Every once in a while I run into a book to review that leaves me completely flabbergasted; without the vocabulary to describe the book in terms that seem appropriate to the work. That was the case with the new collection from Fantagraphics of Gary Panter's new collection, Dal Tokyo. So rather than struggle all alone with what to say about the book, I decided to go to the source and speak to the master artist himself. So I caught up with Gary Panter at a signing at the Fantagraphics Bookstore in Seattle on September 8th and received some great insights into both Dal Tokyo and the motivations and skills of one of the most idiosyncratic creators of the last few decades.
Gary Panter: It started with painting. Twentieth century painting got broader and broader, with what it could be. And when I saw Zap Comix, I was like "wow, I could do that too, as part of my painting." Later I realized drawing was a separate activity from painting, though everything creative is related somehow.
[Dal Tokyo] is experimental comics. There aren't really a lot of experimental cartoonists, really. So I push that. And I like the '70s metafiction guys like Donald Barthelme and Robert Coover and stuff like that. So I think it's related to that stuff a little bit. A lot of metafiction's gag, which I'm not doing so much here, is they start a story, then they break the illusion, then they start the story over again. It's like "John and Jane were –no, Bill and Mary were out by the dock – no, they were walking into a store." The story continually tells you that it’s being made.
I think that Dal Tokyo, because it's experimental, it's continually reminding you that it's being made. Whereas most comics they're trying to draw you into the illusion and keep you there. That's what comics are supposed to do and that's what popular comics do. They seduce you. This is a different thing. It's not so plot-driven.
Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: I would definitely call it anti-narrative, but you do have a story that flows all the way through the book.
Gary Panter: It's narrative, but you could say it's difficult narrative. It's not generous narrative, because it's really more interested in the medium.
CB: Were you consciously trying to do something that's both interior and exterior to your characters' stories; subjective and objective in a way?
Panter: Sometimes when I was drawing it, it would know what the story was and go, "what are they listening to on the radio?" Or be very perverse. Because I felt very free. Like nobody is paying me very much money to do this, so I may as well do what I want to do.
CB: Did you consciously pick up on elements from previous strips for future strips, or was it more like making it up as you go, so to speak?
Panter: I made it up, but I started thinking about this in about '73. So I started thinking about this city idea and a metaphor for city. [The overlays at the front of the Dal Tokyo collection] help with the metaphor. It's Mars, it's the Tokyo rail system, and it's the Texas highways. Initially the setup gives you the clue that it’s not normal.
CB: Should I read this book as narrative or should I read it as something else?
Panter: Yeah, I think you should try to read it as narrative. But I think when you do that it’s going to give you a funny feeling because it's not going to satisfy the narrative. It’s a little vertigo-inducing, I think.
CB: Yeah, I like that a lot. That's a lot of what I was struggling with. I was kind of asking for something to hold onto.
Panter: [Jimbo in Purgatory] too. [Jimbo] will induce vertigo and not be normally satisfying because it's a procedural. I made rules for writing [Jimbo] that were hard rules and I could only obey the rules. But [Dal Tokyo] was more of like a flow, of like what I could do different this month. How could I do a different – because you could do a whole book like this, or a whole book like this and a whole window…
CB: And by the end, you're switching from style to style from strip to strip, too. Were you doing that intentionally to give yourself a challenge?
Panter: Yeah, because again, it's like – in painting, even like, what do you do as a painter? Because my paintings skip around, too. Life's short; you might as well be interested in everything.
CB: Every page is different. Did you approach the strip differently when you came back after a few years?
Panter: I decided that the first part, I could finish it as like a Flash Gordon kind of science fiction strip, because the first half of it was more generous as a narrative and more difficult as drawing, and the second half is more generous with drawing and less generous with narrative. So I was just kind of aware of that.
And my drawing tools changed. The first half is drawn with rapidographs, and the second half was drawn with dip nibs. So that affected my brain a little. Your focus is different. If you can draw an endless line it's different from if you have to start over. I was subject to it like the reader was subject to it.
CB: Thanks for your time, Gary!
Don't forget to check out Jason's review of Dal Tokyo.