REMEMBERING MOOMIN

A tribute to Tove Jansson, published in issue 238 (October 2001) of

The Comics Journal

Here are two of my most cherished childhood memories:

I’m six years old, curled up in a bunk bed with my sister, while my father reads us ‘On a Marche sur la Lune,’ the one Tintin book which we own only in French. Dad is translating the dialogue and captions as we follow the pictures. There’s something magical about the way this particular Tintin adventure can only come to life through the voice of my father; to this day, I’ve never owned a copy of ‘Explorers on the Moon’ in English...

The other memory is harder to pin down: I don’t know where we were or how old. But it was night-time and once again, I was curled up in a bed, in some kind of rough bach (the New Zealand word for a holiday home), surrounded by bush and beach, somewhere in the wilderness. This time it’s my mother reading to me, and the story is one of Tove Jansson’s Moomin books (maybe ‘Moominsummer Madness’). Outside a storm is blowing: the wind is tugging at the walls and the windows and the corrugated iron roof. Inside a kerosene lamp forms a small pool of light - just enough to see the magical drawings, as Mum reads out the beautiful, lyrical words...

I don’t know how old I was when I first encountered the Moomins, but I know that I’ve loved them ever since. Every year or so, I’d drag out the whole series of books and read them all over again - simultaneously comforted by their cosy familiarity and thrilled by their untamed wildness. The stories, full of storm-lashed cliffs and warm summer nights on the beach, were perfectly in tune with the landscapes of my own childhood in New Zealand (now, of course, I read the Moomin books to my own children, who are just as enthralled). Their particular mix of happiness and melancholy are as close to my own internal life as I’ve ever found. And the drawings: so perfect, so luscious, such a flawless balance of simple linework, powerful design and delicate decorative detail. The older I got, the more Jansson seemed to exemplify the things I most wanted to achieve in my own comics (she’s also the source of the lighthouse in Hicksville, inspired by ‘Moominpappa at Sea’).

Once I’d worked out that Tove Jansson was Finnish, the wonderful possibility arose that there might be more books by her than had yet been translated. I began doing some research and eventually found copies of two of her books for adults: ‘the Summer Book’ (very like a Moomin book without any Moomins) and ‘the Sculptor’s Daughter’ (a wonderful memoir of her own childhood).

But I still remember the indescribable thrill that shook me to the core when I was flicking through a copy of Reitberger and Fusch’s ‘Comics: Anatomy of a Mass Medium,’ and saw for the first time a single Moomin comic strip. I had had no idea there was such a thing. To my knowledge, only one collection of these strips has ever been published in English (just enough of a taste to convince me it’s an absolute masterpiece). But just knowing that years and years of this strip exist out there, waiting only for some dedicated soul to translate them into English, is enough to make me shiver with excitement.

Wherever I go, I find cartoonists who are just as drawn to Jansson’s work as I am: Glenn Dakin in Britain, Tom Hart in America, etc. In my own personal pantheon, Jansson serves as a godmother to that whole ill-defined group of cartoonists to which I feel closest: starting with the Fast Fiction/Escape crowd in Britain (Dakin, Ed Pinsent, Chris Reynolds, etc) and moving on to the American small press group that found their voice in the 1990s (Hart, Megan Kelso, Jon Lewis, John Porcellino, Ron Rege Jr., etc). I’m not suggesting that all these cartoonists are even aware of Jansson’s work, but it’s interesting how many of them seem to draw inspiration from children’s books (the Moomins, Babar the Elephant, Curious George, Golden Book artists like Tibor Gergely, etc). The comics scene has spent so long trying to deny comics’ status as "kid’s stuff" that it almost seems iconoclastic to assert children’s books as a primary influence. But the more I think about it, the more this seems central to the style and sensibilities of the post-underground wave of alternative cartoonists. And a good thing, too.

One last memory:

This time I’m all grown up - it’s 1990 and I’m living in London, reeling from the trauma of emigration and homesickness and the pressures of trying to ‘break into the comics industry.’ Before long, I begin to suffer from a curious phobia - a fear of anything to do with comics. Entering a comics store sparks a panic attack and even the thought of writing or drawing a comic makes me feel dizzy. For a time, it seems as though my lifelong obsession with comics is finished. Miserable, I find solace in reading my way through the whole Moomin series once again. Then one day, to my surprise, I begin writing a story that is far enough away from the conventions of comics to evade the phobia. It takes a long time before I realise what I’m doing: the format is just like a children’s book - blocks of text with separate illustrations. And it’s the best drawing I’ve ever done (freer, more relaxed than my anal retentive comics style). There’s something liberating, purifying about the process. By the time I finish (‘The Last Fox Story,’ reprinted in Pickle #3), I’m cured: comics are okay again...

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