Apr 10, 2015

The Arguments part 1 of 3: History and Geography - The Argument for The Book of Leviathan

"The Arguments" are a series of papers I wrote in a graduate class in 2013 with Dr. Bart Beaty. He tasked us with arguing for the inclusion of particular comics on a hypothetical comics candidacy list. "The Arguments" are the result. The final assignment in that class was to formulate a comics field reading list, which I posted here, and then, foolishly, to the comics scholars list-serv. I was summarily torn apart.
(I should probably note that this was the last of the three to be written. Hopefully they don't get less convincing in reverse!)
History and Geography: The Argument for The Book of Leviathan
First published in The Independent on Sunday Newspaper, 1992 – 1999
Collected by The Overlook Press, Woodstock, NY, 2000
            Rafi Zabor, in his introduction to Peter Blegvad’s The Book of Leviathan, calls it “the finest gnostic comic strip to come out of Britain since the heyday of William Blake” (Zabor).  That might almost be enough to place Blegvad’s collection on a comics reading list, but Leviathan, aside from its strange, gnostic humour, gives us much to consider in the field of comics studies.
            Blegvad’s illustration style varies widely over the course of the book, presenting strange surreal backgrounds for Levi and Cat, the two protagonists of the strip.  Levi is always depicted as a faceless baby, while Cat undergoes metamorphoses depending on the context of the story.  The colour set varies widely, as does the art, leaving no real lasting over-arching aesthetic impression of the strip, aside from Levi’s blank face.  Panels run from a fairly standard 2-tier strip to single panel installments that ape framed works of art in a museum.  Trying to label the design quality of the strip leads to such statements as Zabor’s, which at once seems ridiculous and appropriate.
            Narratologically, Leviathan breaks from what one might traditionally expect from Sunday comic strip fare.  Though it is occasionally a humorous work, not all of the strips and stories are amusing.  Some are remarkably dark.  The surrealist bent is also apparent in the narratives, unsurprisingly, given the period in which it was penned, calling to mind David Lynch and Mark Frost’s coeval television series Twin Peaks.  In contrast to some of the more well-known comic strips (Peanuts, Calvin & Hobbes, Bloom County), Leviathan does not depend on final panel punch lines and comedic timing.  Instead, it lures a reader in with the sense that this is merely another comic strip, and then pulls the proverbial rug from beneath the reader’s feet.  Read as a collected work (and I should note that this is actually a selected, rather than fully-collected work), the narrative aesthetic comes more into focus than the design aesthetic, giving a coherence in the book not of look, but of feel.
            The strip itself follows in a proud lineage of coming-of-age stories, perhaps bolstered by Blegvad’s work on the Peanuts cartoon (“Peter Blegvad, ” Calyx).  Comparisons to Watterson’s Calvin & Hobbes are inevitable, given the relationship between young Levi and his guide through his strange adventures, Cat.  A brief look at Blegvad’s Wikipedia page intimates that the strip has been favourably compared to Herriman’s Krazy Kat (“Peter Blegvad,” Wikipedia), though I was unable to find a more-credible source for this comparison.  Having read the strips, however, it is an apt comparison.  The surreal landscapes and occasional non-sequitur dialogue place Leviathan as perhaps a post-modern answer to Krazy Kat’s modernism.  Blegvad allows the strip to delve whole-heartedly into cultural critique and metatextual reference, all the while couching his experimental stories in the experience of a baby.  Though Levi’s age is never made explicit, it is intimated that he is pre-verbal, and his adventures certainly take place outside the bounds of our normalized, linguicized verbal existence.
            Leviathan also serves to pull into focus one of the more tricky (in this writer’s opinion) questions of comics studies, that of nationality.  According to his biography on the Canterbury Music Website, Blegvad was born in New York City, moved to England at age 14, spent time in Europe over his later teen years, moved back to New York to “draw backgrounds for the ‘Peanuts’ cartoon,” returned to Britain, returned to America, and then once more to Britain all by 1992 (“Peter Blegvad,” Calyx) in time to draw Leviathan for the Independent on Sunday.  Where, then, does one locate the nationality of The Book of Leviathan?  It is a comic strip from the U.K., written by an American by birth who seems to have chosen Britain as his home, but published in graphic novel form by a publishing house in the U.S.  Similar questions can be asked of numerous comics, especially since the much-lauded British Invasion of the late Eighties.  DC’s All-Star Superman features a quintessentially American hero, published by an American company, but written and drawn by two Scotsmen.  If Cormac McCarthy were to publish a work first in the United Kingdom, and then in the U.S., we would not call the work one of British literature.  Such determined categories are not so well-defined for comics, though are often definitional ones in academic structures.  Comics such as Leviathan ask us to rethink our nationally-divided syllabi, and perhaps point to a more holistic approach to literature.
            Blegvad is a multi-medium artist, working in music and visual art.  He has displayed his work at the Fumetto Festival in 2007 and envisions “a period to getting [his] act together as a visual artist” (Bruno).  From this perspective he, and The Book of Leviathan, provide another intriguing perspective for comics studies, that of the intersection of artist’s book and comic strip.  If the artist’s book circulates largely “in the world of artist’s books and not in the networks that constitute the comics world” (Beaty 42), what then do we make of a visual artist whose work circulates in the world of newspaper comic strips, and is published by “an independent...publisher [of titles]...often ‘overlooked’ by larger houses” (“About Us”)?  As well as national categorization, The Book of Leviathan also asks us to reconsider what comics are, and where they can come from.
Appendix: Example

From Peter Blegvad, The Book of Leviathan (New York: The Overlook Press, 2000; print; frontmatter).

Works Cited
Beaty, Bart. Comics Versus Art. Toronto: U of T Press, 2012. Print.
Blegvad, Peter. The Book of Leviathan. Woodstock: TheOverlook Press, 2000.  Print.
Bruno, Franklin. “Peter Blegvad.” The Believer. Nov. 2009. Web. 1 Dec. 2013.
Peter Blegvad.” Calyx: The Canterbury Music Website. N.p. n.d. Web. 1 Dec. 2013.
Peter Blegvad.” Wikipedia. N.p. 1 Dec. 2013. Web. 1 Dec. 2013.
Zabor, Rafi. “Introduction.” The Book of Leviathan. Woodstock: The Overlook Press, 2000.Print.

Here's the web presence of Blegvad's Leviathan.

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