The New York Comics & Picture Story Symposium Review: Gary Panter

Ben Katchor places Gary Panter in comics history just after Arcade, the 1960’s underground comics revue, and just before Raw, Art Spiegelman’s avant-garde comics magazine of the 1980s, but Panter’s  career covers this moment and much more. He practices the arts of painting, commercial art, illustration, cartoons, comics, and theatre. It’s hard to imagine a comics world without Panter’s  rough and scratchy quasi-punk drawing style–but his journey to prominence was anything but straightforward. His work is unconventional, and, so, too, has been his life.

  1. Childhood

Panter was born in Oklahoma and raised in Texas. He recalls his childhood in a small town of 10,000 people as sheltered, with parents so straight-laced that they considered the word “darn” an obscenity. Public schools had a strict dress code (boys’ hair short, girls’ skirts long) and his parents’ provincialism lasted into Gary’s adulthood. After the grown-up Gary received a gift from a his father of a book of Aubrey Beardsley posters he noticed that his father had taken a pair of scissors and cut out of the book’s pages every occurrence of male genitals. At one point his father even had Gary work in a funeral home to straighten him up (it didn’t work).

The only information that young Gary could receive about the outside world came from his local newsstand and record store. He could find Frank Zappa’s Freak Out in the record section, and Mad magazine figured into the mix, but one day at the newsstand Gary found something that would change his life irrevocably: the January 9, 1968 issue of Look magazine.

Look was hardly an avant-garde publication, but this particular issue covered the artistic and cultural scene of the late 1960’s. It hit Gary Panter like a meteor. In fact, the bulk of Panter’s recent presentation to the New York Comics and Picture Story Symposium wasn’t about his better known work, like Raw, Pee-Wee Herman, or Jimbo. It was a loving journey through a time when magazines, large and colorful, were more important than they are now. (It also should be mentioned here that Eye magazine was the first place Panter saw the cartoons of Kim Deitch and  Robert Crumb).

  1. Look

Young Gary Panter was so struck by the solarized Richard Avedon cover photo of John Lennon (the fold-out photos of the other three Beatles have long since been torn away) on the January 9, 1968 issue of Look, that he knew he’d found a world he wanted to inhabit. After the cover and a contents page came an ad for a record club (itself the product of a bygone era), then the “guts” of the magazine, which hit every corner of the contemporary culture. One spread showcased Frank Stella posing in front of a series of his brightly colored geometric paintings. Minimalist painter Kenneth Nolan was covered. There were spreads on Alexander Calder, Dan Flavin, Tony Smith and Claes Oldenberg with his soft drums. Further, there was “How to Think about Leonard Bernstein,” a critical essay called “Avoidism in the Arts,” and an article called “New Sound of a Plugged-In Age” illustrated by Saul Steinberg. Even the poses of the celebrities in these photos were different and vital–more casual, more informal, more interesting than what Gary had known up til then.

Then, bang! A set of spreads photographed by Irving Penn of the era’s most hip and vibrant rock and pop bands. Gary saw the photo of Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin and her fellow musicians dressed in bell bottoms and definitive hippie attire, and recognized the life he sought. There was also a spread on the Hells Angels (“when they were cool”), and one rocker who went by the name of “Bear,” whom, as it turns out, produced the “best LSD.”

III. The Sixties, Seventies, and Beyond

Decades, in Panter’s view, bleed into each other. He thinks of the colorful sixties as  running from about 1964 into 1976 (when, sadly, people stopped saying “peace, brother” ). He admits in his own words that he’s “stuck in the sixties” (he even wears–and strings–hippie beads). For him, it was a time of cultural explosion, like a lotus blossoming. It began with the Beatles and kept unfurling. That old school dress-code was now gone forever, and there was everything on the horizon, from psychedelic posters to underground comics like Zap, which he and his pal Matt Groening first discovered together (“My head exploded!” Panter recalls.).

So, after studying painting at the East Texas State University, and primed with his hippie ambitions, Panter came to New York City. He didn’t really seem to like it. New York was dirty and unsafe then, and Soho had yet to develop in to the arty neighborhood that it was to become. One adventure that seemed to typify this period came during his search for an affordable apartment in the Village, when he was shown a room that had been previously occupied by a caged gorilla. To be fair, though, he did have a thoroughly invigorating experience learning from Mike Schwab, a preeminent graphic artist, and others, at the School of Visual Arts.

Panter moved to Los Angeles in 1977. It was here that he became known for the “punk stuff,” a phrase that loosely describes the primitivist style he’s famous for, with  drawings for Slash magazine and album covers for The Red Hot Chili Peppers. He also exhibited a major suite of paintings, and drew posters and fliers for bands like The Germs and The Screamers. He began his association with Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, as well as creating his punk alter ego comic book hero, Jimbo.  In 1980 Panter published “The Rozz-Tox Manifesto,” a highly influential document that directed his generation to infiltrate the mainstream with underground ideas and culture, and maintained an active comics output through his own mini-comics and his contributions to Raw magazine and other anthologies. Returning to comics in the early 1990s, he drew seven issues of a Jimbo comic book.

Of all the episodes that defined this period for Panter, perhaps the oddest was the friendship he struck up with the science fiction author Philip K. Dick, whom he remembers with great fondness, and whose eccentricities endeared him to Panter immediately. Panter would go over to Dick’s house and experience a world of amphetamines, nervous breakdowns, and paranoia. When Dick came home one day to find his steel filing cabinets blown open, he immediately thought it was the work of the FBI (We’re not sure that it wasn’t).

The work closest to Panter’s heart are  puppet-and-light shows which he began staging several years ago in a studio space in Williamsburg. He has collaborated with the preeminent  light-show designer Joshua White, and the duo has mounted shows at the Hirschhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. and at New York’s Anthology Film Archives. At one time, Panter incorporated performance art into puppets shows which entertained people for over a year on Thursday evenings, trying his best–once again–to revive the experimental atmosphere of the sixties.

In 2006-2007, Panter was a featured artist in the touring exhibition, Masters of American Comics. Since then, his paintings and drawings have been exhibited at Dunn and Brown, Dallas and Clementine Gallery, New York,. He has published four graphic novels, and has also won numerous awards.

In summary, two observations.  For everyone,  Panter advocates “the wisdom of curiosity.”  For working artists, he advises, “A limited palette is a great idea.”

About the author: Mark Lerer holds a bachelor’s degree from Princeton University and an MFA from the New York Academy of Art, and has published a study of Will Eisner for the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art. His cartoon drawings have been run in the New York Post and appeared at New Century Artists and Nexus galleries, and are regularly featured on Facebook.

Originally published at The Rumpus, Oct. 28, 2014
The New York Comics & Picture Story Symposium – Gary Panter