Gary Panter interviewed by Daniel Robert Epstein

There aren't many comic book artists popular enough or even talented enough to have a coffee shop in Nagoya, Japan use their name and designs. But certainly Gary Panter deserves that and more. Panter first garnered attention in the comic book world with his surrealistic character Jimbo, which Panter has now been drawing for about 30 years. Since then he's become a staple in the underground comic book world. He also was a great friend to Paul Reubens and was the head set designer on Pee-Wee's Playhouse.

Jimbo also appears in Panter's latest release from Fantagraphics, Jimbo in Purgatory, which uses Dante's Divine Comedy as a jumping off point.

Daniel Robert Epstein: So we couldn't do the interview last night because the creator of punk artwork had a PTA meeting?

Gary Panter: Yeah I have a 14 year old daughter and she's going into a new high school. We had a parent orientation.

DRE: The new book, Jimbo in Purgatory, is very unique. How long ago did you start working on it?

GP: I started the research in 1996 then I finished the book in 2001. I did it in bits and pieces.

DRE: Was the book always going to be 18 by 12 inches?

GP: Yeah but it's relatively cheap at $25. I actually drew it larger than that and Fantagraphics considered printing it that way but I felt that it shouldn't be any bigger because then it would become obnoxious. However it needed to be that big because when the drawings were shrunk down smaller they kind of lost whatever it is I was going for.

DRE: The book at times seemed like stream of consciousness.

GP: It was actually really methodical. There are little bits of quotes from all over the place but there was a procedure I went through to find those things. It reads more like looking at a mosaic than a strong narrative. It was all done in grids, which is not something I normally do. It really went on the architecture of Dante. The way he lays out the Divine Comedy is very architectural and it's hell going down a hole with purgatory climbing a mountain. Since the book is purgatory it's about climbing a mountain and when it's day and night.

DRE: What made you feel that the character of Jimbo could work in Dante?

GP: Dante and Jimbo both function as observers in their worlds. You see Dante's world through his eyes and he just walks through it without doing much. Sometimes he struggles to get through something or he coughs because the smoke is thick but he's being led by the poet Virgil. In this case Jimbo is being led by this robot that's his parole agent from when he was in jail a few comics back. It was just a good structure for me to follow so I could concentrate on the silly stuff.

DRE: Do you think that the book is difficult for readers?

GP: Yeah, I think it's impossible [laughs]. I think there will be eight or ten people that will look at this and see what I was getting at. But on the other hand I'm not a smart enough person to totally understand Finnegan's Wake but I read it three or four times and part of what I could get out of it is just the strange feeling it gives me. In a way this is supposed to be a comic like that. I don't do very conventional comics and I think that the people that like my work are looking for something different.

DRE: Was the book difficult for you?

GP: Yeah it's like digging in a coal mine in a way because you are digging in the dark then finally you see a little light so you keep hitting it with your pick axe until you break through. It was very hard, very draining and very fun. If you want to do something like this you have to be willing to suffer which purgatory is good for.

DRE: I always felt Jimbo was you, so how do you fit into this book?

GP: I've been doing Jimbo for a long time so I tend to use him more. Sometimes I wonder if I should give him a rest but I get more ideas for him. For me, Jimbo and I are alike but I was raised in the church of Christ in the south and it takes a lot of thinking to get out of a church like that.

DRE: Do you think it takes 30 years of doing comics before someone should tackle something like this?

GP: No I think you should just jump in. One thing in this book, whether it's comprehensible or not, are that the footnotes list tons of people. Some obscure and a lot of them are just fun. Most of the classics I refer to in those footnotes are satires and satires are still funny hundreds of years later.

DRE: Was the thinking you did to get out of the church fueled by drugs at all?

GP: No it wasn't. Some people are in religions and it feels great but for me it wasn't wonderful. It took me a long time to realize it didn't make sense so I decided to go look for sense someplace else. Lightweight recreational psychedelic drugs had a role but not really in my break from religion.

DRE: Do you still do drugs?

GP: I don't know if I should admit to that in press. I certainly would never have anything to do with hard drugs because I don't find them productive or helpful.

DRE: There are a ton of pop culture references in Jimbo in Purgatory.

GP: There is nothing past 2000 in the book. The century just turned and everyone is going to forget about Alice Cooper and Boy George. Dante put his contemporaries in so I thought it was appropriate though I tried to avoid rock star heaven.

DRE: Do you keep up with pop culture now?

GP: Sure I go out to occasional movies, read some comics but I don't watch much TV, maybe a little CNN. I usually don't remember actor's names but I know who Johnny Depp is.

DRE: Do you keep yourself solvent with commercial work?

GP: I do occasional commercial work but since my work is very strange it doesn't happen as often as people think. I do a few jobs a year.

DRE: I'd love to talk about Pee-Wee's Playhouse.

GP: Sure Pee-Wee is doing well, now that he's gotten past that recent scandal.

DRE: I spoke to Rob Zombie not too long ago. He said he was a production assistant Pee-Wee's Playhouse, do you remember him at all?

GP: I sure do. I used to say hi to Rob but I never got to know him. He was a bike messenger and a PA. He would just stand there looking like Rob Zombie in the middle of the whole thing. He does Pee-Wee every night now with his fantastic stage show. I always liked his music.

DRE: Did you know Pee-Wee before the TV show?

GP: I knew Paul [Reubens] from the 70's when he invited me to do a poster for stage show from when he first started to do stuff at the Groundlings theatre. We got along and I showed him and ended up doing the puppets and sets. He and I then wrote a movie for Paramount Pictures that didn't get made. We spent eight months in a room writing that script with him shaking an empty can with two almonds in it by my head chanting, "I'm a devil!"

DRE: What was the movie?

GP: It was actually called Pee-Wee's Big Adventure which they later used for the one Paul and Phil Hartman wrote. Pee-Wee is still showing the script to people. It was much more of cheap and bad special effects movie. That was the idea of it. We wanted to do a movie that was very ambitious story wise but would use the worst special effects. He and I almost made a lot of TV shows after Playhouse but with Hollywood being the way it is they always fell apart. We were working on a puppet Pee-Wee in space show that would have been good.

Somewhere around my house I've got a box of Pee-Wee stuff in it. Paul's got actual sets in storage.

DRE: Is Gary Panter Square still in Japan?

GP: I have no idea. They told me not to ever go there because it will really embarrass the people who made it. So I knew people that went there on vacation and they told me it's a coffee shop really. They licensed my name for the place and it was a groovy futuristic café with DJs and video screens. I've been to Japan many times and I would have liked to have gone but I don't want to embarrass them.

I just designed a bunch of stuff for Bape which is a Japanese clothing company which does everything off the motif of Planet of the Apes. They do the Che Guevara ape shirt. I think a lot of stuff is going to show up in their stores on pajamas, robes and things like that.

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