Moon Man: Tomi Ungerer’s Timeless Vintage Illustrated Fable of How Fear and Cynicism Blind Us to Benevolence
A radiant reminder that we transcend our darkness only by choosing to turn toward the light.
By Maria Popova
For billions of years, the Moon has remained our steadfast companion bearing witness to every tumult and triumph of this world, its benevolent radiance reminding us that even the darkest of earthly eras shall pass. The poet John Keats placed it alongside the verses of Shakespeare as one of the few reliable realities of existence. Leonard Cohen was guided by its light to where the good songs come from. It has populated our mythologies and captured our curiosity for as long as the human gaze has risen toward the night sky — from our earliest cosmogonies to Galileo’s revolutionary Moon drawings to the way NASA marketed the Moon to Earth.
In 1967, as the unheralded black women mathematicians of the space race were working to put the first human foot on the moon, beloved French children’s book artist and author Tomi Ungerer (b. November 28, 1931) offered a very different take on our lunar imagination with Moon Man (public library) — the sweet, subversive, and lyrical tale of a friendly cosmic visitor who wants to partake in the jubilation of earthlings, but finds himself mistaken for a malevolent invader. At the heart of the story, a favorite of Maurice Sendak’s, is a subtle admonition that our fear and cynicism end up dimming goodness and driving it away — like the Moon itself, we are saved from the darkness that does exist only by turning toward the light so that we may become luminous ourselves.
Ungerer’s lunar fancy and his fascination with whimsical instruments are perhaps not coincidental — his father, who died when Ungerer was a little boy, was a historian, artist, engineer, and clock-maker, who built astronomical and solar clocks.
On clear, starry nights the Moon Man can be seen curled up in his shimmering seat in space.
From his celestial vantage point, the Moon Man watches earthlings dance and finds himself envious of their jubilation. So he catches an opportune comet tail and arrives on Earth with a crash.
The locals are at first curious about this pale, soft creature, but soon succumb to that lamentable human fear of the unfamiliar and spiral into alarm.
Government officials were alerted. Statesmen, scientists, and generals panicked. They called the mysterious visitor an invader.
The incredibly detailed uniforms of the characters in the book, like much of Ungerer’s body of work, draw on his childhood under the Nazi occupation of France — which he captures in his iconic 1999 memoir of the Holocaust told through a teddy bear — as well as on the mandatory military service he had to perform as a young man, despite being a pacifist himself.
The Moon Man’s dreams of dancing with the crowds crumble as he is thrown in jail.
But then his celestial nature comes to the rescue.
One night as the Moon Man sat wondering why he was so cruelly treated, he noticed that his left side had faded. “Why, I must be in my third quarter,” he thought happily. Every night as the moon grew thinner and thinner so did the Moon Man, until at last he was able to squeeze through the bars of the window.
As the generals are gripped with puzzlement and fury upon discovering the empty cell, the Moon Man roams the wilderness, slowly regaining his plumpness as he cycles through his lunar phases.
Eventually, he finds his way to a garden party and gets to live out his dream of dancing “blissfully for hours.”
But after “a grumpy killjoy” complains about the decibels of the merriment, the police arrive and set out to capture the Moon Man.
As he flees into the woods, he stumbles upon a whimsical ancient castle, where he is welcomed by an eccentric man named Doktor Bunsen van der Dunkel — “a long-forgotten scientist” who has spent centuries “perfecting a spacecraft to reach the moon.”
Now finished, the intricate machine rested on its launch pad in the castle turret. Doktor van der Dunkel had grown too old and too fat to fit into the capsule. He asked his guest to be his first passenger. The Moon Man, who had realized that he could never live peacefully on this planet, agreed to go.
After a teary farewell, the cosmic visitor launches back into space. For the feat of propelling his rocket, Doktor van der Dunkel finally receives the commendation he has longed for and is “elected chairman of an important scientific committee.”
Having satisfied his curiosity, the Moon Man never returned to earth and remained ever after curled up in his shimmering seat in space.
Published November 28, 2016