Gary Panter

Gary Panter talks about his life and art

Page detail from Gary Panter’s Jimbo: Adventures in Paradise, 1988 (New York Review Comics, 2021).

It’s hard to overstate the importance of Gary Panter to the art world and to popular culture; he has consistently forged art based on their imbrication and crossover. Oklahoma-born and Texas-raised, Panter helped pioneer punk culture through his band flyers and his comics and design for the fanzine Slash, which debuted his famous everyman character Jimbo. His visceral, so-called ratty line changed how people understood the role of the mark in comics. Panter won three Emmys for his set design on the television show Pee-wee’s Playhouse (whose charm was defined by Panter’s mashup aesthetic), all while continually exhibiting his paintings and drawings in museum and gallery settings. This past month marks the publication of two Panter books: Jimbo: Adventures in Paradise, a 1988 collection of strips reissued by New York Review Comics, and Crashpad, an oversize hardcover luxuriously produced by Fantagraphics, which contains, inside, a smaller floppy-comic-book version of itself.

COMICS WERE IN MY LIFE in some way since childhood, but I really became excited by hippie comics in the late ’60s. I got into modern art when I was in my adolescence, and so art school was my ambition. I majored in painting and took printmaking and advertising and sculpture classes. I started trying to do comic experiments, and Jimbo emerged in my sketchbooks along with other ideas about art and comics and story and formal approaches to the use of imagery. 

I was admiring the look of woodcuts and primitive rock-art markings, and my Rapidographs kept jamming so that I was making a sewn-looking line, and that looked like something to me. The zigzagging slowed down the making of the line so I could think about where it was going. It looked a little like a degraded print. In ’72 and ’73, I really explored that line and retained that idea.

I started showing my work as soon as I could, but it was strange and cartoony, and nobody responded in Dallas. After college, I formed the performance art group APEWEEK with Ric Heitzman and Jay Cotton, and we performed in galleries and on public-access radio and had a show at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston.

When I left Texas and moved to LA in ’76, I started chasing commercial art. I drew some things for Leonard Koren’s WET magazine, and Billy Shire at the Soap Plant store hired me to design T-shirts. The next year, punk broke, and I started seeing flyers on poles, but really, seeing Slash on a newsstand was the breakthrough. I didn’t know if they were nice people or not, but, graphically, it fit with what I was doing, so I got in touch. Jimbo first appeared in Slash. I had done prototype Jimbo comics, but none were published.

Punk rock bloomed in LA. I didn’t know what it was politically, but I quickly saw that the scene was artists, runaways, and reject smart kids. There were tons of punk shows. I threw buckets of paint at my car and drove it around for a couple of years like that. Matt Groening, Lynda Barry, Byron Werner, and I all started independently making photocopy and quick-print comics. I put mine in dress shops, punk stores, and art bookstores. Not many sold, but they were visible.

Gary Panter, Crashpad cover and interior (Fantagraphics, 2021).

I was also showing paintings in alternative spaces, like [Slash publisher] Steve Samiof’s gallery, SHOFA. I showed at Richard Duardo’s gallery. Got involved with the Pee-wee stage shows. Drew lots of comics at night. Finally got unhappy enough to leave LA and move to New York in ’86. I did a lot of illustration, and then the Pee-wee TV show happened. John Carlin was writing an art column for Paper and promoted my paintings and finally got me into Gracie Mansion Gallery. But I was late to the New York art explosion and seen as a newcomer, I think. Many inspirations for painting: the Hairy Who, Peter Saul, Eduardo Paolozzi, Rosenquist, Kitaj, the English pop artists, the American Pop and proto-Pop artists like Richard Lindner, poster artists like Tadanoori Yokoo, Heinz Edelman, and many more. I am a fan of more painters than cartoonists. Illustrators who seemed to be doing art like Bob Zoell and Barbara Nessim were important to me and are friends. My crafts, music, and installations are related to painting ideas.

Jimbo: Adventures in Paradise was me finding my way as a young person, finally able to participate in a culture. In that book, I was using a whole lot of styles to suggest the range of what comics might be, putting style at the service of ideas rather than the opposite. Drawing is the most immediate thing I can do to get my ideas out. It’s a kind of center. All my comics take place on Mars in a Texan-and-Japanese settlement a few hundred years old. I guess that is the unifying thing, that premise. I like Jimbo. He is not tough or so muscled. I care for all my characters. I don’t like bad things to happen to them. But they get into sticky situations.

Comics typically try to hypnotize you, as prose and other forms do, into believing the story for a moment. Experimental comics take those conventions apart and reveal them formally. I do both. Crashpad is a meditation on the optimism of the cultural explosion of the ’60s, in which things were tried out by idealistic kids, and some of the things worked and were worthy of developing, and some of the things were failures or problematic to different degrees. I wanted to do a comic book in the form that comics took in the early ’70s, but people don’t really make comics like that anymore. The market for these art comic books is a fetish market, so making a fancy book with a lowly book inside was a way to address that time period and those topics that got traction in the ’60s and early ’70s. I list them on the first inside page of the little Crashpad comic—sexual equality, gender choices, casual attire, crafts, organic farming, soil enrichment instead of depletion, ecological concerns, feeding communities, experimental music and art, the value of artistic expression. The hippie movement believed in a type of futurism (not the turn-of-the-twentieth-century kind), and so did punk. They are both youth movements. One bearing flowers. One bearing a dustbin.