The release of Gary Panter’s Songy of Paradise this month marks the final book in his trilogy, and is, to my mind, his greatest achievement in comics to date. A couple weeks back we published Dash Shaw’s conversation with the artist. Below, we convened critics Rachel Davies, Craig Fischer, and Nicole Rudick, along with cartoonist Sammy Harkham, to discuss it with me and Tim by email. -DN
When I first finish Songy of Paradise, I’m struck by the comic’s unparalleled demanding that the reader step back. The book is large — this many by this many inches. These dimensions are by no means an accident, and they don’t seem to be a last minute decision either. Each page at about the size of an art print for one’s wall, the work is independently beautiful, even if removed from the narrative and seen at a glance. Panter’s understanding of composition in putting this book together makes it a pleasure to look at, whether you’re fluent in its references or not.
Reading comics, I often put on my panel by panel blinders, doing my best to not to have the story spoiled for me by the upcoming panel’s elaborate graphics. On one page of Songy of Paradise, as characters progressively crawl up a mountain, Panter switches the angle of the mountain as they continue to hike up the mountain. I assume this to be a means of keeping the work fresh, of ensuring that their journey does not become a visual bore as the panels progress and they are, nonetheless, still in the middle of an action that is as repetitive to observe as to experience. Once I take my panel-blinders off, I realize that when combined, the panels form the a view of mountain from afar. It’s thrilling to realize the work has been created with such intentionality—it allows me to read and reread the work considering all the different angles that have been taken into account. Whether these decisions were carefully and consciously made, as I suspect, or the possibility that these decisions come naturally to Panter, is beside the point—it’s just as exciting to gaze at.
The book is a “cover” of Milton’s 1671 poem Paradise Regained, which is a sequel to the more universally recognized poem Paradise Lost. The foremost twist of the Panter’s cover is that Jesus has been replaced by a hillbilly, Songy. Through the work, Panter’s illustrations are almost gothic looking, and while it’s funny to see the relatively contemporary archetype of the hillbilly occupy this world, along with drones and all of the other 21st century ties milieu, I’m surprised by the comic’s reliance on text to make me laugh. With similarly roundabout word choices as its derivative text, Songy’s vocabulary provides the ultimate comic relief in the midst of his laboriously described misadventures. At one point Songy is starving, but when Beezlebub offers him a morsel to relieve him from his hunger induced misery, Songy insists he’s had enough of his “clap-trap.” It feels rare for a comic to pay just as much careful attention to words as images, but I’m grateful for Panter’s well rounded attention in this work.
Rachel, your method of reading Songy of Paradise is fascinating to me, since I responded to the book in a different way. You devote your attention to formal elements in relative isolation from larger narrative and aesthetic contexts: you assert that Songy would be “a pleasure to look at” even for readers unfamiliar with Panter’s narrative and visual references, and your “panel-blinders” emphasize single panels over page organization (though of course you spot the mountain layout when those blinders are off). When I read Songy, however, I had trouble focusing on those individual elements. I kept compulsively comparing what I saw and read to both Panter’s earlier work and the armada of references (from John Milton to Little Nemo in Slumberland to Tetris) that Panter weaves into his book.
One example: my reading of Songy was greatly influenced by Panter’s Jimbo in Purgatory (2004), his last big graphic novel. (Jimbo’s Inferno was published by Fantagraphics in 2006, but was rejiggered from the 1990s Bongo Jimbo comic, so the Inferno material is technically older than Purgatory.) Purgatory and Songy have obvious surface similarities—both very loosely adapt canonical works of literature about mankind’s relationship to a Christian God—but I was struck instead by their central difference: narratively and graphically, Songy is simpler and more direct than Purgatory, a fact that Panter and Dash Shaw discuss in their recent TCJ interview.
Even a cursory look at Purgatory reveals the book’s complexity. It’s a big book (17.5 x 12 inches, in contrast to Songy’s 14.75 x 12), it’s got more pages than Songy (36, compared to Songy’s 32), and Panter squeezes lots of panels onto each Purgatory page: grids include either 12 panels (on the verso) or nine panels (on the recto). In contrast, Songy sticks to splash pages and fewer, bigger panels. In Purgatory, pages are decorated with elaborate margins that compete for our attention with story panels, and panels are packed with words, most of them postmodern borrowings from sources as disparate as Boccaccio’s Decameron, Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, and an interview with 1960s model Twiggy. (Conveniently, Panter lists his sources at the bottom of each Purgatory page.) To return to your mountain example, Rachel, I see that this page comes at the end of Songy, at the moment where Satan / Pazuzu / Scratch fails in his last attempt to tempt the hillbilly: Panter reserves this special visual flourish for Songy’s climax. But in Purgatory, pages where panel backgrounds cohere into a single picture are much more common, and function as just one of many examples of Panter’s Purgatory-era crazy ambition.
In other words, I expected Songy to be like Purgatory, and was surprised when it was lighter and less complex, like a novella compared to Purgatory’s dense modernist novel. And I can’t decide if I’m a little disappointed in Songy’s accessibility, or if it’s a relief compared to Purgatory’s easy-to-admire-but-hard-to-love formal audacity.
Thanks, Craig and Rachel. I think the complexity of Songy is of a different order… it’s more Little Lulu than anything else. The straightforward storytelling allows Panter to get at arguably greater emotional depth. I found that Songy worked on me on a gut level far more than Purgatory or Inferno. I was (and remain) oddly invested in Songy and Satan. And by the way, the transformations of Satan that Panter accomplishes are astonishing, and called to mind both Rick Griffin and George Herriman. Songy, meanwhile recalled nothing so much as Panter’s stories of his childhood. That hillbilly is the mid-century American west from whence the artist came.
In his interview with Dash, Panter says, “I don’t want to be a person that’s just nailing the same nail in over and over.” This is partly why I never feel disappointed by his work. He’s always approaching it from different perspectives, but it remains of a piece. If he feels he’s exhausted the approach he took in earlier books, it’s great to see him tackle this text in a way that makes sense in relation to its particular complexities. Later in the interview, he talks about artists’ early work frequently being the most intense of their career, the kind that “blows your brains out.” Adventures in Paradise was that book for me—I never saw comics or art the same way again. It was for me, as Panter puts it, a way out of a cage (one I didn’t even know I was in). But that sort of experimentalism is unsustainable over the course of a long career, and at some point, you’re just spinning your wheels. This new book is sophistication of a different sort. It feels textual in a way his other comics don’t. I went back and read parts of Milton’s poem and was reminded that it’s not only a dialectic—in which Jesus, having a vision in which he argues with Satan, comes to realize a truth—but that but that there’s a conceptual textuality too. For instance, in the first part of Milton’s poem, God tells Gabriel that he has begun “To verifie that solemn message late, / On which I sent thee to the Virgin pure / in Galilee, that she should bear a Son.” That message resulted in Mary’s conception, so that Jesus is himself the message, the words or text that were relayed—he was conceived by language. And later, Milton describes the “great duel” between Jesus’s vanquishing of Satan “not of arms” but “by wisdom.”
That dialectic comes through in the way Panter has simplified the narrative and the art, in comparion to his Inferno and Purgatory, as well as the language, as he explains on the book’s title page: “Hewing to John Milton’s Epic Poem Paradise Regained but Without Milton’s Verbosity.” So he’s not only toned down Milton’s more circuitous linguistic style, he has also, as Rachel pointed out, tweaked the classical verbiage with hillbilly slang (which is as expressive as anything Milton came up with). I’ll admit that I haven’t completely reasoned this through—and some of it may sound rather obvious—but I think that part of Panter’s “translation” of Milton’s language is done by putting the story into comics (as opposed to, say, retelling it in prose). Pictures are language, too, and images work on two levels here: as symbols of a metaphysical language (the Assyrian, biblical, and Javanese stuff, for instance) and as narrative language (i.e., storytelling). Craig, this is the same stuff you’ve identified in the earlier books, but here it’s honed to fewer sources yet is, to my mind, equally ambitious.
Dan, I also loved the slow transformation of Satan, especially since he starts out as a toothy Syd Hoff brontosaurus.
As much as I liked reading Songy, Dan, Purgatory was more of a gut punch for me. In my case, it was all about timing: during 2003-04, Purgatory and Kramers Ergot #4 blasted apart my definition of comics, teaching me through examples about cartooning that wrestles with design and the picture plane, cartooning that embodies what Panter calls (in an interview in TCJ #100, July 1985) mark making, A Panterian mark doesn’t “construct an illusion” of depth or transmit a narrative, but vibrates with the unself-conscious emotions of the artist and “exists for and by itself,” with the presence of a stick or leaf in nature. Panter had been making such marks since Raw, but I missed the Raw revolution; I spent the ‘80s forcing Watchmen on all my friends, dreaming that Love and Rockets came out monthly, and reading shitty Marvel comics. I had my Panter epiphany about 16 years after Nicole did.
Though Songy wasn’t a Purgatory-scale epiphany for me, I find the book lovely and charmingly optimistic. Its “straightforward storytelling” is in sync with its absolute lack of narrative suspense; as Panter mentions in his interview with Dash Shaw, Songy is as incorruptible as Jesus, and we realize that Satan doesn’t stand a chance of seducing him. The result: Good triumphs over Evil, and Songy returns home, “his heart still aggrieved with the apparent failure of his spirit quest” but buoyed by the celebration thrown in his honor by family and friends. Songy is a happy book, especially when compared to the nuclear horrors at the end of Jimbo: Adventures in Paradise. There’s nothing ironic about Songy’s paradise.
I agree wholeheartedly with Nicole’s argument that Songy’s innovations are “honed to fewer sources,” including the way Panter combines Milton’s language with Songy’s hillbilly dialectic, and “translates” Milton into pictures. I’m in love with Panter’s detailed, panoramic Songy backgrounds, the visual equivalent of what Panter identifies (in that Dash Shaw interview again) as Milton’s verbosity and penchant for exhaustive lists. About two-thirds through Songy, on a page copyrighted 2013 (and why oh why doesn’t Fantagraphics number the pages?), the Satan-brontosaurus talks about power and about despots like Nero and Uncle Joe Stalin, while Songy speculates that the Devil is signing him up “for some macho trip.” There are only two panels on this page, and in both, Songy and Satan occupy the foreground, standing adjacent or in front of soldiers marching off to war or engaged in war’s slaughter. In 1985, Panter mistrusted lines that created an illusion of depth; now he draws a perfect image of a phalanx of warriors tapering away to a vanishing point, and balances foreground figures and dense background detail with casual virtuosity. Yup, Panter’s put down the hammer and picked up new tools.
I think what I loved about Songy was that it felt of a piece with Purgatory in content and context, but wholly different. I can’t help but look at the work as a cartoonist, and this one reminds me, despite all his groundbreaking work as a mark maker and experimenter, just how great Panter is at classic straightforward cartooning, in the mold of Stanley and Barks-something his detractors think he was incapable of doing. And like Crumb, Panter can take that classic form and work wholly within it’s framework to make something intensely personal and idiosyncratic. This comic, along with the still-in-progess Jimbo stories (released as mini comics and in anthologies), are the most traditional straightforward comics Panter has ever done, and its cool to see him just execute at that extremely high level. Very inspiring indeed. On top of that, this work brings out in sharp relief how Panter’s comics seem to hold within them the entire history of the medium within them, expressed casually, seemingly embedded in it’s DNA: Herriman, Dell funny animal, underground, post 2000 lit comics, and all the worlds those signifiers represent, all feel referenced and absorbed into a singular idiosyncratic voice. And as its been mentioned, there isn’t really narrative tension if you know the source material. Songy holds by his beliefs, and remains unswayed throughout, so with that element out of play, you can just wallow in the characters, interplay, and world of the strip and focus on what Panter does want to hone in on-spiritual philosophy, knowledge, identity, America, language.
And by the way, Satan has never ever been better visually represented than “He” is in Songy of Paradise, at least to these comic book soaked eyeballs. what a gorgeous terrifying vision!
This reminds me of a point Craig made earlier, that in Songy, Panter uses fewer and larger panels and more single-panel pages, while Purgatory is more ornate, with a multitude of smaller panels. The latter reminds me of an illustrated manuscript, with clusters of figures and pictures and densely ornate borders and decoration. Songy more closely resembles, say, William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, with larger pictures showing a scene. It’s looser and less hermetic, in both story and art.
Also, Craig, I’m a comics late-bloomer. I didn’t read Adventures in Paradise when it came out. I was reading fairly mainstream stuff and discovered Panter’s book in the library of the place where I was working, around maybe 2005. Sometimes I wish I’d discovered it earlier, but I think I found it when I needed to.
I have really enjoyed all of the comments so far, as well as the book itself. Despite this comic being relatively simple when placed next to the Jimbo in Danteland epics (as Paradise Regained is next to P. Lost), there’s so much to comment or wonder about, it’s hard to know where to begin.
One point I did want to address was Craig’s claim that the happy ending in this book is not ironic. I wonder if that’s really true. What does it mean that Panter has made the hero of his story a dumb, stereotypical, alcoholic hillbilly who doesn’t even seem to know he’s being tempted? (Panter himself brings this point up briefly in his interview with Dash.) Should we be taking his triumph at face value? Is it just a gussied up version of Forrest Gump, portraying stubborn ignorance as the only reliable path to salvation?
And in a related question, how closely are we supposed to be identifying Songy with Jesus? Songy is a bastard and undergoes the same temptation, but it is not clear to me, at least at first reading, whether or not he IS Jesus, or merely a sort of pseudo-Jesus whose life story mirrors Christ’s in funhouse fashion, like Monty Python’s Brian. Is this a parody of Christianity, a travesty, a straightforward (If postmodern) retelling, or something else entirely?
Another point that interests me is how Panter so confidently uses symbology that he apparently doesn’t expect his readers to understand (and may not even himself understand, at least consciously). For example, the crossword-puzzle-like block patterns that he uses to decorate Satan, which to me (and Craig) recalled Tetris, but which the interview with Dash Shaw reveals to have been a reference to old Javanese manuscripts that certainly almost none of his readers will be familiar with. Panter says that one of the things he used this device for was simply to help the reader identify Satan in his many forms, and it certainly works on that simple level, but it also adds an element of almost mystic indecipherability to the book, as if the story has depths that are literally impossible to plumb—partly because the meaning the reader may want to discover is literally not there (whatever “there” means).
Sammy, as a cartoonist who is presently working in a fairly traditional mode, like Panter, can you tell us a little more about the virtues of the pared down Stanley/Barks mode of storytelling as against a more formally audacious mode? Who else uses it effectively these days?
I think the idea that Panter uses obscure symbols (as in the case of the javanese manuscripts) is genius-I didn’t get the reference, but could tell it was SOMETHING-it hinted at a larger universe at play. and beyond that, it’s compelling imagery. not being able to connect all the dots so concretely is what makes the reader lean in, bringing their own experience to bear. and that, to answer dan’s question, is part of the benefit of working within classic cartooning structures-the reader can not wave aside the work as difficult when it is clear that in so many ways it plays by the “rules”, and can read successfully to the dumbest guy in the room and the smartest-it can be read many ways at once, like Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange or The Simpsons, for example.
i think every one of your points Tim are worth exploring. one thing you bring up and is fascinating to me is the personal nature of the comic. gary panter grew up in a fiercely religious home and community in texas. his father was also an artist and if I am not mistaken ran a general store that sold novelty toys and comic books(dan please verify). so the layered and conflicting aspects of the strip reflect that.
Sammy and Tim are right on about the identity of Songy. I saw this book emerge page-by-page and my sense of Songy is that he, like Jimbo, is a stand-in for a version of Gary that he sometimes describes to me: the kid from Oklahoma and then Texas who became a Christian missionary in Belfast; the guileless hippie with an incredibly strong will and sense of himself. On the other hand, he is very much like what Gary-the-cartoonist imagines Jesus to be — a goofy hippie. It’s a way to get at some absurdity while still maintaining a certain… reverence for, at least, the myth and the idea, if not the religion. Hillbillies and hippies/beatniks were not so different in the comics of the 1960s. Songy’s hat is both hillbilly and also very much like the hat worn by ur-Beatnik/Freak-o Big Daddy Roth. The oddity of the book is that while Satan is very changing, Songy remains the same (no pun intended, honest) … and so, in a lot of ways, does Gary. Just the other night I was over there and he was cooking some beans on the stove and telling me a story with a distinct twang. That’s been the essence of his comics these last buncha years… yarns spun by the fire, in a way.
I think it’s also a kind of upending of fundamentalist Christianity, which is the Christianity of Gary’s upbringing. In his interview with Dash, he says he wants to look at the religion more comprehensively, which seems to me partly what he’s doing in the book’s later panels, with those sweeping historical vistas—literally trying to get a better look at it, a better sense of it. He’s said many times that he rebelled against the Church of Christ and that it’s defined him. I don’t read Songy as a parody or a travesty. I think he’s reimagined that fundamentalism as hippie-ism.
That idea, reimagining fundamentalism as hippie-ism, is just so so great. And inspiring–I am reminded of a conversation with CF where he talked about how artists whose work may be forward thinking, transgressive, irreverent, yet in their personal lives they tow a very generic party line, how those artists didn’t make any sense to him. In his view, one of the benefits of making art was how it bleeds into how you consider all the things in life usually taken as a given, not just within your chosen medium.
It’s interesting how he changes the ending a little. In Milton, the angels arrive after Jesus’s final repudiation of Satan and bring him to a meadow and produce a table of food. Then they sing to him of his deeds and his important role. Gary has Songy arrive home and share a communal meal with his friends and family, Last Supper style, in a panel that strikes me as quintessential Panter—a hodgepodge of characters from different sources, and the Kilroy putti in the upper corners, like heavenly graffiti.
Sammy’s last email line, “one of the benefits of making art was how it bleeds into how you consider all the things in life usually taken as a given,” got me to thinking about the creative tension of making something referential. The person making it can’t escape their referential mindset, yet there’s also no way to control the reader’s prior knowledge of the work’s sources. Like the Javanese manuscripts that I thought might be Tetris blocks, too. I think that, at least for me, there can be a lot of anxiety with referencing–Will the person I’m speaking with think I’m condescending if I explain the reference? Will they feel dumb if I don’t explain it and I go on and on assuming it’s common knowledge–but Panter seems to occupy the role of referencing pretty comfortably. Gary has a way of capturing all these different things he’s researched, and placing them within a context that makes them more comprehensive, without seeming to be pandering, or even trying to teach, to a less-in-the-know audience. Dash and Gary talk about a work “telling you it’s artificial all the time”–this is what Songy seems to be doing, but with the work’s referential nature, specifically, rather than just being “artificial”. Dash also mentions that, unlike Panter’s other books, it read straight as a story, and Gary replies that it’s inessential to have the research to get the book. The book really thrives off of noting the emotion of the individual sources–whether it be vocabulary of a hillbilly, the javanese manuscripts, or Paradise Regained itself–and whether intentionally or not, carefully collaging them to make it interesting to a reader of any perspective.