If anyone is left in some future to consider the catastrophe machine that was the late 20th and early 21st centuries, they could do worse than consult the work of Gary Panter. Not for answers (he has none), but for a perspective more revealing precisely because less filtered than the supercargoes of crap dumped daily onto our suffering minds and souls in the service of Consensus Narrative.
Dal Tokyo is what science fiction writers call a “fix-up”: a book less planned than assembled of occasional, Frankenstein parts: in this case, two comic strips separated by more than a decade. The occasion for the first series was a weekly strip that ran in the LA Reader during 1983-84, height of the Reagan years. The second series ran monthly in a Japanese reggae magazine from 1996 to 2007, during the awful (and ongoing) Clinton-Bush-Obama period, which has offered us so much continuity of all things so curiously American.
So it’s more and less than a book. Even its physical “bookness” is awkward: 6 1/4″ vertical by 16″ horizontal. About the size of a desktop computer keyboard, if you’re looking for a familiar correlate, as Panter always is. Opened, it’s twice as horizontal. You can’t make space for it; it makes space for itself. But the awkward size is intrinsic to its even more awkward contents: some of the finer details of the art and writing are barely legible even at this scale, which is reduced I’d guess about 50% from the originals. I shudder to imagine what they looked like in the LA Reader.
So think of it as a comic strip, a periodic commitment. A blog before and after its time, a day book spanning three pitiless decades. Each strip of the first series is time-stamped, by hand, to the minute, testimony to Panter’s living and working and recording in the here-and-now of it.
Not that there is ever (but once) anything like direct comment on our own here-and-now; Dal Tokyo is set on “Mars.” From Panter’s preface: “Jimbo and my other cartoon characters live on Mars in a well-established planet-wide sprawl of a city that was founded by Japanese and Texans.” The first four pages of the “story” are a beautiful set of overlay maps with these titles: Tokyo rail system 1930; Upper Triassic; Texas highways; Lowell Observatory 1896 (a map of Percival Lowell’s fancied “canals” of Mars).
So yes, we could pretend that Dal Tokyo is “science fiction” set on a terraformed Mars settled by Japanese and Texans, with some dinosaurs (they did roam in Texas) thrown in — and I’d vote for it in an instant in the Hugo or Nebula awards — but it’s more fundamentally a construct in the surreal obsessive-compulsive imagination of Gary Panter, a longtime occupant, a lifer, on our own Planet Xtinction, as astute and ornery and doomed as William Burroughs before him — another refugee from the flat middle of the country where you can see what’s coming for you a long way off — with a febrile subconscious informed by the relentless boombox of American empire, corruption, hypocrisy, media, and the manifold collisions that ensue.
Panter numbered all these strips, dual-numbering the second series starting at 1 and continuing the first series numbering, up to a point, when he dropped the first series numbers. There’s no break in the book to indicate any division between the two series, and you could easily miss it. For clarity I’m going to number the first series 1:1-63, and the second series 2:1-137. There are 210 strips in all.
Early on there’s an attempt at story, and to this point the strip has a pretty fair claim as a “science fiction” narrative: 1:44 and 1:45 lay out a plot summary and a kind of map of “the story so far.” At this point Panter identifies 30 characters, and several plot threads. Then, as if by this clarifying effort the ramifying scale of the story was suddenly borne home to him, or its irrelevance to his project, it’s sidelined.
1:46 and 1:47 are visual chaos with no text. 1:48 has this top caption: “South-side R.P. busts the robo-match, so Nabsig Sybig heads out, porno rag in hand, with a bunch of rabid-control nerfs and their chugging gladibotors.” So a narrative is still being carried forward, sort of. But more to the point is a bottom inset, nostalgic for Sunday color comics puzzles: “Can you find: Hoopy? Kilroys? Hona? Konga? Spiffy? Bozi? Oboe? Oars? Revolver? Swivel chair? Tadpole? Flounder? Fluke?”
There were already formal signs this abandonment of story might happen. After 1:31 the strip’s form becomes as square as Peanuts: always four panels of equal size, with an inset Dal Tokyo “title” and an inset “next:” caption. However, the panel bars go up only halfway so the art is likely to spill across the notional panels like a Pollock, and the title bar, even the title itself, keeps changing (Dalk Yo Toh, Dal Taco, Dill Pickle, Dollokyo, etc.), and whatever is promised by “next:”, like so many hopeful expectations, is perpetually unfulfilled.
After the 1:44 roadmap, there’s still progression, and a semblance of narrative, though increasingly bereft of logic, plausibility, or goal — scenes as enigmatic yet veridical as a surveillance-video screensaver that shifts among unlabeled cameras around the planet. The captions still connect to the art. The map makes some surface sense; only the world it maps does not. In this it resembles many PowerPoint presentations, or US foreign policy. But by the end of the first series, Panter is clearly exasperated or overwhelmed with the burdensome complexities of his own creation, and in the last strip, 1:63, he just blows it up: “Yah Tah Hey’s apartment was blown to toothpicks as the crystal followed its catastrophic psychic instincts to Yah’s diary.”
The art, like the story, is occasional; this is a deeply narrative work, despite and because of the ways in which it disrupts its own narrative. Over the course of the book the art evolves from Panter’s “ratty line” into seriously ratty, then blunt as a Flair pen, but it may be misleading to call this evolution. These are obviously techniques that Panter has at his fingertips and deploys at will. He’s absorbed lessons from Jack Kirby, Picasso, Duchamp, Pollock, Liechtenstein (ironically), Crumb, Spain Rodriguez, Cal Schenkel, Jack Chick, Ed Roth, Victor Moscoso, Rick Griffin (and dozens of other influences, I’m sure, that I can’t detect).
At the start of second series, twelve Earth years later, there’s a new eagerness to pick up loose ends, as characters remind us what their plot threads have been in the first series. (The first lines of dialog in 2:1 are “Hand me that spanner, son.” ”Sure old-timer.” Then the old-timer dies.) But even the characters soon lose interest in themselves, roughly at 2:18, as the strip has other fish to fry. And these fish are strange and strangely familiar.
2:68 is the rare strip that makes straightforward narrative sense, because it’s not set in Dal Tokyo. (Or is it?) It’s titled “9-11-2001″ and it narrates the collapse of the Twin Towers as viewed (I presume) from Panter’s home in Brooklyn in a voice apparently Panter’s own. With one catch: the sequence reads right-to-left. This directionality, the correct one for reading Japanese — which almost seems logical for a strip appearing (in English) in a Japanese magazine — becomes the default, though not the rule, from now on when there is any narrative or rhetorical sequence.
But in general, somewhere around strip 2:46, all pretense of story collapses, or goes into hiding. Increasingly there’s no sequence in the text. There’s a series of images with some thematic consistency, sometimes even progression, which might read in either direction, but captions and dialog are dementedly unrelated, and the text is often appropriated. Several times the appropriations are credited, in 2:18 (Blake), 2:22 (John Gower), 2:93 (Swinburne) and 2:95 (Dryden).
Other times not. Consider the captions of 2:70:
“This is the iron age, wherein iniquity hath the upper hand. O yes at size or sessions.”
“You scoure the ponde of a fewe croakyng Frogges, and leave behinde scorpians”
“They can make gold of goose grease. Such pernitious lawes.”
This is obscure Elizabethan prose; you can Google it. Most of it is from Robert Greene’s “Cuthbert Conny-catcher”, with one line from Thomas Nash. Nash and Greene were notorious satirists, friends of Kit Marlowe — that is, punks. They all died young. These lines satirize, first, the frauds that alchemists perpetrated, but also the society in which the alchemists were able to thrive. ”O yes at size and sessions” refers to the British courts, no better (like our own) than they should be.
It’s entirely unclear to me what Panter “means,” if anything, by this kind of superposition after “9-11-2001″, but the stew is rich enough to suggest that Consensus Narrative, like the American Empire that produces it, is again bankrupt. It points to, as Paul Fussell puts it in The Great War and Modern Memory, his study of a previous epochal rhetorical breaking point, “the inadequacy of language … to register what’s going on.”
I’d be personally interested to know where (and why) Panter gleaned these (and other) lines, but it doesn’t finally matter. “A pill millipede is virtually impenetrable for a predator,” is one of many fine sentences that I don’t think Panter composed, but I couldn’t source. As one goes deeper into the second series, there’s a gnomic quality to the writing, floating as independent from the illustrations as John Cage’s music was independent from Merce Cunningham’s dances.
I would tentatively suggest a particular narrative precursor to Panter: Raymond Roussel. Roussel (1877-1933) wrote deliriously unhinged books, which, like Panter’s, somehow cohere and delight. ”Impressions of Africa” from its title sounds like the travelogue Roussel could have written after his visit to northern Africa. Instead, it’s a surreal farrago about a completely fantastic sub-Saharan Africa, where Roussel never set foot (and the French title is a witty pun). His later book-length poem “New Impressions of Africa”, written entirely in conventional Alexandrine couplets (although with serpentine, deeply nested, parenthetic asides), included illustrations by one Henri Zo, which Roussel commissioned anonymously. Zo was not given the poem to work from; rather Roussel’s agent gave him a list of very specific descriptions, e.g., “A parrot on its perch seeming to talk to a passer-by. No other people.” After publication Zo wrote, “These are not the pictures I would have made if I had known I was illustrating Raymond Roussel!” But that’s exactly what Roussel wanted, and went to extremes to get: Zo’s pedestrian, workmanlike, baseline product. Roussel’s biographer Mark Ford comments, “the poignancy of the illustrations lies in their unawareness … of the ties that bind them to the rest of the poem.” A further “poignancy,” if that’s what to call it, is how Panter’s illustrations seem to preserve this same unawareness of his own text, while the text itself, like Roussel’s preoccupied with its own concerns, preserves a further unawareness from the various background stories it sometimes affords a glimpse of.
Roussel also wrote one novel that could be classified as “science fiction,” Locus Solus, in which the mad genius Canteral shows guests around his vast estate and demonstrates his inventions. What else is Panter doing? Dal Tokyo is a planet-sized playhouse full of oddities that would give Paul Reubens pause. Any of the possible “stories” of this place is a feeble excuse for opening the cabinets of imagination and displaying their curiosities.
Panter is finally a hopeful guy. In 2: 91 a rectangular robot says, “What is that filmy noise and flimsy notion and foamy nothing?” It is conscience. From 2:105 on the strip reverts to story, in an attempt to end somewhere beyond crisis, in some back-door paradiso. ”It has been and remains our goal to heal a broken heart.” And the last line, after the giant women throw the men out of their “salvaged estate” is: “Where do you think he landed? He really flew! You do think he landed?” I do.
Carter Scholz wrote regularly for The Comics Journal during the 1980s. He is the author of Radiance and The Amount to Carry.