Tove Jansson’s Vintage Philosophical Moomin Comics About Identity, Belonging, and Why We Join Groups
By Maria Popova
Tove Jansson (1914–2001) is one of the most imaginative and influential storytellers in modern history — an artist and writer of singular creative vision and a genius for rendering visible and comprehensible life’s subtlest nuances. She was Finland’s most revered literary celebrity and a recipient of the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Award, and yet she lived simply and worked in the same studio for forty-seven years alongside the love of her life, the great Finnish sculptor and graphic arts pioneer Tuulikki “Tooti” Pietilä, who inspired Jansson’s endearing Too-ticky character. She had the courage and clarity of conviction to turn down Walt Disney’s commercial offer and instead built her own creative empire on a foundation of remarkable integrity and unflinching artistic vision. Neil Gaiman has called Jansson’s work “a surrealist masterpiece.”
In addition to her marvelously philosophical children’s books and her gorgeous vintage illustrations for special editions of such classics as The Hobbit in 1962 and Alice in Wonderland in 1966, Jansson also enlisted her iconic Moomin characters in a lesser-known but long-running London Evening News series of comic strips for grownups. To celebrate Jansson’s centennial, Drawn & Quarterly has collected the best of them — miraculously salvaged from rare scans-of-scans through a serendipitous twist of fate — in Moomin: The Deluxe Anniversary Edition (public library | IndieBound).
What makes Jansson’s comics timelessly delightful and particularly timely in today’s culture is that she addresses serious, often uncomfortable issues — uncertainty, heartbreak, mortality, natural disasters, our ample human imperfections — with great compassion and warmth, never chastising or preaching but instead celebrating the light in life and aiming its generous beam at the dark. There are no morality tales — life’s messiness is acknowledged, welcomed, and never forced into artificial tidiness. There is love, lots of it, and loneliness too — and, sometimes, the loneliness of love unrequited, but that too is welcomed with quiet consolation.
While all the twenty-one comics in this handsome centennial volume reveal various facets of Jansson’s spirit and creative vision, one in particular sang to me more mesmerically than all others. It captures the warm wisdom of her famous saying, “You are alone but that’s okay, we’re all alone.” — something she regularly offered not as a nihilistic lament but as affectionate assurance, one all the more sorely needed today.
Titled “Club Life in Moominvalley,” the story explores questions of identity, belonging, and our quintessential need for community. More than a century after her fellow Scandinavian Søren Kierkegaard’s piercing reflections on the individual vs. the crowd and why we conform, Jansson shines her gentle sagacity on the fine line between belonging to a group of kindred spirits and relinquishing our integrity in conforming.
One day, Moominpappa announces that he and his buddies have formed a Rebel Fathers Club. When Moominmamma — a rather feminist character in the series — inquires whether “rebel mothers” could join, she is unceremoniously declined.
With the classic in-group/out-group dynamic, the Fathers Club decides to define itself not by what it stands for but what it stands against. But they can’t pit themselves against the police because the police chief is an old friend of Moominpappa’s, and they can’t stand in opposition to the crime world because Stinky, the fuzzy perpetrator of Moominvalley mischief, is also an old friend. Eventually, they decide to form a rebel club for the sake thereof, rebelling nothing in particular, because “the important thing is, after all, to meet and have a good time” — “and wear a special tie.”
Moominmamma and her son, eager to join a club of their own, innocently agree to participate Stinky’s cryptic and obviously unwholesome plan, which requires that they don a disguise for a “meeting” in the middle of the night. “Their club hasn’t even a decent tie,” Moominmamma laments as she carries forth with the plan nonetheless. Once she arrives, it becomes clear that the club’s mission is to steal. “What sort of things do you steal for the poor?” charitable Moomintroll inquires, and Stinky responds that, like the Fathers Club, the Robbers Club has no particular focus — they’d steal anything. Moominmamma is reluctant and agrees to a “passive membership” at most, as Jansson pokes her subtle satire at our noncommittal tendencies of wanting to join causes but not wanting to do the work.
As passive members of the Robbers Club, Moominmamma and her son are asked to take a Fight Club-esque vow of silence: “May the ground open and devour me if I betray the club.” But when the police chief gets wind of the crime in the valley, Moominmamma finds herself in an ever-growing mesh of evasions, omissions, and almost-lies. (She is, after all, too charitable to explicitly lie — once again, Jansson winks at how we rationalize our actions.) When the chief asks if he can add Moominmamma to the crime-fighters club, she agrees once again only to a passive membership, only semi-aware of the conflict with her passive membership in Robbers Club.
After a series of misadventures involving the stolen cow, blackmail letters from Stinky, a valley-wide search for Moominmamma’s stolen bag, and various contradictory club-versus-club demands, she manages to steal her bag back with Stinky’s help — but it is still a crime and the police chief, who is rather hurt by the Moomins’ flip-flopping loyalties, must dispense punishment. He sentences the Moomins “to remain in all the clubs as active members for their whole lives!” — Jansson’s prescient comment on the absurdity of overzealous social networking and the punishing consequences of people-pleasing.
Jansson’s finest line in the story — one of her signature packets of simply worded, instantly pause-giving wisdom, the kind one might expect from Winnie the Pooh — is a comment on precisely that:
It’s rather difficult, when one has MANY friends, to show loyalty to them all at the same time…
The full strip and the remaining twenty in Moomin: The Deluxe Anniversary Edition — a fine addition to both the year’s best art books and best philosophy books — are immensely rewarding, unfolding new layers of Jansson’s wit and wisdom uncovered with each reading. Complement this treasure with Jansson’s Moomin-channeled ode to uncertainty, presence, and self-reliance.
Published December 15, 2014