The Overlook Press ($23.95)
by Gary Sullivan
I'm going to pick up on an argument many have made before, that there is such a thing as the "new comic" and that it occurs more or less on the outskirts of contemporary comics production. It's an admittedly loose term; for some the "new comic" includes Watchmen, for others it might begin and end with Raw. My own "new comic" time-line begins with Joe Brainard's C Comics, and includes elements of Carol Lay's Good Girls series, Joe Chiappetta's A Death in the Family, Aleksandar Zograf, Julie Doucet, Jesse Reklaw and Rick Veitch's various dream-inspired comics, Megan Kelso's Queen of the Black Black, and Doug Allen and Gary Loeb's Idiotland. But Peter Blegvad's Leviathan, which has been serialized in The Independent on Sunday since 1991, is without question the most inventive, fully-realized example to date.
Held together—and I don't use those two words lightly—by the mere but constant appearance of the bald, faceless baby Levi (who strikingly resembles Harold of purple-crayon-fame), Levi's stuffed, Chester Brown-reminiscent pink rabbit, and a Cheshire-like cat-ghost, Leviathan lacks extended plot, overarching theme, clear political agenda, obvious jokes, consistent style, topicality—anything, really, that would seem prerequisite for a strip's acceptance in any of the various normalizing institutions of the contemporary American comics market. Unless this selection of these strips from the 90s brings Blegvad's work to mainstream-"alternative" media attention, you won't be seeing it any time soon in, for instance, the Village Voice. The strip is too bizarre, too ingenious. That Blegvad employs inventive and sometimes impossibly spare use of color won't help.
Despite a now-touring retrospective of Joe Brainard's work, his C Comics collaborations with Ted Berrigan, Robert Creeley, Barbara Guest, Kenward Elmslie, Frank O'Hara, et al. are, while semi-famous in the poetry world, virtually unknown to most working American cartoonists. Likewise, Blegvad's Leviathan series seems to have been created and to have existed outside of contemporary American comics culture. Comics have, since their origin, been shoved or have willingly crouched into the corner of "representation," and while the U.S. hardly lacks comics artists who push that particular envelope (isn't Chris Ware the Samuel Beckett of comics--and Clowes its Bunuel?), there aren't many I can think of who have so completely abandoned for other purpose the "sequential" aspect of the form. Neither Scott McCloud nor any of the various comics artists who've parodied his influential Understanding Comics have brought up "fully torqued" as a value even potentially germane to the art. If writing, as Ernest Hemingway lamented half a century ago, is 50 years behind all of the other arts, comics are another half-century behind that. (Witness Matt Madden's recent web-published Exercises in Style, which, loved by younger comics artists as "inventive," takes as its cue (and never surpasses) OuLiPo-ean experimentalist Raymond Queneau's book of the same name from 1947).
If it sounds like I'm being cranky, it's because Blegvad's work as a whole is so inventive, so fully-torqued, it makes everything else, in retrospect, look mannered and tame. Take, for instance, the strip titled "Two Views of Leviathan Taking His First Step . . ." We get two views, "Below" and "Above." "Below," we see Levi's parents, rendered in black, white and gray, gesturing to an open hole above them, the mother holding what appears to be a rubber ball: "Atta boy! Come to papa!" "You hoo, Levi! Look what I've got for you . . ." The parents stand knee-high in a pool of waste. To the left, a sewage pipe oozes sludge over an abandoned tire. We also see steaming heaps of what look like excrement, an abandoned baby buggy, a bottle, a snake, a shoe, and one or two unidentifiable items. In the next panel, we see, in full-blown color, the baby Levi taking the first step over the manhole, two faucets, labled "milk" and "honey" behind him, the ghost-cat twisted and cajoling a few paces beyond the manhole. A purple butterfly, which looks collaged into the scene, seems to egg the young Levi on. This is one of the more "obvious" strips: clearly, Blegvad is commenting on the transition from child to adult.
Even more enigmatic & envelope-pushing is the strip appearing on the page opposite this one. Another two-panel (Blegvad usually uses five or six), in the first, we see his mother (or guardian) lamenting, in an open doorway leading to Levi's room, "Jumpin' Jehossaphats! What a MESS!" "PLEASE," Levi begs, "Stay there! Don't TOUCH anything!" On the floor we see some two dozen items, including a hand-puppet, half an apple, an overturned vase of flowers, a jump rope, a single sock, a crucifix, a spilled bottle of milk, a pair of scissors, a bag of spilled ball and jacks, etc. In the next panel, Levi thinks "It may look like a MESS to you, but ACTUALLY, it's . . .*" The asterisk leads to a footnote, below, which says ". . . the atomic formula for the transmutation of base matter into milk. A hybrid between a lattice calculation and one appropriate to a system with continuous variables, which means it may even be read when the beach season is over." The quote below is ascribed to a magazine, Nature. The items on the floor are now involved in a series of complicated mathematical formulae—Blegved has drawn, in red, about each item, plus signs, multiplication symbols, square root signs, and so on. While I can think of no comics image equivalent to this second panel, I immediately conjure up the poet Clark Coolidge's semi-famous lecture on "arrangement" (given at Naropa and published in Talking Poetics), which includes the reiteration of a sci-fi story Coolidge read as a young boy, very similar to the mapped out floor of Blegvad's second panel. Coolidge:
. . . that story now comes back to me with all the feelings of great discovery and mystery and desire to do something with this . . . and this . . . and this. Where do I put it? What happens when I put it there? What does it do to this? How close is it? Does it repel me? Does it repel you? How much does it weigh down the table? Can I look through it? What do I see when I look through it, and another whole vector of stuff coming in visually? . . . it took years to begin to articulate that in a form of art.
"Arrangement" is absolutely a value Blegvad understands, and torques for a variety of effects, in his work.
Leviathan runs on poetic or "dream" logic, and a number of the strips are held together by certain forms of linguistic and visual play, including frequent use of puns, palindromes and other devices, though not everything can be parsed immediately. What to make of the last panel of one strip, where the hand of God lights the fire beneath a skewered torso: "So, Levi," the hand asks, "how do you like your fellow man?" "Well done," Levi says, sitting by the torso in a green hot-suit. The gag here is obvious, sure. But what does the reader do with the words "long pig," with an arrow pointing to the torso and "salamander," pointing to Levi? Opposite this page is reproduced one of Blegvad's full-color strips, in which Mandrax the Magician attempts to hypnotize the faceless Levi. Its stiffness and colorfulness are more reminiscent of Trevor Winkfield than any of Blegvad's previous strips, and it occurs to me that if it was billed as "high art" we might not attempt to second-guess it. But, as a "comic strip," it pulls us in a way that Winkfield (or his predecessor Lichtenstein) will never manage. I love that about comics, and I especially love that Blegvad knows and plays with that situation. What's our investment in this? What does it mean? How does it inform the strips prior to and following this one?
We can't help but ask, nor—thumbing through Blegvad's variously-executed strips of the last decade of the 20th century—are we likely to be satisfied with easy answers.
On the last page of the book, Levi points to his now-human-sized pink rabbit and says "Dep . . ." Two panels later, the bunny rejoins, ". . . Art?" It's the silliest, most self-aware, heavy-handed moment of the book: obviously, The Book of Leviathan signals a departure, something Blegvad need hardly have underscored. But him saying that, there, suggests he's not unaware of what his work finally proposes.
The "new comic," if it's to thrive, will take off from this point.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001