The book of Leviathan
Peter Blegvad, April 2007
[ photo by Michael Eisenberg ]
I’ve been acutely and happily aware (at least to whatever degree one can be aware of the talents of an artist 'from a distance'...) of the depth and breadth of the mind of Peter Blegvad for many years now, through his musical endeavors (with Slapp Happy, as well as his solo and collaborative work) – his creations are entertaining and stimulating, bringing with them smiles, incentives for further thought, intellectual and contemplative explorations…and also a good bit of head-scratching, which I’ve always considered to be a good thing. I had heard about his comic strip Leviathan (which appeared regularly in The Independent on Sunday in the UK), but until I purchased a copy of the collection a couple of years ago, I had never actually experienced it firsthand. I’m sorry I waited so long – it's a treasure of the highest order.
Matt Groening (creator of The Simpsons, Futurama and Life in hell) is quoted on the back of this volume: ‘Peter Blegvad’s comic strip is one of the greatest, weirdest things I’ve ever stared at.’ At the risk of giving anyone the creeps by appearing to quote Pat Robertson, ‘I heartily concur’. Blegvad combines his senses of humor and irony with his intellectual strengths and his amazing artistic abilities into Leviathan, giving his readers an opportunity to take one of the wildest rides they’re liable to experience. The episodes in this book range from purely humorous takes on a baby’s view of the world he inhabits to visual illustrations of puns to hallucinogenic explorations of the conscious and subconscious to sublime meditations on everything from the most seemingly insignificant daily occurrences to the meaning of life and death. Quite a range, right? Peter Blegvad pulls it off beautifully. Perhaps I’m a little prejudiced by already being a huge fan of his music, but none of his outings collected here come across as shallow or pretentious in any way. The subtleties are many, the layers of wit are as innumerable as those in a piece of mica – each reading reveals something missed the time before.
Leviathan himself – ‘Levi’, as he is called – is a visual as well as a philosophical enigma. He’s drawn without facial features, which allows the reader to project his / her own personality / outlook more readily onto the narrator. His parents and his older sister appear in some episodes, but for the most part he’s accompanied and guided through the mazes of life (in all its dimensions) by the family cat, who gently imparts wisdom while at times openly expressing amazement that humans manage to survive without caretakers. The artist’s hand appears from time to time, allowing him to more directly interact with the characters and events depicted in the strip – and on a couple of occasions, the characters themselves make attempts to escape the bounds of the graphic territory.
I read this book in a couple of sittings – but I’ve revisited it often and at great length and leisure, with new rewards each time. In his introduction, Rafi Zabor admits that he has encountered a few ‘intelligent, literate, artistically sophisticated people’ who just don’t get it – and I suppose that’s inevitable in any artistic undertaking. It resonated within me at the deepest level – and no, I’m not claiming that I ‘get’ every single nuance it contains…but I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s being reprinted as a paperback, to be released in June 2008 – it’s a work to which you’ll find yourself returning again and again, finding new subtleties each time and appreciating all of the ones you found before even more. The Leviathan link at the bottom will reveal several complete story-threads from the book and give you a visual idea of what’s in store.
Peter’s literary / philosophical / ruminative pursuits are further documented on the website Amateur Enterprises (link below). It’s hard to tell how much of the text was actually written by him – it’s all stylistically in sync – the artwork, as well, appears to be his. It’s a great place to spend some time – and it’ll both amuse and cause deeper thought on a wide variety of topics. There you will find links within links within links leading from one topic to other related ones, or to deeper exploration of a subject. It’s a fascinating and (at least to me) thoroughly enjoyable experience – but it might be wise to have some Advil (or your preferred analgesic equivalent) handy, just in case.
And briefly touching on some of his music...
If you’ve never heard of Peter before, I strongly suggest taking in some of his musical adventures as well. The creative forces unleashed in this book have their equal counterparts in audio form in recordings by Slapp Happy (essential releases : Slapp Happy ; Desperate straights, a joint venture with Henry Cow ; and Ça va, a reunion album recorded in 1998); a classic collaboration with former Henry Cow bandmate John Greaves (with whom Blegvad still performs on occasion) and Lisa Herman, Kew.Rhone ; as well as some fine work as a solo artist or leader (check out Just woke up ; Hangman’s Hill ; or an amazing collaboration with Andy Partridge of XTC, Orpheus the lowdown ). The songs on these albums range from slightly twisted pop ditties to very twisted pop ditties to extended treatises on philosophy, science, pseudo-science, the physical and extended characteristics of objects, the process of cataloguing, &c. Some songs / subjects are treated straightforwardly (at least at first listen / read), some with more of an obvious ironic / humorous bent – and the latter is usually done with an extremely ‘straight face’, making the aspects of the finished product even sweeter to savor for those who like a rewarding challenge.