« 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.