GARY PANTER with Genevieve Castree and Tony Millionaire reading at the Harbourfont Centre Theatre (235 Queens Quay West), Wednesday (May 25), 7:30 pm. $8. 416-973-4000, 416-533-9168.
GARY PANTER at The Beguiling (601 Markham) as part of the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, Saturday (May 28), noon to 2 pm. Free. 416-533-9168
New York City - deep in south Brooklyn, amidst oak trees and old houses, the king of punk comic books, Gary Panter, greets me at his front door in his slippers. The soft-spoken artist lives here with his wife, teenage daughter and some cats. He's not sure how many cats.
"There're four cats inside and maybe about five regulars in the backyard."
It's all pleasant, nothing manic.
Not that I expected to find a burned-out block of condemned buildings squatted by unpredictable Tourettes-afflicted anarchists, but this is, after all, the creator of the dystopian nightmare Jimbo comics. A little chaos wouldn't be out of order.
Relaxed on a sunny Friday afternoon, Panter sports a grey T-shirt and soul patch and has a slight Texas drawl. He laughs when I inquire about his former punk aesthetic.
"I never had a great punk haircut. The best punk haircut I ever had was in 1973 after my bad acid trip when a friend chopped all my hair off."
Credited with creating the scrappy graphic style associated with the L.A. punk scene in the 1970s and early 80s, Panter first made a name for himself with his Jimbo strip, which ran in the legendary music rag Slash before being picked up by Art Spiegelman for RAW magazine and critical acclaim.
Those early L.A. days, documented in the film The Decline Of Western Civilization, proved staggeringly influential for a lot of people. Panter remembers sharing hamburgers and listening to the Beastie Boys' Cookie Puss EP with Matt Groening when they were both broke, having Darby Crash and Pat Smear from the Germs over (Smear would go on to play guitar for Nirvana) and doing graffiti by the river with fellow punk artist George DiCaprio, father of Leonardo.
It was also then that Panter met Paul Reubens, who later fought for him to be the lead designer on the cult favourite kids' show Pee-wee's Playhouse. Panter's designs won three Emmy Awards and have been copied to death by every sugar-shilling kids' commercial.
Not bad for a kid from the Bible-believing farmlands of Silver Springs, Texas.
While Pee-wee fans know him for his colour-soaked Playhouse, rife with objects that refuse to be inanimate, Panter's most diehard fans praise him first for his Jimbo strip. Last year saw the release of his book Jimbo In Purgatory, an ambitious graphic reinterpretation of Dante's classic. Panter is in T.O. Wednesday (May 25) to promote his latest book, Satiro-Plastic, at the Harbourfront Reading Series, along with fellow cartoonist Tony Millionaire.
The reading series' unusual focus on comic book artists coincides with the Toronto Comic Arts Festival (see sidebar, this page). First mounted in 2003, this year's TCAF runs May 27 to 29 in large pavilions behind Honest Ed's, and Panter is scheduled to stick around for most of it.
Upstairs in his third-floor studio, we're surrounded by art supplies and works-in-progress. Panter kindly offers me his work chair and goes to get us something to drink.
I look around. There's an illustrated edition of Lewis Carroll's Alice In Wonderland, a shiny black sculpture that hovers between abstract and monstrous and an unfinished instalment of Dal Tokyo, a regular strip he draws for an underground Japanese reggae magazine.
He returns with a glass of Coke (for the caffeine - he doesn't drink coffee) and shows me a small blue sketchbook, similar to the one that Satiro-Plastic was copied from.
A rare glimpse of Panter drawing what he sees as opposed to what he imagines, Satiro-Plastic is a 1:1-scale facsimile of one of the small sketchbooks he invariably has on the go. The first in a series of sketchbooks drawn between 1999 and 2001, this one messily captures a holiday in Mexico, visits with friends and the events of September 11, 2001. They collect his thoughts as a kind of visual diary in no particular order.
Unconsciously playing with a piece of clay, Panter explains, "I write in various little journals, but mostly I'm thinking my thoughts while drawing pictures. If you look through the books, you'll see the same obsessions come up over and over."
The experience of sketching 9/11 as it happened, from the roof of his old Williamsburg studio, became a particular obsession that understandably carried on through a number of sketchbooks.
He moulds the clay inside his fist. "I felt like my brain was being reformed, and I was actually crying and screaming and falling down while I was drawing those drawings. So it's not like it was just some interesting scene. As a paranoid, imaginative person, I could pretty much imagine what was happening in the buildings, and that was pretty awful, and then just the horrible feeling of 'How could they let this happen?'"
While his sketchbooks are being released, Panter continues to pursue other creative endeavours, including The Custom Drawing Project. For $150, anyone can commission him to do an original work of art. Fans send in one to three choice words and Panter free associates those into a drawing, which he sends back.
Beyond drawing, Panter collaborates with Joshua White on live light shows. Running around refracting powerful lights onto a screen, the duo often perform with live bands like Plate Tektonics and Yo La Tengo, and easily sell out shows.
He's also revived his roots as a trained painter. His cartoon-like paintings hang in a Dallas gallery, revealing the ease with which he swings between the poles of high and low culture.
"I think people confuse highbrow and lowbrow, and I think they commingle in some ways. But messages that are interesting to me are interesting whether they come from Art Forum or the toilet."
The notion is consonant with the newfound respect for comics and their re-branding as graphic novels.
Arguably his greatest feat to date, however, is the dauntingly good Jimbo In Purgatory, which mashes together high literature and pulp schlock. Inside the big red book, over 900 panels are bordered by designs of finger-numbing detail. More than a narrative collection of frames, every page can be seen as a stand-alone work of art.
Using Dante's tale as a guide, Panter incorporates the work of another Italian poet, Boccaccio's saucy Decameron, as commentary, along with that of Chaucer, Shakespeare and many others. Mount Purgatory morphs into a world of "infotainment" from which pop icons like Alice Cooper and the floating head of Yul Brynner must escape by quoting from literature to earn a degree in English, the equivalent of admittance to paradise.
"My premise is that Boccaccio was reinterpreting Dante. Any Boccaccio or Dante scholar will say that's ridiculous, and maybe it is, but it was great premise for me to work with."
The interest in classics stems in part from Panter's ongoing project of "getting over religion" and his fundamentalist Christian Texas childhood.
"Dante's a really great metaphor maker, and you really feel like it's about ideas. The religion I was raised in was all about literalness - the world really was made in seven days and stuff. But if it's about ideas, then it's a lot more interesting and helpful, personally."
Under the wild imagery, he lets his ideas drive his work, exploring themes like "the individual versus the state, or organizations that are trying to protect the individual from himself."
Here his punk roots really show and still seem fresh.
"I'm interested in the power that the individual can have in relation to the world. We talk about the individual all the time, but the world really does try to shut you down and stop you and make you into a sheep. But when someone makes a good sprawl on a wall, I'm fascinated by that."