What do you get when you toss Godzilla, Popeye, Dante, Zappa, Picasso, Kirby, Sun Ra and Philip K. Dick into a pot and stir? A mad brew that is artist Gary Panter’s outrageous oeuvre. Panter, a prolific painter and the father of punk comix, is one of the most influential artists alive, period. Brooklyn-based publisher, PictureBox, has just released The Gary Panter Book, an electrifyingly exquisite, meticulously-designed (by Panter’s wife Helen Silverman) two-volume retrospective that would be equally at home in the MoMA gift shop or a West Village headshop. Upon first glance, Panter’s work seems scratchy, childish and incomprehensible (when asked to describe his style, he said “spazzadelic”). But locking into Panter for the first time is like the moment Coltrane stops sounding like noise and starts sounding like heaven.
The first volume is a delightful panoply of paintings, from the late ’60s on, many of which the artist describes as looking like “the inside of a toy store window”—dinosaurs, samurais, Elvis, the Virgin Mary, robots, monsters and spacemen coexist in colorful “frozen moments.” Panter “mines our recent and ancient past for icons worth remembering and permutating.” The second volume is culled from sketchbooks, and perusing it is like peering into the skull of a mad scientist concocting hieroglyphics out of pop imagery.
Panter first became known for his underground comix alter-ego, Jimbo, a proto-Bart Simpson who stars in the long running comic strip “Dal Tokyo,” but Panter’s most famous for his Emmy-award winning set designs for Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Panter and Paul Reubens, aka Pee-wee Herman, first hooked up in L.A. in 1979, when Panter did a poster for Pee-wee’s live show at the Roxy. When HBO bought it, Pee-wee made sure Panter came along to New York to provide the vision for what became the wildly influential kids-program.
Two of Panter’s ongoing influences are musician Frank Zappa and comic book artist Jack Kirby. “I loved that you could go into a 7-Eleven and get your mind blown by these flimsy pamphlets… Devil Dinosaur, Demon, Forever People, Omac. Just incredible stuff, with the wildest covers ever and spreads like Mexican murals.”
Panter drew three Zappa album covers in the ’80s and says, “Sometimes you come across a cultural artifact that does something to you… I grew up in conservative Sulphur Spings, Texas and when I saw the cover of Zappa’s Freak Out!, man, I would peel back the cellophane and peek until I could afford it… Zappa delivered ideas.” Panter and his pal Matt Groening would devour everything Zappa recommended. In fact, The Simpsons channeled Panter’s Rozz Tox Manifesto (a “fake art movement”), which stated, in the form of xeroxed zines, that “aesthetic mediums must infiltrate popular mediums,” and “if you want a better media, go make it.”
Panter also performs “swampy space rock” with animator Devin Flynn, and produces psychedelic low-fi lightshows with polyhedrons and puppets (“full-blown brain melts”). “I think artistic play is trying to help humans evolve and has actually uncovered a lot of interesting, almost magical principles, some of them worth trying to utilize and master.”