Any comic strip in which the lead character's ass is compared to "a big dangerous bomb" is ok with me.

Moomin Book One (of five): The Complete Tove Jansson Comic Strip

This is really good stuff.

One of the great pleasures of the recent proliferation of vintage newspaper comic strip collections is that there’s a chance of discovering for yourself something that was once immensely popular, and experiencing first-hand the day-by-day machinations of a comic that has long since probably entered the public consciousness in an idealized state, if it’s still remembered much at all. But that already-considerable pleasure is heightened with something like Moomin; the strip was hugely popular in its prime, yes, serialized in 40 countries, but it never managed to break through to North America. Drawn & Quarterly claims that this is the first time this particular material has ever been published on this continent. Thus, not only are we privy to a phenomenon that met with great success long ago, the North Americans among us (like myself) are actually better off then our own comics-reading ancestors, who never had the chance to enjoy the stuff contemporaneously with its initial wave.

And there is much enjoyment to be had. I know several US folks hold Finnish creator Tove Jansson’s Moomin(troll) children’s books in high esteem, having apparently read them when they were little; I’ll confess I’d never run across the stuff until D&Q announced these comics, so I couldn’t offer any comparison. The comic began in 1954 in the pages of the London Evening News, after gentle cow/hippo/troll thing Moomin and his extended family had been established in book form; Jansson stuck with the writing and drawing duties herself for the rest of the decade, ultimately handing it over to her brother Lars for another decade and a half’s continuation (D&Q only plans to collect the creator’s run on the strip). Apparently, the strip was an attempt to extend the characters’ appeal to adults, and obviously it met with success at the time. It is ‘all-ages’ in the truest form, something that strives to appeal genuinely to every age. Much as I don’t have any of the children’s books for comparison, I also don’t have any children laying around to test the material’s cross-generations appeal with, but I’ll again repeat that it all worked very nicely with this adult.

There’s four storylines in this book. The Moomin strip is primarily comedic, but there’s day-to-day continuity and overarching plots. Much of the fun in Jansson’s storytelling style is the way in which she wanders with the narrative, often drifting away to explore some curious subplot or becoming sidetracked with an extended bit of character business. Nothing sounds more simple than ‘the Moomin family is stuck on an island,’ but that discounts the playful contortions of Jansson’s storytelling.

You know, like how the Moomins initially plan to go on a picnic, so they hop aboard a sentient talking helicopter their rich aunt owns, but the helicopter abandons them after a tornado so they’re stuck on an island. Tolerant homemaker Moominmamma then decides she needs to kill a nearby pig for dinner, and feels awfully guilty about it (in Jansson’s fantastical but not entirely idealized world, even the dinner animals are anthropomorphized), but then the pig’s wife shows up and admits her husband was (get ready) an awful bore anyhow, though she forces the Moomins to give his bones a proper burial. At that point, they find a secret hatch to the underground where they seem to discover the remains of their ancestors, Protomoomins, except they’re actually still alive and also smugglers and have a thing for luring nearby ships to ruin on the island rocks. A pirate ship then gets wrecked, and Moomin encounters the lovely once-captive Mymble, much to the consternation of his semi-faithful girlfriend Snorkmaiden. Actually, both of the girls are obviously titillated by the idea of being kidnapped by manly pirates, so they go looking for some, but Moominmamma winds up putting the somewhat non-manly pirates to work in her garden in exchange for booze. Plus: the pirates were smuggling fireworks, the Protomoomins want to blow up the island for no reason, there’s an asshole professor that looks like Brian Bolland’s Mr. Mamoulian, and much more.

And that’s only 74 individual strips worth of stuff.

It’s gorgeously casual, whimsical work, with a great appreciation for slapstick and gags, but an obvious sophistication to its characterizations and themes. Moomin himself is generally a very sweet fellow, but Jansson realizes that sweet fellows can be taken advantage of, and are prone to jealousy and anger when their personal buttons are pushed. Moominpapa loves adventures and distractions, but there’s an obvious irresponsibility to his actions that Jansson is thoughtful enough to bring up, though you can tell her heart’s behind him.

Though it all there’s gentle parodies of art and aristocracy (an acclaimed painter by her 20’s, Jansson doubtlessly had some experience with both), clingy relatives and the ecstasy of materialism. The Moomins are at-heart good, but they are very easily tempted by seemingly nice things, and none of them are held up as avatars of virtue for children (or adults) to emulate. A literal package of profanities is sent to a mean relative as a prank, parents temporarily abandon their children to find themselves, and several creative insults are deployed (“That glossy-faced sissy!”). Through it all, the gentle surrealism of the world affords a type of chaos that nevertheless fails to crush the feeling that life can be sweet.

Jansson’s visuals are simple and attractive, creature designs almost always somehow cute, yet often distinctly menacing when the need arises. Lots of round, curvy lines against white space, with clear storytelling and funny expressions, an approach that would have seemed well-suited to already-contracting funnies pages in the US, though it perfectly fits the tightly-knit nature of the Moomin world. But so what if it never made it to North America then? It's here now, and ready to be discovered, and totally worth finding among the many new old strips hitting the shelves with welcome frequency.