I’ve been properly obsessed with Pippi Longstocking since the first volume of comic book adaptations was released last year. First produced for the Swedish children’s magazine Humpty Dumpty by the original creative team Astrid Lindgren and Ingrid Vang Nyman in the late 50s, it’s the first time they’ve appeared in English.
As I was counting the days for the release of the second volume, Pippi Fixes Everything, I was thrilled to discover a single copy, sat casually on the shelves of Daunt Books in Holland Park, a month or so ahead of the amazon release date. If ever there was an argument for why we still need bookshops it was here – I was hit by that pure rush you get when you spot a beautiful, physical object, something you’re never going to experience when browsing the hideous digital-pine iBookshelves of your tablet.
The book jumps out at you for several reasons. It exists in that unusual mid sized format (that I banged on about here), has a nice blue and green faux cloth binding, is orange and has a picture of a splay legged Pippi holding a gorgeous wooden framed umbrella.
What we have here is the essence of Pippi Longstocking. The wonderfully rambling adventures of the pigtailed pirate princess are stripped of every bit of extraneous detail, and supporting characters. And although we lose many of Pippi’s barmy ramblings, it’s a testament to the strength of Lindgren’s original stories and Ingrid Vang Nyman’s abilities as an artist who can both capture character and make neat narrative leaps through deceptively simple illustration.
You get a blast of this as soon as you open the book. Shorn of the original speech bubble (‘Can you tell me if there’s a Spoonk in here?’), we’re left with a scene showing Pippi peering through the open window of some middle class salon, where two rather proper ladies are enjoying tea (or probably coffee) and cake.
The appearance of Pippi with her alien shaped eyes and horizontal hair shocks one of the ladies into dropping her tea cup, the other recoils in her seat, eyebrows raised all the way to the brim of her upturned flowerpot hat. Right there you get a little blast of the shock this anarchic little girl caused in Swedish society when she first appeared in the 1940s.
Among the stories featured is one of my favourites, Pippi and the Burglars. It’s got all your favourite elements within it; a big case of gold coins, two foolish burglars, a monkey in a doll’s bed and an unexpected ending in which Pippi demonstrates her absolute control over these ragged robbers by inviting them to a tea of sausages and cheese. She then pours milk in her ear – just in case she has earache at some point in the future.
The story hit so many buttons with my own children, who are in turn obsessed with money and robbers coming through their windows at night. Obviously there’s no real sense of peril here – not when you’ve got the strongest girl in the world in the house. Van Nyman further defuses the tension by using the black of night to highlight the vivid colours that define Pippi’s world. I particularly enjoyed the panels where the robbers find their way by torch light, picking out the brilliant yellow of the walls and the orange of Pippi’s hair, reminding me a little of Jon Klassen’s work on Lemony Snicket’s The Dark.
Ingrid Vang Nyman was an artist bursting with ideas that go far beyond the conventions of the mid century comic book. She frequently breaks out of the panelled straightjacket; in Pippi and the Fire (‘What a blaze!’), elongating the action where necessary.
Pippi is Invited for Coffee has fun with speech bubbles; one stockinged foot and an advance salvo of ‘To Arms!’ pushing its way into frame announces the menace young Ephraim’s Daughter is about to inflict on another coffee party.
Neither do the creators feel bound to spell every last detail out to us. The arrival of Pippi’s father, the cannibal King Ephraim Longstocking I, brings with it a number of contests of strength between father and daughter. The moment of victory is ignored, jump cutting to a reaction shot or an entertaining non sequiter. It’s all very post modern, or possibly an accurate depiction of how children’s brains actually work.
I’m not entirely sure whether these are the last of the Pippi comics. If so they bring with them a little sadness, as Ingrid Vang Nyman committed suicide several months after completing the final strip. Often difficult and demanding professionally – which explains her minimal back catalogue – she priced herself out of the market, leading to foreign publishers re-illustrating the books. As Pippi approaches her 70th birthday, one can only hope we will finally see the publication of the original black and white illustrations for the three chapter books, featuring this, the ‘real Pippi’.