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June 15, 2008


CR Sunday Interview: Gary Panter

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Gary Panter may be the best and most successful cartoonist working in the medium right now that thinks of himself first as a painter. Panter as Painter is the main organizing principle of PictureBox Inc.'s new, slip-cased, shared-name tribute to one of the comics form's acknowledged masters -- and a first-rate designer and illustrator, besides. It's as beautifully photographed and designed as one might expect given the publisher and subject matter. There are component sections that all by themselves would have made exemplary publications.

The great bonus of Gary Panter is that because, as Panter acknowledges in the following interview, the book is designed to introduce people to his work. A slew of first-rate support material dissects and explains both Panter's work and his attitudes towards it. There's no book out there right now that's more important in terms of a must-add to any serious comics library. I love talking to Gary and this interview was no different. We played phone tag for a while before the following conversation took place. He sounded tired.

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TOM SPURGEON: Your publisher, Dan Nadel, suggested to me that you've been really busy promoting the book. What has that been like?

GARY PANTER: It's just been crazy. This book was a wish that I had since I was a little kid, basically, since I started looking at art books. It was beyond my wildest dreams. And now we have to go sell it. We're doing it by any number of ways. Making music, doing lectures, doing signings, throwing parties, opening Dairy Queens...

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SPURGEON: [laughs] How was Los Angeles? You just got back.

PANTER: It was really good. In Los Angeles I played a musical performance with my friend Devin Flynn, who does the Y'all So Stupid cartoon on the Superdeluxe web site. We have a CD coming out, Ecstatic Peace. I programmed an evening at the movies, a local movie theater. I programmed Satyricon [chuckles]. And they all had to sit through it. I've watched it a million times. And then I did a lecture and a signing at Starlight Books where Matt Groening introduced me, like having Walt Disney introduce you. Two Walt Disneys. Someone walked off with my glasses, which is where I was earlier this afternoon, getting them replaced. They were expensive glasses.

SPURGEON: Someone just walked off with your glasses?

PANTER: Yeah, I had them next to me on the table where I was signing. After the signing they were gone. They're like $500 glasses.

SPURGEON: Well, that sucks.

PANTER: Then what happened? Then we had a big party. Artforum had a big party for me at the Chateau Marmont, sponsored by Paul Reubens and Matt Groening and Mike Kelley, all like star power names. It was just a big party and a lot of my friends came. I don't know if anyone was there from Artforum or not. It's kind of a mystery. I think we entered into the realm of... once DAP picked up promotion of the book, suddenly I'm meeting art people I've only vaguely heard of. And if I've heard of them they must be giant because I don't know anything.

That's what I've been trying to get going all these years: my painting career. That's the point of this whole book. Painting. Maybe it will work.

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SPURGEON: You said an art book is something you always wanted to do. Were you inspired by art books growing up?

PANTER: My father's still a painter, you know. I lived in a tiny town. I was a nerd, so I hung out at the library looking at all the art books. I got into Picasso and all that stuff. My father ran a dime store so I was around comic books like any kid... at the barber shop... but it really wasn't until I saw Zap Comix in '69 that I started thinking about doing comics. I was already painting giant paintings by then. I studied painting in college and I've shown paintings every year, almost, since then. It's just been totally eclipsed by becoming a famous illustrator and cartoonist.

SPURGEON: Reading the book, there's a very comforting and reassuring tone to it. It's presented in a very matter-of-fact way that I imagine would be very appealing to a young artist. Were you cognizant of reaching that kind of audience with this book? Did you want to have a dialog of a certain kind with the potential reader?

PANTER: The book was really the creation of Helene [Silverman, the book's designer] and Dan. I just kind of watched it and moved things around for them. I didn't know how the book was going to turn out. My only wish was that the book really feature my paintings and that it not feature my illustration. To me the book looks really soothing in the front when you see all of those paintings, that's a somehow comprehensible color experience, and in the back it seems kind of like some closet opening and all this stuff falling out. Comics, puppets, light shows... all that kind of stuff. And then it's natural that sketchbooks would be their own thing, just 'cause it's its own activity. I just kind of wished for it and then watched what happened.

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SPURGEON: The suite of written material, how did that become a part of the book?

PANTER: The essays I think need to be in an art book because most people, any artist almost, if you see them in an art store you don't know who they are, maybe, and then if these other people you have heard of speak for them... that's definitely the front of the book.

The interview happened because Edwin Pouncey wanted to write a book on me a million years ago. My friend Norman Hathaway was always pushing us to do this book. So when it started, though it changed over time, Dan brought Edwin over for a couple of weeks and he interviewed me, about 20 hours worth. They went back and transcribed that, and then decided there wasn't enough stuff on the painting end because Edwin and I just started talking about stuff we like to talk about. For 20 hours.

Then Dan asked me a whole bunch more questions and it got edited into this monologue at the end, which is kind of foreign and strange to me. That's what they're like. They're normal, I think.

SPURGEON: At one point you suggest there's an imbalance between how you're known and how you'd like to be known. What kind of reaction to the people have that come to your painting through your comics and illustration work? Do they have a different reaction? Do they just not care about that aspect of your work? With a book like this, are you getting reactions from people that came at it expecting something a bit different?

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PANTER: There's been a few comic fans that are disappointed there's not more comics in it. My comics have been like a million times more accessible than this other stuff. I'm not worried about that. I think a lot of people do know I paint in the illustration community. It's in the fine art world they don't know I paint because I started a dialog elsewhere.

I have been showing for years and years. I was never affiliated with a giant gallery that could move into really selling paintings for a lot of money, which would be the objective. Gracie Mansion went out of business after I showed with her in the late '80s. That was a big gallery; she was great. This show I just had in New York, Clementine, they've also gone bankrupt just because of the hesitation of the market the last eight months. I have a really neat gallery in Dallas. I dropped out of Billy Shire's gallery in LA, because he wasn't selling my work, and I think he has too many people doing imagery in there. It's like all these weird relationships.

I can't make money from cartoons. Four thousand people read my comic books. I can't make money from comics. I sell my original for a lot of money when I sell my comics, but it's very finite. I think most art is really underpriced. Comic art. So it's good for people like us where if we get money we buy comic art.

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SPURGEON: So a book like this, what can that do for you? Does it help you establish relationships with galleries? Is it just bringing that aspect of your work to the attention of people who follow that art form?

PANTER: I think a book like this makes people happy; it's like a chance to go through an artist's drawers. If you care what's in there.

But, yeah: it's supposed to connect me up to people in the world that buy paintings that never heard of me before. If I could sell eight paintings a year at a decent price, I could afford to do comics. I can't afford to do comics. I just do little illustrations one after another, design tennis shoes or whatever, throw the money at the bills. That's why it takes another eight years for Jimbo to come out.

Maybe I'll never make a lot of money. I'm making a lot of money compared to most cartoonists, I think. It's just... New York's expensive. Everyplace else is expensive, I guess. Being adult is expensive. As you know, right?

SPURGEON: If I ever become one, I'll let you know.

PANTER: Any trip to the hospital can change everything.

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SPURGEON: There were a couple of statements you made in the course of that long essay that I found interesting. One was that you spoke about great art coming out of infantile obsessions.

PANTER: [laughs]

SPURGEON: I'm inclined to agree with you but I wonder about the difference between great art that comes out of infantile obsessions and most art that comes out of infantile obsessions. Bad art. Because certainly the latter is more prevalent.

PANTER: When I said that and when I read it later I thought, "That was a lame thing to try and get away with." [Spurgeon laughs] At the same time, say, like the Lowbrow art movement now. It deals with infantile obsessions. But I'm sorry, guys -- and this really might piss some people off -- there's not a lot of ideas there. You can line up the favorite toys you ever had, and draw pictures of them, and maybe it will be great art and maybe it will just be a picture of some neat-looking toys. I get excited about art that's beautiful and interesting to look at, but also opens up a new part of my head. So a lot of the art I'm interested in is infantile obsessions or basic obsessions; the thing that drives great artists, the ones that I get excited about -- and I get excited about a lot of artists. I just had the pleasure with Dan of going to meet Karl Wirsum and his wife up in Chicago. In some ways he's a guy you might say he's dealing with infantile obsessions. He's certainly almost regressed into almost a psychotic state -- or simulating a psychotic state in order to produce these beautiful statements.

Say Dan Flavin. A guy who lines up light fixtures in interesting ways. Where did that come from? Is it infantile obsessions? Is it an obsession? Is it just a well-composed picture? What? It makes me think a lot more than just one more Tiki and a fez.

SPURGEON: For someone who's not used to thinking about visual art in a sophisticated fashion, is there any way to get at exactly what you mean by there not being a lot of ideas there?

PANTER: It's kind of like if you read a comic book and it's like Carl Barks vs. Underdog. Underdog could be well-written or even well-executed. It's how you judge the art that you see and what gets you personally excited. The same things won't necessarily get us excited. To me, it's more exciting if I see that there's permission or something that reinforces an idea I had that I couldn't articulate. Or it actually takes my blinders off for a minute. That can happen in any medium, from poetry to short story writing to whatever.

Eduardo Paolozzi and Claes Oldenburg I think are examples of guys who took childish activity and then built it into an adult artistic practice. Eduardo Paolozzi, he's kind of the founder of English pop art almost. Along with JG Ballard, the writer, and Richard Hamilton. He was an Italian in England, and his father was interred in World War II when the Italians were arrested in England, and accidentally sunk on a ship. They had an ice cream store. He got interested in everything. He has this omnivorous appetite for all kinds of information. He ended up being a main sculptor in England, but also a collage artist and that's where the term pop came from, from one of his collages. He would cut everything together from National Geographics and comic books.

Anyway, he did these silk screen portfolios in the 1960s and 1970s that were kind of a huge fuel for pop. Warhol's the only one anyone thinks about anymore. He was really... he did beautiful stuff, but he was about branding, mostly. That's what people were trying to do, was just brand.

Gee, I'm just blabbing on and on. [laughter]

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SPURGEON: Is there a danger at this point in your career -- you talk about repetition a bit in the written material. Did looking at the work in the course of making a book out of it make you think of it differently? Is there a danger in following specific interests that you have in terms of getting too locked into something rather than seeing the art in a fresh way?

PANTER: I seem to make old guy comics now. I remember working for this animator back in the '70s: Tex Henson, who had been at Disney in the '30s. He was drawing these stupid comics that looked kind of like Spike and Tyke. Bulldogs and cats and stuff. And I thought, "Gee, what an idiot. I'm doing this advanced, Clockwork Orange-y stuff. I'm in the future, and he's back there with his stupid bulldogs." Now I'm drawing bulldogs and cats and squirrels. What is that? I can't be hip and fresh and young. I'm not that anymore. I try to be, so that's sort of what I can do. Making music puts me on an edge. In religion I couldn't do music; it was a stunted thing. A forbidden thing. In the last couple of years I've really tried to do that with my friend Devin. That's totally like skittering on ice. Pushing it. Everybody's not going to like this, but so what? I won't be as angry in the old folks home if I risk more.

SPURGEON: Is that a feeling you can only achieve by moving into a different art form? Is there blowback that has an effect on your painting or on your cartoons?

PANTER: I think it's the same in every area. Each area has different challenges. I'm trying to figure out what the next Jimbo book would be. How long it will take to do, will I live long enough to see it done. That kind of stuff. I can't make a bigger book. It doesn't make sense to me. I can't make Paradise bigger. That's stupid. The way I keep comic books is just in shoe boxes, with little comics in bags in there. Then I think about making genre comics in bags in a shoe box or something? Maybe doing a comic with different characters, different genre comics or something. I'm just trying to think fresh about it.

If I were to follow through, the logical thing to do with Jimbo in Paradise would be to make it a few inches bigger, make it even more mandalic, make it erotic, make it this and that. But I don't know that I want to get on that same treadmill.

SPURGEON: The new book is a real big, fancy slip-cased hardcover production. And yet some of your work has been in ragged formats, mini-comics and comic books distributed or even published by Marvel. You've been all over the place in terms of format. Do you make format choices specific to the project, or is there an overriding element to those choices?

PANTER: It's important to make something that's thrilling. A mini-comic, with the right color of paper, the right staples, the right distance apart, the right way to ink, and a little stack of them on your table, can just be totally thrilling. And so can an embroidered patch, right from a factory. Or a stupid plate like I draw on that's on my site. I'm just trying to stay excited.

I grew up -- not on a farm, but a little suburb in a little town. It was just boring, you know? "God, I'm just stuck here. What's out there?" So when the '60s happened, and it was in magazines, it was very exciting. "Oh my God, it's like, this water's rushing through. We're going to go with and see what happens." I always wanted to be one of those people or identify with that process of finding interesting stuff and passing it along and trying to suggest things to do. That's one thing that's fun to do, is to think of something like puppets. "Oooh, I hate puppets. They suck. They're stupid." [Spurgeon laughs] But you could do something neat with them. Contrary with them. And if you did the right thing, then you could like stimulate interest in that medium in a way.

It's for myself and it's for this audience. I like the idea of affecting others somehow.

SPURGEON: I guess the danger would be doing something that's contrary without anything to it.

PANTER: Yeah, that would be bad. [laughter] I did this mini-comic where this squirrel is obsessing about Henry Webb's balls. [Spurgeon laughs] Chris Ware wrote me and said that his wife, Marnie, had been chuckling about it at night. I felt like a giant success for the rest of my life. Someone really woke up again and had a chuckle. What could be better?

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SPURGEON: How do you feel about the attention that's paid to your comics work? Your inclusion in the Masters show, things like that... how do you react to that degree of recognition of something that might not even be what you'd most like to be known for?

PANTER: That was just really lucky. That was really... perhaps inappropriate. [laughs] It was fantastic. It was just a dream to be associated with these people that are a million times better than me. I think it's all good, you know? Just as a matter of economics, if I happen to make interesting paintings, and I can find people that will buy them for lots of money, then I can do a lot more crazy projects. I can build more sculptures and do all kinds of things. As it is, I can hit the bills every month, I've been doing that for 35 years, and then stealing time in the middle of the night to do this kind of stuff. Apply for grants, and I haven't got them yet. I have some kind of ambition to... at 57 I realize I'm not going to be around for a while, and what am I waiting for? If I really want to do something, I might as well get on with it.

This book, the fear at the beginning was "Oh my God, I won't have enough stuff to go into this book." One cool thing was finding out, "Oh, I've got too much stuff for this book." The book's just like a slice, and that's kind of exciting.

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SPURGEON: Is there any worry that a book like this can be seen as a tombstone? That it's a summing up?

PANTER: You could kill someone with it.

SPURGEON: That's true, and I have. [Panter laughs] Is there anything that's daunting about having this kind of summary statement out there?

PANTER: I could die right now and have a mission accomplished. I'm really a lot more ambitious than that. I'm thinking, "Man, if I can only live 15 more years and be productive, I can do another book's worth." I get encouraged a whole lot. A lot of encouragement. I could do more things.

SPURGEON: Here's kind of a weird question. I was preparing for this interview and someone was sitting over my shoulder and commented on a picture of you on my screen, saying you looked much too skinny and healthy to be a cartoonist.

PANTER: [laughs]

SPURGEON: It's not always a healthy lifestyle, being an artist. Is there anything you do that might help you make those 15 years?

PANTER: I have diverticulitis [laughs]. I can only eat half my food. If I eat all of my food, I have to go to hospital. Or not eat for a week. I've lost about 15 or 20 pounds since I got it a few years ago.

We live in a three-story house, so I go up and down the stairs a hundred times a day. I don't really exercise as such. I play guitar really hard for an hour a day. I masturbate a few times a day. [Spurgeon laughs] But that's not really aerobic.

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SPURGEON: I always wonder how artists avoid some of the pitfalls of the lifestyle.

PANTER: Cigarettes are horrible. I smoked cigarettes for years. That was like a vote every day for death. I've continued smoking pot for 35 years. I've got these allergies and things. I don't think pot's killing me. I had my lungs x-rayed. They looked fine. I do have asthma now from the stupid cats.

I think not being too heavy is probably a lot of it. I don't eat great food. I drink a lot of chocolate milk and my wife makes a real meal once a day. But I can't overeat. I used to.

SPURGEON: While I'm asking odd questions, you were really early on in your appreciation of Jack Kirby when he passed away. There's been this huge body of work in a similar vein since. I don't know if you follow that stuff, all the books and magazines, but do you feel there's anything that's under-appreciated or not yet appreciated about him?

PANTER: I think he's really appreciated. The comics world is one world, but I think that Kirby does escape into the wider world pretty often. I see articles about him a lot. He was appreciated in the comics world. Now he's even more directly imitated and stuff. I don't know if his heirs have as much money as they need to have. That would be nice.

I've loved Jack Kirby since my friend David Douglass turned me onto him in the fifth or sixth grade. I didn't get it at first but then -- by the second bologna sandwich [laughs] -- I figured out what was so great. When that '70s stuff happened, the DC stuff, most of me and my friends have all that stuff. It's not worth anything because we all bought it, but it's worth it for those socko covers every month, the spreads.

I accidentally drove to Thousand Oaks when I was in LA. I took a wrong turn. You get out there in Thousand Oaks and it's the landscape from his comics. Blistered, planet-wracked mountains out there. It's really interesting if you go to Thousand Oaks.

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SPURGEON: What about the landscapes in your own work?

PANTER: It's really important for a lot of reasons.

SPURGEON: Is it a Texas landscape we're seeing?

PANTER: Texas, Mexico, the southwest... alien planets. Kind of a figure grounding thing. First I paint the background and then I put the figures in front of it. Whatever they are. Even if they're bricks or fragments. Usually they're fragments of characters and objects. Ed Ruscha did some wide, narrow paintings that I love back in the '70s. That kind of got me going in that direction. Painting really wide, narrow paintings. It's like a landscape.

There's something I'm trying to think of that I can't think of. I know this is going to make no sense. Robert Storr, the guy who wrote the interview at the front of the book: he's a powerful art world figure. He's always been really nice to me. His paintings -- I haven't seen them, but I've talked to him about them over the years. They're very formal. He's probably just painting rectangles and squares or something. Probably very beautiful. He saw my work as jumping all over the place and never settling down. He asked me what held it together. I hemmed and hawed, but when he left I thought about it. What I came up with -- this is really stupid -- when I start painting I think of where's the water. You don't necessarily see the water, but that's the first thing I think about. You already have air, or you'd be dead. You have a while to find water. In the paintings, that's what I think about. That's the first moment, anyway.

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SPURGEON: I'm near the end of my time with you -- so what's next? You mentioned you were trying to figure out the next Jimbo, which means that's a ways off. What are you working on right now?

PANTER: I've been doing a lot of formal paintings. I think when people have seen my paintings in shows over the years, they've been like, "Oh. Cartoony paintings." People have been encouraging me to do more oddball installations -- the kind of things I do here in my studio. I've done a couple of those now. One's up at the Aldrich Museum, and one was at the Clementine which you can still see on-line. I did weirder installations. People seemed to really respond to them. They're encouraging me to say, "Okay, I'm not going to be totally austere here." Do something a little crazier.

I'm following up a lot of leads now, applying for grants and stuff. I'd like to stage some events, and maybe they would involve publications and chocolate milk dispensers and puppet shows and live bands and light shows. Some kind of happening or something. I don't know. I'll draw a picture first.

*****

* cover to the deluxe edition
* various images of Panter paintings
* image of the new Picturebox, Inc. book

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* Gary Panter, Picturebox Inc., slip-cased hardcover, 700 pages, 9780979415319 (ISBN13), April 2008, $95.

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