“How far we are from mastering the characteristics of mental life by representing them in pictorial terms,” laments Freud early in Civilization and Its Discontents. Nevertheless, he did attempt such a representation; by way of illustrating the coexistence within one’s mind of both the (fluid, permeable) infantile ego and the (impermeable, delimited) mature ego, Freud asks us to imagine a far-out version of Rome. “In the place occupied by the Palazzo Caffarelli,” he writes, “would once more stand—without the Palazzo having to be removed—the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus; and this not only in its latest shape, as the Romans of the Empire saw it, but also in its earliest one, when it still showed Etruscan forms and was ornamented with terracotta antefixes…. And the observer would perhaps only have to change the direction of his glance or his position in order to call up the one view or the other.” Amazing stuff, right?
Though Freud’s Rome was a brilliant Radium Age sci-fi vision, he hastily apologizes for the very idea: “There is clearly no point in spinning our phantasy any further, for it leads to things that are unimaginable and even absurd.” Unimaginable? Absurd? Paging Gary Panter! Who, ever since he was a college student in the early Seventies, has dared not only to imagine a palimpsest-opolis where Dallas coexists (on Mars) with Tokyo, but to represent this brainstorm in a wild comic strip. We might, then, describe Panter’s Dal Tokyo comic as Freudian, since it dramatizes both the conundrum of civilization—i.e., the individual’s quest for instinctual freedom is forever in conflict with the social order’s demand for conformity and instinctual repression—and also the conundrum of the mind torn between conflicting imperatives. But Freud was a neurotic! Panter, on the other hand, is fully capable of spinning out a phantasy.
Dal Tokyo is an unimaginable, absurd city whose sidewalks and alleys are crowded with punks, aliens, mutants, Sepaloids, Cubist girls, and adorable manga characters—and whose subway system is threatened by toxic smog. In the shadow of abandoned overpasses (which are owned by the classic-car-cultist tycoon Mr. Gabble), rival advertising agencies engage in bloody combat. Freelance peeping toms snap pho-toms of rich smog monsters having sex, which they then sell to Fish-Carrot-Eye, editor of the pornographic scandal sheet Rich Smog Sex, the headquarters of which are under an abandoned amusement park. Meanwhile, out in the Edgar Rice Burroughs-esque Martian desert, where the protoceratopses roam, ant-men excavate classic cars from the sand, then melt them for the minerals they require to speak.
The weekly strip first appeared in the L.A. Reader back in the liminal year 1983—the final year, that is to say, of the Seventies, which began in 1974. The postindustrial era had arrived, and Panter gave us a future scenario in which nothing is created except graffiti, and everyone is in search of spare parts: mechanical and bodily. Like the abandoned highways and buildings of Dal Tokyo, the strip’s four-panel format is a hollowed-out shell—to be repurposed, misused, and abused however the squatter-artist sees fit. Some weeks, Panter uses his four panels to tell a serialized, Flash Gordon-type adventure; other weeks, he spreads a single scene or image or explosion across the entire frame; and in recent years, the chaotic action of the strip has subverted the very idea of a linear, delimited format. There is a desultory plot to Dal Tokyo: one as meandering and bemused, and as liable to follow a minor character right out of the scene for a long spell, as a Richard Linklater movie. “I’ve just got way too many leads to follow up,” Panter has explained, “and I’m happily chasing them in all directions.”
Car-hating fiend Dareiter Pictox blows up Mr. Gabble and his rare Mustang; assisted by an unwitting key grip, the ant-man Helvolus, he records the spectacle for a Ballardian crash-porn moving-picture magazine. Mohawked ambulance attendant Okupant X (Ok X to his friends) saves Gabble’s life; the ex-dinosaur Nurse Barbie (Barby, Bar-B, Barley) nurses him back to health. However, when Barbie reverts to type during sex and fatally bites Gabble’s fellow car-cultist and “near-son” Superfreak, Gabble’s body is wounded in the same fashion—so he is patched up with bits of Superfreak. In the meantime, Helvolus seeks to clear his name by stealing the photox of Gabble’s wreck from Fish-Carrot-Eye; instead, he accidentally steals pho-toms of smog monster sex taken by Yah Tah Hey, a fedora-wearing tom. Sybig Nabcig, a juvenile smog monster obsessed with radio-controlled robot fights and slot-cars, makes an appearance, as do Dexter Pine-Roll and Crystal Boy of the Art Police. So far, so intelligible.
But Freud warned that society’s repressive renunciation of instinct would one day lead to “serious disorders,” and at both the level of content and of form, Panter offers evidence of this insight with devastating accuracy. His plot, obeying uncanny dream logic, oscillates between nonsensical and sensical—every now and then, we understand what’s happening.
And what’s happening is epic: Barbie/Barley is at the center of a plot involving the university hospital and its evolution experiments; Sybig Nabcig is at the center of a second plot, involving Dal Tokyo street culture, e.g., its skaters and robot battles; Dareiter Pictox is at the center of a third plot, involving Martian monsters, mutants, and mass media; and the Gabble story, which at first seemed the central one, turns out to be mostly epiphenomenonal—in fact, according to the Art Police (maybe), it was Gabble’s near-sons who hired Dareiter Pictox to kill him (maybe).
As for Okupant X, Yah Tah Hey, and Helvolus, they are—like us—implicated bystanders.
Civilization, according to Freud, is a tool that we have created to protect ourselves from unhappiness, and yet at the same time it is our main source of unhappiness. We desire to kill, we experience insatiable craving for sexual gratification, we are predisposed to violent aggression towards authority figures… yet we are unable to reconcile these instincts with civilization’s ideals of control, beauty, hygiene, and order. So each and every one of us is required to sublimate our instincts into useful actions, or worse: renounce our instincts. In Dal Tokyo, Barbie goes to a Foucauldian rehab clinic, where she undergoes no-bite therapy; Ok X takes a menial job driving one of Gabble’s automated bumscrubbers; Gabble’s surviving near-sons, Huke and Eddie, voyage into the desert in search of a replacement Mustang. Dareiter Pictox stomps on Sybig Nabcig’s slot cars. Other Dal Tokyoans swink and flense.
How to illustrate the pathological culture of Dal Tokyo, which is to say: civilization as we know it, not to mention our own minds? Panter’s draughtsmanship is fluid and permeable, it changes from week to week; yet his purposely eccentric and “lame” style provides both a limit and a worldview. People and architecture merge together in a Groszian nightmare; carefully rendered figures are doodled over and x-ed out; negative space triumphs via figure-ground reversal; cuteness is creepy, and creepiness cute. Some installments are so crammed with detail and extraneous scribbles that the eye can’t possibly take it all in; others are stripped down, emptied out, haiku-like. In short, Dal Tokyo is absurd, unimaginable, and perfect.