February 2007

Jeff VanderMeer




Among the many pleasures of visiting Helsinki, Finland, last year -- sauna, island restaurants, choppy boat rides, great people -- was discovering the multi-faceted work of the late Tove Jansson. You couldn’t go anywhere without discovering Moomin books, picture books, cartoon collections, stuffed toys, erasers, stationery, and a thousand other things. At first, before we knew the context, Moomin was a mysterious creature. We even thought that perhaps Moomin was a cartoon character created by the Finland tourism board to facilitate communication with visitors. But slowly, as we walked through Helsinki, everything became clear…

Utterly delightful for children and adults, Moomin is a hippopotamus-looking creature who, along with cohorts like giant rats, white finger-looking creatures, and others, has strange and wonderful adventures. Moomin and the other creatures Jannson drew are rendered in an appropriately simple style, while the backgrounds are often nuanced and complex.

In less skillful hands, this would be fodder for sticking one’s finger down one’s throat in revulsion at the treacly whimsy of it all. However, Tove Jansson was a pragmatist and also, if her work is any indication, a wise person. Beneath the gentle surface of Moomin there is a sly, wicked wit and much non-didactic commentary about the world and people’s place in it.

Moomin: The Complete Tove Jannson Comic Strip from Drawn & Quarterly finally collects the Moomin comics for U.S. readers. First run in the 1950s in the London Evening News and syndicated around the world, Moomin has a timeless quality. The fantasy element and the emphasis on universal themes like love and friendship -- combined with eccentric quests (sometimes with a slapstick quality to them) -- allows modern readers to appreciate these classics all over again. A typical storyline might include Moomin having to house unexpected relatives and thus seek out extra money to cover the expense, leading to a series of misadventures from which he emerges unscathed but none the richer.

Something must be said about the effortlessness of these comic strips. There isn’t a word or image out of place. I cannot think of another comic strip that gives me as much pleasure as this one. There is also something uniquely calming and stress-relieving about reading Moomin that I can’t quite put into words but has something to do with the effortlessness I mention above.

Jannson also wrote books for adults, and I highly recommend her The Summer Book, a funny, sometimes sad, and always wise series of vignettes about a grandmother and granddaughter living on one of Finland’s outlying islands.

For more information on Moomin generally, visit the Moomin site.

Moomin: The Complete Tove Jannson Comic Strip, Tove Jannson
Drawn & Quarterly
ISBN 1894937085
96 Pages

Big Fat Little Lit

It’s really hard to be stingy or cold-hearted in approaching something like Big Fat Little Lit, edited by Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly. The energy involved in this glorious full-color collection acts as something of a caffeine boost while reading it. Reprinting the best of the Little Lit series from the New York Times, this explosion of riotous talent includes work by Charles Burns, Neil Gaiman, Kim Deitch, Kaz, David Sedaris, Lemony Snicket, and many others.

Although some of the contents seem as diaphanous as cotton candy and just as filling, even the more ordinary material operates at an uncommon level of sheer glee and manic energy. Think pratfalls, comedy, and bright, vibrant colors. It might get wearing at times if you read it straight through, but dip in from time to time and you’ll be fine.

My favorites included Kaz’s “It Was a Dark and Silly Night” and the insane “The Hungry Horse,” with its cyclical storyline, Art Spiegelman’s “Prince Rooster,” William Joyce’s lovely illustrations for “Humpty Trouble,” and a Neil Gaiman/Gahan Wilson collaboration featuring Wilson’s frightening/comforting monsters.

Big Fat Little Lit, edited by Art Spiegelman & Francoise Mouly
ISBN 0142407062
144 Pages

Next Time

For this particular installment of the column, I’d meant to write a general essay on the unique qualities of graphic novels versus novels and provide some commentary on how awards systems probably should approach graphic novels. However, other deadlines got in the way and this discussion made me rethink some of what I planned to say, so expect that next time.

Contact Info

Send complaints, compliments, concerns, and rambling rants about how wrong I am to: vanderworld at hotmail.com. (I’ll assume you don’t mind being quoted in this column if you send me something.)

Send materials for review to Bookslut and to me at POB 4248, Tallahassee, FL 32315.