Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘comics’

15 DECEMBER, 2014

The Moomin Guide to Identity and Belonging: Tove Jansson’s Vintage Philosophical Comics on Why We Join Groups and Seek Community

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“It’s rather difficult, when one has MANY friends, to show loyalty to them all at the same time…”

Tove Jansson (1914–2001) is one of the most imaginative and influential storytellers in modern history — an artist and writer of singular creative vision and a genius for rendering visible and comprehensible life’s subtlest nuances. She was Finland’s most revered literary celebrity and a recipient of the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Award, and yet she lived simply and worked in the same studio for forty-seven years alongside the love of her life, the great Finnish sculptor and graphic arts pioneer Tuulikki “Tooti” Pietilä, who inspired Jansson’s endearing Too-ticky character. She had the courage and clarity of conviction to turn down Walt Disney’s commercial offer and instead built her own creative empire on a foundation of remarkable integrity and unflinching artistic vision. Neil Gaiman has called Jansson’s work “a surrealist masterpiece.”

In addition to her marvelously philosophical children’s books and her gorgeous vintage illustrations for special editions of such classics as The Hobbit in 1962 and Alice in Wonderland in 1966, Jansson also enlisted her iconic Moomin characters in a lesser-known but long-running London Evening News series of comic strips for grownups. To celebrate Jansson’s centennial, Drawn & Quarterly has collected the best of them — miraculously salvaged from rare scans-of-scans through a serendipitous twist of fate — in Moomin: The Deluxe Anniversary Edition (public library | IndieBound).

What makes Jansson’s comics timelessly delightful and particularly timely in today’s culture is that she addresses serious, often uncomfortable issues — uncertainty, heartbreak, mortality, natural disasters, our ample human imperfections — with great compassion and warmth, never chastising or preaching but instead celebrating the light in life and aiming its generous beam at the dark. There are no morality tales — life’s messiness is acknowledged, welcomed, and never forced into artificial tidiness. There is love, lots of it, and loneliness too — and, sometimes, the loneliness of love unrequited, but that too is welcomed with quiet consolation.

Tove Jansson in 1967 (photograph by Hans Gedda)

While all the twenty-one comics in this handsome centennial volume reveal various facets of Jansson’s spirit and creative vision, one in particular sang to me more mesmerically than all others. It captures the warm wisdom of her famous saying, “You are alone but that’s okay, we’re all alone.” — something she regularly offered not as a nihilistic lament but as affectionate assurance, one all the more sorely needed today.

Titled “Club Life in Moominvalley,” the story explores questions of identity, belonging, and our quintessential need for community. More than a century after her fellow Scandinavian Søren Kierkegaard’s piercing reflections on the individual vs. the crowd and why we conform, Jansson shines her gentle sagacity on the fine line between belonging to a group of kindred spirits and relinquishing our integrity in conforming.

One day, Moominpappa announces that he and his buddies have formed a Rebel Fathers Club. When Moominmamma — a rather feminist character in the series — inquires whether “rebel mothers” could join, she is unceremoniously declined.

With the classic in-group/out-group dynamic, the Fathers Club decides to define itself not by what it stands for but what it stands against. But they can’t pit themselves against the police because the police chief is an old friend of Moominpappa’s, and they can’t stand in opposition to the crime world because Stinky, the fuzzy perpetrator of Moominvalley mischief, is also an old friend. Eventually, they decide to form a rebel club for the sake thereof, rebelling nothing in particular, because “the important thing is, after all, to meet and have a good time” — “and wear a special tie.”

Moominmamma and her son, eager to join a club of their own, innocently agree to participate Stinky’s cryptic and obviously unwholesome plan, which requires that they don a disguise for a “meeting” in the middle of the night. “Their club hasn’t even a decent tie,” Moominmamma laments as she carries forth with the plan nonetheless. Once she arrives, it becomes clear that the club’s mission is to steal. “What sort of things do you steal for the poor?” charitable Moomintroll inquires, and Stinky responds that, like the Fathers Club, the Robbers Club has no particular focus — they’d steal anything. Moominmamma is reluctant and agrees to a “passive membership” at most, as Jansson pokes her subtle satire at our noncommittal tendencies of wanting to join causes but not wanting to do the work.

As passive members of the Robbers Club, Moominmamma and her son are asked to take a Fight Club-esque vow of silence: “May the ground open and devour me if I betray the club.” But when the police chief gets wind of the crime in the valley, Moominmamma finds herself in an ever-growing mesh of evasions, omissions, and almost-lies. (She is, after all, too charitable to explicitly lie — once again, Jansson winks at how we rationalize our actions.) When the chief asks if he can add Moominmamma to the crime-fighters club, she agrees once again only to a passive membership, only semi-aware of the conflict with her passive membership in Robbers Club.

After a series of misadventures involving the stolen cow, blackmail letters from Stinky, a valley-wide search for Moominmamma’s stolen bag, and various contradictory club-versus-club demands, she manages to steal her bag back with Stinky’s help — but it is still a crime and the police chief, who is rather hurt by the Moomins’ flip-flopping loyalties, must dispense punishment. He sentences the Moomins “to remain in all the clubs as active members for their whole lives!” — Jansson’s prescient comment on the absurdity of overzealous social networking and the punishing consequences of people-pleasing.

Jansson’s finest line in the story — one of her signature packets of simply worded, instantly pause-giving wisdom, the kind one might expect from Winnie the Pooh — is a comment on precisely that:

It’s rather difficult, when one has MANY friends, to show loyalty to them all at the same time…

The full strip and the remaining twenty in Moomin: The Deluxe Anniversary Edition — a fine addition to both the year’s best art books and best philosophy books — are immensely rewarding, unfolding new layers of Jansson’s wit and wisdom uncovered with each reading. Complement this treasure with Jansson’s Moomin-channeled ode to uncertainty, presence, and self-reliance.

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20 NOVEMBER, 2014

The Graphic Canon of Children’s Literature: Comic Artists Reimagine Beloved Childhood Classics, from Tolstoy’s Fairy Tales to Harry Potter

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“One sign of a great work of literature or art is that it can be interpreted multiple ways, that it remains ambiguous, refusing to provide clear-cut answers.”

“Tales are powerful instruments and should be wielded skillfully,” artist Andrea Dezsö told me in our conversation about her striking black-and-white illustrations for the little-known original edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. Some of history’s most skillful wielding of tales has refused to bend to the false divide between “children’s” and “adult” storytelling — there are the Grimms themselves, of course, but also Tolkien, who vehemently believed that there is no such thing as writing “for children”; Maurice Sendak, who in his final interview scoffed that he has never written for children; Neil Gaiman, who opposes the idea of protecting children from the dark; Madeleine L’Engle, who believed that the best children’s books ask questions that “disturb someone’s universe”; and most of all C.S. Lewis, who elegantly eviscerated the notion that literature should treat children as a special species.

On the heels of the year’s best children’s books comes a magnificent embodiment of that ethos in The Graphic Canon of Children’s Literature: The World’s Greatest Kids’ Lit as Comics and Visuals (public library | IndieBound) — the latest installment in an ongoing series of comic adaptations of beloved works of literature.

In this volume, fifty contemporary graphic artists reimagine such classics as The Little Prince, Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, Aesop’s fables, Russian fairy tales, Harry Potter, and even The Diary of Anne Frank.

Series editor Russ Kick writes in the introduction:

Part of the appeal is my belief that “children’s literature” can be great literature, period. Works meant primarily for children or teens are usually ghettoized, considered unworthy of serious treatment and study. But the best of it achieves a greatness through heightened use of language, through examination of universal themes and human dilemmas, and through nuance and layers of meaning. One sign of a great work of literature or art is that it can be interpreted multiple ways, that it remains ambiguous, refusing to provide clear-cut answers.

[…]

Children’s literature is wild. It’s often bizarre, grotesque, dark, and violent. It seems odd that many of these works are considered children’s literature… Danger everywhere! Wolves, dogs, tigers, condors, thieves, wicked stepmothers, witches, giants, pirates, disease, Nazis… There’s something about seeing a children’s work fully illustrated sequentially to make the terror and weirdness that much more visceral, that undeniable.

[…]

We ended up with over forty adaptations and over sixty stand-alone illustrations that treat children’s literature with the respect, daring, and verve it deserves. In a strange twist, we created a book that many people may think isn’t suitable for children… They might be right. The book has obvious appeal for teens and adults, and maybe they’re the only audience for a work that shows so many bizarre, upsetting, and nightmarish images. Or perhaps we should keep in mind something Sendak said in one of his final interviews: “I refuse to lie to children. I refuse to cater to the bullshit of innocence.”

Here are a few of my favorites, beginning with British illustrator and Penguin book-cover designer Lesley Barnes’s breathtaking illustrations for the Russian fairy tale “Ivan Tsarevich, the Firebird, and the Gray Wolf,” which my grandmother used to read to me when I was little and which graces the book’s cover:

American comic artist Lucy Knisley, who read Harry Potter when she was fourteen, reimagines the famed J.K. Rowling series:

Artist Dasha Tolstikova — the illustrator behind the heartwarming bibliophile tale The Jacket — takes on At the Back of the North Wind by Victorian preacher and unsung fantasy pioneer George MacDonald, who influenced such storytelling icons as J.R.R. Tolkien, Madeleine L’Engle, C.S. Lewis, and more:

Children’s book author and illustrator Karen Katz does a lyrical adaptation of Tolstoy’s little-known tales for young readers:

Comic artist and illustrator Isabel Greenberg presents an appropriately gory take on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Tinderbox:

Chicago-based artist and writer Caroline Picard adapts the tales from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book in an unusual visual sequence, where each story moves forward from left to right along a single arrow-line across multiple pages:

Illustrator Matthew Houston applies his singular style of visual psychedelia to H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine:

Swedish cartoonist Emelie Östergren presents a wonderfully twisted take on Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstockings:

The Graphic Canon of Children’s Literature contains many more treasures at the intersection of literature and graphic art. Complement it with the previous volumes of the series, then treat yourself to the year’s most intelligent and imaginative children’s books.

Images courtesy of Russ Kick

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

28 APRIL, 2014

Six Rare Recordings of Denise Levertov Reading Her Poetry, Illustrated by Artist Ohara Hale

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Love songs, muses, and paradise in the dust of the street.

Between 1963 and 1991, British-born American writer Denise Levertov — recipient of the prestigious Robert Frost medal, a Guggenheim fellow, and one of my all-time favorite poets — gave several spectacular readings at the 92nd Street Y in New York, the recordings of which have been slumbering away in the institution’s vault. In this second installment of my partnership with the Unterberg Poetry Center at the 92Y — following Susan Sontag’s wide-ranging lecture on the project of literature — I’ve selected six of Levertov’s poetry readings to bring back to life.

But this is a double delight: I asked Montreal-based artist Ohara Hale — one of the most original and bewitching illustrators working today, and an enchanting musician — to respond to Levertov’s poems in the style of her singular visual haikus, creating one piece of art for each recording. The resulting three-way labor of love, months in the making, is a celebration of poetry, comics, and the cross-pollination of the arts — please enjoy.

As is customary for the Brain Pickings artist series, we’ve made prints of the artwork available, with 100% of proceeds benefiting A Room of Her Own, a foundation supporting women writers and artists.

Dive deeper with The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov (public library), treat yourself to Hale’s delicious forthcoming book of comics, and see more of her unbearably wonderful work on her site.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.