Published Sept. 15, 2006.
Gary Panter is explicating a painting that hangs in the attic studio of his Brooklyn home.”There’s a villain from a Japanese TV show,” the artist says, gesturing toward one menacing visage, which floats in a cosmic soup of images. “And that’s, like, a 1950s robot. And that’s a made-up tentacle brain monster.” The canvas, which radiates a sickly green, is also populated with a bikiniclad beach babe, an exaggerated cartoon puppy with its tongue sticking out, and a disembodied skull — among many other symbols, resonant with subconscious anxiety and desire.
“They’re about primal issues,” Mr. Panter admits quite cheerfully. “And the stupid way the sexes see each other. All those horrible clichés. It’s about people standing right next to their wishes and fears.”
Mr. Panter’s vivid obsessions make him one of the stars of “Masters of American Comics,”a two-part exhibition that opens today.The show, which features 14 artists and spans the history of the medium, is so large that it takes two museums to accommodate it.The comic strips of seminal figures from Windsor McKay (“Little Nemo in Slumberland”) and George Herriman (“Krazy Kat”) to Charles M. Schulz (“Peanuts”) are mounted in the Newark Museum. Meanwhile, the emergence of comic books in the 1950s and, later, underground “comix” and the graphic novel, is represented at the Jewish Museum, where Mr. Panter is joined by contemporaries (Chris Ware, R. Crumb) and artists who preceded him (Jack Kirby, Harvey Kurtzman, Will Eisner).
“It’s like being knighted,” says Mr. Panter, 55, who may still be best-known for his Emmy Award-winning design for “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse,” the subversive 1980s kids show that has found new life on the Cartoon Network and on DVD. “There’s stuff in the show I have idolized since childhood, so just being in the room with it …” his voice trails off. “Is humbling the right word? I’m exhilarated.”
Mr. Panter’s presence in such an exhibit is a sign of the times.It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment when underground comics acquired mainstream legitimacy. Perhaps it was in 1992, when Art Spiegelman, who championed Mr. Panter’s work as the editor of RAW magazine in the early 1980s, won a Pulitzer Prize for his graphic novel “Maus.” (Spiegelman, whose work was part of the “Masters” exhibit first organized by the Hammer Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, pulled it from the New York show, citing personal reasons). Or maybe the arrival of “The Simpsons,” a few years earlier, had something to do with it.That show’s creator, Matt Groening, came out of the same alternative media as his friend Mr. Panter (and joins him October 10 for a conversation at the 92nd Street Y).
Mr. Panter, a Brownsville, Texas, native, proudly dubbed “the king of the ratty line,” didn’t begin to draw seriously until after he’d already been painting for some time.
“What’s behind a lot of cartooning is a frustrated, shy person who wants to make something that shouts for them in the world. In the old days, people cartooned because they needed a job, and they started out at 12. I started after college. I remember, I went to see Jack Kirby, and he said [in doubtful voice], ‘Okay, but why are you starting so late?'”
He was lucky, though, to launch his career in Los Angeles during the mid-1970s. The city’s erupting punk rock scene meshed seamlessly with Mr. Panter’s artistic ambitions. His self-described “jaggedy” style made for some memorable Frank Zappa album covers (remember “Studio Tan”?), and found purchase in a local punk ‘zine called Slash, which invited the artist to contribute a comic strip.Thus,”Jimbo” was born: a post-apocalyptic Everyman who wanders the landscape of an imaginary city called Dal Tokyo.
Original panels from Mr. Panter’s magnum opus, “Jimbo in Purgatory,” fill a wall in the Jewish Museum, their shaggy mayhem and chiaroscuro tones offering a strong contrast to the precise, geometric figures and interior wit of Mr. Ware’s work, which shares the room.
“In my mind, I see him as a young Kevin Bacon,” Mr. Panter says of Jimbo, who strides through the densely allusive panels of “Purgatory” amid dialogue lifted from Dante, Boccacio, the Book of Isaiah, and John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Two Virgins.”Yul Brynner’s cowboy robot from “Westworld”makes a guest appearance, as does Zappa and a host of other free-associative references — all duly footnoted.
Another room contains a trove of Mr. Crumb’s grumpy, profane, and sexually effusive underground comics, which minted counter-cultural folk heroes like Mr. Natural (“Keep on Truckin'”) and Fritz the Cat. Mr. Crumb’s cracked sense of humor jostles easily with that of Harvey Kurtzman, inventor of “Mad” magazine, whose elbow-in-the-ribs style also had a strong social counterpoint. Panels from his Korean War comic book, “Two Fisted Tales,” relate combat stories with compassion, blunt humor, and even a kind of poetry.
More traditionally, there’s Mr. Kirby, whose cinematic style for the “Fantastic Four” (created with Stan Lee) revolutionized the superhero business and gave Roy Lichtenstein a key source for his paintings. Mr. Eisner, whose “The Spirit” arrived in 1940, a year before Mr. Kirby’s “Captain America,”is also celebrated for introducing adult themes and urban realism to a newspaper comic and anticipating the graphic novels to come.
The exhibit’s deep focus revealingly ties all the artists together, despite their widely divergent styles. But the days of conventional superheroes may now be something more for Hollywood to mine. “There’s a revolution in comics right now,” Mr. Panter said while reflecting on his experiences teaching at Manhattan’s School of Visual Arts. “It’s not just Dungeons and Dragons anymore. There’s all kinds of genres now.More than half of my class is interested in doing their own stories.They want to go struggle.”
As for his own inspiration, though he cites the dystopian science fiction of Philip K. Dick and J.G. Ballard, and the discordant sound collages he plays on a motley stack of old boomboxes, Mr. Panter only has to flash back to his Texas childhood — and the looming menace of his own imagination.
“I got scared by some kids in monster masks when I was 4,” he says, with a soft chuckle. “My mother said I never got over it.”