Interview with Gary Panter | By Jill Conner

Untitled (Two Girls with Guns), 1996

In 2008 Gary Panter returned alternative comics back to the mainstream with “Daydream Trap,” at the Aldrich Museum, “Pictures from the Psychedelic Swamp, 1972-2001,” at the Clementine Gallery, along with a 2-volume catalogue raisonne covering his work from the early 1970s and “Cola Madnes,” that features the ongoing adventures of Jimbo. With “Dal Tokyo,” set to come out in October 2009, Panter continues to mesmerize fans and viewers with a facet of visual culture’s underground that has thrived within America since the early 20th-Century.
In the 1950s, the American government conflated the popularity of comics with the rise of Communism and even blamed these mass-published strips for contributing to the corruption of youth culture. The Comic Magazine Association of America (CMAA) formed to create a new set of standards, known as the Comic Code, which set out to delimit every artist who worked in the industry, taking away creative freedom in favor of publishing structured plot lines.

Even though Panter came of age in Oklahoma after these stringent rules were set in place, he began a prolific career in the 1960s that embraced everything that the CMAA was against. His career eventually peaked in the 1980s when he created Emmy award-winning set designs for the television program, “Pee Wee’s Playhouse,” that ran from 1986 to 1991. However most recently Panter has shown himself as an artist who continues to work in an array of media such as paint, printmaking, light and music.

Jill Conner: As a youth of the 1950s, when did you first become aware of the Comics Code?
Gary Panter:
I think from references to it in Mad magazine.

JC: The Code was created by the Comics Magazine Association of America out of the assumption that comics from the early half of the 20th- century were corrupting the young generation. Based upon your own experience, how accurate is that assumption?

I remember being really startled and frightened and attracted to weird pre-code horror comic covers. But I don't think that it hurt me, or anyone who was not already disturbed. My daughter reads EC horror comics and I don't think that it is hurting her.

JC: What impact did these political decisions have upon your work?

Comics got cuter. My work incorporated scary and cute comic imagery.

JC: Did you create a particular response to the long list of rules that comic artists were expected to follow?


JC: Your comic career took off just as the punk rock counter-culture started to boom in Los Angeles, California. Did you do any painting there before moving to New York City?

I have been painting big paintings since the late 60s and continue to steadily make paintings. I showed paintings at many alternate spaces in Los Angeles from 1976 until 1985 when I moved to New York. I did a lot of album covers for musicians such as Frank Zappa, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Residents, Chaka Khan, as well as magazine illustrations for Rolling Stone and Time in order to survive and started working with Paul Reubens on his Pee Wee Herman stage and TV projects.

I started getting my comic narrative work in Wet and Slash magazines on a regular basis starting about 1976. While I still lived in Los Angeles, Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly started RAW magazine in New York and they began to publish my cartoons in the early 80s. Also in the early 80s I started going to Japan and doing lectures and painting shows. I still paint and make comics and also do illustration, mural commissions and design.
Traffic, 2004

JC: When did you come to New York City and what was the underground comic scene like at that time?

RAW magazine was going strong and there were a lot of experimental comics being done as part of the Lower East Side art scene. Many cities have their own community of cartoonists. At that time in New York, Art and Francoise, Mark Beyer, Charles Burns, Mark Newgarden, Kaz, John Holstrom, Ron Hauge, Mark Marek, David Sanlin and a lot of other artists were making very interesting graphic experiments.

JC: Did you move to New York City with the hopes of becoming an artist for one of the larger comic conglomerates, or was it more for an individual art career?

Comics is something I love to do, but it is one of several personal art activities. I do painting, printmaking, light shows and drawings in sketchbooks. It's another art activity. I have no interest in being part of mainstream comics. My cartoon work is experimental and does not fit into the mainstream comic world. In 1987 I was picked up by the Gracie Mansion Gallery and showed with her until it closed. I have shown with Sandra Gering and most recently Clementine Gallery in Chelsea.

JC: Which comic have you collaborated on with Jonathan Lethem?

Omega the Unknown. Jonathan is a friend and I like his work a lot. That was probably the only time I will do a mainstream comic, because he had asked me to contribute to his series. So it is a novel thing for me.

JC: Your father, as I understand it, was an artist. What kind of work did he make? How did you find yourself responding to it?

My father is 80 years old and lives in Texas with my mom. He paints very imaginative Cowboy and Indian paintings and has all my life. I love his work. There is nothing like it. He ran a dime store when I was a kid and they had comic books.

But what really got me drawing comics was the super experimental Hippie comics of the 60s like ZAP comics by R. Crumb and Robert Williams and other young rebel artists.

JC: Given your shows at Clementine Gallery and the Aldrich Museum, do you think that underground comics has finally arrived? Or will it soon become a victim of conspicuous consumption?

There is a growing number of adults reading comics in the US and new generations of cartoonists writing for them and making comics of a high literary character. One welcome happening in the narrative graphic art world is the number if women who are making personal and literary comics, which was not the case 20 years ago.

JC: Who could you say has been a strong inspiration for your work?

Eduardo Paolozzi, David Hockney. Oyvind Falstrom, Jim Nutt, Karl Wirsum, Cal Schenkel, Jean Dubuffet. Peter Saul. H. C Westerman. Bruce Nauman, Ed Ruscha.

JC: The Aldrich Museum exhibited your work in 3 parts: sketchbooks, paintings and music. How does your music connect to the visually rich side your art?

My music is collaged a lot like my visual work is made.
Where Was the Airforce? 2001

JC: When I saw some of your drawings at the now-defunct Black Cat Gallery, I only saw a vague connection between the content seen in “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse,” and that seen in your prints. Do you feel that the design of the stage sets diverged dramatically from your own, personal style?

I was not trying to make Pee Wee's playhouse look like my work. It was a fantasy bachelor pad for a super nerd. We put lots of pop art and painting references in the set.

JC: You’ve mentioned growing up in a missionary environment, led by the Church of Christ, which you later pulled yourself out of. Did this shift away contribute to the tense, erratic line that surfaced in your comics?

It took a long time to think my way out of the church, and I was stronger for it. Yes, it did contribute to the tension and apocalyptic aspect of my art.

JC: Is the Comics Code still as strong as it used to be? Graphic novels are now widely available and do not seem to be connected to a stringent set of stipulations.

Mainstream comics, which I don't see very often, tend to seem perverse and cruel to me, so maybe the CMAA is not enforcing anything any more.

JC: Do you think that comics are getting a renewed interest through the revival of street art? Supposedly the deregulation of internet communication has helped open things up more.

I don't know, but I suspect current comic making and reading are a reaction to exclusive digital action, and related to all sorts of making art by hand activities going on. Of course a lot of comics are completely digital and are still then related to the move toward producer over the exclusive consumer.