John Layman and Nick Pitarra Unleash Epic Kaiju Catastrophe in Leviathan
August 1, 2018 | By Jakob Free
A special kind of exasperation emerges from seeing fictional characters in do-or-die situations fail to understand the monsters they’re up against.
For those who have ever seen a zombie film, watching characters spend precious moments discovering that head trauma is the only way to stop the undead can be grueling. Those familiar with the exploits of Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees know that it’s a deathwish to hide inside a closet in a dilapidated house. Genre fiction has trained audiences to deal with menaces they’ll (hopefully) never have to deal with. It’s as if the sole difference between our world and its fictional counterparts is that fiction doesn’t seem to exist.
In Leviathan, by writer Jonathan Layman (Chew) and Nick Pitarra (The Manhattan Projects), the characters have seen kaiju (Japanese for "strange beast") movies before. They’re familiar with fictional scenarios of monsters trampling citizens under foot and razing cities, but unfortunately, watching movies hasn’t prepared them for the magnificent destruction that awaits them in the pages of this new comic.
“In the case of Leviathan, it’s not that the world is accustomed to Kaiju, it’s just that nerds of the world are aware of them—just like the nerds of our world,” Layman says. “And they’re right that it’s a giant monster, but Leviathan is very different than anything they’re accustomed to from giant monster movies.”
The titular Leviathan makes its grand entrance while protagonist Ryan Deluca embarks on a beer run for a party back at his apartment. But that same party bears direct responsibility for the looming monster devastating city blocks after its summoning. Ryan makes a mad dash back to his place to ensure his girlfriend, Vee, is safe, all the while trying to avoid getting flattened in the process.
Much like the characters in the book, Leviathan’s creators both harbor pop culture experience in the arena of gigantic monster action.
“I like most Japanese Godzilla and Gamera movies, and was super impressed with Shin Godzilla of a couple years ago,” Layman says. “American Godzilla movies consistently suck, but there have been some good comics in recent years. IDW published a book [that Layman wrote] called Godzilla: Gangsters and Goliaths that I consider the high-water mark for all Godzilla and giant monster comics—at least until Leviathan debuts!”
Pitarra found inspiration in a 1995 science fiction classic created by two industry titans, with plenty of large-scale kaiju destruction to go around. “Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot by Frank Miller and Geof Darrow is one of my absolute favorite comic books,” the artist adds. “The scale of the monster and the environments, and Darrow’s ability to layer those environments with depth and consistency, is breathtaking. The playful writing and Rusty’s admiration of his robot hero, Big Guy, adds this wonderful layer of charm in sharp juxtaposition to the often grotesquely detailed art.”
And Pitarra himself is no stranger to the peculiarities of genre. He’s tackled time-traveling pilots in battle with alien monstrosities in The Red Wing, and a host of iconic science figures battle extraterrestrial threats in The Manhattan Projects. (Both are written by Jonathan Hickman.) Giant Monsters was a natural progression for him.
But unlike Godzilla or Big Guy, the Leviathan has its origin story in the pages of the Hebrew bible. The Leviathan was a sea monster that, at times, functions as an overt menace, but at others, operate as more of an elemental creature. And just like many comic book characters over the years, the creature has been retconned and transposed into several other texts, mythical or otherwise, on its way to the pages of Layman and Pitarra’s tale. Although the titular Leviathan takes some of its cues from Abrahamic traditions, its creators clarify that their tale isn’t a parable.
“I’m not religious, so my Biblical interest and knowledge are pretty minimal,” Layman says. “The Leviathan from the comic is the Leviathan from the Bible, but it’s not going to be some super accurate depiction. That is, I’m not delving too deep into scripture beyond ‘This is a giant monster from the Bible.’ In fact, it’s fair to say I’m taking some considerable liberties.”
“My wife is Irish Catholic, and I’ve enjoyed visually incorporating small bits of the Biblical text into a few scenes in Leviathan,” Pitarra explains. “But they function more as easter eggs, as Leviathan is essentially a big fun monster book.”
In the debut issue, readers are treated to both the street-level view and awe-inspiring block-wide panoramas of destruction. Pitarra’s sequences of the beast spewing fire while tossing a dozen cars in its wake, or chomping off the top of the building are rendered with incredible detail, given vivid life through colorist Michael Garland’s palette. But it’s also the smaller, more personal moments that Pitarra is interested in.
“Being so detailed, I often get pigeonholed into big detailed scenes—and Leviathan is no exception—but what I absolutely love to draw is character beats and nailing an expression.”
To get those moments big and small, Pitarra and Layman have established a productive and enjoyable working relationship.
“I’m a full script guy,” Layman says. “And any time I write less than a full script, I find [the results] far less satisfying. So I produce a script for Nick, knowing it will give him everything he needs, but at the same time I know Nick’s going to add panels and beats, so I try to keep it as open as possible. It’s a good partnership that works for both of us.”
“John and I talk frequently on the phone, too, so it’s a very fluid and comfortable collaboration process,” Pitarra says. “John is also the letterer, so he adjusts things [after I’ve tweaked them], and everything just gets more polished and fluid as we go.”
Both creators express that the project’s very existence was built around their strengths as individuals, but also their desire to work together on something special. "I just want to do stuff that is fun, and I don’t want to do the same thing again and again,” says Layman. “I want to work with artists whose work I like, and write a story that can be specifically tailored to an artist’s strengths.”
“For Leviathan, Nick called me up and wanted to do something—which is something we’d been talking about for a long time,” he continues. “I had to step back and think, ‘what is the perfect genre to show the detail and insanity and energy Nick brings to a page?’ Giant monsters seemed like the obvious answer, and I thought if I don’t do a giant monster book with Nick right now, it’s just a matter of time before somebody else jumps in there and does.”