Quiet Chaos by Steven Heller
Avid readers of alternative comics know Gary Panter's ratty line, eccentric yarns, and quirky characters. Jimbo, his postunderground "commix" hero of the late seventies, helped define the Los Angeles punk aesthetic and is today an icon among aficionados. But most savvy graphic designers don't follow arcane comics or know its masters--which makes the bestowal upon Panter of last year's Chrysler Award for Design Excellence somewhat audacious. He is an outsider, and yet, as the award implies, he has made a significant contribution to contemporary visual and design culture--indeed more resonant than even the Chrysler jury knew.
"The judges had to be educated after seeing Panter's work for the first time," explains Funny Garbage's Peter Girardi, a former Chrysler Award recipient and member of the selection committee. "I kept urging them to look at the work and not think about it in terms of comics or funny illustrations. Once they looked longer than ten minutes they went beyond formal shock and settled into learning a new language."
"Formal shock" is an apt description, because Panter's work does not fit into conventional graphic, industrial, or product design genres. Although he has made plenty of commercial art (including an award-winning Time magazine cover portrait of the Who), on most days he's a renegade image-monger who transmits ideas through many means of storytelling, from print to puppets. His venues change too: wall, page, stage, screen. The language is a peculiar fusion of pop iconography, private demons, and primal fantasy expressed with frenetically scratchy marks, madly impudent brushstrokes, artlessly distorted figures, and comically construed letterforms.
Panter has strong ties to the zeitgeist (or more accurately, it's tied to him) yet functions on his own terms, in his own space--a veritable junk heap of a loft in the industrial section of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Amid the debris he paints huge iconic canvases, sculpts creepy hand puppets, creates weird light shows, and produces absurd shadow plays in a makeshift studio rented by the Manhattan-based multimedia design firm Funny Garbage as an ersatz research-and-development annex. In this laboratory of imagination Panter revels in esoteric inspirations, from Japanese film monsters and Mexican magazine ads to Dante, Boccaccio, Joyce, and Dick (Philip K., that is). "He certainly stays in touch with his inner nitwit and inner child, but he's clearly a thoughtful artist," says Art Spiegelman, author of Maus, whose Raw Books and Graphics has published some of Panter's strips. The now defunct Raw magazine was engaged in finding the razor-thin line between applied and pure art. "Gary fulfilled that perfectly," Spiegelman says. Panter's comics must indeed be read as surrealistic literature.
At age 50 the artist resides in a hermetic world that is not cut off entirely from the rest of civilization but is situated on the margins, where his roots dig deep. Born into a devout fundamentalist Christian family from Brownsville, Texas, Panter's father, who ran a five-and-dime, drew skillful copies of Dick Tracy, Popeye, and Daisy Mae types, which encouraged young Gary to believe that he could make graven images too. Low and behold, he had a talent for drawing but also an insatiable appetite for profane popular culture. Later, with the help of some progressive teachers at East Texas State University, where he studied art, he became a bona fide misfit--an artist in search of place. "On the landscape of my childhood, comics stand out," Panter recalls, "because they easily show views into other worlds, and I was most often transported somewhere somehow."
Panter's art is about moral and aesthetic contradictions. His drawing can be at once wretchedly grotesque and unfathomably charming; he delights in the underbelly and revels in the prosaic. His pictures sometimes look as though they were rendered with a fork, but each line has an expressive purpose. "To really appreciate Gary you have to have an epiphany where all of a sudden you 'get' why he's so brilliant--it's all about his drawing. All his sketches, to me, are better than any final products," says Helene Silverman, his wife and former Metropolis art director. "Panter has a devouringly compelling line," Spiegelman adds. "It's the rare artist that makes other artists want to draw."
Panter's work is also a dissertation on celebrity, pornography, mass consumables, vernacular kitsch, and other pop-cult minutiae. "Popular culture will always contain important messages for the collective organism made by the collective organism--regardless of the intentions of its creators," he says. During the past two decades pop references have become hip to quote as part of an ironic mass-cultural critique. Panter, however, does not engage in what Girardi calls "lame highbrow/lowbrow arguments, which are just condescension anyway. He can really appreciate all forms of pop and does not make any kind of hierarchical judgment." It's all in the mix: Godzilla and other sci-fi creatures, old toys, Twiggy, Raquel Welch, Jim Morrison, Frank Zappa, Mama Cass, Elvis, Bruce Lee, Monster trucks, Yul Brynner in Westworld, Famous Monsters of Filmland, bad candy packaging.
Although it's tempting to compare him to Jeff Koons or Mark Kostabi, among other postmodern samplers, Panter does not harvest pop culture's detritus for cynical purposes. He is too damn sincere to put everyone on, and not deluded enough to be innocent. "What sometimes seems like innocence is really wisdom," says Leonard Koren, founding editor of Wet magazine (one of Panter's earlier venues). Panter does not exploit the vernacular; he addresses its infiuence in narratives that critically celebrate the twentieth century's love/hate of consumer culture. "He's the poet of postmodern maleness," says John Carlin, a principal at Funny Garbage, "this weird hidden energy that society denies, whether it be in violence or sexuality."
Asked to sum up his own impact Panter replies, "My stuff has been infiuential in that it looks easy to do--and that's encouraging to viewers." But while Panter's imagination has inspired cognoscenti for more than 30 years, it has also, when reduced to its purest concept, been entertainment on a mass scale. The scenery and props he designed for Pee-wee's Playhouse, the innovative Saturday morning (19861991) TV series, won him three Emmys for production design (he was nominated two other times). In the early eighties Paul Rubens (aka Pee-wee Herman) saw Panter's artwork for punk bands. "It was exactly what I wanted," Rubens says. "I approached him to do a poster for my stage show but he said, 'What about the rest of the show?'" Then Rubens, who was often accused of micromanaging his productions, gave Panter total license: "Gary was my answer. If I know the right people I will delegate."
Among the array of ingenious objects (created with Wayne White and Ric Heitzman), Rubens notes that the playhouse exterior--a dystopic Hansel and Gretel cottage precariously balanced on a sliver of imagination atop a faux mountain peak--is probably his favorite of all Panter's creations. Then comes the enveloping anthropomorphic chair, "Chairry," and Randy, the bitingly acerbic marionette who banters with Pee-wee's pals. "There's nothing that I don't love," Rubens says. "In fact love isn't the word: I am obsessed with it all."
Playhouse is the archetypal postmodern children's theater replete with affectionately sarcastic winks and nods. It was the perfect vehicle for Panter's obsessions with (and reappraisal of) American myths. "As a child I was very serious about my notions of what I would do if I ever got the chance to tell the people who made stuff for kids what I thought they should make," Panter says. "The stuff that reached me in a small town out on the prairie activated very useful, fun parts of my brain that may not have been activated otherwise. I've always wanted to make stuff like that." But on the downside, Panter admits, "Pee-wee did spawn endless ugly new-wavy cereal and fruit roll-uptype commercials. Groovy little kids in big sunglasses with little quivering pink and lime-green boomerangs all over everything."
The success of the show proved that Panter's playful madness could appeal to a wide audience. His current commercial work for kids (and adults), Pink Donkey and the Fly, an animated cartoon series for Cartoonnetwork.com produced by Funny Garbage and directed by Heitzman, is Panter at his most maturely childish. But reduced to the conceptual essentials, it is also an example of Panter's paradoxical meandering. As Spiegelman notes, it's no coincidence that the protagonist looks like "a cross between something Hanna-Barbera might do and the horse in Picasso's Guernica." Panter knows exactly what he's doing: "As an underground cartoonist, transgression is my business--and yea, verily I have transgressed, mightily. I would not want the clock turned back to before Ren and Stimpy, but personally I would like to make something as wide-eyed and amazing as old Mighty Mouse cartoons."
Panter mediates rocky cultural terrain by catering exclusively to his obsessions. When he emerged as a comic-strip artist in the early 1970s "the alternative cartoonists were following the large highway that R. Crumb was paving," Spiegelman explains. "Panter moved through the surreal end-period of that time without any relation to drugs as catalyst. He created an interior landscape that touched down on reality." And he also forged a "more is more" approach--the counterpoint to the benign less is more of, say, Charles Schulz's cartoons. "Panter was revealing a new kind of visual density, like Cy Twombly, with a whiff of art school entering the cartoon planet."
When Panter started out "the punk idea was that you could do it yourself--turn your back on the tried-and-true existing venues for art, music, and publishing and create something new," says comic artist Charles Burns. "That's what Gary did. He wrote and drew books, and xeroxed them up for his friends and a few paying customers. He did record album covers and illustrations for Ralph records (a small record company owned by the Residents) in exchange for studio recording time so he could put out records of his own twangy, clunky songs."
Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, met Panter in the 1970s, when the artist had just started drawing Jimbo comic strips for Slash, a Los Angeles punk magazine. "He had the ability to do whatever he wanted to do and pull it off," Groening says. "He made things crazier and uglier than anyone else." Panter's early graphics defined the California punk ethos and the alternative zine scene--and although he never achieved the notoriety of Keith Haring or Kenny Scharf, the post-Pop painting world is also in his debt. "He was a source for a lot of this trend," Spiegelman says.
Comics are the purest expression of Panter's art. And Jimbo, his most alter egolike entity, has endured agelessly for nearly 30 years. A transcultural enigma with a buzz cut clad in a tartan loincloth, Jimbo emerged fully formed in a 1974 cartoon story called "Bowtie Madness." Panter says Jimbo resembles "Joe Palooka, Alley Oop, Dennis the Menace, my brother Tommy, and my friend Jay Cotton." He also claims that Jimbo was an unplanned birth: "He just popped out. But I knew that I would be drawing him for a long time as soon as I first drew him." Groening contends that out of the whole punk scene "Jimbo was the best looking and most competent--and reached a level of virtuosity in its crazed ratty line. None of Gary's stuff is mean, even though he does such ghastly imagery."
Jimbo will never be as popular as Homer or Bart Simpson, but his character has incredible emotional and philosophical depth, and his story is an odyssey with a past, present, and future. Like most ongoing comic-book characters, readers can dip into Jimbo's life at any point along the continuum. "In my personal comics I play around with experimental antinarrative games," Panter says. Nonetheless it's advantageous to follow Jimbo's exploits from the beginning to appreciate the full range of expressive development. The recent publication of Cola Madnes--a "lost" 1984 graphic novel published by Funny Garbage Books and created for a Japanese audience--fills a few holes in Jimbo's life. Jimbo is the fulcrum of a compact, though intricate, plot that involves Kokomo, a primitive tribal figure resembling a Mayan glyph who shuttles in and out of a pre- and postindustrialized world; Uncle Garcia, a lizard-headed creature, and his cohort Bob War, a teenager who slurps cola for breakfast. The tale winds through ritual, fanciful aberration, and inevitable holocaust. As John Carlin writes in the book's afterword, "Panter seems to be saying that we continue to live with the symbols and rituals of traditional belief systems but have lost their sense of spiritual purpose." The genius of Cola Madnes is that out of brutish drawing and disjointed dialogue Panter has conjured a dream world that challenges belief itself.
Jimbo is also the protagonist in Panter's most ambitiously transcendent comic strip, the recently completed reinterpretation of Dante's Purgatorio, titled Jimbo in Purgatory. Panter drew a single panel each night (after putting his young daughter, Olive, to bed) for three years to complete the 912 panels on each of the 33 newspaper-size pages. Every page is devoted to a chapter or canto illuminated with a staggering array of characters and scenes, built precisely upon a stoic grid and framed hypnotically by intricate decorative ornament. Panter possesses what Spiegelman calls "the painstaking patience of a monk on belladonna." The aim was to find the resonance between classic literature and how different authors' obsessions with different books over the centuries were infiuenced by Dante (i.e., Boccaccio's Decameron infiuenced Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, which infiuenced James Joyce's The Dubliners, and so on). "These works are independent pieces of art, but a lot of the reward for studying them is the way in which they dissect, salvage, and mutate to build upon each other," Panter says.
Panter spent several years studiously comparing Dante and Boccaccio to find everything they had in common and then finding countless additional literary and pop references to Dante, which he diligently injected into the dialogue balloons of the reinterpreted cantos. "Its infiuences derive from pop culture of earlier centuries as well as that of recent decades," Panter explains. In the original, Dante is led by the Roman poet Virgil on a journey of the soul, ascending the levels of Purgatory from chaos and ignorance to eventual enlightenment. As a stand-in for Dante, Jimbo (who in an earlier comic strip was imprisoned for resisting arrest) is guided in every panel by the "parole robot" Valise, a small ambulatory valise that resembles a miniature Le Corbusier house.
Jimbo traverses a vast infotainment testing center built in the shape of Dante's Mount Purgatory. Within its borders every man, woman, or robot stands in for a character of The Divine Comedy. In Panter's drama all the participants must respond to one another with a literary fragment that demonstrates knowledge of a particular passage and the ability to quote other works alluding to the theme. With dizzying lunacy, the logic of the work folds in on itself with the introduction of contemporary cultural figures, just as Dante had included personalities of his own time. In the end, since purgatory is a testing center, all the characters are striving for what Panter calls "University of Focky Bocky degrees in literature," leading to the presumption that this may be Panter's own quest for a doctorate in pop culture.
Through comics, Panter says, "I try to connect with a smarter part of me for part of the time." As for how this work will be judged: "Secretly, most artists are hoping that some alien art historian, 50,000 years from now, will come across some remaining fragment of their life's work and go 'Wow!'" But since he is powerless to control the future, he continues to pursue images and ideas that release personal truths. "Usually my brain chemistry is such that I stare at the wall with occasional guilty lists fiitting through, but I'm waiting patiently for something else--blasts or strings of mental images. But they don't come until you're thinking about nothing, when the mechanism of memory is often switched off. So you have to learn to look when the looking-around mechanism is disengaged. I certainly don't find all my notions usable or even desirable, but it's good to be able to have a look at them. Then to be critical of them."