Approaching Omega: Gary Panter Q&A

The underground “punk comics” legend—and “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” set designer—talks about climbing aboard OMEGA: THE UNKNOWN

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OMEGA: THE
UNKNOWN #7
cover art by
Gary Panter

By Sean T. Collins He's won Emmy Awards, had his work hung on museum walls in the "Masters of American Comics" exhibit, trained the next generation of comics creators at New York's School of Visual Arts and worked with everyone from Frank Zappa to the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Pee-Wee Herman. His deliberately jagged art and ferociously experimental writing on projects such as Jimbo—which, along with Maus, is considered one of the cornerstones of Art Spiegelman's seminal alternative comics magazine "RAW"—gave birth to a punk comics movement that's still sending shockwaves through the scene today. There's not a whole lot that writer-artist Gary Panter hasn't done—except work with Marvel. But that's about to change. When OMEGA: THE UNKNOWN writer Jonathan Lethem needed a guest artist to draw Omega's origin story in a comic-within-a-comic for issue #7 of the 10-issue mini-series, Panter stood out as the perfect choice. With influences that range from Japanese manga and monster movies to Marvel's own Jack Kirby, Panter's work has an action-packed, otherworldly quality. Kinda like Omega himself, no? With OMEGA: THE UNKNOWN #7 about to hit the stands on April 2, we spoke with Gary about his long and storied career, his work on OMEGA, his favorite Marvel books and whether he can draw better than a super hero.

OMEGA: THE
UNKNOWN #7
preview art by
Gary Panter

Marvel.com: So, Gary, tell the Marvel zombies out there a bit about yourself and your career. Gary Panter: I am a 57-year-old art nerd, originally from Texas. I am best known for my occasional underground comic Jimbo and for designing the "Pee-Wee's Playhouse" TV show back in the late '80s. I've lived in Brooklyn for over 20 years. Marvel.com: You also teach at one of the great breeding grounds for future comics artists, the School of Visual Arts. How did that come about, and what is your favorite aspect of that gig? Gary Panter: Well, I'm not rich. I have to work. When I was a kid, I always made my brother and sister play art school. I was the teacher. A self-serving game. I hope they liked it. Now I'm a real teacher and public speaker. I work with great people at SVA. Tom Woodruff is my boss and he is great to work with. I can't name all the teachers—the list will be too long—but it is a talented bunch of working artists and really talented students, from all over the world—half guys, half girls. Drawers and storytellers. Marvel.com: You were enshrined alongside the likes of Jack Kirby, Will Eisner and Robert Crumb in the "Masters of American Comics" museum exhibits. What was it like to be in a Hall of Fame situation like that. Gary Panter: Really, it was like being in a very pleasant dream. I never in a million years expected to be in a museum show with the likes of those comic masters. But I mean it really seemed like I was dreaming. Marvel.com: I think the credit that most of Marvel.com's readers would be most familiar with is your work on "Pee-Wee's Playhouse." Was that as big a left turn from something like "RAW" as it seems?

OMEGA: THE
UNKNOWN #7
preview art by
Gary Panter

Gary Panter: "RAW" was a big magazine format comic that was emphasizing experimental comic art. The "Pee-Wee" show was an experimental Saturday morning kid's show. The big change, yes, is that "Pee-Wee" became a show for kids and not for a grown-up audience, so we had to be very conscious of that. This was before "Ren and Stimpy" and "South Park." The climate has changed a lot. "Pee-Wee's Playhouse" made a few very silly and harmless innuendoes, like the stuff you thought was racy when you were five years old, and it was shocking to some people back then. ["RAW"], on the other hand, was for grown-ups and was arty and seriously edited by Art [Spiegelman] and [his wife] Françoise [Mouly] to be for novel-reading adults. Originally, "Pee-Wee" was a show for adults that parodied 1950's kid TV. Two different audiences. Both needed to look neat. Marvel.com: Marvel also seems like an unlikely destination for you. How did you hook up with this project? Gary Panter: My friend Jonathan Lethem asked me to do a short section of the OMEGA comic series he is doing with [artist] Farel [Dalrymple] and I had to say yes. Jonathan is a very respected novelist and super-smart nice art guy, and that is one of the things I look for in life—to work with people I respect and admire. Marvel.com: Were you a fan of the work Jonathan and Farel were doing before you got involved with the book? What do you think of it? Gary Panter: I'm a fan of Jonathan's novels and short stories. I had seen Farel's work a little, but I am mostly looking at old comics, not new comics. There are so many new comics—I can't keep up. I am very impressed with Farel's work on OMEGA. He's doing all kinds of fancy perspective tricks and then making it look easy. Plus, he can draw clothing folds. Marvel.com: Ha! I think you're dead on about Farel's knack for perspective. He's staged action sequences in ways I've never really seen before in super hero comics, and I've read a lot of

OMEGA: THE
UNKNOWN #7
preview art by
Gary Panter

'em. I also think Jonathan's deadpan tone is a unique one, even for "revisionist" super hero books. It's an interesting mix, don't you think?
Gary Panter: Oh, yeah. Plus, there are a lot of situations where the transition between his stuff and my guest pages would work together. I think ours will fit. Marvel.com: What exactly will you be drawing for the series? I believe you're providing the art that within the story is being drawn by Omega himself, right? Gary Panter: Omega draws his own origin story in the form of a wordless comic. I draw it for him. At first I was going to draw it with really jagged lines like the punky stuff I did in the '70s, but I decided to draw kind of like I draw these days, but even a little more retarded than usual. I figured that a [super hero] could probably draw [as well] as me, without trying very hard, but I didn't want to draw it exactly like the other comics I'm drawing these days. I wanted it to be kind of like old Marvel comics, but spazzier. Marvel.com: I'm glad you brought up your punk background—how would you describe that vibe in terms of your comics? How has your work evolved for the things you're doing now, both in OMEGA and elsewhere? Gary Panter: I was doing punky comics, or glitter-rocky or whatever you want to call it, since about '72, so I was waiting for something like punk to come along and fit into. I've always liked really cute simple things and scary, jagged and primitive folk stuff. I fuse all the stuff I'm into in various ways and see what comes out of the experiment. Early on, my work was like Heinz Edelman—"Yellow Submarine"—meets David Hockney—British Pop art—meets Jean Dubuffet—French Brut artist. There have been a lot of changes along the way. My Dal Tokyo strip I draw now is more like 19th century cross hatchers, because I am drawing with finer dip nibs. Marvel.com: What Marvel comics have appealed to you over the years?

OMEGA: THE
UNKNOWN #7
preview art by
Gary Panter

Gary Panter: In the early '60s I got into Jack Kirby's Marvel comics: THOR, FANTASTIC FOUR, X-MEN and HULK. I also liked DR. STRANGE drawn by Steve Ditko. I had my FOOM fan club package. Maybe I still have it somewhere. I spent a lot of time studying Kirby's drawing. Marvel.com: I believe I've seen some Kirby tribute art you've done. It's interesting how if you divorce it from its action-adventure context, his work has this almost experimental graphic quality... Gary Panter: The kind of changes he went through graphically in his life were really interesting. His stuff starts out kind of blobby, like everything's made out of wet mud. Then by the '60s, it is like wax and less blobby and he starts really getting the gravity and antigravity going. And then in the '70s he has figured out how to sculpt the space with the line and shapes and attach the planes in space like they are clipped together and the whole thing bulges and explodes. And then he kept at it like the warrior intellect he was. I don't know much about mainstream comics today. My students at SVA show me new stuff sometimes. Like, if Spider-Man dies again, they let me know. Marvel.com: That's helpful of them. Do you have any other work with Marvel lined up? Gary Panter: No. Everyone was nice at Marvel and I had fun doing the comic, but I pretty much stick to my monthly comic in Riddim, a Japanese reggae magazine, and Jimbo comics every few years. I am a slow cartoonist. Mostly I do drawings and paint paintings and design stuff.

OMEGA: THE
UNKNOWN #7
preview art by
Gary Panter

Marvel.com: If readers dig what they see of yours in OMEGA, what else should they track down? Gary Panter: If you have a lot of money, a giant two-volume book on my art will be in stores very soon. There is a web site for a peek at the book. If you don't have that much, Jimbo's Inferno is still in stores and there is a Jimbo vinyl figure out now. I also have a museum show on now up at the Aldrich Museum in Connecticut, and a painting show in April in New York at Clementine Gallery on 27th St. And there are two CDs of my music coming out this year, "Pray for Smurph" and "Devin and Gary Go Outside." The "Pray For Smurph" record I made in the '80s for a Japanese label, Overheat, and it is psychedelic country music. The music I am doing with Devin Flynn, [the animator of] "Ya'll So Stupid" at SuperDeluxe.com, is swampy space rock. You can see my stuff and news and blog at garypanter.com.

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