Gary Panter's Jimbo in Purgatory
By Jeet Heer
National Post (September 4, 2004)

If you’ve kept up with the popular culture of the last three decades, there is a good chance that on more than one occasion your mind has been warped by the work of Gary Panter. Although the general public has only a flickering awareness of his name, he is a hero in the world of illustration, design, puppetry, cartooning, and painting. An endlessly inventive creative spirit, his fingerprints have left their mark on many art forms.

As an early participant in the Los Angeles punk scene in the 1970s, he defined the grungy style of he era with his drawings for Slash magazine and numerous record covers. In the 1980s, he was the set designer for Pee-wee’s Playhouse, where he changed the face of children’s television, winning three Emmy awards in the process. Prior to Panter’s work, kid shows had a drearily lulling aesthetic: everything was round, cute, simplified, and pastel: as comfy and sleep-inducing as warm milk. The set of Pee-wee’s Playhouse was the antithesis of pablum-art: it was dense as a jungle and jam-packed with surprises, often loud and abrasive ones.

While doing illustration and set designs, Panter kept up an active career as a cartoonist. Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons TV show, once noted that Panter “applied his fine-art training to the casualness of the comic strip, and the result was an explosive series of graphic experiments that are imitated in small doses all over the world today.” Groening himself is an example of a cartoonist who has learned much from Panter. The jagged smashed-glass rawness of The Simpsons (think of Lisa’s hair) can be traced back to the post-apocalyptic world that Panter was sketching in the early 1980s. The Simpsons should be seen as mutant escapees from Panter’s early work.

Last October, I met up with Panter when he was giving a talk at Washington University at St. Louis, Missouri. An endearingly gentle artist who speaks with a sweet Southwestern twang, Panter talked with ease about his wide-ranging career, including his most recent project, a free-style graphic adaptation of Dante which has just been published as Jimbo in Purgatory. Chatting with Panter, it became clear that although his work seems perpetually protean, it is in fact held together by a coherent sensibility which is always seeking to bridge the gap between high art and popular culture.

Born in Oklahoma in 1950, Panter grew up reveling in the cornucopia of junk available to kids in the postwar world. He spent his childhood drawing “fighting dinosaurs, monster, Roman soldiers, musclemen, amusement parks, spies, robots, spaceships and Rat Finks all the way though public school.” (Rat Fink was a car-loving cartoon rodent much loved by the hot-rod crowd).

As an aspiring painter in the early 1970s, Panter came of age just as Pop Art was expiring. Artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein had already made paintings influenced by advertising art and comic books. Moreover, Warhol and Lichtenstein were simply the tail end of a longstanding trend within twentieth century modernism: in the early decades of the century Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro had already looked to circus posters and comic strips as raw material for their work.

In many ways, Panter represents the mirror image of the movement started by Picasso. Instead of bringing pop influences into the museum, Panter has spread high modernism to the masses. What else is Pee-wee’s Playhouse except Picasso for the pre-pubescent set? It was Panter’s genius to realize that even tykes could also love the density and complexity of modern art.

Panter loves fusing together disparate things. “Cubism and robots?” he seems to think. “Why not?” He has a synthetic mind, and so did Dante, which perhaps explains why the cartoonist was drawn to the medieval poet. Living in the High Middle Ages from 1265 to 1321, Dante threw in nearly everything he knew into his masterpiece The Divine Comedy. Describing in three nearly equal parts the journey the poet takes through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, The Divine Comedy is an amazingly multi-layered work.

Aside from Catholic theology, Dante’s epic is woven from many cultural strands, including classical learning (the ancient poet Virgil is a guide), courtly love (Dante is inspired throughout by the spirit of his childhood sweetheart Beatrice, who is literally an old flame) political polemic (a pope is in Hell for opposing the poet’s dream of imperial unity), and scientific learning (a fascinating digression on optics).

The afterlife is a crowded place in Dante: filled with clergymen, politicians and artists as well as mythical characters (such as Ulysses) and Biblical heroes. Yet Dante’s overflowing imagination is always kept in check with his attention to form: each Canto is nearly the same length and the number three rings a hoop around the work as a whole. Many rhymes come in triplets and there are 34 Cantos devoted to Hell, 33 to Purgatory, 33 to Heaven, making an even 100. Seeking a visual echo, Panter always stacks up his comic strip panels in rows of three on every page.

Rather than doing a straight adaptation of Dante, Panter has in effect added new layers to the classic by populating it with a pop culture menagerie. Set in a high tech Purgatory, Panter replaces Dante with an everyman character named Jimbo (a good natured goof with spiky hairs and a loin clothe) and gives the minor roles to various pop stars, toys, robots, and iconic images.

Throughout Purgatory Dante met with many troubadours and poets; Jimbo, in parallel spots, meets musicians such as Tiny Tim, Boy George, and John Lennon. In Canto XVII Dante is touched by the Angel of Gentleness; in Panter’s version this divine creature takes the suitably gentle form of a Teddy Bear. Lust is denounced in Dante with an allusion to Queen Pasiphae, who mated with a bull and gave birth to a Minotaur. The comic book counterparts are Disney-esque creatures, with the bimbo bodies and dog-heads. Cato, the ghostly emblem of Roman virtue in Dante, is transformed by Panter into Kato, the assistant to the Green Hornet as played by Bruce Lee in a short-lived TV show.

This visual play is only one of the layers added on by Panter. Aside from the visual metamorphosis, the language of Dante has been renovated. Just as Dante was shaped by the classics, so his work has influenced countless subsequent writers, from Boccaccio to James Joyce. So for most of the speeches in the book, Panter has found parallel passages from many post-Dante works, mostly from literary masterpieces but also the odd limerick and pop song. In effect, Panter has created an enormous echo chamber, allowing us to hear Dante’s themes ringing through the ages.

Because of the multiple literary voices, Jimbo in Purgatory is a very dense and challenging work. Yet here too we can take a lesson from Dante. As the poet makes clear, we can travel though the next world at different speeds. Dante wants to take in the afterlife at a slow pace, lingering with all his former friends, but his guide Virgil is always urging greater haste. Just so, we can read The Divine Comedy very quickly for the story or slowly soak up each allusion and metaphor.

In the same manner, Panter’s work is open to a variety of tempos. Each page covers one Canto and is in effect a poster: the dimension of the book are 12” by 17 ¼”. Flipping through the book, it is easy enough to enjoy Panter’s graphic mastery, the way his squiggly and quirky line work plays off his sure design sense. Yet after the initial delight of the art has faded, the minute details of the book can be appreciated in all their glory.

Visually, Panter joins the rank of the other major artists who have been inspired by Dante’s vision, notably William Blake and Gustave Dore. On a literary level, Panter has helped enrich our reading of a great poem. Jimbo in Purgatory is Gary Panter’s magnum opus, the summit of an enormously important artistic career.