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Gary Panter in Art in America

By Jackson Arn

In Gary Panter’s drawings, a line is not the shortest path between two points, but a slow, wavering one, a termite’s crawl with endless detours and distractions. In the graphic novels, punk album art, band logos, and sketches he has produced between the 1970s and the present, this line is the constant. It intensifies his viewers’ gaze, forcing them to reexamine forms they thought they knew. In his epic graphic novel Jimbo in Purgatory (2004), whose titular character is a spiky-haired punk-everyman who appears throughout the artist’s work, the figures have limbs bulging in odd places and torsos scabrous with crosshatching. Even when Panter prints his own name it comes out mysterious, mute, primitive—you imagine the squeaks of his pen against the paper almost before you remember what the letters mean.

One of the pleasures of “Gary Panter: Drawings, 1973–2019,” a recent exhibition at Fredericks & Freiser curated by Dan Nadel and Nicole Rudick, was the sense it gave of the range of Panter’s influences—the vast erudition hiding under what sometimes looks like plain old roughness. Born in 1950 and raised evangelical Christian in Sulphur Springs, Texas, Panter at an early age fell in love with Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, especially John Tenniel’s illustrations; he grew into a studious reader of Dante and Milton, two other chroniclers of the underworld. At least as crucial to his artistic development were the no-budget monster movies he watched on weekends: “the unreality of that really stuck with me,” he said of the genre, “theatricality and the possibility of the suspension of disbelief by crude means.”

Crude means for Panter are less a millstone than a chance to prove his moxie—he’s like the action hero who tosses aside his gun and raises his fists. He favors rough paper and spindly pen nibs that bring out his hand’s unsteadiness instead of smoothing it over. When this gambit pays off, it pays handsomely. In Fog Pad (2019), details that might seem precious if you considered them individually (an armadillo with a hand for a head, for example, or a hippie van full of similarly creepy critters) accumulate heft over the course of the page, giving the sense of muscular, Miltonian exertion. The same kind of anecdotal style turns out less successfully in Born Wild (2012)—there isn’t enough going on to keep the eye fluttering over the paper, and the two figures at the center are too stiff and blandly rendered to command attention on their own.

Half-emptying your tool kit and using what’s left with twice the energy isn’t a bad way of characterizing the punk movement (think of Sid Vicious digging into the bass he refused to tune). Panter has been tied to punk for most of his career, and could be called punk’s definitive visual interpreter. He was deep in the Los Angeles underground scene in the 1970s and designed album art for the Plugz, and even in the 1990s, after he’d won three Emmys for codesigning the sets for “Pee Wee’s Playhouse,” he went on casting Jimbo in his comics. He has insisted, “I was never the one in the mosh pit,” though some distance may have been needed to capture the punk movement on paper.

The result of this distance, of being intimately acquainted with the movement but somehow not quite of it, are images that elaborate on punk’s spirit with unexpected riffs and links and lineages. In 1979, Panter drew Elvis Zombie; five years later he published a graphic novel called Invasion of the Elvis Zombies. Both are pretty much what they sound like. In the earlier drawing, the King—two years dead—sports ragged black robes and a big hairdo. His white eyes still glow with worldly hungers. “He was a powerful psychic force,” Panter said, “a sexualized psychic force.” At a time when punk tended to interpret Elvis as a cautionary tale or an object of derision, Panter saw a proto-punk, a timeless icon, a familiar form that needed to be drawn anew.

This article appears under the title “Gary Panter” in the February 2020 issue, p. 84.