Interview with avant-garde artist Gary Panter -- one of the first New Wave cartoonists in the 1970s

"Act now while you are alive. Life without aesthetic invention and critique is bland and thoughtless. That there is much to discover. That one might discover and make allies and friends. That in music making one might enter a unified realm of intuition."

Gary Panter: Still Hopeful & Essential

Gary Panter was born in Oklahoma and raised in Texas. He studied painting at the East Texas State University and moved to Los Angeles in 1977. In L.A. he worked on multiple fronts, including painting, design, comics, and commercial imagery, establishing a pattern of creating across traditional boundaries, and in multiple media, that endures to this day. In the late 1970s he exhibited his first major suite of paintings and drew posters and fliers for the likes of The Germs and The Screamers. He also began a long association with the various incarnations of Pee-wee Herman, as well as creating the early adventures of his punk/nuclear/hillbilly alter ego, Jimbo. In 1980 Gary published "The Rozz-Tox Manifesto", a highly influential document that directed his generation to infiltrate the mainstream with underground ideas and culture. Gary's paintings occupy a large portion of a very prolific 1980s, during which he also designed the sets and puppets for Pee-wee's Playhouse, completed record covers for the likes of The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and maintained an active comics output through his own mini-comics and his contributions to Raw magazine and other anthologies.  Photo by Colin Young-Wolff

Returning to comics in the early 1990s, Gary drew seven issues of a Jimbo comic book. He then began delving into light shows, staging elaborate psychedelic performances in his studio space. More recently, he has collaborated with Joshua White, and the duo has mounted lightshows at the Hirschhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. and at New York’s Anthology Film Archives. In 2006-2007, Gary was a featured artist in the touring exhibition, Masters of American Comics. His paintings and drawings have recently been exhibited at Dunn and Brown, Dallas and Clementine Gallery, New York. In 2008, Gary was the subject of a one-man show at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum. His books include a comprehensive monograph, Gary Panter (PictureBox), and four graphic novels: Jimbo in Purgatory (Fantagraphics); Jimbo's Inferno (Fantagraphics); Cola Madnes (Funny Garbage); Jimbo: Adventures in Paradise (Pantheon). Gary has won numerous awards, including three Emmy Awards for his production design on Pee-wee's Playhouse, as well as the 2000 Chrysler Award for Design Excellence. Gary Panter lives and works in Brooklyn.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What were the reasons that made your generation to be the center of artistic, social and spiritual searches?

My generation age-wise is Mark Beyer, Sue Coe, Savage Pencil, Jay Cotton, Georganne Deen--young hippies--older punks.

So the same stuff that propelled the 60s as conveyed by Marshall McLuhan, Buckmister Fuller, Ed Sanders, Mad Magazine, Zap comics and the music. A rising sense of world community by way of print to television. A dawning sense that there is a big plan for us to be little cogs in a repression machine that also wants our money to repress us and the possibility of speaking out and abandoning that cog track by action and art. For me I was raised in an all-consuming religion that was not good for me and so I am about breaking out of that. And so I have to find my own way.

"Act now while you are alive. Life without aesthetic invention and critique is bland and thoughtless. That there is much to discover. That one might discover and make allies and friends. That in music making one might enter a unified realm of intuition." (Albums covers / Artwork © by Gary Panter)

How important was music in your life and art? How does music affect your mood and inspiration?

I love music. Music was encouraged and discouraged in my youth, so I am very happy to be making music with friends a lot now! A joy!! I listen to music sometimes when I work, but I am not a close listener and I space out to the general vibe of the music and have to work to learn or know lyrics. I played trumpet in public school throughout. I am a primitive guitar player. I need to feel the vibration of an instrument to feel re-infused.

What do you miss most nowadays from the past?

The past is being restated all the time, so a lot of it is still around and being examined. I like round cars with faces from the forties and fifties.

What are your hopes and fears for the future of art and music?

I expect that people will learn to balance handicrafts and analog activities and not turn onto white grub worms.

I hope people will not confuse the selling of art with the possibility of art to be interesting.

What is the Impact of art to the racial and socio-cultural implications? What is the relationship: Art & Activism?

We still notice pigmentation. There is a crazy fear based chaos now that will be supplanted by empathy eventually. There is more racial mixing than ever before, though some people are afraid about it because they are isolated physically or mentally.

Art can function very well as propaganda to any master or point of view-- a strength and a weakness.

All art does the same job without the messages being on the headline.

There are crying social issues that propaganda is very helpful airing and critiquing.

"I love music. Music was encouraged and discouraged in my youth, so I am very happy to be making music with friends a lot now! A joy!!"  (Gary Panter with surfin' / Photo by Bruce Osborn)

If you could change one thing in the world and people - and it would become a reality, what would that be?

The idea that there is a big SIN BANK administrating a debt that we need to pay off. The belief in hell.

What do you learn about yourself from the counterculture art? What does PUNK ART & CULTURE mean to you?

Act now while you are alive. Life without aesthetic invention and critique is bland and thoughtless. That there is much to discover. That one might discover and make allies and friends. That in music making one might enter a unified realm of intuition.

Why did you think that the underground comix of 60s & 70s continues to generate such a devoted following?

I would like to think that that is true. Most of my students never heard of underground comics and they are comic majors, so I tell them. That they are not wearing suits and ties to class because of underground comics.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the TV news and comix todays?

I laugh a lot and I am sad a lot. I don't watch television as a rule. Breaking Bad was good and I watched it.

"My generation age-wise is Mark Beyer, Sue Coe, Savage Pencil, Jay Cotton, Georganne Deen--young hippies--older punks. So the same stuff that propelled the 60s as conveyed by Marshall McLuhan, Buckmister Fuller, Ed Sanders, Mad Magazine, Zap comics and the music. A rising sense of world community by way of print to television." (JIMBO / Artwork © by Gary Panter)

How you would spend a day with Jimbo?

Wow, never thought about that. I would like to have him take me to the newstand so I could see what they are vending and I would like to go have lunch in a cafe and climb up into his billboard house and see what he is making and watch the sunset and build a fire in a stove up there and listen to the sounds.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you?

Studying under Bruce Tibbetts, Lee Baxter Davis, Charles McGough, Jack Unruh, Bill Wiman, Bill Lamb, Don Ivan Punchatz and Joshua White. But there is no real answer to this. Honorable mentors are important.

What is the best advice ever given you?

"You can do it, Lad." A stranger in London encouraged me to run for the last train of the day.

What would be your first decisions as minister of education and culture?

Make camping and art and music more essential. Free condoms.

Happiness is...

Being in the right place at the right time with the right company.

Gary Panter is…

Still hopeful.

Self Portrait © by Gary Panter / Metropolis Magazine

What would you say to W. Disney?

You should have steered clear of live action and done animated Carl Barks movies.

What would you like to ask Picasso?

What's in the little box?

Where would you really wanna go with a time machine and what memorabilia (records, books) would you put in?

I am already in a time machine and have too much of what I would collect from the past.

Gary Panter - Official website

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