Having long followed the man’s career, briefly met him and heard him speak, I’m convinced that he deserves every accolade he receives, and I know all this attention won’t even go to his head for, in addition to his staggering talent, the man just radiates patience and kindness.
In 2006, he was concluding a talk in Montréal by taking some questions from the audience, and an old lady asked an incredibly basic one… that most would have dismissed or shrugged off with a « how can you not know that already? ». But no, he gently responsed to her query in the most illuminating way, elevating the moment to the delight of everyone in the audience, including, of course, the lady with the question.
«Babies of course are not human — they are animals, and have a very ancient and ramified culture, as cats have, and fishes, and even snakes: the same in kind as these, but much more complicated and vivid, since babies are, after all, one of the most developed species of the lower vertebrates. » — Richard Hughes
I am fairly neutral about children, and prefer to stay away from them for the most part (although there are some pleasant exceptions to this rule). However, I enthusiastically dig through children’s books when given half a chance, and greatly enjoy comics about ankle biters of the ‘wise far beyond their years’ variety. Some authors’ worlds are so compelling that one wishes to be teleported into them. Who wouldn’t love to hang out with Sugar and Spike, or Cul de Sac’s Alice, or Daniel Pinkwater’s Robert Nifkin?
Though I have no such desire to rub elbows with the faceless, introspective Leviathan, his perambulations are great fun to watch. As per his name, he’s more than a little bit of a megalomaniac – as one can argue that all children are. Bred from a long line of ‘more or less faceless neotenic grotesques‘, such as Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby or Walter Berndt’s Smitty, Levi is an infant trying to make sense of the world around him through philosophical musings, an occasional break through the fourth wall, and conversations with his feline companion, Cat.
His patriarch is American Peter Blegvad, son of Danish illustrator Erik Blegvad (which accounts for the hard-to-pronounce family name that I tend to misspell as ‘Blevgrad’, since ‘grad’ is a common suffix for a city in Russian*), more known for his musical career than remembered for his cartooning one. Leviathan was published in the Sunday section of British newspaper The Independent** from 1992 to 1999, and some of the strips were collected in The Book of Leviathan, issued in 2000 by The Overlook Press. The latter is how I came across this strip, in the apartment of a friend kind enough to give me his copy when he saw how absorbed I was.
Q: How did you get the idea of naming a tiny baby Leviathan?
A: From my own kids: they’re both, you bring them home and they’re bigger than anything else in your life.
Q: Why did you switch from Levi’s parents to the Cat?
A: The Cat was easier to draw.
Leviathan seems to invite a hate-or-love kind of response from readers; as Rafi Zabor notes in the introduction to the collection, ‘I have met a few intelligent, literate, artistically sophisticated people who just don’t get it, and their non-response to what is obviously just for starters a classic of its kind, assuming it has a kind, has always puzzled me. ‘ As somebody who belongs in neither camp, I would suggest that this strip sometimes has its head up it arse, and goes so far into self-indulgent metaphysics that it loses its anchor for the sake of willful obfuscation – and sometimes it’s brilliant and very funny. As if to demonstrate the former, Zabor finishes his introduction with ‘Words fail. Times change. Cats meow. Leviathan swims in its native deep, glistening through serial sea-green waters, sending off spectra of intelligible light as it steers with ribbed and radiant fins.’ Nevermind such dubious metaphors – I posit that it’s Leviathan’s playfulness, juggling as it does quotes from long-dead philosophers, questionable puns and surreal vignettes flavoured with Freudio-biblical mythology, is worth the occasional muddle through a high-concept strip that didn’t quite pan out.
* I keep misspelling his name as ‘Blevgad’, which would be very unmelodic to Russian ears, as ‘blev‘ means ‘puke’ and ‘gad‘ is sort of like ‘bastard’. I did in fact misspell it several times in this very blog post, until co-admin RG set me straight. Very embarrassing.
** Was this because Leviathan was too erudite and weird for American audiences? Blegvad was born in NYC in 1951, but was raised in England, spent some years in Germany, then returned to NYC in 1977. Given his proclivity for quoting British authors, I think his sensibilities lie more with Albion.
« We all have a thirst for wonder. It’s a deeply human quality. Science and religion are both bound up with it. What I’m saying is, you don’t have to make stories up, you don’t have to exaggerate. There’s wonder and awe enough in the real world. Nature’s a lot better at inventing wonders than we are. » ― Carl Sagan, Contact
Time to keep a promise — a promise to myself, but just as worthy of being kept. A couple of years ago, I posted the first half of a favourite comics feature of mine, ‘The Hoaxmaster’, which ran in most issues of Gold Key’s UFO Flying Saucers in the 1970s. At the time, I declared that I might get around to posting the second half of the set some World Contact Day, which is today.
The bracing brand of skepticism demonstrated here by the Hoaxmaster, much needed as it was then — smack in the middle of the UFO-Spiritualism-Occultism mania of its era — is yet more urgently needed these days, as the merry-go-round of surreal disinformation spins faster and faster, further out of control with each passing day, it would seem. You may have noticed.
Like many a bibliophile, I enjoy browsing shelves in a used bookshop without any particular goal or author in mind. On one of my last forays, I found the following book:
I had never heard of Aldebert (at that point I was under the misapprehension that ‘Bernard’ was his first name, and ‘Aldebert’ his family name), and the jokes were a bit hit-or-miss, but more than just a few charming cartoons lay within… certainly enough to pick up this book from 1970 for the impressive sum of 12 dollars.
Jean Bernard-Aldebert (1909-1974) was a French illustrator with an interesting, if not devoid of tragedy, life. He started drawing for various satirical publications early on, at 19, and for some fifteen years his career was gradually gaining in traction, his cartoons appearing in such weeklies as in Ric et Rac, Marianne and L’os à mœlle. In 1944, this came to an abrupt halt when he was arrested and deported to a German concentration camp (one of the worst, and the last one to have been liberated by the Allies – Mauthausen) for having depicted Hitler as a chimpanzee in one of his caricatures. Miraculously, he survived, and even set his experiences down on paper – these 50 drawings were published as the album Chemin de Croix en 50 Stations in 1946.
After his return to France, he moved away from satire and caricature (frankly, who could blame him?) and onto more humorous publications like Paris Pin-Up and Fou rire, also illustrating many posters and ads, and drawing two comic strips for Ici Paris (Adonis and GIgolette).
« This is the very center of everything there is. A huge black hole eating up the galaxy. The end of everything. » — Clifford D. Simak
Early in the Fall of 1979, I was pleasantly surprised to discover some new work by Jack Kirby in our weekend paper’s comics section. Things had been awfully quiet on the Kirby front since late 1978, the ‘King’ having unhappily — and quite understandably — left Marvel for the second time that decade.
This new work was part of the long-running anthology strip Walt Disney’s Treasury of Classic Tales (1952-1987). I dutifully collected the shabbily-printed comics sections and patiently hoped for an improved presentation.
Western Publishing, usual licensee of Disney product since its acrimonious split from Dell in 1962, then issued a Black Hole adaptation, in both a slick magazine and comic book format. But — holy bait-and-switch! — it wasn’t the Kirby version!
I’ve been musing over these riddles ever since (in my spare time). Recently, I decided to act by putting the question to one who was there… namely Mr. Michael Royer, who’s been most gracious to us with his time and recollections (check out our three-part interview with MR!). And continues to be!
RG: Mr. Royer, I’ve long been baffled as to why Disney (or Western Publishing, at any rate), thought it necessary to commission two separate comics adaptations of The Black Hole. I’ve always surmised that Kirby was considered too wild for them, but that’s just speculation on my part.
Since you were working for Disney at the time, and you inked the Kirby adaptation, I presume that you played some kind of role behind the scenes as well. Could you share some of the facts with me (and my readers)?
MR: Jack Kirby was selected to draw THE BLACK HOLE Sunday comic strip on MY recommendation. Gold Key editors always selected their OWN artist for similar licensed material… plus they were in no position to pay their artist the fee I got Jack. I inked and lettered HOLE and made necessary changes to the robots to protect the image for toy, etc. sales trademarks. Jack was an impressionist and I made the robots “on model.”
Jack became so bored with the scripts, that were done “storyboard” like by someone who had NO understanding of how to make comic art interesting and exciting, that he asked me to layout the FINAL Sunday page, which I did. I had told the powers that be at Disney that Jack must get his originals back but, of course, being Disney, they did not return them as they had promised. Jack only got the remaining pages not yet sold by the Circle Galleries after threatening Disney with a lawsuit. Disney gave me one of the Sunday originals because someone had spilled a cup of coffee on it.
The head of our Creative Services dept. at Disney was not a big fan of Kirby* and after I had inked the first Sunday he had another staff artist “fix” the faces, which stood out like what they became: inept changes. I yelled “DON’T CHANGE THE FACES!” They gave in to my warning.
It was an interesting time back then. Bob Foster and I were the ONLY artists in Creative Services who had worked in comic books and strips. They would never take our word about things until our department head, Bob and I, were on a conference call with Sylvan Beck (King Features Strip Editor in New York) and then they believed what we had to say about the ways a Sunday strip could be drawn to fit many formats. It was very frustrating at times knowing more than your “bosses.”. But… it is the same old story. Middle management was loaded with MBAs who didn’t know shit from shinola! We used to joke that if one had an MBA anyone could get hired at Disney… You didn’t have to know a damn thing about anything else except how to get the MBA.
RG:I’ve read somewhere that the Black Hole scripts were the work of Carl Fallberg. I mean, if that’s true, surely he wasn’t the one who storyboarded the script, as it’s a bit hard to reconcile ‘NO understanding of how to make comic art interesting and exciting’ with a visual artist of Fallberg’s calibre… might he have delegated the task to some flunky?
MR:It was Fallberg… storyboard layouts for each panel/page. I liked Carl and he was a nice man, but he had no idea how to “jazz” up the film visually and Jack wasn’t about to rock the boat, by being his usual inventive self. The script layouts were just like the film… boring. Just a blow by blow of what was going on in the film. The comic strip could have been exciting if Carl hadn’t just “stuck” to the movie. But, perhaps I am being too critical. Carl was probably “following orders” from our department head. When I tried out to do strip art for Disney in the late 60s or early 70s that same department head told me NOT to worry about “likenesses” of the actors. So when I told in my samples they were turned down because “no one looked like the actors.” Gawrsh…as Goofy would say. As I said… Bob Foster and I were the only guys in Creative Services who had ever been intimately involved in comic book or strip art production in our department. Things did change a bit eventually.**
I leave the final words to Mr. Royer, along with my earnest appreciation of his gregarious generosity!
MR:As a point of interest (or none at all), I designed and drew the Sunday page BLACK HOLE title panel as well as lettering, correcting robots and inking. I have a full set of B&W proofs if any one is interested in putting them into print. Offered to loan them to IDW but I guess they weren’t interested. My price must have been too high. Two comp copies of whatever they printed. LOL sigh.
*this was decades before Disney became perfectly fine with reaping billions upon billions from Kirby’s creations.
« Bonnie and Pepsi are obsessed with sex, but they’re not there for the male gaze. Their desire is frank and straightforward and more than a little demented, and it’s depicted with a bracing honesty that feels less like a political statement and more like Flenniken is reporting from the front lines with no filter, no safety net, and no intention of telling anything but the truth.»*
I first came across a Shary Flenniken‘s Trots and Bonnie strip in some random issue of National Lampoon. I can’t even really narrow down the decade**, as it ran within its pages from 1972 all the way to 1990. I was intrigued, but not enough to pursue it.
When New York Review Comics published a Trots and Bonnie collection in 2021, gathering 160 strips in a handsome hardcover volume, I was happy to finally be able to partake of T&B in a more organized fashion. One perplexing thing about this collection is that some strips were omitted due to concerns of misinterpretation***. It was apparently feared that some topics would be too controversial, or that the modern reader has lost the ability to interpret things in context. I would have liked the possibility of deciding what has or hasn’t aged well for myself. As it stands, this collection features strips offering a most varied list of topics to horrify the easily triggered (rape, racial epithets, kids getting shot, electrocuted and castrated – albeit by other kids – and pedophilia), so I am truly curious what the censored strips were about. I guess I am now doomed to collect National Lampoon issues (to be fair, the latter was home to many a great cartoonist – Rick Geary, M.K. Brown, Stan Mack, etc.)
Trots and Bonnie is a hilarious strip, and it’s also quite unsettling in the best of ways. While both cartoonists would surely be offended by this comparison, it makes me think of some of Charles Rodrigues’ work (see Charles Rodrigues’ Pantheon of Scabrous Humour) – the same electrifying unwillingness to shy away from difficult topics, although Flenniken was doing it to make a point, and Rodrigues would do it for sheer perversity. More than once while reading T&B I would start wondering how far a certain storyline would go – and it went all the way to its logical (call it immoral, call it stomach-churning…) conclusion. Just take the Dr. Pepsi’s Vasectomy Clinic from 1974, a panel from which made it as the cover of the collection –
«Two youngish girls, dressed as medical professionals, appear to be playing doctor with a young boy, who lies under a sheet, grinning blankly at the viewer while one of the girls, brandishing a pair of scissors, cheerfully communicates something to the other one. A sweet-looking dog with fancy eyelashes lies at their feet. It’s only once you know the particular strip it comes from, in which Pepsi (the shorter firecracker) and Bonnie (the taller girl) attempt to give neighbor kid Elrod a vasectomy and wind up referring to themselves as a sex-change clinic, that you blanch a bit at the art choice. There you go. That’s “Trots and Bonnie” in a nutshell. » [source]
It’s also a charming strip, with a heroïne who is refreshingly in no hurry to grow up (despite being prodded into it by her early bloomer friend Pepsi, ‘dressed in incongruously childlike pinafore paired with fishnets, a perfect metaphor for the terrifying underage sex fiend she is’). Bonnie dresses like a tomboy, hates going out with her parents, and collects sex magazines and prophylactics like other kids collect marbles. In a world of sleazy men with a creepy predilection for pre-adolescent flesh, she somehow manages to remain an innocent, and shrug off any unpleasantness in favour of a wide-eyed curiosity about everything, be it boys’ cock sizes or sci-fi movies.
In case that isn’t clear, I heartily recommend purchasing the Trots & Bonnie collection.
* This strip is hard to write about and do justice to, and I could not do any better than Emily Flake’s truly excellent introduction to the T&B collection.
** I found it – it was Women’s Erotic Art Gallery, published in 1975.
*** Flenniken explains, ‘the things that I did that we omitted here in this book, I think we looked at those and went, “oh, that might hurt somebody’s feelings or something.” That was me being naïve when I wrote those. A lot of times I was just exploring a subject rather than having a definitive stance. People are pretty darn outrageous today, more so than me. What has changed is what people think is offensive.‘