Here’s a little something you don’t see mixed often enough and you certainly don’t expect to find it in a comic strip half a century old: sweetness and biting wit. That’s just not a typical combination, but “Moomins” are not typical creatures — nor is Tove Jansson a typical cartoonist. The “Moomin” comic strips present light-hearted and lovable characters amidst an absurdist fantasy of social commentary. In fact, after reading them, you’ll wonder how you ever did without them.
The title refers to a family of bouncy looking creatures — kind of like hippos, but not nearly as dangerous — who live a life that is idyllic and easy going. They’re the ultimate bohemians, but without the gratuitous cynicism — that is reserved for the sharp wit of their creator, Swedish writer and artist Tove Jansson, who steers her characters into playful confrontations with authority figures of all types. Many of the stories contained in these collections have to do with some dictatorial idiot — whether it’s domineering athletes or vacationing famous millionaires coming along and institutionalizing something that interferes with the Moomin way, which is one of easygoing improvisation. As the father proclaims, “I only want to live in peace and plant potatoes and dream,” which is also etched into the back cover of the first volume as a manifesto.
By the end of the two volumes, Jansson turns the tables and introduces a religious cult that out-Moomins the Moomins and puts them into the role of authority figure — and manages to meld this turn with their natural tendency to happy chaos. That’s the power of Jansson’s clever humor.
In some ways, the Moomin tales are the classic Beverly Hillbillies scenario — there are certain people in the world who just cannot tolerate disorder on any level, especially as presented through something they see as lacking in refinement. The audience, however, always sides with simplicity, largely because no one likes a pretentious boob. The Moomin are anything but that, and their large, bulbous appearances are physical illustrations of their facile souls and the larger than life bombast that lurk within.
The series began not as a comic strip at all, but as children’s books, with the character of Moomintroll first appearing in the 1945 book “The Little Trolls and the Great Flood.” At some point, Jansson had released a cartoon adventure for a Swedish-Finnish newspaper and, in 1953, began the comic strip presented in these volumes for the Associated Press in England. It ran for five years until Jansson gave it up, essentially realizing that there was a lot of Moomin in her and she just couldn’t keep up with the schedule any longer. It’s no wonder — Jansson was raised in a family of eccentrics who kept a pet monkey and served as inspiration for the Moomin characters. She became a beloved and thoroughly decorated writer in Sweden and Finland.
Sadly, the Moomins were never well-known in our country, but Drawn and Quarterly has done a remarkably beautiful job in collecting the comic strips — and an important one as well. These are great comics for kids — intelligent and whimsical, they offer much to laugh about, as well as plenty to consider. Jansson’s writing — and the characters who benefit — are playful, but wise, and each story offers something profound underneath the silliness. In this manner, Jansson has much in common with the best of children’s works — the best comparison I can think of with Russell Hoban’s tender and worldly book “The Mouse and His Child” — but with an absurdist comic turn that is distinctly Scandanavian. Jansson’s work holds up just as well next to the best of Charles Schulz and fans of his early work will, I think, be delighted by what these volumes of Jansson reveal.
The phrase “hidden treasure” is bandied around about as much as the word genius. As overused as that, they are the two words most appropriate to Jansson’s work.