Finnish comic strip offers tranquility, humor for winter hibernation

Hugely popular strip makes North American debut

Sometimes attitude is everything.

Here in the United States, we view winter as a drudgery to withstand. In Finland and other Nordic countries, winter is relished and enjoyed, with lots of sledding, coffee and trips to the sauna.

This positive, laid-back attitude is on full display in the Moomin comic series by Swedish-speaking Finnish artist and author Tove Jansson, who is regarded as a national treasure in Finland even after her death in 2001.

Jansson’s comics have recently been made available for the first time in North America thanks to Drawn and Quarterly Press in Montreal.

“The characters are very laid back and just calm about everything,” said Tom Devlin, Creative Director at Drawn and Quarterly Press. “They have a very ‘live and let live’ attitude. There’s something very not North American about these characters, which is really kind of appealing.”

The Moomins are a family of plump, hippopotamus-esk creatures who live a decidedly bohemian lifestyle in Moominvalley, a fictional amalgam of locations in Finland.

They first appeared in 1945 in a series of children’s chapter books and picture books, which have been translated into more than 40 languages. (Think “Winnie the Pooh” but darker, with more spunk.)

After the success of her children’s books, Jansson was approached in the early 1950s by a syndicate about writing a Moomin newspaper comic geared toward adults. The strip ran from 1954 until 1971, and at its peak appeared in 120 papers in 40 countries, resulting in a daily readership of more than 20 million.

“The drawings are really fun and cute and beautifully composed, so they’re alluring to children, but the jokes aren’t too sophisticated that it’s impenetrable for kids,” Devlin explained. “They’re very smart.”

The Moomin comics are also decidedly different from today’s newspaper comics. “If you think about any comic strips that are in the newspaper these days, nothing goes bad. It tends to be like a family comedy. They’re in a suburb or a city, they’re in the apartment, just trading barbs.”

There’s a cynicism present in the Moomin strips, such as when Moominpappa succumbs to a midlife crisis and leaves his family in search of adventure, or when the family meets Mr. Brisk, an overly enthusiastic, self-serving character who convince the family to abandon hibernation so he can beat them at winter sports.

Jansson also subtly tackled larger social topics, all with a decidedly humorous and hands-off approach.

“There’s a dog who’s in love with a cat in one of the strips, and that’s very clearly Tove dealing with her sexuality in a really coded, buried kind of way,” explained Devlin. “But she doesn’t even make it central, like it’s a big deal. It’s just this thing that’s in there.”

IMMENSE POPULARITY

While Peanuts and Disney are cultural touchstones in North America, Moomin has dominance in the Nordic countries, Japan and parts of Europe.

In addition to chapter books and a comic series, there also are Moomin picture books, a television show, and a huge variety of Moomin products, from stuffed toys to lamps to special brands of coffee.

There’s even a theme park in Finland called Moominworld where children and adults alike can explore the Moomin house, Moominpappa’s boat, and Snufkin’s camp. The park was created with a decidedly Moomin-minded focus: there are no rides; the entire park is a series of interactive, imaginative activities. A second theme park is set to open later this year in Japan.

Devlin isn’t sure why Moomin didn’t take off in North America. One reason may be the fact that Moomin didn’t receive the same commercial treatment here as Disney or Peanuts.

“Sometimes stuff just disappears because that (treatment) doesn’t happen to it,” Devlin explained. “A lot of people probably know Peanuts because of the Christmas special.”

And while commercializing a work can cheapen it, Devlin argues that such treatment can also keep the work alive, and of interest to future generations. “There’s many great comics that just disappear because they never had that toy that sat on somebody’s shelf to be remembered. Or a cartoon that ran every Christmas.”

Some commercial treatments of comics can be “terrible,” Devlin admitted, but some of it is great.

“You can’t change how great the (original work) was. Great stuff is going to be great, even if there’s a bad animation or a poorly made toy.”

MEMORABLE CHARACTERS

In addition to the Moomin family, the comics and books feature a rotating cast of unusual side characters. There are the Hattifatteners, small, ghostlike telepathic creatures who grow from seeds and are drawn toward lightning storms; Little My, a fierce small girl who likes to bite; and The Groke, a melancholy character searching for warmth who freezes everything she touches.

But for Devlin there is one clear favorite among the many Moomin characters. “I love the fact that Snufkin is a character in that world. Who is like that in comics? There’s this sort of nice family strip and here’s this casual iconoclast, just on the fringes, coming and going. He’s like this hobo character, right? The philosophical hobo character. I appreciate that.”

Because Moomin is so unusual, Devlin wasn’t sure what to expect when Drawn and Quarterly decided to publish the comic strip.

“We didn’t expect Moomin to be as successful as it was for us when we started out. Usually you publish something because you love it and you think … maybe other people will like it?”

In addition to being a surprise commercial success for Drawn and Quarterly, Devlin also was surprised at the reception his collection had in Finland.

“When Peggy (publisher at Drawn and Quarterly press and Devlin’s wife) and I went to Finland, we met a bunch of people and somebody remarked that Moomin was in this place where everybody was just kind of like ‘Oh, that old strip.’ It was always around, and everyone was kind of bored with it.”

“When we started doing our editions, it sparked new interest all over. It was just this kind of lucky thing, the timing … Moomin was kind of unpopular when we picked it up, but (publishing the strips) brought it back into people’s consciousness.”

“It would be a shame if the culture from which it came forgot about it. So it’s nice to see that we had a small part in bringing it back.”

Hopefully Devlin will soon be able to say he had a small part in bringing Moomin to North America as well.