair. Mamma is warm and capable but overly concerned with propriety and appearances whilst Papa spends all his time trying to rekindle his adventurous youth. Rich Aunt Jane however, is a far more “acquired” taste…
‘Moomin on the Riviera’ finds the flighty Snorkmaiden and drama-starved Moominpappa dragging the extended family and assorted friends on an epic voyage to the sunny southern land of millionaires where the small-town idiosyncrasies of the Moomins are mistaken for the so-excusable eccentricities of the filthy rich – a delightfully telling satirical comedy of manners and a plot that never gets old…
This first incomparable volume of graphic wonderment concludes with a fantastic adventure ‘Moomin’s Desert Island’, wherein a family jaunt leaves the Moomins lost upon an unknown shore where ghostly ancestors roam: wrecking any vessel that might offer rescue. Sadly the greatest peril in this knowing pastiche of Swiss Family Robinson might well be The Mymble – a serious rival for Moomintroll’s affections. Luckily Snorkmaiden knows where there are some wonderfully romantic bloodthirsty pirates…
These are truly magical tales for the young laced with the devastating observation and mature wit that enhances and elevates only the greatest kid’s stories into classics of literature. These volumes are an international treasure and no fan of the medium – or biped with even a hint of heart and soul – can afford to be unaware of them.
© 2006 Solo/Bulls. All Rights Reserved.