‘Tell me something, are you one of those people who is prevented from doing great art because they draw comic strips?’
In 1978 Tove Jansson published a short story called The Cartoonist. It deals with a young artist who gets a job at a newspaper drawing a long running comic strip about a round, blue eyed character called Blubby. The character’s creator has resigned after twenty years under mysterious circumstances and when his successor moves into his office he begins to inhabit not just the character but also the troubled psyche of the cartoonist.
It was a situation Tove Jansson understood very well. She produced her own Moomin strip for nearly a decade, initially it was a means to an end – to pay the mortgage on her studio where she could pursue her cherished artistic endeavours. But as time went by the strip began to dominate her working life and the paper’s insatiable appetite for fresh story lines taxed her creatively. The melancholy fate of the strip cartoonist was something she was made aware of when she visited Fleet Street on Moomin business. She worked briefly in the former office of a cartoonist who had suffered a breakdown. ‘He is now in a rest home and in the office you could still sense the distress of his desperate search for new ideas.’
Reading the five collected volumes of Tove’s Moomin strips gives a fascinating insight into Tove’s changing relationship with the character and her attitude to the comic strip itself. She was commissioned by the London Evening News in 1954 to produce a more sophisticated take on the Moomins for an adult readership. For Tove it was a chance to delve deeper into the Moomin world, and do something completely different with the characters.
From the very first story Tove begins tinkering with her world, rewriting the Moomin origin story. Moomin initially appears as a lone troll, living in his familiar Moominhouse, but without Mamma and Pappa. In their place are an endless stream of ‘relatives’ crowding him out of his home; even the spooky reed-like Hattinfatteners are now supposedly related to Moomin. So he swims out to sea in a futile suicide attempt but is found by his parents, who it turns out somewhat carelessly misplaced him as an infant.
The reason for their disappearance and reappearance isn’t really explained, though we get a sense that Moominpappa’s restless spirit may well have led them away from their son. Amazingly Tove manages to distill the entire family dynamic down to just three frames, highlighting the close mother son bond and the father whose solution to everything is ‘adventure!’ and consequences be damned.
The characters change in shape and size tremendously throughout the series, gaining and losing weight, snouts fluctuating in length. As Tove’s biographer Boel Westin puts it, ‘the Troll had become a figure that could take on almost any form, it could even disappear completely‘. They were elastic and could be constantly recreated in different forms but retain their essential Moomin-ness.
Moomin has been reproduced in just about every shape, size and for every surface. You could kit out your entire house in Moomin, as I’m sure some have. In The Cartoonist Tove comments on her uneasy relationship with Moomin the corporate whore. ‘Product samples, Blubby in every possible material and packaging, all of them with wide blue eyes with big black pupils. Outlines crossed out with a felt-tip pen, all except one, something about the wild west. A notation: “Not used”.
Now we are about to get Moomin in an entirely new form – the first feature length outing for the Finn family is coming, based on one of the comic strip stories: Moomin on the Riviera.
It looks like an ultra faithful rendition of the story featured in volume one, with added Little My (and why not?) The family escape the valley for the glitz of the south of France, where they find themselves living beyond their means at a fabulous hotel (in scenes familiar to readers of Father Christmas Goes on Holiday). But hotel life proves too rich for Mamma and Moomintroll and they go to live on the beach, leaving Snork Maiden to hit the big time and Moominpappa to indulge in Homer Simpson levels of self-indulgence.
The story came out of a real trip to the French Riviera that Tove took with her mother Ham in 1954. They rented a small villa in Juan de Les Pins with ‘green shutters on the windows and a garden with palm trees, oranges and yellow roses and cypresses in the corners.’ Tove described it as ‘cut out from a picture book.’
This happy time made for one of the most joyous and playful of the Moomin strips. But by the time we reach volume five in the comic collections there are signs that things have gone awry. Moomin Under Sail begins with father and son searching around desperately for something to do – literally looking for a plot device to begin a new adventure. Even Moominpappa is weary, ‘Must we start a new adventure?‘ he pleads before calendar dates rain down on the pair, reminding them of their ever impending deadlines. Tove then tears the fourth wall down, the Moomins addressing us directly for the first and last time. ‘My goodness! Readers.’
We finish with Fuddler’s Courtship in which a quack psychiatrist called Dr Hatter (though Dr Schrünkel in the original is better) comes to Moominvalley. He opens a practice and turns everyone round the bend before imprisoning the mad Moomins. Moomintroll is diagnosed with ‘complexes’ and prescribed drugs that make him shrink and then vanish completely. ‘Oh if he’ll only be the same when he appears again,’ the Snork Maiden laments, giving us hope that her cuckolded Moomintroll might return.
But Tove was done with the Moomin strip, and you get the impression from The Cartoonist that it had left an impression deep enough to require a trip to Dr Schrünkel. ‘Every day, every week and month and year and new year and it never ends – the same creatures with the same pupils creeping around you and over you and never stopping…‘ She handed over strip duties to her younger brother Lars who continued the Moomin strip until the mid-70s.
The Moomin novels that followed in the 60s were much more grown-up, as Tove attempted to move away from her creation. Moominpappa at Sea charts the family’s attempt to escape Moominvalley, and then finally in 1970 they disappear altogether – in the troll free and deeply melancholy Moominvalley in November. It was as if Dr Schrünkel’s vanishing potion had slowly seeped into the rest of the Moomin world.