I first heard of Gary Panter in the early 80's when he drew some cover designs for Ralph Records, the home of The Residents, who were (and still are) among my all-time favorite avant-garde weird pop combos. In The ROZZ-TOX Manifesto, written in 1980, Gary Panter declared:" There are twenty years left in the twentieth century. Twenty years to reap the rewards and calamities that have been put in motion in this period. At this time a current aesthetic function is emerging: the inevitable culmination of concepts and experiments pioneered and conducted in this century. We declare society an amusement park and one to be dead reckoned with."
At the very end of the century, I had a golden opportunity to meet Gary Panter in his studio in Brooklyn and to ask him about what he did in its final decades… Along with me on this sentimental journey were an international cast of friends - Igor Prassel, the editor of the Slovenian magazine Stripburger, and Gunnar Lundkvist, a Swedish cartoonist, and they helped wholeheartedly with their questions.
First, something about your background… How did you start drawing comics?
I was born in 1950, I grew up in Texas and Oklahoma, and my father after a while went into the dime store business. In dime stores they had comic books. Also, he was an artist and he drew all the time. We had a little house-trailer and we moved around, and the house-trailer was full of his oil paintings. He would sit and draw, and that's how I started. With comics - I started drawing comics when I was a kid. I really liked dinosaurs; I read stuff like Cavemen, Conan, and even Tarzan. My grandparents in Oklahoma had magazines with comics, like Mandrake the Magician, Barney Google. Then, when Robert Crumb happened in the 60's, he just made a clear path … I really wanted to be a hippie - even if I was raised by an American religious cult called The Church of Christ. It's one of those religions where, when I was a kid in school, they would say: "you are going to burn in hell! You are bad." And no matter what - you don't have the answer. It was really hard to make my way out of that… On top of that, I was into dinosaurs…
That should not be a surprise, with all the famous dinosaurs' fossils in Texas?
When I was a little kid my father took me in our house trailer to another house trailer where geologists lived, and they had lots of bones and models of dinosaurs. That's what really got me started. I was perhaps 4 year old.
Do you still visit Texas?
My family still lives there. And since my father retired, he paints cowboys and Indians ... He does a kind of psychedelic cowboy & Indian paintings, and he doesn't realize that it's psychedelic. And he does really kind of "normal" Western paintings too.
Does he paint in the tradition of American folk art?
He is really kind of far out… He would paint an "invisible eye," and then the next guy would go like: what are you doing there? What is this thing? Don't do that! So there's a lot of… nothing. He is an oddball. He thinks he is normal, but he is really crazy. If you talk to him for 15 minutes or even 5 minutes, he'll try to convert you to his religion.
So what does he think of your comics?
He does not see them at all. He only knows that I'm an artist. He knows that I did those Peewee Herman TV show, so he can possibly talk about that, but he does not ask me about my art. We only talk about HIS art (laugh). He knows that I'm doing comics, and sometimes my nephews are buying stuff on the Internet, but they are all kind of brainwashed by that Church thing.
How did you start to publish your work?
Originally, I started drawing my stuff in 1971, or something like that, and by the time I finally found somebody to publish it, it was 1977. My drawing style back then was ziggy-zaggy, rough, scratchy stuff, with a lot of space in it. I published my first drawings and threw them around like flyers at rock concerts. I threw those colored-paper photocopied Rozz-Toxx drawings at Marc Bolan once, and scared him to death… This was in '73 or '74.
What was Marc Bolan's reaction?
He was afraid. I was dressed like a lizard and threw these comics at him, and his bongo player laughed. Some of those same drawings were published a couple of years ago in Matt Groening's Zongo Comics. Originally, I self-published some of my works. Just went to the copy shop and made books, folded them and took them to clothing stores in LA once I'd moved to that town. I asked at the fashion boutiques if they would sell those books, they said OK, and that's where my stuff first became available. I continued with that, and then Japanese people started noticing me and publishing my stuff. At the same time, Art Spiegelman contacted me because they were just starting with Raw. But originally they all saw my work in Slash, a rock magazine that published my work in 1977. This was a hard core punk magazine.
Since 1972 I'd been thinking like - I can move to New York and print my stuff, but something just messed me up, and I stayed - I had friends in Texas, I was in a band … It was in a town in the middle of nowhere, in Texas, population 6000. I wanted to be a hero, I wanted to be a hippie, but I was still at home. I couldn't escape my father. He would have killed me if I'd left home.
Have you tried to make stories about life in Texas in those days?
I did a little bit about it in comics I did for a Zongo, about me just sitting in a studio, waiting for the tornado to blow, or sitting with old people who were just chewing tobacco, and spitting in big buckets, and stuff like garlic or onions hanging over their head. And they were trying to figure out whether the thing beating on the door is someone trying to get in or a tornado? When I go back there, to Texas, people still believe that I will go to hell. They would talk or argue about it. I can really scare my father by saying: I don't believe in hell, I don't believe in the devil. I think if you ask Americans, 30% will say that they believe in the devil - the guy with a pitchfork and a tail.
The questions that true spiritualism are raising are what is imagination, what is existence, is it final or is it infinite? Is it holographic, is it piece of a whole, is it nothing? People who say they know end up fighting each other because they are so desperate to have the right answer.
When I spoke to Kim Deitch, I asked him about the fact that Americans have such a fine sense of cartooning. They can very easily, with great humor and skill, create something that is a kind of instant styling of reality that we call "cartoony" since we do not know any other term. What do you think?
I think it's because there was no previous culture here. Cartoons and the movies are the only culture; there was no history. There is a hidden history, though , we killed all the Indians and we moved right in. Other than cartoons, there were the newspaper comics, and partly, that was what my bad acid trip in 1972 was about. I was thinking that, if I take acid I will have this extra experience--this higher thing, but it was like a big cartoon and I said, "Oh my god, my soul is like a fucking comic book or a commercial!" It really terrorized me. It was like showing fifty movies at once, and turning the sound up and down. I thought that I would see something more natural, but it was like a computer, I saw commercials from the future. But I don't really want to push into that very deeply. Anyway, I think that a little acid goes a long way, and I'm still on that trip to some extent -- as far as I am recovering from thinking about it -- and it is like trauma memory that stays with you…
What would you say about the culture of the hippie era?
It was really the first rejection on a big scale of the US in a way, because it didn't have any history, so it could be the first time. It was like saying, we don't want to wear suits, we don't want to go out to a job. Rejecting a whole culture, standing upright and saying: we will build a whole new creature, and then… chickening out. The whole thing was almost killed by that kind of timidity and... TELEVISION. Even though television probably brought it on in the first place -- you can imagine that, in places like Texas or Brooklyn, people usually don't go off the block their whole lives. They just see very, very, locally. And when they saw that hippie stuff on the television, this was like the first bigger idea that they'd come across.
But it was pretty fascinating - I looked at psychedelic posters all the time and studied Rick Griffin, and Robert Williams and Crumb--and all these guys. It was really a bizarre and magical time, even though it was part packaging and finance taped to some adolescent idea of revolution and a lot of self-deception and hormones and everything.
How do your comics relate to that sort of counterculture?
Well they actually started out as hippie, underground comix. In the 60's, when I was still living at home, I had my own little underground paper and comics and prototypes. I just dreamed about publishing them. When you try to find yourself in your late teens, you really lose your childhood, so it's very useful to go back and find out what you REALLY like. You began to ask questions like: do I really like just MTV, or do I need some other piece of culture or trash or whatever. Unfortunately, that's all that anyone's reaching to right now -- just cultural trash…
Tell me more about your development as an artist in the 70's?
I always wanted to be an artist, and while in a high-school I went to the library and soaked up everything that they had there. And when I went to collage--it was only 20 miles away from where I grew up--they had a bigger library. I just progressed through this series of things, I can show you my sketchbooks from that time. Mostly, it just goes through hippie stuff, I was drawn to rough-printed things. And as I spent time near the Mexican border when I was a kid, Mexican elements had an influence on me -- these raggedy, weird colors. But also the Yellow Submarine animated film was fascinating to me, big cultural things like that. I went through studying art history, and then right before I had my bad acid trip, I just kind of reached the end of it. I had an epiphany about this raggedy style and called it Rozz-Tox. That was the infantilism of the cultural happening, that was my epiphany. Not only was there a reinvestigation of childhood, there was also this negative lapsing into total collapse and infantile imagery. Then this acid trip showed me like 10 billion drawings I should not do -- 10 zillion paintings that are better then anything that I will ever do. But no thanks, don't go in that direction, that's horrible… The whole experience made me superstitious. For example, there is this Japanese psychedelic band that I like, called Ghost. I was at the record store the other day and I came across new Ghost records and I went like - WOW! Then I flipped through another Ghost record in the row, and I had this terrible feeling of the… devil (laughs). There was just something about two new Ghost albums coming out that reminded me of things in dream time or acid time, that was telling me -- don't buy it today! Another day it may be safe...
When you started to publish with Raw, were you on the national scene? Did people already know about you?
I had a page in Slash magazine for 20 or 30 issues, and I think it was noticed on the East Coast as well as the West Coast. Even if you were travelling around, you would come across Slash magazine or Search and Destroy. My page was a Jimbo comic -- the first couple of pages were about music, but then there was just this obnoxious, raggedy drawing style, because I'd been doing it since '73, and never found a place to print it. And suddenly I found Slash, and there was all kind of abstract expressionism. It was this time of synthesization that ended up being called post-modernism. I don't know if there is really any name for it. You can call it "new pop" or something, but it ended up being called post-modernism. That's better than "new wave." I never liked that term because there were many new waves…
I've some of your drawings which are very elaborate, but then some which could be called… primitive?
I draw in the way that I feel in the moment. If I just honestly drew the way I drew, it would be always different. It changes, and over the years it developed into kind of variety, but a style should follow the idea, rather then the idea following the style. Esthetics is tied to sexual seduction and mating signals, and it could be generally neutral, but it has this effect and you could apply it in a different ways and esthetic styles. From second to second there are infinite styles that all have an authority. I've became interested in learning what is the threshold of that authority, and it's really law. Like bathroom graffiti, children's art, idiot's art, it all has this authority and it's own reality. It's very strong in terms of how I learned to draw. I was always intimidated by other children's drawings. There was a kid in my class who was hydrocephalic -- he had a giant head -- and he drew with compasses and T-squares, and it was really fascinating, geometric art. And there was a girl who could color in really solid -- I would think: how did she do that? I used a whole box of crayons to get these solid, colored surfaces, but now I'm trying to draw in a way which is similar to engraving, involving a lot of cross-hatching. I did Jimbo in Dante's Inferno, and now I'm doing Jimbo in Purgatory, it's more old-timey looking, like 100 year ago! But still I have many limitations in terms of control, and my work is kind of bent. I can be very controlling, but I can't ever be Charles Burns, and that is just natural, that's fine. Spiegelman has always encouraged me to do really mixed-up styles, to continue to change style in every panel! Anyway, I believe that my characters are real, and the way that Jimbo ended up, with the bomb exploding, it's really embarrassing, really stupid, but I'm glad I did it, even though I can see how many people went like, "Oh, gee, what's happening with this guy?" But I was really trying to apologize for dropping the bomb on Japan after reading so much about it and being upset by those idiotic extremes we are perpetuating on ourselves and on each other.
I don't know, I read a newspaper and get really upset. I cry at every movie I go to, no matter what it is, even if some idiot is trying to sell me something.
How did you start publishing Jimbo for Zongo Comics?
Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons, is one of my best friends. He was starting a kind of a comic book company because he liked underground comics, considering himself an underground cartoonist and still drawing his Life in Hell strips. And so Groening's company, called Zongo, put out my comic book series called Jimbo that was completely, terribly unpopular. Instead of printing like 5,000 each time, they progressively published fewer and fewer. These comics were so important to me, and it was great they were putting them out, but there are hardly any of them in the stores.
The comic is based on this idea I had back in the 70's, about imagining what if Japan and Texas were the same place.. I just mixed them all together, and that's where Jimbo lives. And Zongo was printing something like 1,000 copies of each issue of these comics. They wouldn't even barely start the press before they would have to turn it off again… There were only seven issues of Jimbo, and then it stopped being published by that publisher. It was stopped because it was just totally unprofitable for them. This comic book really clouded my relationship with Matt, so I think that it will be better if I continue that title with another publisher…
Was Matt Groening disappointed?
I don't know. He published the stuff that nobody else wanted - like the stuff that I did in the 70's. It was very important for me to show it. Like, look, here's the stuff that I did when I was alone in my little room.
Tell me about the world where Jimbo lives. What is it? Is it in the future?
Well, it is becoming a cliché from the movies, but Jimbo lives in a post-apocalyptic world. I had different ideas about it, and one of these was a "reverse universe", crashing back towards a big bang, like we are expending out and Jimbo is going back in after a zillion years, and they are digging out fossils of us. They are just like a chemical formation. I don't really think about it that much. Anyway, this is like picking up all the things that strike me: OK, this is my world, this isn't my world, and I like this animal, etc…
And it's got messages and explorations… Del Tokyo is another thing, I draw it monthly for a Japanese reggae magazine called Rhythm. I think that they can see how influenced I am by Japan because the Japanese have those institutionalized lowbrow drawings in the back of their magazines, and some of their best cartoonists draw in this crappy style.
How did you get involved with album cover design?
When I moved to LA in '76, I was desperate to get work, and I started to do little spot illustrations for some record companies and magazines, or just showing my weird paintings. I didn't know it, but Frank Zappa was on tour, and Warner Brothers decided to get him off the label. The way they were doing it was issuing a breaking-up four- album set called "Ladder." So they issued (while he was on tour) albums in very rapid succession. I just got a call from an art director that I knew, asking me if I wanted to do a Zappa cover, and I said, "YES!" But I didn't hear anything from Frank Zappa; I never met him. Then the art director called me a month later, and asked if I wanted to do another Zappa cover, and I did it, and I still didn't meet Zappa. I was thinking, "What is going on? Is he control freak, where is he?" And when they called me for a third one, I said that I don't know what the deal was, and they explained. So I did the cover, and I think that he ended up liking them. OK, years later. Matt Groening became friends with Zappa, and Zappa told him he liked the covers. I never met Zappa, which was too bad.
But you met The Residents!
Yeah, I met Residents, sure! They are a couple of years older then me. I don't know how they work any more, but one of them would typically write most of the lyrics, and another one would do most of the music, and they have many people working with them. We met through friends. They asked me to do some covers, and I still see them from time to time. When they played here, I went to see their show. They're good. They are like SUPER-FOLK artists, that's what I think of them, root Louisiana and kind of theatrical.
You yourself have made some records?
Yes, Jay Cotton and I put out a Colahaus single in 1978. Also, a Japanese company paid me to put out an album -- it was in the 80's, like 1983 or something. It was kind of psychedelic country music I guess, crying about Christianity mostly, Christian damage music. So it's good that it was put out in Japan, so nobody will find out about It. Then, some of my music was put out by Blast First a couple of years ago, on a picture disc. One side was my friend Jay Cotton, and the other side was me, and it was a really neat package -- a picture disc. We were really into vinyl, which means that this record is really hard to find; anyway, I do this music, but I'm not very good at it, it's kind of silly, but great fun to do it. I can play guitar probably better then before, but I never took lessons. According to the rules of my religion, we can't dance, and we can't play instruments, so joy is not accepted, except on TV -- we can watch television.
So you can watch OTHERS having fun?
Yeah… Anyway, I never learned to play with other people. It was always just me playing, so when I did a record with The Residents, one of them would come and say: "Here's a drum stick, first you play drums". They made me do everything, one track at a time, and then build it up. The Residents produced the "Tornader to the Tater" single out of that material. They actually added some tracks when I wasn't around, put on some new sounds. That's why for a while people thought that I was in The Residents, and that was cool.
The good thing about The Residents is that ANYTHING could be true about them! After all these years, they are still hiding behind their masks and the mythology and gossip that surrounds them…
Yes! And what's funny is, when you meet them (unless you are from some big magazine) they tell you the truth about themselves.
In Serbia, where I live, we haven't seen Peewee Herman's shows, even though there were a couple of very favorable articles in the press about him… But when I talked to people here, I realized how big his show was. What did you do for him?
I designed the TV show set, but originally I started to work with Paul Reubens (Peewee's real name) in the early 80's on a stage show. We did the show in LA , and then it became a TV show on HBO. I wrote a movie called Peewee's Great Adventure, which was never made because the company didn't want to buy our movie. Anyway, Paul is real fun to work with, and he really believed in me and trusted me, let me run pretty far with his ideas and stuff. Peewee got into trouble because Americans are not being able to talk about sex. When I was a child they wouldn't say a word PREGNANT on television! They'd actually throw you in jail for saying PREGNANT or something. And Peewee was caught in a porno theater, supposedly. He says that it is not true, even though that does not mean that he's never been in a place like that. Anyway, it was the end of his career. So you got this whole phenomenon of him getting to be like Mickey Mouse for 5 or 10 years. All the children would think that he's Santa Claus, and then - he's GONE, you can't think about Peewee anymore. But it is more complicated than that because it has to do with the marketing set-up in America. People want to jump on a fad and then jump off again, and they perceived that his fad was over. Then the scandal occurred… I worked with the company that did hundreds of Peewee things. They paid for this giant campaign, but then some executive said: "It's not selling fast enough, ditch it." Then they destroyed all the Peewee property, and this scandal happened.
What did you actually do for the show?
I designed the set, which was maybe about eight times bigger then this room. We did a small one in New York and another one in Los Angeles. There were about 200 people involved with production of the show. I did the drawings with my friends Wayne and Rick, we would read the script, analyze it… By the way, it is now running on TV again; it is re-entering the culture. But what's weird to me is to think about that gap of 8 or 10 years, of children who loved Peewee. Then they didn't know anything about him, and now they've found out about Peewee again. It's going to make a difference between generations in the U.S.-- the Hanna-Barbera generation VS the Fleischer's studio cartoon generation. It will happen again in 10 years. These strong influences are coming from TV culture and marketing. Anyway, the Peewee show was a big influence for a while; it influenced all these cereal commercials. The "triangle in pink with the green shadow" -- that was a new wave in U.S. marketing, but it's a neat show; it still looks pretty good, and I hope to do more stuff with him.
So you did a lot of toys and merchandising I guess?
Yes, we did pajamas, belt buckles, everything. My bad acid trip was actually about being lost on this big plastic floor, and part of the floor has just merchandise thrown all over -- watches, belt buckles, snickers, ash-trays, cornflakes, everything out of the catalogue thrown on the floor, but all arranged very carefully. I was wandering on this endless plane of consumer goods, with the big bell ringing DOOOOONG, DOOOONG! Then it came to a place where there were millions of little Mickey Mouse hands forever coming out of false-teeth gums. I don't know, Peewee was more fun than that, but it was like really fast design -- stickers, back-packs, jeans, jackets. There was some OK stuff, though.
Today do you devote a lot of your time to painting?
Yes, I have been painting since my high-school days, but I'm really slow, I might do two or 10 paintings a year. But it's not a career. Cartoons and paintings are ... a dominant hobby.
So what is really is your occupation then?
Oh, God… I'm an artist. In commercial art I make money, but it's not as much fun, usually, because they say: "Draw John Travolta driving a car!" And I reply: "No, I don't want to draw John Travolta driving a car!", "But you have to for the money!" And then I say "OK, I'll try to do it", and I get the job. But, my comics and my paintings, that's just joy. I would like to live a long time and do a lot of them.