Considered one of the only true punk cartoonists, Gary Panter is a tremendously influential underground cartoonist best known for a ragged, aggressive line and the wildly imaginative formal experimentation in his Jimbo graphic novels. This month Fantagraphics Books will release DalTokyo, a serial comic strip first produced by Panter in the 1980s, now collected in a handsome, horizontal-format, oversized hardcover edition.
The development of Panter’s style over the years is visible in the timespan encompassed by the new book: earlier installments ran in the LA Reader and the East Village Eye in the mid-1980s and then, after a hiatus of a decade, were continued in the Japanese reggae magazine Riddim from 1996-2007. Panter has worked as a gallery artist, illustrator for clients such as Frank Zappa and Rolling Stone and he also had an Emmy award-winning stint as the designer of Pee Wee Herman’s TV children’s show. Still, his freeing of the mark-making and storytelling potentials of comics, along with the aggressively drawn and innovatively constructed narratives of his Jimbo works for Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly’s Raw magazine, brought him the widest recognition so far.
In DalTokyo—a formalist avant garde sci-fi tale about a futuristic Martian landscape transformed by workers from Texas and Japan—Panter runs through many different types of ink attack on the pages. Throughout the book, he uses the entire space for “wide-screen” compositions and many variations of design are seen within the horizontal strip format. The earlier strips form a semi-rational narrative, right up until they break up into catastrophe and then the author gives us a pair of strips with a “the story so far” diagram and a narrative breakdown chart that mark the end of the first incarnation of the strip. The remaining strips have a substantially different tone—the text becomes more removed and often alliterative, sometimes like Burroughsian cut-ups. The words in the panels rarely function as captions, or have tails as if they were dialogue or connecting puffs for thought balloons; instead, they form a sort of stream of consciousness poetry. In each strip, the logo handling is unique, moving from sixties “ratfink,” surfing or psychedelic styles, to approximating Japanese or gothic calligraphy. The background or landscape becomes more prominent in the later strips and in some cases is the entire subject. As always, Panter’s restless linearity propels his experimental narratives.
The interview with Panter was conducted via email.
James: Your more well-known Jimbo was also done as a continued strip in various papers and magazines but I recall Jimbo as done in more of a Sunday-strip, whole page format. DalTokyo takes the form of a daily strip in appearance. Are there any daily comic strips from newspapers that you can point to that influenced DalTokyo, or that you loved and were inspired by as a kid?
Gary Panter: In Oklahoma at my grandparents house, I saw GRIT magazine which was a tabloid that ran a lot of daily strips. I liked Mandrake the Magician, Alley Oop, Lil’ Abner, Blondie, Popeye, Superman and Dick Tracy. Later in the 60s I liked BC and The Wizard of Id, Miss Peach’s Class and Major Hoople with the Nut Bros. Dondi and Captain Easy made me feel weird.
James: I remember GRIT. I’m not sure why Dondi and Captain Easy would make you feel weird….both Irwin Hasen and Roy Crane are probably the most straightforward comics artists ever.
GP: Big dead eyes and plain macho women.
James: Oh, okay. Henry and Smokey Stover…those are the ones that made me feel weird!
GP: Love Smokey. Totally synthetic. Less mimetic than Mary Worth.
James: Marguerite Van Cook and I began our serial strip Ground Zero in the East Village Eye in 1984, at the same time that DalTokyo began running in that paper. Other strips that ran for a few months in the Eye at that time were by Lynda Barry and also Wayne White, your eventual partner in designing Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. In the way it played out, perhaps we were a microcosm of the fate of newspaper comic strips generally….as usual when editors cut back, comic strips are the first things to go. We had actually planned our strip to run in a multitude of formats—and a good thing too, since no one magazine or paper was ever a dependable venue. But I don’t want to impose our rationale on you—can you give me a sense of your view of the varied publishing history of the strip?
GP: DalTokyo started at the LA Reader. I have a vague memory of copying Kaz’s Underworld format for proportions. [The Simpsons creator] Matt Groening helped to get me into the Reader, but the editor was very troubled by DalTokyo and his distress over it made drawing it for the Reader very tense. Though I understood his problem with it—it was an experimental strip and strange and not going to help sell ads and only a few people were interested in it. But I wasn’t getting paid very much and thought that I should stick to my guns and do the kind of strip I needed to do. I drew it for 63 weeks until my hair fell out, then stopped.
James: The Fantagraphics collection doesn’t mention that the Eye ran the strip, perhaps because we all only lasted for 6 months. Was DalTokyo in other newspapers or magazines that those already mentioned?
GP: It was in a couple of places, but I don’t remember. It wasn’t anywhere for long.
James: Why was there a decade between the two incarnations of your strip?
GP: My friend and agent in Japan, Mr. Shizuo Ishii invited me to draw it again after many years for his reggae magazine Riddim. I like and trust him and it was a great place to have a comic drawing gig.
James: I can see the influence of Japanese pop culture in your work and I think I recall reading that you have a significant following in Japan—that perhaps a street is named after you?
GP: In the eighties and for I know not how long, in Nagoya, there was a coffee shop called Gary Panter Square. I saw pictures of it—it looked neat and kind of sci-fi with TV monitors showing colorized versions of my drawings and a DJ booth. That made people think that I had a square named for me. There is some interest in my work in Japan and I am very grateful for it…the feeling is mutual.
James: Did you choose the long horizontal design, or was it simply the space your various publishers were willing to allot every month?
GP: It was going to be a horizontal space that I was offered. I think that they may have preferred a square strip like Matt Groening’s Life In Hell, but I like Nancy and the traditional format to experiment with.
James: What was your process in conceiving the strips, in the first set and in the later ones?
GP: When I first started to draw DalTokyo, I had a need to get on paper an idea I had been boring my friends with since about 1972—the idea of a Mars colony established by Texas and the Japanese that was also a metaphorical and formal art project. I didn’t really know what it would be like until I started drawing it and I worked to include all of the sci-fi notions I had that I wanted to illustrate. I started telling a complicated story with a few stories that intertwined. When I came back to it, years later, I had complete freedom from Mr. Ishii at Riddim and so I kept imagining the stories but concentrated on doing cartoon variations and making it more like poetry or reading tea leaves. Along the way, I started making the lost threads visible again. And the ending is fairly clear and registers as an ending, I think.
Being that this intends to be an experimental approach to comic making and drawing, like the Jimbo in Purgatory book, I don’t expect the reader to get a normal story experience or the satisfaction that comes from skillful story traditional development. I hope the reader will get something else that they never got from a comic before: evidence of an investigation into the ways and means of cartooning and maybe a dizzy feeling. Formal exercises are not always welcome and if everyone was doing this kind of thing I might not be very interested in doing something like this. And I don’t always do confusing work, but I might. I don’t think that it hurts people to get a sensation out of the normal range from a medium.
James: What about how you connect the current strip to the ones that came before? I note that you always include a “next:” box to indicate the succeeding strip, but there it seems there is rarely if any connection to what it ends up being.
GP: Like I said, there was a tea leaf reading aspect to the second part of the book. All the stories I was telling myself were rolling. I made the “nexts” up, did the next strip and then looked for a relation with the former one. There was an attempt to suggest a format but continually toy with it to see what I could develop next. One thing about this kind of work rather than a traditional narrative is that is takes you on a trip, so maybe it is like a chase through a basket weave.
James: I wonder if you are aware that your earlier work often uses large areas of brushed black, but the more recent strips are less aggressively drawn and less often black-spotted, but give the impression of being somewhat more planned drawing-wise and almost formalistic in a cartoony sense…perhaps leading towards the highly structured approach of your masterpiece, Jimbo in Purgatory?
GP: I was more interested in ukiyo-e, Japanese woodcut space and composition in the first half and gradually got more interested in revisiting the English satirical drawers who were masters of cross-hatching and I had less drive to switch to brush and fill in solids.
James: Oh, you mean like Hogarth? Okay, I can see that. In the later strips, you break a lot of them into 4 panel sequences with the background running continuously through the panels. And, later you often do some odd comic-strip “camera” techniques, using the images to zoom in or out on figures or vehicles, for instance, within the panels.
GP: This through background idea is something I caught from Art Spiegelman’s Maus, which I think is very interesting—to describe the whole space with the widest view and then address the flow of time within the panels and then do variations.
James: The initial storyline isn’t ever resolved, but some of the characters like Okupant X, Pictox and Mr. Gabble do sporadically appear in the later strips. The girls from the single earlier strip drawn by your friend Bruno Richard appear again towards the end. One later narrative I saw continue for a short while, oddly enough highlighted by some rare specific dialogue, was that of some giant robots fighting over the city—but generally, the original semi-coherent narrative is long since gone.
GP: I had the stories in mind throughout, but sacrificed what would have been a Flash Gordon literal sci-fi strip, to make something stranger that I had not seen made before–a handbook of approaches and abstractions of a horizontal strip format. Bruno Richard and Edwin Pouncey both helped me on strips—I accidently obscured Sav X’s (Savage Pencil’s) signature with a smear. Sorry, Edwin.
James: I loved your first cardboard-covered Jimbo collection that Spiegelman and Mouly did for you in the eighties, although the later paperback collection had some odd editorial decisions and my copy is falling apart—but Fantagraphics seem to spare no effort in the production of your books. Their huge hardcover edition of Jimbo in Purgatory is an incredibly ornate package with its gold-leafed, embossed cover and this book is also elegantly produced.
GP: Chris Ware totally broke open more ambitious book binding and printing and at a moment when the physical book has become a fetish object, so it makes sense and is an opportunity to make the fetish object more astounding or something. The Jimbo Dante books are variations of an edition of Dore’s Dante’s Inferno sold through the Montgomery Ward Catalog, as interpreted by my wife, Helene Silverman, who is a very great book designer. The DalTokyo book is designed by the Family Sohn, Raymond and Tomomi, who used Helene’s books as a model and also a book I have from childhood called The Ant Men. The book would not have happened without Raymond and Tomomi. I am very happy about the introduction by my childhood friend, Max Watson. We were the weird guys in our town and used to exchange poetry in Junior High school. My initial idea of cultural confluence and DalTokyo came from a poem of Max’s he wrote in high school about a time rupture on the square in Sulphur Springs, Texas.
James: The collection includes a map on vellum overlays that conflates Texas, Tokyo and Mars. It reminds me of similar multi-layered features in the World Book Encyclopedia my parents had when I was a kid (Note: I think Chris Ware was inspired by the World Books for an anatomical sequence that I believe will be part of his upcoming Building Stories).
GP: My family had the Encyclopedia Brittanica Junior, a massive encyclopedia bookcase. My friends and schools had the World Book. Imagine families buying books across America hoping their kids would grow up smart. I did love the overlays in various sections. DalTokyo is an idea place and the vellum helps get that across, that the first thing you see in the book is conflating things that don’t belong together, except in my fantasy world they really do belong together.
James: Given the fictional apocalypses seen so often in your work, it is chilling to see how the real disaster of 9/11 figures into your progression—and oddly, that it is drawn in reverse.
GP: I don’t think that it is easy to get, but from that strip forward, all the strips are drawn right to left. The murder at the World Trade Center changed things and that was one change I could make.
James: Did you give Jack Kirby a copy of your first cardboard-covered Raw One-Shot:Jimbo book? I feel certain that he saw it somehow and that it influenced his more abstract, patterned and very destabilized late work.
GP: I visited him in November of 1976 before Jimbo was in print, but I took tons of my stuff to show him and he patiently looked through it. Prototype Screamer type stuff—sketchbooks. I had done a portrait of my friend Justin Carroll airbrushed Kirby-style. He seemed puzzled that I was starting so late to be a published cartoonist and had gone to art school. Glenn Bray has a lot of the stuff I showed Kirby—cartoons of a skateboarding superhero which I am finally working on a story about right now. Weird—it takes decades to get this stuff out. And it changes with the weather.
James: I see some correlation in DalTokyo to the science fiction of Philip K. Dick. Did you know him?
GP: Phil Dick was very nice and let me and my friends come over to his pad quite a few times and my girlfriend at the time used to talk to him on the phone a lot. I interviewed him for Slash. His friend K.W. Jeter was a Slash reader and told Phil to let us come over. We amused him and tried to not be a giant pain. I brought Jay Cotton and Nate Vinson, Texas composers and Claude Bessy and others to visit Phil. He told me all about his “pink light years” and his theories and I enjoyed reading his Exegesis looking for the versions he told me to see if they were in there. He was a very smart nice funny smart tease of a guy—kinda feline, loved cats. Loved hippie snuff. Gave me a canister I still have, the Phil K. Dick memorial snuff box.
James: In a time where we are hearing about private individuals funding mining expeditions to asteroids in efforts to exploit space resources, the more sci-fi and Dickian aspects of your Martian scenarios become less implausible.
GP: I really like Phil’s books because they address the possible familiarity and foreign ways of the near future. The technology and jargon changes things but something of the boredom of everyday is unavoidable. That is interesting to me—fads and doldrums of the future. What outlandish thing might seem normal in the future? We will be like porpoises and whales trying to get out of the noisy water.
First published on Publishers Weekly