Gary Panter's lo-fi, high-tech art by Owen Phillips
Someone has painted "if we catch you doing drugs here we will paint you blue!" in the stairwell leading to Gary Panter's studio in a scruffy part of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Upstairs, there's a Fender Stratocaster guitar, a turntable and a maze of bookshelves stuffed with R. Crumb comics and Mad magazines and children's encyclopedias. One corridor of shelving is stuffed with old Pee Wee Herman toys. For a future project there's a jerry-built puppet theater with a bunch of homemade monsters in handsewn farmer's outfits and some kind of grisly shock troops. "People see these and think I've got some giant machine for making rubber heads," Panter says.
Stapled to the back wall are two 8-foot canvases showing what looks like a schematic Mexico City suburb in simultaneously beautiful and sickly colors -- like Hazmat sunsets -- populated by a smiley worm in a Homburg hat popping out of an apple.
There is, however, no computer -- the one thing a visitor might look for, given that a big Web animation project begins here in this converted factory.
A tall guy with a graying bristle of rockabilly hair, Panter comes across like he's just a kid with his slack gait and gentle demeanor. He is a lo-tech, underground-comic-book artist from the old school, and now his scratchy draftsmanship and stream-of-consciousness storytelling is fueling the third season of Pink Donkey, an animated series Webcast on CartoonNetwork.com. Panter is best-known for designing the original set of Pee Wee's Playhouse, for which he won two Emmys. But Panter's first success was Jimbo, a seminal comic that premiered in the L.A. punk rock magazine Slash in 1976, and it's still his baby.
The only sign of the growing dot-com presence in Panter's life is a rickety old fax machine that spews out requests from the battalion of animators at Funny Garbage, the Soho studio that produces Pink Donkey. Today's order: "A kimono for Pink Donkey, a kabuki show, a drag-racing Model T, a bunch of trees and an octopus-penguin."
On a drawing desk in the middle of the mayhem, Panter knocks out what's needed. He faxes back the drawings -- they are shaky, demented looking things -- and animators, chosen for their ability to work with Panter's style, trace them on digital Wacom tablets, deconstructing bodies and faces for manipulation in Flash, a computer animation program.
It all started when Funny Garbage's owners Peter Girardi, Chris Capuozzo and John Curlin, who'd grown up reading Jimbo comics, approached Panter to do a robot-boy series. "But somehow it turned into Pink Donkey," Panter says. "I'd been drawing a pink donkey for a while -- inspired by a bar sign in a photo of a student riot in a 1950s men's magazine."
In the first episode, Pink Donkey and her admirer, the Fly, meet behind a convenience store and go on to steal apples from a mad hillbilly named Coot. Interactive interludes let kids help Pink Donkey cross a highway, peek at her daydreams of harem life, and direct Fly around a mall as he questions clerks at Tan and Taco and Glamour Gulch to stop Pink Donkey from shoplifting.
Panter lists Ben Jonson, one of Shakespeare's Elizabethan-era rivals, as a major influence on Pink Donkey. "He's got his Comedy of Humours theory," he says, "where a character might even be named for his one guiding principle -- things like 'Judge Overdo'. That's cartoon thinking."
As Pink Donkey evolves, the animation quality keeps getting smoother; a 3D character, the Gloombot, is in the works. But it will never aim to become a perfect Matrix-like illusion. Panter's off-kilter drawing style is half the point. In the new 12-part series, Pink Donkey is lured to Japan by Flutterbye, a gentleman butterfly sporting a top hat who opens a store devoted to a crush of Pink Donkey merchandising. "She is vain," Panter notes, pointing out her overwhelming, Jonsonian flaw. "And she will always do the wrong thing."
It can all sound a little heavy. "But it really is for children -- I'm not interested in making it threatening," Panter insists. "I do underground comics that are creepy and dark and for adults. And this new stuff is actually a part of myself I used to try to get away from. It's like, 'What's wrong with me? Why am I drawing this cute little donkey?'"
He's surprised how easy the process is, too. "All the editing steps, the corporate vetting, et cetera, works out fine -- it really gets better," he says. "I mean I try to put in a lot of poetry, and most of it gets cut." Panter hopes to post a downloadable volume of Flutterbye's Miltonesque poetry, but suspects chances are slim.
"The network execs usually just want it to be funnier and I'm not always thinking that way -- it's just coming out of my head," Panter says. He has a more intense and collaborative relationship with director Ric Heitzman, who worked with him on Pee Wee, in rock bands and on radio shows since their days at East Texas University. "Ric likes big gags, really forced perspectives," he says. "My sensibility is plainer, the grit of the normal. I look at a cartoon and can't help thinking, 'Wait! How could Barney the Bear afford that car?'"
Lately Panter has been working nights on a Jimbo retelling of Dante's Inferno. "It's hard," he says. "I'm working through each canto, though I'll switch over to Boccaccio or Sophocles for some echo of a theme. It's humorous but it's not really funny. People will probably think it's pompous but it's just a game." Matt Groening's Bongo Comics published the last seven Jimbo projects, but Panter doesn't have a publisher lined up this time.
In the meantime, Pink Donkey is available to anyone with a decent computer and a Net connection. "If it was for television it might be more scrutinized," Panter ponders. He thinks a moment. "I guess plenty of people are worrying over Pink Donkey. Like right now." The fax machine is whirring out new requests for sketches.
Playing it cool about the possibility of a bump to television, Panter acknowledges that Webcasting is a kind of market research. He's excited about the prospects of the new medium, though it reminds him of another time. "Its like underground comics in the '70s. You've got these great artists doing all this amazing work, but at the core of it is the idea that anybody can put out a comic. And then the next generation comes and there's still some great guys, but after a while -- and because its a democratic form and anyone can do it -- you can oversaturate the system. But right now, right now, is the time you can do this alone in your basement."