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Tove Jansson:

The Complete Moomin & Fair Play

Tove Jansson (1914 - 2001)

To write fiction well for children and the child in all adults takes a variety of gifts, among them a directness and lucidity with words and emotions, and the courage to keep them clean of pretense. This becomes especially true when crafting illustrated stories, where pictures as well as words do the telling and need to enhance and complete each other within the confines of the page. For those who have delighted in the depths which the late Tove Jansson achieved through the apparent simplicity of her beloved Moomin tales,  two new books reveal how throughout her life she further refined her narrative skills, first for her comics, then for her adult novels.

In 1952, the Helsinki-born author, 37 at the time, jumped at the rewarding contract from the Associated Newspaper Syndicate to create, as they proposed, ‘an interesting strip cartoon, and not necessarily for children’ that would use her upright, mouthless, albino hippo-like clan ‘to satirise the so-called civilised way of life.’ Jansson’s dream that the money from crafting ‘only six comic strips in a week’ for the London Evening News would leave her free enough to pursue painting was soon replaced by the time-consuming challenges of devising Moomin serials in daily episodes of two to five panels.

A relative novice to the medium, she brought to it a sense of discovery, growing to revel in the playful possibilities of the form, such as vertically dividing pictures with trees, rope, doors, a spider-web. In contrast to her Moomin books until that time, she pared the text down to succinct yet expressive dialogues in balloons, while multiplying the pictures to animate as never before the foibles and charms of her eccentric cast. Far from some sideline, her strips, more than 800 in five years, stand as perennial classics of children’s literature across Scandinavia, and yet in Britain they were compiled into only one collection in 1957, leaving a treasure trove of her art and writing unjustly forgotten or unknown. Their belated recovery from crumbling newsprint into not one but five eventual volumes seems almost as fantastical and life-affirming as the Moomin fables themselves.

Margery Allingham once praised the strips for the way they ‘say every subtle thing they want to say as purely and simply as a bell rings a note’. After Jansson handed over the strip to her brother Lars, she turned to writing specifically for adults from 1968. She brought to her novel Fair Play, published in 1989 when she was 75, all of the economy and bell-like clarity she perfected in her Moomin books and comics. These seventeen interwoven vignettes unfold ‘a life of work, delight and consternation’ shared by two women, partners and companions. Though rooted in Jansson’s own relationship with the graphic artist Tuulikki Pietilä, this portrait of a couple transcends autobiography to disclose the creativity of living and loving day by day, weathering irritations, jealousies and artistic struggles through a blend of fairness and playfulness, from which the book gets its title.

Fittingly, in what would be her final novel, Fair Play gently celebrates that same patience, accommodation and understanding which were always at the heart of her complex, extended, alternative Moomintroll family, and culminates her lifelong theme of enduring love.

Moomin Stamps from Finland, 2008

Moomin stamps from Finland, 2003

The following is the introduction by the celebrated writer of detective fiction, Margery Allingham (1904-66), to the first Moomin collection published by Allan Wingate, London in 1957.

Perhaps it is true to say that everybody who has ever held a battered first edition of a classic in his hand has wondered secretly if he would be experiencing the same thrill if the copy was mint new, untried, damp from the press, the ink scarcely dry. I have always thought that for my own part the answer was ‘of course not’. Now I am not so sure.

The saga of the Moomin Family, which has been awaited impatiently by so many of us who have been following the strip in the Evening News, possesses, for me at any rate, the thrill already. I can only explain it by saying that it seems to be an elementary question of quality.

Surely this series is that very rare thing, an instantly recognisable work of art? To be certain of this, I submit, one has only to consider a single drawing. Art experts are forever lecturing us about purity and economy of line and sometimes the layman is privately put about to discover precisely what the jargon means. But here there is perfect line and perfect economy and nothing else whatever to get in the way. Even the work of the original master of this genre, Caran D’ Ache, was a little more wasteful, a fraction more mannered than these exquisite pictures which say every subtle thing they want to say as purely and simply as a bell rings a note.

On the Moomins themselves I find myself uncharacteristically reticent. Their appeal is so personal and so intricate that I feel chatter about them is like gossip in public about friends.

For me, Snorkmaiden, superbly feminine, divinely innocent, curvacious as Marylin Monroe, if not quite in the same places, is one of the most endearing heroines I have ever known. While Moomin himself, always screwing up his courage in the deathless cause of Knight errantry, has all the touching honesty of a figure from an early Wells novel.

Mama Moomin, too, never without her handbag and discreet apron, must clearly be one of the outstanding fictional figures of our age. Her virtues and her failings are contemporary. If she is making the best of an ignoble impulse to keep up with the Fillijonks or dealing with the psychotic vagaries of a maidservant only likely at the present time, she exudes an affable but obstinate form of courage which one meets almost everywhere in the world today save in print.

Yet, somehow, these are not matters to discuss. It is a very odd thing but when Moomin fans discover each other they do not begin at once a duet of eulogy starting ‘Do you remember when…?" or ‘Who does Stinky remind you of?’ but are much more likely to sit down trustingly together, speaking of lesser matters, each quietly confident that the other is not only a man of undoubted taste and intelligence, good looking and urbane but also, which is much more extraordinary, absolutely sound at heart.


Tove Jansson Rediscovered
edited by Kate McLoughlin and Malin Lidström Brock
Cambridge Scholars Publishing
My fine Finnish friend Juhani Tolvanen, author of a marvelous book in Finnish all about the Moomin newspaper strip Muumisisarukset. Tove ja Lars Jansson - Muumipeikko-sarjakuvan tarina (WSOY, 2000, ISBN 951-0-23633-0), sent me a very special Christmas gift this year: a full-colour Moomin pillow case from Finlaysons. What better fantasy friends to fall asleep and dream with than Tove Jansson’s.

On paper rather than on bedlinen, it has been through Sort Of Books and Drawn & Quarterly‘s new editions that Tove Jansson is being rediscovered, or simply discovered, in English these days, including by those in the strange realms of academe. On March 24 2007, some fifty-five scholars from thirteen different countries, Mr Tolvanen included, convened at Pembroke College, Oxford to share their insights into the writings and artworks of Tove Jansson. I suspect that for a goodly number attending, Jansson’s newspaper strips were a genuine discovery, rather than rediscovery, so that the study of their significance and their complexity is only starting.

Late last year, the organisers, Kate McLoughlin and Malin Lidström Brock, edited for Cambridge Scholars Publishing a 256-page collection of nineteen essays by these conference attendees, interestingly the majority of them women. It’s perhaps inevitably a rather pricey hardback but it is well worth seeking out, perhaps by getting your library to order it in for you. A joyful photo adorns the dustjacket showing an elderly, radiant Tove swimming, her hair garlanded with flowers, and sets the tone. Inside, a six-page section of colour plates includes a striking self-portrait painted in 1942 entitled ‘The Lynx Boa’ and one of her illustrations from 1966 for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

The range of works covered and approaches taken here is wide, wise and rewarding, although only one contributor directly addresses the Moomin strips, still at early stage of study. The Finnish-American medievalist and author, K. A. Laity writes a paper entitled ‘Roses, Beads and Bones: Gender, Borders and Slippage in Tove Jansson’s Moomin Comics-Strips’. Laity makes an unusually close reading of ten strips or panels from the first volume. Her focus is on the inventive ways in which Jansson drew the borders between her panels, in whole or in part, using all manner of elements - flowers, a butterfly net, a fence post, a cane - often found within the story. As well as making the shift from one panel to the next and achieving the McCloudian ‘closure’, as a reader of the strips Laity asserts further analogous meanings to the borders between panels, in the way that "...the border between genders and social status are fluidly porous, and that borders in general - because they are ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ - are easily twisted, parted, plucked and even removed at will." The strips, in her analysis, become a way for Jansson, a discreet lesbian, to question and subvert normative pressures and offer a more fluid, "shifting or indeterminate sexuality."

One apparently quite straightforward three-panel strip is painstakingly observed and dissected over more than two pages. Laity may not be someone who regularly reads comics, but I found her detailed reading perceptive and refreshing, because she notices those subtle nuances in Jansson’s drawings and compositions, ones that veteran comics readers like myself can too easily take for granted. The words Laity needs to convey what these three panels are telling serve to confirm a quotation she cites in her opening paragraph from Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons: "One picture will show me vividly something which a book would take all of ten pages to explain." I particularly appreciate her thoughtfulness about comics, whose "unique interplay of text and image… allows Jansson even greater room to play with juxtaposition than in her novels (where her illustrations mostly matched the text), an opportunity she uses with mischievous abandon. The resulting work is amazingly rich in complexity…"

It has been thirteen years since the last full-length publication in English on Jansson’s work. I hope that we will not have to wait as long for the next and that many more scholars can explore the complexity of the Moomin strips and their crucial impact on everything that Jansson would produce thereafter.

Posted: January 20, 2008

Paul Gravett’s review of Fair Play and the Moomin comic strip originally appeared in The Independent in July 2007. Margery Allingham’s introduction to the first Moomin collection first appeared in 1957 and is copyright © the estate of Margery Allingham.


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My Books

Comics Unmasked by Paul Gravett and John Harris Dunning from The British Library

1001 Comics  You Must Read Before You Die edited by Paul Gravett

Comics Art by Paul Gravett from Tate Publishing

Featured Books

The Complete
Tove Jannson
Comic Strip: Vol 1

(Drawn & Quarterly)

The Complete
Tove Jannson
Comic Strip: Vol 2

(Drawn & Quarterly)

Fair Play
(Sort Of Books)

Tove Jansson

edited by Kate McLoughlin
& Malin Lidstrom
(Cambridge Scholars)