An Interview with Gary Panter

“What if the Texans and the Japanese settled on Mars?”
How to tell you’re in a hippie dungeon:
Impromptu light shows
Lipton tea hookah pipes
Giant pieces of driftwood

An Interview with Gary Panter

“What if the Texans and the Japanese settled on Mars?”
How to tell you’re in a hippie dungeon:
Impromptu light shows
Lipton tea hookah pipes
Giant pieces of driftwood

An Interview with Gary Panter

David Jacob Kramer
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It’s impossible to categorize Gary Panter as any “type” of artist, as evidenced by his eclectic accolades. Panter is credited as defining the late-’70s Californian punk aesthetic with his flyer and album art for bands like the Germs and the Screamers. In 1986, Panter won three Emmys for designing the sets on the kids’ television show Pee-wee’s Playhouse. As a cartoonist, Panter was included in the 2005 traveling exhibition Masters of American Comics, alongside Jack Kirby and Robert Crumb. In 2008, PictureBox collected Panter’s fine-artwork into a behemoth two-volume retrospective of his acrylic paintings and sketchbooks.

Panter’s very particular obsessions are the common thread in his work: aliens from 1960s Japanese television, antique candy-wrapper designs, dinosaurs, kangaroos, breasts, crappy Mexican figurines, cherry-nosed potato dwarfs in fedoras. Tiny Tim and Bruce Lee cameo in his comics, with pages reserved for Panter to review his favorite records, doodling each cover. Panter is exceptionally well versed in fine-art theory, but hasn’t lost the natural inspiration of playing in a sandbox.

In the 1980s, Panter regularly contributed to Art Spiegelman’s influential comics anthology Raw, developing his ever-recurring sci-fi landscape, Dal Tokyo, and spiky-haired, pug-nosed, punk protagonist, Jimbo. These strips were collected in Jimbo (Raw Books and Graphics, 1982), Invasion of the Elvis Zombies (Raw Books and Graphics, 1984), and Jimbo: Adventures in Paradise (Pantheon, 1988). Matt Groening began publishing new Jimbo material in 1995 in serialized comic-book form as Zongo Press—established purely for Panter as an imprint of Bongo Press, publisher of The Simpsons comics. The series was canceled in 1997. A self-contained episode, Jimbo’s Inferno, was published by Fantagraphics as a tabloid-size, gold-embossed hardcover in 2006. The latest Jimbo installment was a xeroxed zine released in late 2008.

A restless, hyperprolific artist, Panter is seemingly unable to do one thing at a time. He’s performed psychedelic light shows in collaboration with light-show guru Joshua White at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., designed an action figure, sneakers, and a children’s playroom at the Paramount Hotel in New York. He molds homemade puppets and builds architectural studies out of trash. He still does album covers for bands, most recently for Silver Daggers. As a musician, Panter has several releases. The most recent, a collaboration with artist/musician Devin Flynn, entitled Devin and Gary Go Outside, was released in August 2008 through Ecstatic Yod and PictureBox.

Panter is fifty-eight, with a thick head of short gray hair, and a wardrobe of varying primary-colored T-shirts. I spoke to him after a crowded performance by Devin and Gary at Family, my bookstore in Los Angeles. We went to Canter’s Deli, where Panter ordered a chocolate milk without looking at the menu.

—David Jacob Kramer


THE BELIEVER: Working in so many mediums, and then constantly switching styles within each medium, do you ever worry that you’re spreading yourself too thin, or that you don’t have enough arms to do everything you want to do, or that your head is going to explode?

GARY PANTER: Not really. I do worry, but not about work. I worry about people getting hurt, and regular worries. Creatively, the work just flows. When I want to do something, I think of doing it in a practical, non-extravagant way. I split up my time, so I do a lot of different things in a day. It would be fun to spend a few hundred years on each medium, but it’s not going to happen, so I avoid certain difficult mediums like oil painting. Even though I love the way oil paint smells, I stick to acrylic. A lot of the things I do are really simple to achieve; it’s not like I’m learning glass blowing. The light shows are harder, so I did them on a tiny scale, until I met Josh White, who transformed them with his expertise. I could do a light show punching holes into a sheet of paper to create a starlight effect, and I could put Christmas lights behind it and suddenly it looks like bubbles underwater. When you adapt the scale for something at Lincoln Center, you have people with rods and other sophisticated equipment, and you need timing and coordination.

One time I was talking to a hero of mine, Ed Ruscha, the West Coast pop-art painter, and I said what was maybe a terrible thing. “I love your paintings,” I said, “but if you walk up to the paint, it’s not a gorgeous paint surface like so many painters.” He gave a snappy comeback, which was wise. He said, “I don’t get my art supplies too far ahead of my ideas.” That made sense to me.

You have to make peace with your limitations, with what you can do. Then think about what you’d really like to do, which is the hard part. You have to think, I can do anything and be anywhere, so where do I want to be? Artists like the improvisational guitarist Henry Kaiser go, “I’d like to be under arctic ice with a camera playing guitar.” It’s like that for everyone—what do you want to do with yourself?

BLVR: Is it true you only sleep four hours a night?

GP: Yes, but I take so many five-minute naps it might add up to a regular night’s sleep. I wake up every morning at 7:30 and read the paper and drink chocolate milk, then take my daughter to school. I run errands during the day, and tend to get to work at nighttime, going steadily till three in the morning on different things. I put my paintbrush down, and pick up my guitar ten feet away and try out my new flanger pedal for an hour, then I paint for an hour, and then I make something out of chopsticks and flexi-straws, and then I might write a short story. I don’t find that hard to do, it’s just the way I do it. I notice inspiration when it comes by. I don’t sit down at my desk and try to write; rather, I work at something else and then I’ll get an idea for a story and make a note. That’s how I jump from medium to medium. If you keep pushing paint when you’re tired of it, you lose sensitivity. I can only focus on painting for a few hours, so I’ll stop and work on something quite different. Making art, I try to just gently persist, instead of having freak-outs where I’m like, Oh, my god, I’ll never draw again. You are going to draw again, so you might as well relax.

BLVR: What’s going through your mind as you build these architectural models out of trash for buildings that don’t exist, and aren’t going to exist?

GP: I’m thinking about spaces I’ve been in that I liked. I’m thinking about a place I’d actually like to build, like early Frank Gehry stuff with all these conjoined structures. I’m actually thinking about making the structures feasible. I’m seeing the materials that these sticks are meant to represent.

BLVR: Do you care if they’re eventually shown?

GP: I have regular artistic ambitions for them, I guess delusions of grandeur. I like people to look at my stuff, and then again I’m always surprised and happy when they want to. I feel like that with everything I do. I trust there’s this eye on me. Maybe it comes from my fundamentalist Christian upbringing, that God’s always watching. And I guess God is looking at it, if nobody else is.

BLVR: A trust that your work will be seen, even if only in a cosmic sense?

GP: A cosmic conversation. It sounds terrible, doesn’t it. But yeah, that the work becomes part of the universe. It’s a nice delusion to think that it’s being seen. I just have that feeling. Of course, I’m not the sanest person in the world. But then I guess I wouldn’t want to be the sanest person in the world.

BLVR: Your work explores clear preoccupations, but in a way that isn’t contrived or self-conscious—it’s very playful. Is the work fun to produce?

GP: That’d be nice. I’m wired so that I have fun when I do stuff, but a lot of stuff is really hard. A lot of paths I set, for instance the comics Jimbo in Purgatory and Jimbo’s Inferno, were totally a process and system I had to go through in a purgatorial fashion in order to complete, and it wasn’t actually pleasant a lot of the time. Drawing’s really easy, but that was a grueling project. It’s fun to sit down and do a few drawings, but when you have to sit down and do hundreds of drawings whose value only depends on getting to the end of the chain, then you’ve created a different kind of monster. It’s a fascinating process, but it does involve work. I certainly had satisfaction, but it hurt my arms.

BLVR: What exactly was the process in completing Jimbo’s Inferno and Jimbo in Purgatory? Adapting and reinventing Dante’s Purgatorio into comic form, inserting your own characters as well as pop icons like Frank Zappa, Yoko Ono, and Bruce Lee, arranging the panels to echo the mathematical logic of the cantos, substituting certain speeches with later adaptations by authors like Boccaccio and Chaucer, and including rigorous footnotes—it seems like one hell of a task.

GP: After I did Adventures in Paradise, I thought I should probably read The Divine Comedy since I’d named a book that referenced it. I was doing a quarterly comic for Matt Groening’s press, Zongo Comics, and I was reading Dante. I was at the fifth issue and reached this point in the story where Jimbo is pursuing the Soulpinx Girls. My reading of Dante is probably lighter than most readings, especially the humor and sexuality, so Dante following Beatrice, and Jimbo following the Soulpinx Girls, correlated to me. Of course, doing my adaptation, I had to read The Divine Comedy, like, fifty or sixty times. I was a terrible student in school, and my reading was limited to the writers I liked, so I’d read everything by authors like Anthony Burgess, Philip K. Dick, and William Burroughs, but I’d never read the classics, like Voltaire’s Candide, and the challenge of footnoting my comic with these references attracted me.

A million years ago I saw this movie about the painter Larry Poons, who was really popular for doing these super-decorative, oddly geometric, orderly, organized dots and ellipses in the ’60s. He got really rich and then I don’t know what happened but he started just painting lava flows. Anyway, before that he was working with these systems, gridding something and then working with a point within each grid to travel to another point and repeating it in a very distinct pattern, almost like weaving. I wanted to build systems like that into projects. For Jimbo in Purgatory I set myself a certain number of panels to do a day, and I knew that if I stuck to it I’d get my version done in a certain amount of years. I had to, because on a project like this you feel like you’re going to die before it’s over, especially when one page takes two months. And it’s a short comic! People can read it and get disgusted with it in ten minutes.

BLVR: In the Zongo strips, why did you make the shift from a very hurried, loose improvisation to a very deliberate and clean execution?

GP: I knew with the Zongo series I was going to start very improvised and let myself find out what happens. After a few issues with all these disconnected characters and plot threads going, I started weaving it all together and tying it up, and then I took Jimbo into Purgatory. I intentionally began the strip really embryonic with simple gags and a loose line, knowing that over time I was going to flesh out the bodies and use more cross-hatching and become more careful in composing the panels, inspired by a kind of Joycean Ulysses thing.

BLVR: I noticed in that series that sometimes you’ll kill a character off only to have him reappear a few pages later, having survived due to miraculous circumstances.

GP: Well, you never actually see them die. You see them about to die. I love lying to the reader and making it look like something’s happened when it hasn’t. I do feel bad about killing characters, but I don’t feel bad about them doing bad things. Maybe that makes my stories more boring.

BLVR: What happened to the Zongo series?

GP: Nobody was buying them at all.

BLVR: Do you think that was because they were only available in comic-book stores?

GP: Maybe. That’s not where the audience is. Also I included some earlier stuff in the fifth issue that I’d done when I was really young and it was kind of dirty. It makes comic-book stores nervous when they might get arrested if the wrong kid picks up the comic, and they stop ordering them, so then they weren’t in comic-book stores, either. At the time I thought I should stand by my old stuff, but when it was published I was a little like, Maybe I have grown up and shouldn’t be standing behind this. Matt wasn’t happy about publishing some of that, either.

BLVR: Dal Tokyo is a world of your creation where most of your narratives are set—a future society on Mars, inspired by the visions of J. G. Ballard, the Archigram movement, and Blade Runner, an amalgamated cityscape of Los Angeles, Houston, and Tokyo. How did this place evolve?

GP: It happened really early on when I first started doing comics, thinking, What if the Japanese and Texans settled on Mars? A friend in elementary school had written a poem about the Aztecs coming back, disrupting time, and old times mixing with current times, with all these cultures returning, like a Jack Kirby–type scene. It actually emerged out of puppet shows Jay Cotton and I were doing in art spaces during art school.

BLVR: Characters in your comics never go away. They keep popping up in different stories.

GP: I can’t stop drawing them. Sometimes I wonder why I keep drawing Jimbo, this squat-nosed, freckle-faced, all-American boy. He just showed up. I don’t really form these characters beforehand, they just kind of walk onstage and I let them start talking.


BLVR: Being successful in so many other creative projects, do you still see yourself as a painter first and foremost?

GP: Really it’s painting theory that informs everything else I do. As painting turned out to encompass a lot more than just painting, to painting’s demise, I’m kind of conservative in my want to make these images and sign systems. Part of my interest with painting is an awareness of art history, so I’m adding ideas, or taking away ideas, or branching off of earlier ideas, or connecting ideas, or trying to come up with some new color that’s never existed before.

I’m trying to think of what I can do that other people aren’t doing, and what other people can’t do. Cartooning is the same. People like being alike, joining up, and being part of something. I think it’s more interesting to find a new ecological niche. I’m into experimenting, like [Marcel] Duchamp or [Claes] Oldenburg, or Karl Wirsum. They are all unlike anyone who came before them.

Paintings have to have a certain impact. Album covers used to have that. You walk into a room and if there’s a painting in it, it either does something to you or it doesn’t. It does something horrid, or intense, or subtle, or nothing. It’s like walking into an old record store where there would be a wall of album covers; in making album covers I want to make the album cover that people pick up first. The kind of painting I do is like that too. It tries to grab your attention, or forces you into another mood. Hopefully my paintings also end up feeling familiar. A lot of good art has the impact where you go, Oh, I’ve already thought that, but I’ve never expressed it. I don’t know what that is.

BLVR: Many of your paintings overlay abstract-expressionist-inspired backgrounds with glam rock stars, anthropomorphic watermelons, and pinup girls. The sublime seems to enhance the crass and mass-produced, and the crass, mass-produced becomes sublime.

GP: I get very excited about that. Abstract expressionist paintings have this power, so if I’m putting familiar, somewhat banal hieroglyphic information on top, then it’s being blasted forward by the first layer. It simulates being nearsighted, which I am. I can see things up close where things are sharp, but everything else is fuzzy. It gives you a shopwindow effect, which I like, where there’s stuff up front, shapes and colors and associations, and then there’s a background, like deeper into the room that you can’t see into. They also simulate plywood cutout signs in a field I used to see a lot growing up on the border of Mexico. In South Texas there’s orange groves, so along the highway there’s all these orange stands. Some of them had these giant homemade cutouts of cartoon characters, like an eighteen-foot Porky Pig, to catch your attention as you drove past. They were a folk art.

BLVR: Growing up in that environment seems to have had a lasting impact. Also your father managed dimestores, and you were exposed to a lot of cheap comics and men’s adventure magazines. Images from both still feature heavily in your paintings.

GP: It was a very exotic landscape. There were a lot of third-rate animal comics around. Not Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, but really crappy, weird ones, drawn by the Fago Brothers. They weren’t really funny, and I didn’t have the attention span to actually read them anyway, but the style of them haunted me. And I was both attracted and repelled by these men’s adventure magazines, like a morbid interest. I think they say a lot about humanity in the way humanity pictures itself, or doesn’t want to picture itself anymore. Humanity can be pretty scary, and there’s still horrible, dark shit going on every second of every day.

BLVR: Your paintings are ostensibly cute, and there is a joy to them, with the bright colors and patterns and goofy, cuddly characters. But other times they are downright scary, especially the images copied from the men’s adventure magazines, like women crawling from brutish men in the desert, and severed heads on bamboo poles. These figures may appear next to more innocuous figures like a ’50s Japanese robot, or a girl posing in a bikini. The disconnectedness of the characters itself causes an unease—how these figures exist in the same landscape but are uninvolved with each other.

GP: I think that the cuteness and bright colors and infantility make people uneasy and creeped out too. I always wonder, Gee, I think these paintings are good! and then people don’t want to take them home. In terms of the figures, if I connect them too much, I have too literal a narrative and so the painting is too self-explanatory, and the viewer can’t bring anything to it. I do like weird associations though. I’m working on a painting now with this goofy, ugly little red-headed magician kid making magic, and there’s a donkey and all these great cat-bat things flying around, and there’s a French guy injecting a cactus with some fluid, and the cactus is growing arms, and there’s a guy in a log cabin in the background with field glasses observing. It’s not a story, but it gets you halfway there.

BLVR: You have separate characters for your paintings and for your comics, and the two rarely cross over. Why?

GP: I tried it a few times and it looked really ugly to me, like, icky. It seemed like the attributes of painting and the attributes of comics were something to be explored separately. I got into the conventions of each medium and didn’t feel the need to mingle them. If you know the characters it sets you up to join a story. In painting I’m not trying to trick you into going for that ride.


BLVR: In your new retrospective book there are drawings of dinosaurs you did when you were five years old, and you’re still painting these same dinosaurs today. You’ve called your work “overt infantilism.” What is it about childhood creativity that still inspires you?

GP: When my daughter was born, she was already a full-blown personality, from two weeks old. And I could watch as month by month the media and the culture infiltrated her sense of who and what she is and what she might be interested in. And it’s changed over time and become specific to her generation. That continues for all of us throughout our whole lives. I think artists try to remove that, and figure out who you might be without the culture. A lot of what we want and who we are is way out of our control. It’s nice to get some glimpse of what we’d be like without that.

BLVR: Do you still collect candy wrappers, prank items, and cheap toys?

GP: My basement has about thirty or forty containers full of toys, so I try not to pick stuff up off the street like I used to do avidly for years. I’m now in a situation where I’m overwhelmed by the stuff I have collected, all the way to broken Smurf bikes. There were all these cool toys in my father’s dime store and I couldn’t really have very many of them. I was allowed to play with them after the store closed. It’s probably some sick thing like “I just want a lot of toys!” Now I’ve got, like, ten thousand toys; I’m just buried in toys. I like them for the colors and plastics and shapes and the associations I get from them. They are fetish objects, like Hopi and Zuni Native American stone fetishes in a way, like those weird little Indian ceramic dogs with feathers. I went to Mexico recently and found these cheap Japanese exports of Lucha wrestlers where they had holes in their chests where their hearts were supposed to be, just because they were miscast or the production ran out of rubber.

BLVR: As an artist with a long oeuvre, your work and vision seem to be becoming increasingly relevant, rather than passé. The “Gary Panter Aesthetic” can be identified in fine art, design, illustration, fashion, and animation, everywhere.

GP: That would be neat. I think I’ve had an effect, but only because I’m older. All those influences that made my work what it is were lying about for anyone else. There are artists who were like kind uncles to me, and had keys to open doors. Ed Roth, Forry Ackerman, Walt Disney, Walter Lance, and then Marcel Duchamp and Claes Oldenburg. So what I’d like to contribute, ideally, is just to be like a cheerleader.

Back in the day, Matt Groening and I were really interested in having some kind of cultural influence. Things really seemed so desperate and horrible, humans just eating each other alive. The Simpsons did it on this massive cultural scale. I wrote to Matt the other day, saying, “Gee, you’re one of the biggest voices for sanity on the planet.” I’d like to be that in some other medium, and sometimes it just happens to be the medium of gluing sticks together.

BLVR: At the back of Jimbo’s Inferno you include a page called “33 Best-Loved Recordings” where you list your favorite records and include an illustration of the cover beside a one-sentence review. You’re also about to release your third record. Playing and listening to music is part of your process, but I’ve heard you say you don’t call yourself a musician. Why not?

GP: I feel more comfortable just calling myself an artist. Music is hard, and though I’ve got a certain aptitude for it, I feel like I have a limited vision. But it’s always fun. Music helps me shift gears. If I’ve been drawing or painting for a while, it’s important for me to stop and flip the record, or change the CD, or decide to have silence. That’s what I do instead of smoking. Certainly picking up a guitar and banging on it has a physicality that I need. The rhythm is kind of like self-petting.

For a long time religion made me feel guilty for being involved in music. Growing up, the religion I grew up in, the Church of Christ, encouraged a capella, but didn’t allow musical instruments, so even though my parents allowed me to play trumpet in the band, and I was pretty good at it, it had this baggage. Once this seventh-grade band I was in was asked to play the end-of-year banquet, and my parents let me do it and dropped me off. We played “Wipe Out” and “Louie, Louie” and then some girl started dancing, and from the side of the stage my parents suddenly appeared and dragged me out.

BLVR: How did your parents respond to your early interest in degenerate artists like Ed Roth and Basil Wolverton?

GP: They didn’t understand me. They still don’t understand me. My Rat Fink shirts humiliated my father.

BLVR: Was that like wearing a grisly metal T-shirt in the ’80s?

GP: It was different in the ’50s and ’60s because if you were any type of weirdo you stood out like a sore thumb. It wasn’t popular to be a Church of Christ–goer in the first place. Telling everyone you’re going to hell doesn’t make you popular. Somehow I was never totally isolated, though. As a teenager my parents’ garage was famous in town because I’d transformed it into this hippie dungeon. I worked in it for about four years, so it started one way and developed through many stages, ending with me just painting Rat Finks and hot rods on the walls. I got a lighting fixture that cast odd light on the wall and I could swing the light fixture and make a little light show. I was already fooling around with holding painted glass in front of light bulbs, making assemblage sculptures out of stuff people had thrown away. I had a giant piece of driftwood that I was carving on. I had a bass drum that I was painting white paisley. Some friends and I found an old steamer trunk and put it up on chrome extensions for legs and put a water bottle on top and made a giant hookah which we smoked Lipton tea out of. My mother would come in and freak out every once in a while. I’d be laying there on some Persian carpet I’d found somewhere with my head clamped between two speakers listening to Jimi Hendrix in the dark. If I had really liberal parents I don’t know how I would have turned out. The Church of Christ was such a formative thing to rebel against. I don’t know what I’d be without it.

BLVR: Do you have any religious inclinations now?

GP: Not religious. I don’t like religion very much. I think it’s all about people trying to be very certain about things that are very uncertain. But spirituality and superstition, I have to admit, I am affected by. I have no reason to believe there’s a deity, but superstitiously I still function like that. I pray, but who I pray to I’m not exactly sure, especially when I’m praying for more money.

As a kid, though, I was certainly religious. I preached Wednesday nights, not that I was very good at it. I couldn’t memorize anything. But I was a good bible student, and I got sent to Ireland to do missionary work. I didn’t have a choice; I was really brainwashed. But I was deeply conflicted about it on another level, questioning everything and going crazy and getting ulcers. My grandparents had this very old Doré bible, and the engraved illustrations really fascinated me, like when Ezekiel (or whoever) calls the flesh back on the skeletons, and the images of the witches of Ensor. I really liked Adam and Eve: naked people with snakes. I liked angels with flaming swords. The earth swallowing people up was always good too. I had these crazy distant relatives who’d write their own interpretations and revelations and handprint pamphlets. That was great.

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