I’ve always thought comics never get the recognition they deserve. They are either looked down on as being less than the plain written word, as if the inclusion of pictures somehow reduces their value, or they are elevated beyond their worth by those too embarrassed to admit that they enjoy them just for the pleasure they bring. The next time I have to listen to someone talking about the deep psychological and social significance of The X-Men or whichever comic they obsess over, I’ll probably gag. Why is it so difficult to admit that you can enjoy comics just for the sake of enjoying a comic?
The majority of comics that you buy either in book form or read in your daily newspaper are simple escapist fun. Whether it’s the gentle humour of Charles Schutz’s Peanuts gang or the fantasy world of some superhero, the pleasure derived from most comics is immediate and transitory. This is especially true of the daily strips in the paper. You start in the first panel, and two or three panels later you’re left with a smile on your face or some other similar feeling of contentment. Even the political strips, like Doonesbury or Minimum Security, work along the same basic premise, although they do have more to do with reality than most.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that all comic strips are created equal or that there aren’t some cartoonists whose work takes the medium into places where very few others dare to go. Unfortunately, you’re not likely to find their work nestled in among the daily funnies offered by your local newspaper, as it isn’t what most people would want to quickly scan during their morning commute to work. Occasionally, one or two of them will make there way into the pages of some speciality magazines, but most of the time you need to wait for a compilation of their work to appear as a book in order to experience them.
At least, that was the case for me when it came to Peter Blegved and his creation Leviathan, as I was unfamiliar with it until reading it between the covers of The Book Of Leviathan. Mr. Blegved is a man of many talents, as can be seen by a visit to Amateur Enterprises where some of his other work has been collected. A musician in bands such as Henry Cow and Slapp Happy in the seventies and eighties, he started drawing Leviathan in 1992, and it appeared in the British newspaper Independent on Sundays through to 1998. Now The Overlook Press has gathered together those Sunday oddities into the above book and will be unleashing it unto an unsuspecting public on July 29th, 2008.
Like all good comics, Leviathan concerns the adventures of a boy, Levi, and his pet – although, in this case, the boy is a faceless baby; the pet is a rather insightful and cynical cat; and the adventures tend towards the metaphysical rather than the physical. While there are occasional references made to Levi’s lack of features – meeting a race of people whose heads are noses, Levi’s inquiry as to how he smells is answered with “Not very well without a nose” – for the most part it doesn’t seem to hinder his ability to experience the world around him. From the trauma of that first separation from his parents – being left at home with the baby sitter for the first time; a trip into hell courtesy of B.L.Z. Bub, Lord of the Fleas; to Levi’s valiant attempts to break out of the last panel of the strip to connect directly with his readers, he is able to negotiate most of the obstacles that the world places in his path.
Of course, Levi’s also slightly better prepared than most of us, as if nature has gifted him with certain abilities in lieu of those he’s lost. First, there’s his inquisitive and inventive mind that allows him to devise such things as the atomic formula for the transmutation of base matter into milk or to imagine the mirror opposite of himself and his stuffed bunny. Of course, the anti-bunny might not be to everyone’s liking – for according to the strip’s guest host for the day, Hegel, the father of dialectical logic, instead of being soft, cuddly, safe, stuffed and inanimate, it would be alive, hard, lethal, and hungry. Sometimes, you don’t want to open the door when your imagination comes knocking.
Like so many comics, a lot of the humour and a great deal of the impact in Leviathan is a result of the illustrations. Blegvad is not only able to do wonderful things with a bare minimum of lines, he can also draw beautifully ornate pieces that are eloquently humorous without ever taking themselves too seriously. Even when he introduces a figure like Hegel, or an iconic image from the art world like Edvard Munch’s The Scream, it’s with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. Sometimes, it feels that by introducing these elements in ridiculous circumstances, he is reminding the reader that they are reading a comic and not to take it too seriously.
Although, I think a man who manages to make some of the worse puns in the world out of eels and cheesy song lyrics (“What’s that?” – “When the Moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie that’s a Moray.”) probably doesn’t have to worry too much about being taken too seriously. That’s not to say there aren’t moments in some of the strips which won’t make you stop and think. You can’t deal in the absurd as much as Peter Blegvad does without opening up one or two cans of worms about human behaviour. However, most of your wondering when it comes to the adventures of Levi and Cat will be about what type of brain could have come up with such absurdities – and not about the state of the world.
While some might wonder at the value of escapism that a comic like Leviathan offers, as it says in the preface to the book, only a jailer would consider the term “escapist” pejorative. Anyway, The Book Of Leviathan isn’t what anyone would consider your typical mindless escapism. Absurd, strange, and even a little twisted certainly, but always thoughtful and never simple, one thing is for sure; the adventures of Levi and Cat are never boring.