Gary Panter is one of five or ten individuals who can reasonably be referred to as the Greatest Living Cartoonist. For me personally he’s it, full stop: off by himself in a place of formal innovation and artistic mastery that only his late hero Jack Kirby has had firsthand knowledge of. Call it The Land Unknown, after the title of his new collection of comics and paintings — an assemblage of virtuoso work culled mainly from a recent show at Galerie Martel in Paris, luminous with a vision of comics that simply lies beyond other artists’ reach.
Panter’s artistic accomplishments are too many to fit conveniently in anything short of a biography (tell the curious uninitiated he designed “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” for a swoon), but they all cram rather nicely into the top-floor studio of his towering house in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn. It’s hot as hell up there in summer, and walking into it is like leaving this dimension. Eye-poppingly psychedelic paints blare from jars jumbled on a long counter, an original Jesse Marsh Tarzan drawing hangs at a crazy angle halfway down the wall, cardboard-and-tinfoil scale models of architectural visions too raw for this world stack up on a file cabinet, and a massive canvas perhaps most accurately described as “22nd-century Mondrian” looms over everything. On a table in the middle are the comics, the eye of the hurricane. Black and white, rich with ink, they are everything one could imagine Gary Panter originals to be — overwhelming, both blisteringly raw and pinpoint precise — beautiful.
The pages that were out when I came to visit were from the latest installment of Panter’s decades-long Jimbo saga, and they had it all. Panter’s work combines mind bending treatments of visual concepts both familiar and entirely foreign with near-infinite strings of Joycean dialogue, a gloriously dizzying “ratty line” that brought brutalist markmaking to comics once and for all, and a clarity of focus given only to those who can see the world beyond as well as they see this one. Printed, his pages carry a sense of grand dramatic scale that seems as appropriate for chapel ceilings as Xeroxed minicomics. In person, half-inked at full size, they recall creations like the Colossus of Rhodes or the H-bomb. They’re humbling.
That being said, their creator is humble in the extreme. The living legend answered his door in socks and a t-shirt, full of quiet warmth, reserved and energetic in equal measure. Panter carries the aura of a man who has found his center, as calm and enthusiastic in discussing his influence on the comics medium or his fear of mortality as Jim Steranko’s storytelling tricks and Magnus, Robot Fighter back issues. Perfectly comfortable with his status as the Jackson Pollock of comics, Panter remains first and foremost a working artist, fully engaged with his many mediums of expression and visibly excited to tackle his next project, whether that happens to be the new, Batman Annual-inspired Jimbo book or a talk about his unparalleled career with someone who’s only been alive for half of it.
Gary Panter is the kind of artistic genius who only comes around once in a generation, but even in a sweltering studio full to bursting with his masterpieces, I was most impressed by his genuine kindness, his easy, often-self-deprecating wisdom, and his great eloquence. Nobody’s been around quite the same block as Panter has, so it stands to reason that nobody can tell it like he does.
[Panter currently has a one-man exhibition in New York at Fredericks and Freiser through November 5, 2011.]
MATT SENECA: All right… we’re here at Gary’s house… and we’re going to talk about his new book The Land Unknown, as well as some other things, hopefully. So I guess the first question is how did this book come about?
GARY PANTER: Stéphane Blanquet. I knew him just by mail for many years, and he’s wanted to do a book with me for a lot of years. And so then when I had a show at Galerie Martel, that was the excuse to actually do it. The event would make me do it; the real work was just sending a lot of files. And then Dan [Nadel] ended up sending most of the files. Blanquet wanted more and more and more; that’s why it’s this kind of book. I would always have settled for a lot less, but his obsession with the French bookmaking thing really worked to the advantage of the project.
SENECA: Talking about always less — I was going to ask, given that you put out all your comics in minicomics these days, do you prefer a smaller minicomic thing or a big book like this?
PANTER: Well, mostly the comics are headed toward these fancy hardbound versions of whatever it is. On the way, since these things take years to draw, I do minicomics. And it actually ended up giving me a simple strategy for going forward, which is doing eight-page chapters, with each chapter being a minicomic. That would add up after 10 minicomics into an 80-page comic. Though I didn’t have the idea when I started, I’m thinking of including those Songy and Yo-yo hillbilly comics. So if those would work, that would be good. If I have to redraw them, then maybe I’ll redraw them. But I am thinking about extending those stories. And it’s still the same issue as you start a project — do you show how it evolves, or do you nail down the concept from beginning to end? It’s a choice.
SENECA: Do you like redrawing stuff? Is that valuable for you, or is that a pain?
PANTER: Hardly ever done it. Spiegelman would redraw lots of pages, and I generally just try to get an acceptable page. I try not to use Wite-Out. So at this point I’ve figured out the tools I can use. The paper’s kind of spongy, and there’s all kinds of technical problems. But I’m in a much better situation than when I did Jimbo in Purgatory, because I didn’t have the G-nib [pens] even at that point.
SENECA: How come you don’t like to use Wite-Out? I know in this book, the Tom De Haven story [the short comic “Freaks Amour”] —
PANTER: Yeah, there’s a lot of Wite-Out.
SENECA: Yeah, there’s a bunch of Wite-Out on the pages; I was wondering about that because your pages are usually so clean.
PANTER: Well, that’s really the answer. You get a different effect when you use Wite-Out. The paper is going to turn a little bit brown over time — a little bit, but it’s going to turn color — but the Wite-Out is going to stay the same. But also your ink is really sitting on tempera powder and that point, and eventually it’s going to flake off… and if you’re a person like Rick Griffin, with incredible amounts of Wite-Out — I don’t know what he’s using, if it’s acrylic paint it’s probably fine — a big chunk is going to fall off.
SENECA: Do you like the look of Wite-Out on the page? I mean, your work is pretty solidly built upon the look of the art on the page, its rawness… and that really inspired the whole art-comics thing, where that’s such an important part of the presentation. Do you like that look?
PANTER: It’s really just a different thing. Early on, in the early ’80s and late ’70s, I was doing effects with that based on my collaborations, being pen-pals with Bruno Richard and Pascal Doury, who were using tons of layering and working on each other’s work. Pascal was a master of gouache, which I really didn’t know much about until later, and that’s a real layering technique. So there’s some pieces I couldn’t have gotten without doing it. There’s a spread of Jimbo and Smoggo kind of exploding: “I can’t stop the bomb!” That would be kind of hard to do without Wite-Out. But Pascal Doury did stuff like that every minute.
SENECA: Sure. And then talking about Wite-Out and just expanding that out into paint, there’s a couple painted comics in here. Is that real different for you than doing black and white?
PANTER: Using Wite-Out?
SENECA: Using paint.
PANTER: Yeah, it’s a different system already. If you’re using color, then you’re using or disusing traditional emotional color responses and visual cues, like controlling the vibration, matching values. It’s different; there’s more to orchestrate. It’s more persuasive and lush…
But I really like black and white. I’m tempted to do — I know it would be more commercial to do an 80-page color Jimbo, which I could do, but I really like the black-and-white drawing. If you’ve ever seen like a Blake show or an incredible drawing show, you feel like someone just took it from your desk and put it there like that. You know, there are beautiful collages and stuff, but it’s its own way. So for me it’s just kind of a challenge to not screw it up so bad that I can’t leave it. Because there’s a point past which I would have to use Wite-Out or throw it away. I mean, I could section out a part of it or something, but at that point it changes the object. I mean by that point… [original art] is an object, and when it goes [to print], it’s just information.
SENECA: Yeah. So do you have a resistance to messing with your work on the computer too much?
PANTER: [Chuckles.] I really don’t know anything about Photoshop. I know how to scan something and I know how to change the values, which I tend to do because it’s kind of an auto-clean. I let the dominant dirt remain, but everything else goes back… No, I don’t really like — I’m on the computer too much, but I don’t really like it as a visual texture, and I don’t really like television as a visual texture. They’re kind of creepy.
SENECA: Yeah, the flatness. Or the gloss, I guess.
PANTER: There’s something… it’s maybe the otherness of it. It’s synthetic stuff; it’s like your brain seeing it differently from that stuff. The more this stuff gets like that, the creepier it is. Uncanny.
SENECA: Sure. I guess even the printed object has some of that distance, or that wall between you. This sounds odd, but talking about how much you value your pages as objects — if you had your choice and this was feasible, would you just show your pages in the gallery? Or have people just look at the originals instead of even printing them in the books?
PANTER: No, because I do drawings that are only drawings and don’t try to tell stories. And those, well, they’re OK if they’re not in books. But these need to be in books. You need to lie in bed, holding the little thing, and read it. In a gallery, it’s unnatural. Which is why, and I’ve probably said this too often… I like, I mean I have friends who do crowded shows, but I really like uncrowded comic shows because crowded ones are overwhelming and you just shut down. “Whoa, that’s really impressive, all this stuff… uhh, I think I’ll go home.” Instead of, well, a blank show. Three to six feet between the drawings, your mind gets to slow down and your attention gets to refocus.
SENECA: Right. How did you feel about this show that you had at Galerie Martel?
PANTER: You know, it was a really packed show. They had a lot of stuff, but the organizing principles were really good. I really liked that there was a through-line on each wall. That the frames were butted. That they actually took colors from the paintings to put on the frames, which could have been a cheesy idea, but the frames were very simple frames. It was an intelligent show.
SENECA: Nice. What are you doing your paintings on? Is it canvas?
PANTER: Well [indicating a group of small paintings on the wall], those are just on fiberboard Masonite. For 30 years I worked on 300-pound Arches watercolor paper. It’s very sturdy. And I stretched canvas. Luckily, I like to paint horizontal paintings. That’s what I was doing in other studios. But for space reasons, it’s practical to work with a door size. So I stretch canvases, and within some proportion of that I can take a piece of the whole thing and stretch it into a page. If I had a giant studio, I might have six of these things in front of me [indicating the door-frame sized painting leaning against the wall].
SENECA: Talking a little more about your paintings, there’s obviously a difference between the look of your paintings, and then your drawings and your comics and sketchbook stuff. Do you try to address different ideological concerns or philosophical ideas with different media?
PANTER: Each medium has its characteristics, and I try to address those strengths or weaknesses in the medium; and also, to join the conversation of the medium. I’m interested in the conversation of art history, especially as this pertains to my lifetime or the twentieth century, and where I project that it might go. That’s one of the games that modern art plays: where does it go, and what does it affect by trying to go? And so, usually in fine art, you’re making a kind of pregnant or puzzling object, or some object that has presence and which calls to people, hopefully. It arrests them for a second and various things happen, whereas in a comic, I want people lying in bed reading it. I want people lying in bed and reading it, and you forget you’re reading it, and you go in the story, and you’re like, “Whoa! What happened?” And you either remember it or you don’t. Especially with this new comic, because I’ve done experimental stuff that doesn’t allow you to do that at all. You have to struggle the whole time. But this next comic is trying to be seductive in a conventional sense.
SENECA: Is this the next Jimbo?
PANTER: [Indicating a stack of pages on the table.] Yeah, this is the next eight-page [minicomic].
SENECA: These are so beautiful.
PANTER: Well, thanks! They’re really fun and it’s really slow. You can see it now in this unfinished one. You can see how many times I’ve erased. I’ve drawn it over and over. Which is why the paper starts breaking down because I’ve erased on it so many times. The formula’s kind of shoddy now.
SENECA: What kind of paper are you using on these?
PANTER: This is three ply Strathmore kid-finish drawing paper. But it has degraded. It’s not what it used to be. Over time, they’re starting to manufacture something like blotter paper, which is not really what you want to be drawing on.
SENECA: Sure. So if you want to give people a preview, what’s the—?
PANTER: The theme? The theme for this book is… all of the stories revolve around a place. The last story was about a visit to the Reggae Mouse’s seaside place. This is a visit to Zipper, the aging punker’s compound in the wastelands. It’s just played for comedy really.
SENECA: Is there like an underlying concept you’re trying to get at?
PANTER: Things kind of emerge. The theme usually reverts to systems of control, or some sort. This is somewhat more interpersonal. Typical story payoffs come out of truth interacting with stereotypes. That’s what this is, so it has to be human in human terms, and you have to believe the characters and their foibles, and be able to sense their personality. And so that’s all that has to happen. I tend to invent these places in my mind and imagine building them. Then I think, “Gee, I wouldn’t be very happy if I lived there. If I really lived there.” So I put them into comics; that’s a place I can purge them. They’re often — the one I did for this comic was this [pulling a small model junkyard made of tinfoil and cardboard from a box], which just represents this chain-link fence. This actually represents the canopy within. This is the chain-link and this is…. But if this were a prototype for a real place, it would be a junkyard town. Tin shit, kitchen, picnic table, modernist art.
SENECA: Do you have the story fully planned out, or does it happen as you draw it?
PANTER: It totally happens. I just kind of take them somewhere and I try to build their personalities and know what they can do, and then I experience it. The problem is — luckily I’ve been very plotty with this one. I don’t look ahead too much, because once I get going, then I’m like 30 pages ahead, and it’s like I’m my own slave. I’ve already heard the jokes and stuff. So if I’m letting myself be stupid enough to where — drawing a chain-link fence really slowed the whole thing down. That just takes more time.
SENECA: Do you write at all before you go to the page? Or do you compose the writing on the page?
PANTER: I have sketchbooks somewhere. Every book has its notes — I don’t take my own advice, but I do take a lot of notes in general. They get applied here and there. I don’t really write dialog. Dialog is just so easy; you just listen to the characters. There’s formal things happening in this one and the rest of them. Like how do you use the boxes to draw the viewer in and out of the story. In this case [showing a page], the dialog for each character crosses, but the narrative’s strong enough that you don’t really get lost. In this one, there’s two characters talking about a diet, and it’s just a graphic idea.
SENECA: Yeah, and the black on the page draws the eye even though there’s all this dialogue.
PANTER: Yeah, and so it makes this deeper space. The conventions are all fascinating. To do conventional stuff or experimental stuff is … neat.
SENECA: Talking about the conventions of comics, or cartooning I guess, this new book’s got your superhero story in it, the Omega The Unknown short.
PANTER: Yeah, I’m afraid I’ll probably get in trouble for that, except —
SENECA: Yeah, I was just thinking about that—
PANTER: It’s weird, because with the interaction with comics and the art world, this work was in the show offered for sale. This is a catalog for the show; within rights, you can show pictures of the work. Yet, the work starts to entertain if you run it in the sequence in which it was intended. So…
SENECA: It’s not the object anymore, it’s the story.
PANTER: Yeah. We had the same trepidation about the Zap catalog. I was encouraging my friends to not run whole stories: though we ran one or maybe two whole stories. But I know [Robert] Williams well enough that maybe he won’t kick my ass.
SENECA: [Laughs.] Marvel Comics, not so much?
PANTER: Yeah, I don’t know! Only if you mention it will they know. Maybe you should leave this out, but it’s up to you. I’m definitely not interested in being embroiled in anything. It’s hard enough to survive moment to moment. I’m not really into provocation; I’m into experimentation. So I hope they let it go.
SENECA: Yeah, I don’t know if Marvel Comics even reads The Comics Journal, so…
PANTER: They read it! Someone’s reading it. Twelve people are reading it.
SENECA: So this is your superhero story, and it’s the one thing with superheroes you’ve done, right? Am I correct in that?
PANTER: Jimbo’s kind of a superhero, but using those conventions, let’s think. Yeah, I copied a lot of Kirby just to learn what Kirby was doing, but I was never trying to draw superheroes. I had a superhero character I never used, but it seemed to me like a really super-commercial idea when I came up with it. I never used it; it was too obvious. I always expected it to come about without me doing it, because it’s so obvious.
SENECA: Not yet though?
PANTER: I haven’t done anything with it, but—
SENECA: No, but has it come about? Has anybody stolen the idea yet?
PANTER: No. It’s something Kirby’s probably done in prototype and thrown away. But if I say it, someone will go do it immediately. [Laughs.]
SENECA: True enough. That’s what would happen. How do you feel about — given the generation that you’re a part of, the Raw generation for lack of a better term — those guys were kind of pitched against the superhero stuff just because it had taken up so much of the history. Or it was so prevalent, and something else new was needed. How do you feel about the superheroes’ place in comics? Do you have an opinion?
PANTER: It’s impossible to ignore them, but I try to ignore them. Certainly I’m a fan of Ditko and Kirby and a lot of Marvel and DC comics. But I’m more into Turok and Magnus. Especially Magnus. I guess he flies around in an air pod. [Laughs.] But no, it’s mostly so formulaic that it’s a joke to me. Not that there’s not legitimate entertainment there. There’s amazing drafting skills… amazing storytelling… it’s all there, but to me it’s all boring and same-y. “But this one really broke the rules!” But they’re still wearing a utility belt, and he’s still a bat and still a vigilante.
SENECA: Right. When they break the rules it’s about breaking the rules, it’s never about the story.
PANTER: Well, I think comics turned really nasty in the ’70s when the antihero-esque design came into fashion. Just this guy lashing out blindly at everything, destroying things. Wow, gee, this thing’s been going on for 30 years now!
SENECA: Oh, man, it’s reached a fever pitch. I don’t know how aware you are about the current superhero marketplace.
PANTER: Not so much, but you can guess. I mean, in a way, Chinese comics from the ’70s — they were completely bloody and vicious and stuff. I really thought they were funny, so maybe that’s how people are looking at it. I don’t know.
SENECA: It’s weird to think about. How did that Omega story come about? Was it Jonathan Lethem that contacted you?
PANTER: I’m friends with Jonathan, and he asked me to do it, and that’s why I did it really. It didn’t really pay my rates or anything, but I did it for Jonathan. It was a situation in which I was allowed to do really quirky ugly comics in a mainstream comic. I am surprised that I’ve been complimented on this, because it is the stiffest, most retarded comic in so many ways! In some ways, I was sincerely trying to draw a comic. I couldn’t really do what David Mazzucchelli did. I could work at it at ten years and make myself do it, but it’s not what I’m interested in. I’m interested in Picasso and Duchamp and stuff like that.
SENECA: Well, that element of stiffness is very comics, I guess, especially comparing to Picasso’s art. Or surrealist art and cubism.
PANTER: What is? Conventional comics?
SENECA: Yeah, like the Kirby posing.
PANTER: Well, Kirby is actually, he’s like Mayan glyphs and cubism and Fauve, he’s really kind of transcendent. And Ditko too is kind of transcendent, just in his portrayal of karmic waves, wave shapes. Indefinable stuff, he would make it completely concrete and work out a shape system for it. But most people, it’s about the guys yelling at each other. [Laughs.] Which is what’s great about Johnny Ryan’s Prison Pit comic. Just reduce it to the essentials!
SENECA: Yeah, that stuff’s great. Now, I wanted to talk about your paintings… I guess you’re fairly unique in this as a more or less figurative painter —you use a lot of black linework in your paintings. Does that come from doing comics, and the appeal of this black linework?
PANTER: Yeah, I think it does. It also has to do with printing, because painting is sort of mimicking and commenting on print forms, and that’s maybe a disadvantage… in the last year or so, the black lines have fallen away. Like that painting right there [indicating the large painting leaning against the wall] is maybe four years old. It’s finished and there’s no black lines on it. Right now, I’m not putting black lines on paintings and it’s kind of shocking to me. But you read the painting completely different. I think people then read it as a painting instead of a cartoon, which is kind of surprising to me because… I mean Arshile Gorky has lines all over the place, but it’s pretty easy to see the paint still. In mine, it’s kind of hard to see the paint because it’s flat and simple and all the paint is hidden. It’s just another coat on top of the same color. I’m getting what I want, which is this kind of matte surface that’s not too shiny, not printed, not too sloppy, not too tight. It looks human, I think.
SENECA: Is there anyone who particularly inspired your color sense? It’s different; you have a really unique color sense in a lot of your painting.
PANTER: I kind of found my color sense along the way. Just kind of based on the colors I like and don’t like in color harmony. And just thinking about that in simple primaries and secondaries, triads, triads minus—those conventions actually worked. But who I admired: probably early Romare Bearden or R.B. Kitaj. [Kitaj was] an American expatriate who was involved in British pop art in the ‘60s. And Romare Bearden, the collage artist, was really beautiful, with complicated color schemes that were under control.
My colors aren’t always good, but they’re usually somewhat orchestrated; they’re pleasing or un-pleasing, and there are some things I try to keep under control. Just simply thinking that every shape that’s one color is going to be doing something relative to the others. That’s one way to organize color, “Okay, all the pinks are going to be talking to each other”. That’s one thing. But a lot of it is just trying, if I walk down the street, to remember if I see something I like. Using your own experiences is sometimes the hardest thing to do, or the simple idea is the hardest to do. Or the most exciting.
SENECA: And then compositionally, are there painters who inspire you?
PANTER: I think my composition’s really clumsy because I’m left-handed and things are kind of moving off-kilter in a way, which is not what I’m trying to do. Like, say, Charles Burns does it on tracing paper, then flips it, then corrects the shape, and I don’t really do that. I try to have the shapes make some sense. I guess I wanted to have a more complicated composition sense years ago, because when I started out I was doing kind of pop art, with one thing in the middle looking at you up close, and then I was really interested in having more orchestrated situations. You’re kind of balancing sizes of things, and relative darks and lights. A lot of the challenge of painting is not to get hung up in balancing things, you know, and for me I try to have some program that’s going to dictate, so I don’t fuss around with little… “I need something here, I have to have…”, that kind of thing.
SENECA: Is collage an influence on your painting at all?
PANTER: Yeah, absolutely. A lot of my paintings look like collages. I draw in sketchbooks, and then I make devoted drawings that are really cartoons for paintings. I started doing them pretending I was drawing in sketchbooks. And then I photocopy those and I do make collages out of them, and then I go forward. I can copy that collage, or do a painting of it or whatever.
SENECA: [Holding up one of the sketchbooks sitting around the studio] I noticed in this sketchbook that you’re drawing on grid paper… do you make grids for your paintings?
PANTER: Yeah, the proportions are controlled in my paintings by grids. I used to draw them but then it was hard to hide the grid — painting over it, erasing it, trying to get rid of it. So I developed a system that was using only sixteen quadrants on the plane of a rectangle, so you could arrive at it by just folding a photocopy, and then copying freehand into those quadrants so then overall there would be some sense of proportion — this hand wouldn’t suddenly be giant…
I don’t draw the grid, I lay down pieces of paper to hide the area I’m painting over. That was my breakthrough, was like “oh, pieces of cardboard!”
SENECA: So you don’t use a projector or anything.
PANTER: No… I wouldn’t have anything against doing it but like, I’ve worked as a sign painter and I’m not really trying to be hung up on technique. Though I like techniques that are simple and achievable.
SENECA: So you can still get that fresh line on the paintings…
PANTER: Yeah, if you use a projector then you’re trying to wake the line back up.
SENECA: Are you ever happier with the pre-drawings than the finished painting?
PANTER: No, they’re a totally different thing. It’s kind of like, do I like this drawing as a drawing and do I like this painting as a painting. One thing that’s exciting about the drawing is that it can become many paintings, it can be just one, or more things, or it can become sort of a flow. And I’m really interested in all the things I do… again, there’s limitations by medium, but it’s interesting to see if they can play together or if they should be separate. All of those things are like a playground, the things you’re doing arrayed in your mind.
SENECA: And then in your paintings you’ll copy the symbols you use, like the basic cartoon forms, from painting to painting.
PANTER: There’s more of a procedural thing going on, because I could run any drawing through that procedure. Though I’m not really interested in doing masterful thick-and-thin inkwork in paintings, it seems like a distraction. So I’d rather reduce it down to something simpler. I don’t know if that was the question you were asking…
SENECA: I was talking more about copying the same forms, the same basic cartoon figures, or just a face that will pop up again and again, or a shape…
PANTER: There’s certain things that would work… and a lot of things that won’t work. So I tend to come back to trying to develop a hieroglyph. You know, like 300 or 400 symbols that I could use, and keep adding to and throwing pieces away. Signs of human contrivance like bricks and wallpaper, buttons…
SENECA: It seems like there are certain hieroglyphs you have in your paintings and then other ones you use in your comics — Jimbo and all those characters — are you ever tempted to intermix them? Like to do a painting of Jimbo or have something from a painting show up in a Jimbo comic?
PANTER: It happens a tiny bit, but usually it was real repellent for me to try to do that. I’ve painted a couple paintings of Jimbo, but usually it’s kind of sickening to me to try to mix… I’ve said this over and over, but Trenton Hancock, who’s a friend of mine, makes painting shows that tell stories — not completely literally, sometimes more literal than others, and it works great in his work. And that was what I thought I’d do at the beginning of my career, that I would make painting shows that were stories, but then it turns out I’m more interested in those fragmented moments of each painting doing its thing. Also in what paintings do in a room together, but the story just seems like… invasive to my painting, so I stick to a moment.
SENECA: Was that one of the reasons you ended up in comics, because you wanted to tell stories?
PANTER: When I started telling cartoon stories… well, I guess I was trying to get attention at one point, I mean as a kid. Trying to figure out what I could do with myself, because I can’t do a lot of things. And I was rewarded, because I was the kid that drew, and so I was encouraged to do that. So in a real haphazard way I found my way forward based on what I think I could do. I would like to enlarge my idea of what I could do, if it was realistic. But I’m limited. I’m limited like everyone else, you know? I have limitations, to say the least.
SENECA: Do you feel that there’s a different critical response around your artwork now than when you started?
PANTER: Well, I feel that there’s a lot of vanity involved. There’s vanity, there’s idealism, there’s delusion, there’s obsession… when you’re young there’s all this promise, it’s like “Oh my god, you’re gonna be rich and famous…” and then it either happens or it doesn’t happen. You could be a popular painter for three years and never again, and in some ways I haven’t had my three years as a painter, and that’s good — to not peak. That’s actually something I set out to not do, is to peak at 20. I had a real breakthrough at 20, and I thought “Wow, I’ve got something here,” and then I took it apart and started over again.
SENECA: Is it hard to reinvent yourself that way, when you’re working in this hieroglyphic mode of established symbols, established ways of working?
PANTER: Well, I’m looking for a way forward and something to contribute. I’m looking for a neglected spot, because I don’t want to do exactly what someone else is doing, that wouldn’t be much fun. I operate on the level I can operate on technically. And, um… ask me that again?
SENECA: In terms of straight craft, is it tough to do the artwork and do it well, but also keep reinventing yourself?
PANTER: I really just get new ideas. I’m not opposed to reinventing myself, I’m not opposed to style changes, but I’ve really tried to develop a practice. A way of going forward that is natural. There was probably a time in my life that I was like “Oh my god, what can I come up with,” but now I just get these balls rolling and they just have their organic lives. In some ways, as an old man, getting older… this [Jimbo minicomic] is like stuff from the 1700s, and that’s what it’s trying to do, and maybe it’s partly to show skill or because I’m interested in crosshatching. John Tenniel has been one of my main influences since I was a child. I think it’s just trying to be yourself, and when you’re young it’s really hard because there’s such a crushing self-consciousness, and then you figure out “oh, everyone’s just thinking about themselves….”
SENECA: Has it been weird to watch your personal expression have such an influence? Especially in comics, with the whole art-comix crowd, is it strange to see yourself being reinterpreted by so many people?
PANTER: No, I’m surprised, and I’d probably like, secretly be disappointed if there wasn’t anything like that, but if it hadn’t happened I probably wouldn’t suspect that it could. There’s been times when people’s work was really close to my work and it disturbed me and made me go on to something else. Now I’m just kind of set in my ways, I’m not really affected so much by what people are doing. And then a lot of times if there are people who could do it better, it’s like okay, take it and do it better! Take it and do something else!
SENECA: Does that role as an elder statesman appeal to you? Do you like being kind of this iconic figure?
PANTER: Well… getting old is weird, and fucked up. It’s like that Jerry Lewis thing, you just always feel like a kid, and you’re kind of surprised when it’s like, “Oh, my body’s failing me.” “Oh jeez, I look like a geezer,” and that’s disappointing and weird, you know? But since I got involved in this art stuff when I was a child, in some way my childish impressions have formed me, and I always thought that if you were a painter you would be really old, you would need to be old. So it certainly works this way, that I’m still working on my career at my age.
But no, it’s nice. The attention is nice, you know? It would be terrible to have zero interest, and still banging away on something in a dark room. But people tell me they like my work every day. I get letters every day. People have sent me tapes and records every day since the ’70s. And it takes up a lot of space since I have trouble throwing stuff out. But it’s pretty neat. And it’s also neat when you get a letter from someone, and then ten years later it’s like oh, they turned out to be so-and-so. Yeah, it’s really cool.