Q&A with Gary Panter by Nik Mercer

Gary Panter has been drawing, in one way or another, for his entire life, although his "professional" career began with the publication of his first Jimbo stories in the L.A. punk rag, Slash. From there, Panter went from working on the infamous and critically acclaimed comics magazine, RAW to creating sets for The Pee Wee Herman Show to animating to pursuing fine art endeavors. A jack of all trades, to say the least.

His widely hailed Jimbo In Purgatory and Jimbo's Inferno were published by Fantagraphics Books. A wide array of his other lesser known works, including his forthcoming two-volume monograph, have been released on Picturebox Inc.

I'm fascinated by how the reading public still approaches comics with skepticism. Comics tend to be ghettoized (just as science fiction, horror fiction, crime fiction, and fantasy are) rather than just read. Even the best writers are treated with condescension (“Raymond Chandler really transcends his genre, he is actually quite good”). Use of the phrase “graphic novel” hasn’t seemed to have helped. Will comics forever be consigned to this second-class citizenship? What would it take for them to “break out?” And, frankly, should we care? Should we just stop fretting about it, read the books with pleasure, and ignore the critics?

Comics are breaking out compared to the fallow 70s and expectant 80s and 90s. But, I don't care as long as I can find comics I like and a lot of those were made in the 1950s. Comic writing, like art writing, is for the writers.

Unlike other visual arts (e.g. painting), comics are unique in that in their finished form they are produced in the thousands or even millions of copies. The bristol board originals are not seen as the comic itself, but rather as an intermediate step toward the “real” end product. It’s as if posters of the Mona Lisa were seen as the real thing, and the painting in the Louvre just as an interesting collectible. Do you see comics as such, or have a dissenting view?

Printed comics are a medium and comic originals are a related medium. Formally they do similar things, but reach different audiences. Seeing an original can be very helpful to the cartoon maker in training. One has to stand to look at comic art on walls, while printed comics should be read in bed.

On a related note, what sort of tools do you use? Baseball players get obsessive about the exact weight of their Louisville Slugger, some writers will only use the same typewriter they have worked on for years, some rock musicians are loyal to a specific guitar. Exactly what tools do you use, why did you choose them, and do they really make a difference or is it just a superstitious thing?

It took me years to find the right drawing tools and now that I have, paper quality is decreasing. For comic making, I use Japanese G-series dip nibs, Pelican Tusche ink and 3 ply Strathmore, kid finish, drawing paper. Number 1 rapidographs and Winsor Newton series 9 brushes, also.

How do you approach the actual making of comics—both in terms of writing and drawing—and do you think there are some "universal" rules of comic creation? Some musicians (e.g.) write the lyrics first, then find a tune; others the other way around; some jot down random ideas and then assemble them into a coherent whole later; others have one core thought that they then elaborate to the whole story… how do you do it?

There are many ways and I don't have one way. I make a lot of notes and erase a lot. I make a lot more paintings and sculptural models and prints than comics. I comics, I am usually looking for the big moments i want to draw and finding the story that leads to those moments. Of I make characters with strong characteristics and then watch what they do. My monthly comic for RIDDIM, the Japanese reggae magazine is always four panels and reads from right to left. Things like that, that are part of a routine, help.

Any other odd habits? Some writers insist on writing X words per day and then stop... others write for a particular time period then quit... do you've any “weird” tendencies?

I have weird tendencies, but not very predictable. If I get in a nasty, horrible, mood, I realize I am depressed, also known to me as charging my batteries, and I wait for that mood to break, because i often do good work when the mood changes.

Recently, many comic creators have been working on non-comic projects, namely illustration (and you've done designs for Pee Wee's Playhouse, interior design, album cover art, book design, and animation). Chris Ware does a tremendous amount of “design” work; Adrian Tomine does a lot of illustration for hifalutin publications like the New Yorker (as does Joost Swarte); Dan Clowes, Seth, and many others work on mini-series stories for the like of the New York Times... what do you think has brought on this increased demand for cartoonists' work outside of their "home turf," personally and broadly speaking? Is it a beneficial thing for comics?

Maybe some cartoonists make money from their cartooning. Cartooning does not supply any meaningful amount of my income. I have to do commercial art. I think of my self as a painter. If my wish came true, people would buy my paintings and then i could afford my hobbies: cartooning and playing guitar. As it is, I have always had to do commercial art to survive.

For you, do these all somehow work in tandem for you? Do you approach your work from a similar vantage or is every project different? That is, is there a connection between all the disparate works you pursue?

There are two categories of my work. There is personal work I make, following my own artistic impulses, and there is commercial or commissioned work I do to solve problems for other people for money. Ideally I would only do personal work.

Here's how other people are describing you: a member of the "second wave of Underground Comix"; the "King Of the Ratty Line"; the "father of punk comics." How do you identify with such monikers? They all imply a sort of "membership"—do you subscribe to it all or are you working in your own world?

Hype and catch-phrases are making it easy for the writer and consumer, but usually very limited in describing what is going on. And any label and catch-phrase is self replicating and has no regard for the content or message it carries. I am "Father of Olive" and "Servant of my shaking hands and perverse sensibilities."

Many years ago, I checked a copy of Cola Madness out of the library. You'd signed the front of it with a picture of Jimbo. I couldn't resist—I tore the page out and it has traveled with me throughout my years. I thought you'd like that for some reason. Anyway—I'm a big fan of Jimbo In Purgatory, but this it unfortunately gets all the attention! I really enjoyed Cola Madness and Del Tokyo, too... and just about everything you've done! Is Jimbo In Purgatory what you'd call your magnum opus? Do you see why the critics hail it so reverently?

You shouldn't tear pages out of a library book! However, in that case it was inevitable that someone would, so you did the right thing. I had fun doing Purgatory. It was hard for me and harder for any reader. I was aware of doing it as the year 2000 neared, so I was trying to do something special, but it was where the earlier Jimbo comics led me. I don't have a lot of readers or worry about what readers might like. I am trying to make the stuff that I can make. I am glad when you like any of it.

Tell me a little about this two-volume monograph of your work that's being published by Picturebox Inc.

The two books emphasize my painting and personal work. The first volume has a big color section of my paintings and essays, up front, and in the back short sections on the other things I do besides paint. like comics, light shows, model building, puppets, making noise and so on. The second book is a chronological selection from my sketchbooks. They are fat books!

What is it that draws you to comics, and their marriage of text and pictures? Do you ever see the comic form as a hindrance? For example, maybe you have the story completely formed in your head, but now come five weeks of drawing: a short story writer just leaps to the end product. Or perhaps you have a visual in mind but the story won’t come. Does the comic form sometimes hinder you?

Luckily, I work in a lot of mediums, so I can switch off wrestling with their various strengths and quirks, advantages and disadvantages. Comics are hard and take a lot of time to draw, are quickly consumed and don't pay anything much. Same for short story writing, play writing, poem making and shadow puppets. I like to draw. And I like fooling around with story forms and formal visual elements. Those things draw me to comics. Comics are a little like movie-making, only you don't need 40 million dollars and 300 people to do comics.

What are the things you would change about the comic production process if you could? For example: the 32-page pamphlet style, the size, the expensiveness of printing, the deadlines. If given the opportunity to, how would you approach changing these issues? Is self-publishing a viable way to rid yourself of these constraints? Or are they useful to you? (Some say Bach wouldn’t have written so many masterpieces if he wasn’t forced to crank out a new composition every week for the Sunday service: it certainly gave him practice!)

Changing comics or their production—hmmm... I don't like comic reprints where the paper is shiny and white and the ink colors are too acidic. Comic production is computerized these days and there is a new computer look. I like the older looks. I don't do so many comics that it an issue for me. I like scanning my strip and sending it to Japan in cyberspace.

Pacing is always said to be integral to a good comic and something that only the masters can do well. What, to you, does "pacing" really mean, and how do you pace your books and for what ultimate purposes? Do you read them out loud to an audience? Set guidelines for how much can happen on one page?

I think that it is hard for me to get a lot of information on one page, so I try not to fight that. Writing to an intended length is tricky, but not impossible. I'm sure many would agree that pacing is not my biggest concern.

This might be a tough one to tackle, but why do you think the vast majority of acclaimed "independent" comics are written in a memoir style? From R. Crumb to Gabrielle Bell to Chris Ware to Chester Brown, "indie" comics tend to be written from the vantage of the author, about the author. Why, in your opinion, is this the trend?

Fiction is harder to do, effectively, than recounting and editing personal experience. Making a new reality and making it coherent and true to itself or it's internal logic is hard. Plus, people love to tell their personal stories and other people love gossip or revelations. Auto biography is a good form.Maybe too many people are doing it, but humans are still trying to figure out being human, especially in relation to bigger systems.

Generally speaking, how do you view your finished works? Are they purely artistic? Narrative with pictures? Comics—a medium in and of itself?

The book is an experimental comic and the originals are big drawings. Or big cartoon art drawings. If they are personal, they are my art. If they are commissioned they are my commercial art.

This questions merits an entirely separate interview, but what music do you like? Have you ever been a part of any music scene(s)? Do you identify with any of them? You said you've two CDs of your music coming out, too, so I'm under the impression that music is important and of significance to you.

I was a hippie and some kind of punky guy. I listen to a lot of psychedelic music in CD and vinyl and the Technicolor Web of Sound on iTunes and electronic music, like Docstaeder (not dance music). I like the weirder punk era music (Residents, Pere Ubu, Magazine), and not so much hard core or thrash. Of recent bands I love Philadelphia's the Lilys. I am making music with Devin Flynn (Ya'll So Stupid) and having a lot of fun doing it. I've been playing guitar ever day since I was 12 pretty much. Getting better at a snail's pace.

I'm curious to know who your influences are. You've worked intimately with some of the “greats” of the alternative comics world, you've contributed to some of the most seminal and important comic collections, books, and serials (including RAW), and are clearly a "great" yourself... but stylistically, you seem to be on a different frequency, pulling from manga, Godzilla, and a plethora of other bizarre references. Who's influenced you (both in terms of fine, comic, and trash art).

My influences are more out of painting than comics, though I like a lot of stuff. Comics: Kirby, Marsh, Williams, Moscoso, Griffin. Crumb, Sav X, Burns, Kaz, Ware , Clowes, Al Fago, Michael McMillan, Boody Rogers... lots more. Painting: Picasso, Fahlstrom, Peter Phillips, Peter Saul, Eduardo Paolozzi, Dubuffet, DeKooning, Arthur Dove, Paul Klee, and lots more. Old drawers: Nast, Hogarth, Gilray, Grandville, Tenniel, and lots more.