Meet The End Of The Century With…
By Sasa Rakezic alias Aleksandar Zograf
I first heard of Gary Panter in the early
80's when he drew some cover designs for Ralph Records, the home
of The Residents, who were (and still are) among my all-time favorite
avant-garde weird pop combos. In The ROZZ-TOX Manifesto, written
in 1980, Gary Panter declared:" There are twenty years left in the
twentieth century. Twenty years to reap the rewards and calamities
that have been put in motion in this period. At this time a current
aesthetic function is emerging: the inevitable culmination of concepts
and experiments pioneered and conducted in this century. We declare
society an amusement park and one to be dead reckoned with." At
the very end of the century, I had a golden opportunity to meet
Gary Panter in his studio in Brooklyn and to ask him about what
he did in its final decades… Along with me on this sentimental journey
were an international cast of friends - Igor Prassel, the editor
of the Slovenian magazine Stripburger, and Gunnar Lundkvist, a Swedish
cartoonist, and they helped wholeheartedly with their questions.
First, something about your background…
How did you start drawing comics?
I was born in 1950, I grew up in
Texas and Oklahoma, and my father after a while went into the dime
store business. In dime stores they had comic books. Also, he was
an artist and he drew all the time. We had a little house-trailer
and we moved around, and the house-trailer was full of his oil paintings.
He would sit and draw, and that's how I started. With comics - I
started drawing comics when I was a kid. I really liked dinosaurs;
I read stuff like Cavemen, Conan, and even Tarzan. My grandparents
in Oklahoma had magazines with comics, like Mandrake the Magician,
Barney Google. Then, when Robert Crumb happened in the 60's, he
just made a clear path … I really wanted to be a hippie - even if
I was raised by an American religious cult called The Church of
Christ. It's one of those religions where, when I was a kid in school,
they would say: "you are going to burn in hell! You are bad." And
no matter what - you don't have the answer. It was really hard to
make my way out of that… On top of that, I was into dinosaurs…
That should not be a surprise, with
all the famous dinosaurs' fossils in Texas?
When I was a little kid my father took me in our house trailer to
another house trailer where geologists lived, and they had lots
of bones and models of dinosaurs. That's what really got me started.
I was perhaps 4 year old.
Do you still visit Texas?
My family still lives there. And since my father retired, he paints
cowboys and Indians ... He does a kind of psychedelic cowboy & Indian
paintings, and he doesn't realize that it's psychedelic. And he
does really kind of "normal" Western paintings too.
Does he paint in the tradition of
American folk art?
He is really kind of far out… He would paint an "invisible eye,"
and then the next guy would go like: what are you doing there? What
is this thing? Don't do that! So there's a lot of… nothing. He is
an oddball. He thinks he is normal, but he is really crazy. If you
talk to him for 15 minutes or even 5 minutes, he'll try to convert
you to his religion.
So what does he think of your comics?
He does not see them at all. He only knows that I'm an artist. He
knows that I did those Peewee Herman TV show, so he can possibly
talk about that, but he does not ask me about my art. We only talk
about HIS art (laugh). He knows that I'm doing comics, and sometimes
my nephews are buying stuff on the Internet, but they are all kind
of brainwashed by that Church thing.
How did you start to publish your
Originally, I started drawing my stuff in 1971, or something like
that, and by the time I finally found somebody to publish it, it
was 1977. My drawing style back then was ziggy-zaggy, rough, scratchy
stuff, with a lot of space in it. I published my first drawings
and threw them around like flyers at rock concerts. I threw those
colored-paper photocopied Rozz-Toxx drawings at Marc Bolan
once, and scared him to death… This was in '73 or '74.
What was Marc Bolan's reaction?
He was afraid. I was dressed like a lizard and threw these comics
at him, and his bongo player laughed. Some of those same drawings
were published a couple of years ago in Matt Groening's Zongo
Comics. Originally, I self-published some of my works. Just
went to the copy shop and made books, folded them and took them
to clothing stores in LA once I'd moved to that town. I asked at
the fashion boutiques if they would sell those books, they said
OK, and that's where my stuff first became available. I continued
with that, and then Japanese people started noticing me and publishing
my stuff. At the same time, Art Spiegelman contacted me because
they were just starting with Raw. But originally they all
saw my work in Slash, a rock magazine that published my work
in 1977. This was a hard core punk magazine. Since 1972 I'd been
thinking like - I can move to New York and print my stuff, but something
just messed me up, and I stayed - I had friends in Texas, I was
in a band … It was in a town in the middle of nowhere, in Texas,
population 6000. I wanted to be a hero, I wanted to be a hippie,
but I was still at home. I couldn't escape my father. He would have
killed me if I'd left home.
Have you tried to make stories about
life in Texas in those days?
I did a little bit about it in comics I did for a Zongo, about me
just sitting in a studio, waiting for the tornado to blow, or sitting
with old people who were just chewing tobacco, and spitting in big
buckets, and stuff like garlic or onions hanging over their head.
And they were trying to figure out whether the thing beating on
the door is someone trying to get in or a tornado? When I go back
there, to Texas, people still believe that I will go to hell. They
would talk or argue about it. I can really scare my father by saying:
I don't believe in hell, I don't believe in the devil. I think if
you ask Americans, 30% will say that they believe in the devil -
the guy with a pitchfork and a tail. The questions that true spiritualism
are raising are what is imagination, what is existence, is it final
or is it infinite? Is it holographic, is it piece of a whole, is
it nothing? People who say they know end up fighting each other
because they are so desperate to have the right answer.
When I spoke to Kim Deitch, I asked
him about the fact that Americans have such a fine sense of cartooning.
They can very easily, with great humor and skill, create something
that is a kind of instant styling of reality that we call "cartoony"
since we do not know any other term. What do you think?
I think it's because there was no previous culture here. Cartoons
and the movies are the only culture; there was no history. There
is a hidden history, though , we killed all the Indians and we moved
right in. Other than cartoons, there were the newspaper comics,
and partly, that was what my bad acid trip in 1972 was about. I
was thinking that, if I take acid I will have this extra experience--this
higher thing, but it was like a big cartoon and I said, "Oh my god,
my soul is like a fucking comic book or a commercial!" It really
terrorized me. It was like showing fifty movies at once, and turning
the sound up and down. I thought that I would see something more
natural, but it was like a computer, I saw commercials from the
future. But I don't really want to push into that very deeply. Anyway,
I think that a little acid goes a long way, and I'm still on that
trip to some extent -- as far as I am recovering from thinking about
it -- and it is like trauma memory that stays with you…
What would you say about the culture
of the hippie era?
It was really the first rejection on a big scale of the US in a
way, because it didn't have any history, so it could be the first
time. It was like saying, we don't want to wear suits, we don't
want to go out to a job. Rejecting a whole culture, standing upright
and saying: we will build a whole new creature, and then… chickening
out. The whole thing was almost killed by that kind of timidity
and... TELEVISION. Even though television probably brought it on
in the first place -- you can imagine that, in places like Texas
or Brooklyn, people usually don't go off the block their whole lives.
They just see very, very, locally. And when they saw that hippie
stuff on the television, this was like the first bigger idea that
they'd come across. But it was pretty fascinating - I looked at
psychedelic posters all the time and studied Rick Griffin, and Robert
Williams and Crumb--and all these guys. It was really a bizarre
and magical time, even though it was part packaging and finance
taped to some adolescent idea of revolution and a lot of self-deception
and hormones and everything.
How do your comics relate to that
sort of counterculture?
Well they actually started out as hippie, underground comix. In
the 60's, when I was still living at home, I had my own little underground
paper and comics and prototypes. I just dreamed about publishing
them. When you try to find yourself in your late teens, you really
lose your childhood, so it's very useful to go back and find out
what you REALLY like. You began to ask questions like: do I really
like just MTV, or do I need some other piece of culture or trash
or whatever. Unfortunately, that's all that anyone's reaching to
right now -- just cultural trash…
Tell me more about your development
as an artist in the 70's?
I always wanted to be an artist, and while in a high-school I went
to the library and soaked up everything that they had there. And
when I went to collage--it was only 20 miles away from where I grew
up--they had a bigger library. I just progressed through this series
of things, I can show you my sketchbooks from that time. Mostly,
it just goes through hippie stuff, I was drawn to rough-printed
things. And as I spent time near the Mexican border when I was a
kid, Mexican elements had an influence on me -- these raggedy, weird
colors. But also the Yellow Submarine animated film was fascinating
to me, big cultural things like that. I went through studying art
history, and then right before I had my bad acid trip, I just kind
of reached the end of it. I had an epiphany about this raggedy style
and called it Rozz-Tox. That was the infantilism of the cultural
happening, that was my epiphany. Not only was there a reinvestigation
of childhood, there was also this negative lapsing into total collapse
and infantile imagery. Then this acid trip showed me like 10 billion
drawings I should not do -- 10 zillion paintings that are better
then anything that I will ever do. But no thanks, don't go in that
direction, that's horrible… The whole experience made me superstitious.
For example, there is this Japanese psychedelic band that I like,
called Ghost. I was at the record store the other day and I came
across new Ghost records and I went like - WOW! Then I flipped through
another Ghost record in the row, and I had this terrible feeling
of the… devil (laughs). There was just something about two new Ghost
albums coming out that reminded me of things in dream time or acid
time, that was telling me -- don't buy it today! Another day it
may be safe...
When you started to publish with Raw,
were you on the national scene? Did people already know about you?
I had a page in Slash magazine for 20 or 30 issues, and I
think it was noticed on the East Coast as well as the West Coast.
Even if you were travelling around, you would come across Slash
magazine or Search and Destroy. My page was a Jimbo comic -- the
first couple of pages were about music, but then there was just
this obnoxious, raggedy drawing style, because I'd been doing it
since '73, and never found a place to print it. And suddenly I found
Slash, and there was all kind of abstract expressionism. It was
this time of synthesization that ended up being called post-modernism.
I don't know if there is really any name for it. You can call it
"new pop" or something, but it ended up being called post-modernism.
That's better than "new wave." I never liked that term because there
were many new waves…
I've some of your drawings which are
very elaborate, but then some which could be called… primitive?
I draw in the way that I feel in the moment. If I just honestly
drew the way I drew, it would be always different. It changes, and
over the years it developed into kind of variety, but a style should
follow the idea, rather then the idea following the style. Esthetics
is tied to sexual seduction and mating signals, and it could be
generally neutral, but it has this effect and you could apply it
in a different ways and esthetic styles. From second to second there
are infinite styles that all have an authority. I've became interested
in learning what is the threshold of that authority, and it's really
law. Like bathroom graffiti, children's art, idiot's art, it all
has this authority and it's own reality. It's very strong in terms
of how I learned to draw. I was always intimidated by other children's
drawings. There was a kid in my class who was hydrocephalic -- he
had a giant head -- and he drew with compasses and T-squares, and
it was really fascinating, geometric art. And there was a girl who
could color in really solid -- I would think: how did she do that?
I used a whole box of crayons to get these solid, colored surfaces,
but now I'm trying to draw in a way which is similar to engraving,
involving a lot of cross-hatching. I did Jimbo in Dante's Inferno,
and now I'm doing Jimbo in Purgatory, it's more old-timey
looking, like 100 year ago! But still I have many limitations in
terms of control, and my work is kind of bent. I can be very controlling,
but I can't ever be Charles Burns, and that is just natural, that's
fine. Spiegelman has always encouraged me to do really mixed-up
styles, to continue to change style in every panel! Anyway, I believe
that my characters are real, and the way that Jimbo ended
up, with the bomb exploding, it's really embarrassing, really stupid,
but I'm glad I did it, even though I can see how many people went
like, "Oh, gee, what's happening with this guy?" But I was really
trying to apologize for dropping the bomb on Japan after reading
so much about it and being upset by those idiotic extremes we are
perpetuating on ourselves and on each other. I don't know, I read
a newspaper and get really upset. I cry at every movie I go to,
no matter what it is, even if some idiot is trying to sell me something.
How did you start publishing Jimbo
for Zongo Comics?
Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons, is one of my
best friends. He was starting a kind of a comic book company because
he liked underground comics, considering himself an underground
cartoonist and still drawing his Life in Hell strips. And
so Groening's company, called Zongo, put out my comic book series
called Jimbo that was completely, terribly unpopular. Instead
of printing like 5,000 each time, they progressively published fewer
and fewer. These comics were so important to me, and it was great
they were putting them out, but there are hardly any of them in
the stores. The comic is based on this idea I had back in the 70's,
about imagining what if Japan and Texas were the same place.. I
just mixed them all together, and that's where Jimbo lives. And
Zongo was printing something like 1,000 copies of each issue of
these comics. They wouldn't even barely start the press before they
would have to turn it off again… There were only seven issues of
Jimbo, and then it stopped being published by that publisher.
It was stopped because it was just totally unprofitable for them.
This comic book really clouded my relationship with Matt, so I think
that it will be better if I continue that title with another publisher…
Was Matt Groening disappointed?
I don't know. He published the stuff that nobody else wanted - like
the stuff that I did in the 70's. It was very important for me to
show it. Like, look, here's the stuff that I did when I was alone
in my little room.
Tell me about the world where Jimbo
lives. What is it? Is it in the future?
Well, it is becoming a cliché from the movies, but Jimbo lives in
a post-apocalyptic world. I had different ideas about it, and one
of these was a "reverse universe", crashing back towards a big bang,
like we are expending out and Jimbo is going back in after a zillion
years, and they are digging out fossils of us. They are just like
a chemical formation. I don't really think about it that much. Anyway,
this is like picking up all the things that strike me: OK, this
is my world, this isn't my world, and I like this animal, etc… And
it's got messages and explorations… Del Tokyo is another
thing, I draw it monthly for a Japanese reggae magazine called Rhythm.
I think that they can see how influenced I am by Japan because the
Japanese have those institutionalized lowbrow drawings in the back
of their magazines, and some of their best cartoonists draw in this
How did you get involved with album
When I moved to LA in '76, I was desperate to get work, and I started
to do little spot illustrations for some record companies and magazines,
or just showing my weird paintings. I didn't know it, but Frank
Zappa was on tour, and Warner Brothers decided to get him off the
label. The way they were doing it was issuing a breaking-up four-
album set called "Ladder." So they issued (while he was on tour)
albums in very rapid succession. I just got a call from an art director
that I knew, asking me if I wanted to do a Zappa cover, and I said,
"YES!" But I didn't hear anything from Frank Zappa; I never met
him. Then the art director called me a month later, and asked if
I wanted to do another Zappa cover, and I did it, and I still didn't
meet Zappa. I was thinking, "What is going on? Is he control freak,
where is he?" And when they called me for a third one, I said that
I don't know what the deal was, and they explained. So I did the
cover, and I think that he ended up liking them. OK, years later.
Matt Groening became friends with Zappa, and Zappa told him he liked
the covers. I never met Zappa, which was too bad.
But you met The Residents!
Yeah, I met Residents, sure! They are a couple of years older then
me. I don't know how they work any more, but one of them would typically
write most of the lyrics, and another one would do most of the music,
and they have many people working with them. We met through friends.
They asked me to do some covers, and I still see them from time
to time. When they played here, I went to see their show. They're
good. They are like SUPER-FOLK artists, that's what I think of them,
root Louisiana and kind of theatrical.
You yourself have made some records?
Yes, Jay Cotton and I put out a Colahaus single in 1978. Also, a
Japanese company paid me to put out an album -- it was in the 80's,
like 1983 or something. It was kind of psychedelic country music
I guess, crying about Christianity mostly, Christian damage music.
So it's good that it was put out in Japan, so nobody will find out
about It. Then, some of my music was put out by Blast First a couple
of years ago, on a picture disc. One side was my friend Jay Cotton,
and the other side was me, and it was a really neat package -- a
picture disc. We were really into vinyl, which means that this record
is really hard to find; anyway, I do this music, but I'm not very
good at it, it's kind of silly, but great fun to do it. I can play
guitar probably better then before, but I never took lessons. According
to the rules of my religion, we can't dance, and we can't play instruments,
so joy is not accepted, except on TV -- we can watch television.
So you can watch OTHERS having fun?
Yeah… Anyway, I never learned to play with other people. It was
always just me playing, so when I did a record with The Residents,
one of them would come and say: "Here's a drum stick, first you
play drums". They made me do everything, one track at a time, and
then build it up. The Residents produced the "Tornader to the Tater"
single out of that material. They actually added some tracks when
I wasn't around, put on some new sounds. That's why for a while
people thought that I was in The Residents, and that was cool.
The good thing about The Residents
is that ANYTHING could be true about them! After all these years,
they are still hiding behind their masks and the mythology and gossip
that surrounds them…
Yes! And what's funny is, when you meet them (unless you are from
some big magazine) they tell you the truth about themselves.
In Serbia, where I live, we haven't
seen Peewee Herman's shows, even though there were a couple of very
favorable articles in the press about him… But when I talked to
people here, I realized how big his show was. What did you do for
I designed the TV show set, but originally I started to work with
Paul Reubens (Peewee's real name) in the early 80's on a stage show.
We did the show in LA , and then it became a TV show on HBO. I wrote
a movie called Peewee's Great Adventure, which was never
made because the company didn't want to buy our movie. Anyway, Paul
is real fun to work with, and he really believed in me and trusted
me, let me run pretty far with his ideas and stuff. Peewee got into
trouble because Americans are not being able to talk about sex.
When I was a child they wouldn't say a word PREGNANT on television!
They'd actually throw you in jail for saying PREGNANT or something.
And Peewee was caught in a porno theater, supposedly. He says that
it is not true, even though that does not mean that he's never been
in a place like that. Anyway, it was the end of his career. So you
got this whole phenomenon of him getting to be like Mickey Mouse
for 5 or 10 years. All the children would think that he's Santa
Claus, and then - he's GONE, you can't think about Peewee anymore.
But it is more complicated than that because it has to do with the
marketing set-up in America. People want to jump on a fad and then
jump off again, and they perceived that his fad was over. Then the
scandal occurred… I worked with the company that did hundreds of
Peewee things. They paid for this giant campaign, but then some
executive said: "It's not selling fast enough, ditch it." Then they
destroyed all the Peewee property, and this scandal happened.
What did you actually do for the show?
I designed the set, which was maybe about eight times bigger then
this room. We did a small one in New York and another one in Los
Angeles. There were about 200 people involved with production of
the show. I did the drawings with my friends Wayne and Rick, we
would read the script, analyze it… By the way, it is now running
on TV again; it is re-entering the culture. But what's weird to
me is to think about that gap of 8 or 10 years, of children who
loved Peewee. Then they didn't know anything about him, and now
they've found out about Peewee again. It's going to make a difference
between generations in the U.S.-- the Hanna-Barbera generation VS
the Fleischer's studio cartoon generation. It will happen again
in 10 years. These strong influences are coming from TV culture
and marketing. Anyway, the Peewee show was a big influence
for a while; it influenced all these cereal commercials. The "triangle
in pink with the green shadow" -- that was a new wave in U.S. marketing,
but it's a neat show; it still looks pretty good, and I hope to
do more stuff with him.
So you did a lot of toys and merchandising
Yes, we did pajamas, belt buckles, everything. My bad acid trip
was actually about being lost on this big plastic floor, and part
of the floor has just merchandise thrown all over -- watches, belt
buckles, snickers, ash-trays, cornflakes, everything out of the
catalogue thrown on the floor, but all arranged very carefully.
I was wandering on this endless plane of consumer goods, with the
big bell ringing DOOOOONG, DOOOONG! Then it came to a place where
there were millions of little Mickey Mouse hands forever coming
out of false-teeth gums. I don't know, Peewee was more fun
than that, but it was like really fast design -- stickers, back-packs,
jeans, jackets. There was some OK stuff, though.
Today do you devote a lot of your
time to painting?
Yes, I have been painting since my high-school days, but I'm really
slow, I might do two or 10 paintings a year. But it's not a career.
Cartoons and paintings are ... a dominant hobby.
So what really is your occupation
Oh, God… I'm an artist. In commercial art I make money,
but it's not as much fun, usually, because they say: "Draw John
Travolta driving a car!" And I reply: "No, I don't want to draw
John Travolta driving a car!", "But you have to for the money!"
And then I say "OK, I'll try to do it", and I get the job. But,
my comics and my paintings, that's just joy. I would like to live
a long time and do a lot of them.