An Interview with Gary Panter

Gary Panter’s diverse array of accomplishments make it impossible to define him as any one “type” of artist. He is famously credited with creating the late-’70s Californian punk aesthetic with his designs for the Germs and the Screamers.

In 1986, he earned three Emmy Awards for his work on the children’s show Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Panter’s cartooning was featured in the 2005 Masters of American Comics traveling exhibition, alongside Jack Kirby and Robert Crumb.

In 2008, PictureBox published a retrospective of Panter’s acrylic paintings and sketchbooks in a two-volume collection.

Panter’s creations are heavily influenced by his interests, which range from Japanese aliens on 1960s TV to old candy wrappers and dinosaurs. He even pays tribute to Tiny Tim and Bruce Lee in his comics, and has a page for examining his favorite albums from a doodle perspective.

His work displays a strong knowledge of fine-art theory, yet he has managed to retain the child-like enthusiasm that comes with playing in a sandpit.

Back in the 1980s, Panter contributed to Art Spiegelman’s groundbreaking comics anthology, Raw. This was when he created the landscape of Dal Tokyo, as well as the spiky-haired, pug-nosed, punk protagonist, Jimbo.

His work was later 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 published more Jimbo material in 1995 in comic-book form, through Zongo Press, a label established by Bongo Press, the publisher of The Simpsons comics. The series was canceled two years later.

In 2006, a self-contained episode, Jimbo’s Inferno, was released by Fantagraphics as a hardcover with gold-embossed details. The most recent installment of Jimbo was a xeroxed zine that came out in late 2008.

Gary Panter is an exceptionally creative individual who has a wide range of interests and abilities. In addition to having collaborated with light-show expert Joshua White on psychedelic light shows at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C.

He has also designed an action figure, sneakers, and a children’s playroom at the Paramount Hotel in New York. He has even gone so far as to create homemade puppets and architectural studies out of garbage.

His accomplishments in the music world are also notable, having created album covers for bands such as Silver Daggers and having released his own music, such as his collaboration with artist/musician Devin Flynn, titled Devin and Gary Go Outside, through Ecstatic Yod and PictureBox in August 2008.

At the age of fifty-eight, Panter had a full head of gray hair cut short, and he usually wore a selection of brightly-colored T-shirts. After Devin and Gary’s show at Family, my bookstore in L.A., I got to talk to him.

We went to Canter’s Deli, and Panter chose a chocolate milk without even glancing at the menu.

–David Jacob Kramer

It is asserted by David Jacob Kramer that ____.





Do you get concerned that by operating in numerous formats, and then frequently alternating styles within each one, you are overextending yourself, or that you don’t possess sufficient arms to accomplish everything you aspire to, or that your head will blow up?

GARY PANTER does not usually stress about his work. His worries are mainly for people getting hurt and general anxieties. Creatively speaking, his ideas come naturally. In order to get as much done as possible, he divides up his day.

Oil painting is a difficult medium, so he opts for acrylics instead. Most of his creations are fairly easy to do, with the exception of the light shows. Before meeting Josh White, the light shows were limited in scale.

However, when the scale was adapted for something like Lincoln Center, the help of others with rods and other pieces of equipment was needed, as well as timing and coordination.

I once had the pleasure of conversing with Ed Ruscha, an iconic West Coast pop-art painter, and I made a comment that may not have been the best. “Although I admire your paintings,” I said, “the paint itself isn’t as delightful as some of the other artists.”

His reply was clever. He simply stated, “I prefer to let my ideas lead the way, not my art materials.” This resonated with me.

It is essential to come to terms with what you are capable of doing. After that, the tougher question arises: where do you want to be?

Musicians such as Henry Kaiser may have a goal of playing guitar underwater under arctic ice with a camera, but everyone has to ask themselves what they truly want to do with their life.

QUESTION: Is the rumor accurate that you only catch four hours of sleep nightly?

I have a habit of taking lots of short naps, so much so that they come close to a regular night’s sleep. My day usually starts at 7:30, I have my morning routine of reading the paper and having chocolate milk, and take my daughter to school.

After that, I’ll run errands and usually get to work at night, until 3 in the morning. I alternate between painting and playing the guitar, then I’ll make something out of chopsticks and flexi-straws, and eventually write a short story.

I don’t struggle with this, I just let inspiration come to me and make a note when it does. I try to give myself breaks and switch up what I’m doing, so I don’t lose sensitivity in painting. When I’m feeling tired and uninspired, I just remind myself that it’ll pass eventually and that I’ll draw again.

QUESTION: What thoughts are crossing your mind when you construct these architectural models from discarded materials for buildings that will never be built?

I’m considering the spaces I’ve enjoyed being in. I’d love to construct something akin to early Frank Gehry designs with its interconnected structures. I’m assessing the potential of the materials that these sticks are meant to signify.

Do you have any concern regarding the eventual public display of the items in question?

GP has ambitions for their art that could be seen as delusions of grandeur. They feel content when people take an interest in their work and it’s always a pleasant surprise for them.

This may be a result of the religious background they were raised in, feeling that God is always watching them and observing their creations even if no one else is.

QUESTION: A conviction that the effort put in will not be in vain, even if it is only recognized by the universe?

It is an attractive fancy to consider that one’s work is part of the cosmos. Even though it may sound alarming, I have this sensation that it is being noticed. I am certainly not the most rational individual, and I definitely don’t want to be!

QUESTION: The topics you focus on in your work are evident, yet it’s done in a manner that isn’t forced or aware of itself–it’s very lighthearted. Is making these pieces enjoyable for you?

ANSWER: That’d be great. I’m the type of person who enjoys what I do, but certain things can be difficult. As an example, the comics Jimbo in Purgatory and Jimbo’s Inferno were a process and system I had to go through in an arduous way to finish and it wasn’t always pleasant.

Drawing is easy, but that was a challenging project. It’s fun to sit down and sketch a few things, but when you have to create hundreds of drawings whose success is only determined by completing the task, it creates a different kind of challenge.

It’s a captivating process, although it does require effort. I was satisfied with the result, but it really tired out my arms.

QUESTION: Could you describe to us the laborious process that went into the creation of Jimbo ‘s Inferno and Jimbo in Purgatory?

Crafting a comic adaptation of Dante’s Purgatorio, inserting your own characters as well as renowned figures like Frank Zappa, Yoko Ono, and Bruce Lee, organizing the panels to reflect the numerical order of the cantos, replacing certain verses with later versions from authors such as Boccaccio and Chaucer, and providing attentive footnotes

It appears to have been a rather draining venture.

After doing Adventures in Paradise, I felt compelled to read The Divine Comedy due to referencing it in a book. Being in the midst of creating a comic for Zongo Comics, I was reading Dante and had reached the fifth issue.

This particular part of the story with Jimbo chasing the Soulpinx Girls reminded me of Dante following Beatrice. To properly adapt this, I had to read The Divine Comedy multiple times as I was an underachiever in school and only read authors I enjoyed such as Burgess, Dick, and Burroughs.

However, I was intrigued by the challenge of incorporating references from the classics like Voltaire’s Candide into the comic.

A million years ago, I watched a film about Larry Poons, a well-known painter from the ’60s who created decorative and geometric designs with dots and ellipses. He became rich, but then something changed, and he started to create lava flow art.

Prior to that, he used a system with grids, in which he moved from one point to another in a specific pattern, similar to weaving. This inspired me to use similar systems in my projects.

For example, with Jimbo in Purgatory, I set a daily goal for the number of panels I would complete, so I could finish the comic in a certain amount of time. Even though it’s a short comic, it takes two months to finish one page, so I felt like I was going to die before it was done.

QUESTION: What was the impetus behind your transition from a quick, spontaneous style to a more meticulous and precise approach in the Zongo strips?

GP stated that when beginning the Zongo series, he was aware of his improvisation and wanted to explore what would occur. Initially, he encountered problems due to the multiple characters and numerous narratives.

However, he gradually managed to link them all and then propelled Jimbo into Purgatory. He was cognizant of starting off with basic jokes and rather unconcerned illustration, but as he continued, he began to incorporate more cross-hatching and take a more meticulous approach to the paneling, being inspired by a Joyce-esque Ulysses feel.

In the series, I’d seen characters killed off who then returned later, having survived through some incredible luck.

ANSWER: Even though you never witness it, the death of characters is present. I enjoy deceiving the readers, creating the impression of events that never occurred. Even though I’m aware of the consequences of killing characters, I still don’t regret the bad actions they take. Perhaps this makes my stories rather dull.

QUESTION: Could you tell me what became of the Zongo series?

The GP reported that there was no demand for the item.

Could the limited availability of the comics in comic-book stores be the cause of their relative obscurity?

GP suggested maybe not, as the target demographic wouldn’t be interested. They had included some of their earlier work in the fifth issue which was quite risqué and made comic-book stores anxious, in case a minor got their hands on it.

At the time, GP felt they should stand by their old creations, but upon its publication, had second thoughts. Matt wasn’t too pleased about publishing it either.

QUESTION: The universe of Dal Tokyo was generated by you as the setting for many of your stories–a future inhabited Mars, taking cues from the dreamscapes of J. G. Ballard, the Archigram movement, and Blade Runner, made up of a mixture of Los Angeles, Houston, and Tokyo. Could you explain how this cityscape developed?

When I first started making comics, I wondered what it would be like if the Japanese and Texans colonized Mars. This idea was inspired by a poem written by a friend from elementary school.

The poem was about the Aztecs coming back and causing a disruption of time, with old and current cultures intertwining in a Jack Kirby-esque scene. Eventually, this concept developed from the puppet shows Jay Cotton and I were performing in art galleries during our art school years.

QUESTION: There is an ongoing presence of characters in your comics, as they appear throughout various stories.

GP expressed that they are unable to stop themselves from sketching. They ponder why they keep making Jimbo, a little boy with a squat nose, spots, and a typical American appearance. He simply made an appearance, with no prior development, and GP just lets him start speaking.




Do you still consider yourself a painter above all your other creative accomplishments?

I’m quite conservative when I create these images and symbols, as painting turned out to include so much more than what it was originally intended for.

My interest in painting comes with an understanding of art history, therefore I’m both adding and subtracting ideas, connecting them with each other or attempting to discover a new hue that has never been seen before. Painting theory is the premise that drives all my work.

I’m searching for something that others have not yet done, or are not capable of doing. It’s common for people to enjoy being part of a group and having similar interests, but I find it more intriguing to discover a unique niche.

I’m inspired by the experiments of artists like Duchamp, Oldenburg, and Wirsum, all of whom were unlike anyone before them.

Art must have a particular effect. Old record stores used to have that–you’d walk in and the wall of album covers would either make you feel something or nothing at all. When making album covers, I want to create the one people will pick up first.

My paintings attempt to do the same; they try to draw attention or evoke a particular emotion. I hope they also end up feeling familiar. Good art often elicits the thought of, “Oh, I’ve already thought this, but never expressed it.” I’m not sure what that is.

In a number of your artworks, a mix of abstract-expressionist-inspired backdrops and kitschy elements such as glam rock stars, anthropomorphic watermelons, and pinup girls can be seen.

The combination of these two seemingly disparate aesthetics creates a captivating contrast where the mundane becomes remarkable and the extraordinary becomes commonplace.

The abstract expressionist paintings I work with have a powerful effect on me. By adding familiar, somewhat mundane elements on top of that, I’m driving the piece forward. It’s like a nearsighted effect, where things in the foreground are sharp but the background is fuzzy.

It’s like a shop window, with something up front and then something further back which can’t be seen. This is reminiscent of the plywood cutout signs I used to see in South Texas near the orange groves.

On the highway there would be these huge cartoon characters, like an 18-foot tall Porky Pig, to grab your attention as you drove by – they were a kind of folk art.

QUESTION: It appears that your upbringing has left a permanent mark on you. Your dad ran dime stores, so you were exposed to a plethora of inexpensive comic books and men’s magazines. Visuals from both these sources still have a strong presence in your artwork.

GP described the landscape he encountered as “exotic” – populated with a lot of third-rate animal comics which were nowhere near as entertaining as Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck.

He found the Fago Brothers’ art to be unsettling and morbidly fascinating, and felt that these types of men’s adventure magazines reveal a lot about humanity’s self-perception and the horrible, dark elements that still exist in the world.

QUESTION: The vibrancy and playfulness of your artworks, with the intense colors, patterns and lovable characters, is unambiguous.

Yet, at times, they can appear quite disturbing; particularly the pictures taken from men’s adventure magazines, depicting women escaping from brutish men in the desert, or heads cut off and impaled on bamboo poles.

In contrast, there can also be more innocuous characters such as a ’50s Japanese robot, or a girl in a bikini. The contrast between these figures, existing in the same landscape yet uninvolved with each other, is what causes a sense of unease.

GP expressed that the bright colors and infantile themes of his paintings make people uneasy, and they don’t often want to take them home.

He desires to make strange associations, so he is creating a painting with a red-headed magician kid, a donkey, cat-bat things, a French person injecting a cactus with a liquid, and a guy in a log cabin observing. He clarified that it is not a story, but it will get the viewer halfway there.

QUESTION: Why do you usually keep your characters in your paintings and comics separate, without them crossing over?

GP remarked that when they had experimented with combining painting and comic attributes, the result was an unappealing aesthetic. They thought that each medium should be explored independently, given the conventions attributed to each.

When you recognize characters, it allows you to become involved in the narrative that follows. In contrast, with painting, the aim is not to deceive a viewer into being part of the story.




In your recently released retrospective book, you have featured drawings of dinosaurs that you created when you were a young child, and you continue to paint them today. You have labeled this style of art as “overt infantilism”. What motivates you to continue to be inspired by the creativity of your childhood?

GP observed that his daughter’s individual personality was present from two weeks old, and over time, he could see how the media and culture had an influence on her and her generation.

He believes that artists are attempting to find out what people would be like without such external influences, as many of the things we desire and our very identities are often out of our control. It is nice to have a chance to get a glimpse of ourselves without these external forces.

QUESTION: Do you still accumulate wrappers of sweets, objects for practical jokes, and inexpensive playthings?

GP has an abundance of toys stored in around thirty to forty containers, so they no longer pick up items off the street like they once did. The source of the collection is rooted in their childhood where they were unable to take home all the cool toys in the dime store their father owned.

Now they are “buried” in the ten thousand toys they have and appreciate them for their colors, plastics, shapes and the memories they evoke. GP compares them to Hopi and Zuni Native American stone fetishes and Indian ceramic dogs with feathers.

Additionally, they recently visited Mexico and found Lucha wrestlers with holes in their chests due to miscasting or lack of rubber.

QUESTION: With a substantial body of work, it appears as if your creations and worldview are becoming more pertinent, rather than dated. The “Gary Panter Aesthetic” is recognizable in countless mediums, including fine art, design, illustration, fashion, and animation.

GP expressed that they believe they had had an impact due to their age. They mentioned that the influences that made their work what it is were accessible to anyone.

Furthermore, they listed some artists who had been like “kind uncles” to them, providing them with ways to open doors. These artists included Ed Roth, Forry Ackerman, Walt Disney, Walter Lance, Marcel Duchamp, and Claes Oldenburg.

Ultimately, GP would like to act as a cheerleader, supporting others in their endeavors.

Matt Groening and I used to be passionate about having an effect on the culture. Everything looked so bleak and chaotic, with people fighting against each other. The Simpsons ended up making an incredible impact on a large scale.

Recently, I told Matt that he is one of the most prominent voices of reason in the world. I wish I could have the same power in some other form, although for the moment I’m sticking to my craft of putting sticks together.

QUESTION: In the back of Jimbo ‘s Inferno, you have included a page labeled “33 Best-Loved Recordings” that features your top records along with a small drawing of the cover and a short review.

You are shortly releasing your third record. Music is a part of your creative process, yet I remember you saying you don’t think of yourself as a musician. What do you mean by that?

ANSWER: Labeling myself an artist is something I’m more at ease with. Although I possess a certain knack for music, I feel as though my outlook on it is restricted. Despite that, I still find it enjoyable.

It acts as a way for me to switch things up. When I’ve been focusing on painting or sketching for too long, it’s important to me to put on a record, switch the CD, or just have a silent moment.

That’s how I cope instead of smoking. Also, strumming a guitar provides a physicality that I require. The beat is like a form of self-soothing.

I had quite a bit of apprehension about music for a while due to the faith I had been brought up in, the Church of Christ, which only allowed a capella. Despite this, my parents still allowed me to play trumpet in the band and I was very skilled.

At one point, the band I was part of was asked to perform at an end-of-year banquet and my parents gave me their approval. We played tunes such as “Wipe Out” and “Louie, Louie” and then a girl began to dance.

Abruptly, my parents materialized from the side of the stage and forcibly removed me from the event.

What was the reaction of your parents when you first showed an enthusiasm for unconventional artists such as Ed Roth and Basil Wolverton?

My father was embarrassed by my Rat Fink shirts, yet he and the others still don’t get me.

QUESTION: Was that similar to donning a gruesome metal-style T-shirt back in the 1980s?

During the ’50s and ’60s, people who were considered odd were very noticeable. It wasn’t popular to be a member of the Church of Christ because telling people they’re going to hell isn’t something that would make them popular.

However, the speaker was never totally alone. As a teen, their parents’ garage was renowned for being a hippie dungeon, which the speaker worked on for four years and changed over the years, including paintings of Rat Finks and hot rods on the walls, a light fixture that cast peculiar light onto the walls, and even a light show.

They also used various objects to make assemblage sculptures and started carving on driftwood and painting a bass drum with white paisley patterns. Furthermore, friends and the speaker also created a giant hookah out of an old steamer trunk.

The speaker’s mother would come in and be surprised, and they even lay on a Persian carpet with their head clamped between two speakers listening to Jimi Hendrix in the dark. The speaker believes that if they had more lenient parents, they would not be the same person.

The Church of Christ was such a formative thing for them to rebel against and they don’t know who or what they’d be if it wasn’t there.

QUESTION: Do you currently have any beliefs related to religion?

ANSWER: Neither religious nor a fan of religion. I perceive it as an attempt to be confident in matters that are usually vague. Even though I don’t truly believe in a higher power, my superstitious side is still present.

I practice prayer, yet I’m not sure at whom I’m directing it, especially when I’m asking for more wealth.

As a young person, religion was a prominent part of my life. I preached on Wednesday nights, although I was not very good at it because I had difficulty remembering anything.

Nevertheless, I was an avid bible student and was sent to Ireland to carry out missionary work, even though I had no say in the matter as I was indoctrinated. Despite this, I still had my doubts and my insecurities about the faith, which made me anxious and gave me ulcers.

I was particularly intrigued by the old Dore bible, with its engravings of Ezekiel and the witches of Ensor. I found Adam and Eve, with their serpent and nakedness, and angels with fiery swords fascinating.

Furthermore, I had relatives who wrote their own interpretations and made pamphlets, which I found intriguing.

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