LET'S GET LOST Gary Panter

 

The
underground artist’s influence on punk and beyond is the stuff of legend.

 

BY A.D. AMOROSI

 

 

RAW and Slash magazine. Album covers for The
Residents, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Frank Zappa. Pee Wee’s Playhouse and its lurid wild design aesthetic. The
playful experimental look of Riddim mag’s “Dal Tokyo” and the famed Jimbo character – a bruiser if ever there was.

 

These are but a few of the things
painter/illustrator/musician Gary Panter is best known for – the scratchy
lines, grotesque expressionism, purposely scuffed images and violent colors
(lots of pen and black ink) that made him paramount to the comix world since
his big start in the punk ‘70s. He was crucial to the form in a way no one
since R. Crumb had been. All that, and he’s only just received the accolade of
a mammoth monograph/career collection of paintings, illustrations, pencil
drawings and new softer works, courtesy Picturebox Inc, Publishing (2 volumes,
688 pages, $95) as well as entering the digital age courtesy his collaboration
with Steve Niles for the Zune Arts graphic novel The Lost Ones. I found Panter en route to his home in Texas.

 

***

 

When people think of
your inspirations they think of the roughness of Jack Kirby and R. Crumb. But I
feel Klee in your art, Egon Schiele too. Where did the first Expressionists fit
into your work?

 

It’s true that my interest in Kirby has been emphasized.
You’re correct that especially Paul Klee and other artists are at least as
important to my sensibilities: Picasso, Kandinsky, Posada, Arthur Dove, Francis
Bacon, Peter Saul, Jasper Johns, Oldenburg,
Nauman, Flavin. I started looking at art in magazines and in the library in
about 1961. I was a sponge for modern art and primitive art and the odd corners
of English and Chicago pop art too.

 

 

 It’s funny. Seeing so much of your painting and sketch work in the
monograph erases – maybe “blinds” is a better word – the viewer to your more
well-known work: the Jimbos, the Pee Wees. Was that intentional? Do you desire
to move your audience away from what you made famous?

 

I’ve painted all my life, went to art school, studied
painting and printmaking. I never expected that my comic experiments or
illustration work would define me, so it has been fun to get all these
paintings in front of people in the monograph. Even an obscure comic book or
magazine illustration is seen by more people than see my paintings in painting
shows. A TV show like Pee Wee eclipses all. But still I make paintings and other kinds of personal art.
Commercial art is not as quite as much fun as personal art to me.

 

 

What still draws you
to the comix world- the fantastic stuff in Riddim for instance? What side of you do you feel that world inhabits as opposed to
the painterly?

 

“Dal Tokyo” and Riddim is a long term home for my experimental comic ideas. Thanks for liking it. Mr.
Ishii encourages me to do what I want and doesn’t try to control it. I can be
as literal or as abstruse as I please. It’s a comic strip that operates more
like painting did in the 20th Century than comics do today. My paintings are
usually preceded by a drawing and my paintings have cartoony outlined elements.
Comics are trying to tell stories. Paintings are frozen situations of some
sort. I do all kinds of drawings. Some want to be paintings, some want to be
cartoons, some just want to be drawings.

 

 

Though you weren’t
mentioned in the film, no sooner than the name Slash magazine came up in What
We Do is Secret
I thought of you. I don’t know how long it had been since
you left Texas and started doing stuff on the west coast, but what was it like
jumping into the fire of the ragazine world? The music world? Was there any
particular jump, rightly or wrongly, in doing record covers for Zappa to
sketching gnarly stuff for Slash?
Were the punks less than pleased with your Zappa past?

 

I moved to LA from Dallas
in 1976. I showed my portfolio everywhere and quickly got hired to do album
covers and magazine illustrations. In 1977 the first generation of LA punks had
practically all been to art school or were runaways. There was not a lot of
lock step action. People were coming from all over the place. Experimenting
weirdo kids, smart kids, reject fat kids, ugly kids. Many of us had Eno, Roxie
Music, Sparks
and Zappa and the Velvet Underground in common. When I saw Slash in Gower Gulch in 1977, I suspected that I might have found a
place for the cartoon experiments I’d been doing since 1968. Almost everyone on
the LA punk scene was fun and nice. Even Darby Crash, as long as you didn’t get
in his or his friends’ way on the dance floor, near the front of the stage,
later called a mosh pit. I have always been surprised that punks like Jimbo.
I’m glad they do, when they do.

 

 

 What made you want to bring elements of the light show to your art?
That’s so Fillmore East.

 

I got to be a hippie and a punk record buyer. I love
psychedelic music, posters and light shows. But I only saw light shows in
magazines in the ‘60s, except from a million miles in the back when Hendrix and
the Soft Machine played Dallas.
Hippie light show ideas came out of art world experiments. There were a few
punk light shows. Punks couldn’t be hippies, because the disappointments of
hippie culture [were] too fresh, so they were disaffected questing youth in
punk uniforms instead of hippie uniforms. Light shows are like painting with
light to interpret music: an effervescent medium, like live music.

 

 

 How did you happen onto the work of Steve Niles and how is it you two
decided to collaborate? What were the parameters set by his stories?

 

I only know Steve’s work from this project. I’m pretty
ignorant about mainstream comics, movies and even straight-edge punk rock. What
I did for it is similar to the Marvel comic I did for Jonathan Lethem’s Omega. Simple. Not as slick as
mainstream comics. The script was better told, with a straightforward style.
Inked with brush; little cross-hatching or patterning; flat colors.

 

 

The idea of doing
this massive monograph feels like an endgame of sorts. After doing this now “professionally”
for 30+ years, is there a restless want to change something up radically within
your work, your delivery system or aesthetic?

 

If this book is the only nine pound art book I get, well
that’s a lot. I know a lot of fantastic artists and it is hard to get a giant
art book for the deserving artists of the world – I very am lucky. But if I’m alive
and unleashed for a few more decades, I will make more surprising art and maybe
art books, too. I have a mountain of ideas to test out.

 

***

 

 

Niles Smiles: Panter collaborator Steve Niles
weighs in.

 

 

Four friends living the X-treme sporting life of leaping
from planet to planet goes terribly wrong. Aliens want to kill them. Their
worlds are exploding. Dinner is getting cold. If that sounds thrilling, welcome
to the work of Steve Niles – the author of such dark, wry celebrated fare as 30 Days of Night. Now the horror-core
heroic Niles
has unleashed his newest graphic novel, The
Lost Ones
, onto Microsoft’s Zune Arts’ digital division with the help of
the likes of graffiti artist Dr. Revolt, design mystics Kime Buzzelli and
Morning Breath – and Gary Panter.

 

 

How was working with
Panter different from anything else you’ve done? I don’t associate him with
horror narrative.

 

Working with Gary
was a bit intimidating to be honest. He’s a legend and I sort of froze when I
heard we’d be working together. That’s what I love about this project. I mean,
what were the chances Panter and I would ever work together? Pretty unlikely.
Thanks to The Lost Ones, what Gary came up with looks
amazing.

 

 

How did it work? You
guys speak. They do their thing. You send story/sketches… What was the process?

I worked up the stories working closely with Roger Gastman, and then the
artists took them and ran. Dr. Revolt was the first to have a go at the
characters so he set the template that the other artists would take and run
with. When I first started writing I didn’t know who the artists would be. That
kind of helped me get started and then once the artists came on I went into
high gear and started having a lot of fun. That’s the main thing I hope people
take from The Lost Ones. I hope they
see and feel the amount of fun that went into creating the book.

 

 

As a kid were you
equally addicted to horror magazines – Famous Monsters – as you were
comix?  Did you dig the whole Eerie/Creepy
stable of illustrated mags?

I was hooked on Creepy, Eerie, Batman and The Hulk. Those four comic titles
had more of an effect on me than anything else. I also loved Famous Monsters, but I was one of those
kids who grew up and started cutting up my FM‘s
to make flyers for my band. I destroyed my FM collection, but our band had the coolest flyers in town.

 

 

What interested you
in Zune to begin with? How does Zune change the game for graphic interplay and
graphic comic commerce too?

 

What interested me in the Zune project: The Lost Ones was the freedom I was being offered and at the exact
same time, the very different parameters and direction. There aren’t many
projects on my plate where Sharing, Caring, and Creativity are the main points
to be stressed. Usually it’s Murder, Monsters, and Mayhem. And I won’t lie, The Lost Ones offered me a chance to hit
a wider and very different audience for me and I just couldn’t resist the
challenge.

 

 

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