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What He Saw

Illustrations by Gary Panter

Gary Panter has created a wildly diverse body of work over the course of his 25-year career, but he’s always kept an eye out for the coming apocalypse. Born in 1950, he was raised in Brownsville, Texas, by Christian fundamentalists, then came of age as part of L.A.’s first generation of punk rockers and played a crucial role in defining the edgy graphic style that came to be associated with that community. He went on to win several Emmys for the look he created for Pee-wee’s Playhouse, and he’s done his share of product design — clocks, stationery, pencils, tableware and so forth. He’s capable of a light touch when the occasion calls for it.

Panter’s most personal and compelling work, however, has always been perfumed with the premonition of disaster. Anyone with a passing familiarity with “Jimbo,” Panter’s cartoon character that first appeared in a 1974 strip called “Bowtie Madness” and was introduced to a wider audience in the late ’70s when it was regularly featured in Slash magazine, can tell you that. Panter’s id is completely unleashed in the character of Jimbo, a primitive Everyman lost in a violent industrial landscape he can’t begin to understand. Clad in a tartan loincloth, his hair chopped in a frantic buzz cut, Jimbo lurches from one panel to the next as Panter explores personal demons, primal fantasies and moral conundrums. The strip feels as if it’s fueled entirely by anxiety.

In 1985, Panter moved to Brooklyn, where he lives with his wife of 12 years, Helene Silverman, and their 11-year-old daughter, Olive. Panter devoted much of his energy this year to staging a 25-minute light show, which he presented by appointment at his studio. He built puppets, too, and created what he describes as “an anonymous crew of 18 confused Euro-disco men and women that have little furry outfits.” He spends half an hour every day practicing the guitar, and recently finished four cartoons — including “Pink Donkey and the Fly” — that can be downloaded from cartoonnetwork.com.

Panter keeps busy, but he never forgets the lurking darkness. His drawings often look as if they might’ve been executed with a fork, and descriptions of his work invariably mention his “ratty line.” It is indeed a crabbed, desperate scratch, but it serves as an effective counterpoint to his themes, which are never less than epic. Panter recently completed “Jimbo in Purgatory,” an ambitious retelling of the Dante classic that was three years in the making, comprises 912 panels on 33 tabloid-size pages, and cross-references Boccaccio’s Decameron and the writings of Sophocles. In a similar vein is “Cola Madnes,” a graphic novel published last year that was originally written in 1983 and based on notes Panter made for a puppet show during the ’70s. The book opens as the King of America invites Jimbo to a party with the promise “Tonight the world is turning upside-down.” As the narrative progresses, characters are tortured and arbitrarily attack one another, Jimbo’s Uncle Garcia wakes him in the morning by throwing a bomb into his bedroom, and explosions burst forth from every corner. A decapitated head floating in a sewage pipe utters its final words: “Sad to spend my last moments on earth in a vat of shit.” It’s a harrowing book.

Panter conjures a brutal world whose center cannot hold, a world filled with ominous symbols pregnant with dark meaning, governed by indomitable currents of energy generated by crime and punishment. Panter’s had this world in his head for a long time, so it must have been strange for him to look out his window on September 11 and see it materialize before his eyes.

“I’ve been dreading this thing for years,” Panter begins with a sigh as he steels himself to recall that Tuesday. “A day or so before the 11th, I made several drawings of little silhouetted figures suspended in space, and I think that if your antenna is up and operating, you suffer beforehand as well as afterward with events like this. It’s like in Alice in Wonderland when the Queen is crying before she pricks her finger — in a way that’s what my work has been. It’s a kind of hysterical, sappy, overwrought foreknowledge. There’s a section in ‘Jimbo’ where a nuclear weapon goes off in a city, and that’s what I’m still dreading. There are myths that tell of the punishment meted out for things like stealing fire, and we did this to two cities in Japan and never apologized for it. If you let yourself think about what took place in Japan in 1945, it will really make you cry. There are many, many layers to what happened on September 11.

“I live in Brooklyn across the bridge from Manhattan, and I have a spectacular view of the World Trade Center framed by the Williamsburg Bridge. I was sitting here reading the paper that morning when my wife called and said a plane had hit the World Trade Center, so I grabbed my sketchbook and ran up to the roof. For the last few years, I’ve been working on a sketchbook of stuff that’s in front of me — not drawing from my imagination, but drawing what I actually see in the world — and I was down to the last few pages, so I thought I’d draw it. But it was almost too horrible to draw. I was close enough that I could see the giant, gaping hole in one of the buildings, and I could see the flames inside. Anyone with an imagination could picture how horrendous what was going on over there was, and you immediately knew how many people were being affected.

“By the time the second plane hit, there were people on the roofs of all the buildings around me, and everybody was freaking out. Somebody was ringing a church bell somewhere far away, every siren in the city was going off, and every fire truck and emergency vehicle in Brooklyn was heading for that building. There were lots of people on my roof, because my building is full of artists, and a collective gasp went up when the first building went down. And then the second building exploded from the top and went down like a collapsing accordion, with a kind of gentle shuffle. I was drawing and shivering, and after finishing six drawings I had to stop. I couldn’t do any more. It was an exceptionally clear day, and I could see paper flying out of the buildings.

“I decided to get my daughter at school and was swept up in this mad, crazy dash across Brooklyn with thousands of cars trying to go somewhere really fast. The streets were packed with people covered with dust and dirt leaving Manhattan on foot. Then it rained paper for the rest of the day — everyone in Brooklyn has their own collection of contracts and memos from the building. And you could smell it. The first few days it was the smell of death, then after that the smell turned into a mixture of wire, plastic and heavy metal.

“The whole thing was so horrible that I’m grateful I didn’t see any more than I did, because I’m completely marked by that day. It left me pretty screwed up, and I’m sure it hurt people’s brains watching it on television. Basically I witnessed a gigantic mass murder, and I could feel my brain being re-sculpted as I watched it. My sketchbook is full of army men and guys with turbans now, and though I apologize to the nice Muslims of the world, that’s what’s filling my head now. This is an extremely mysterious existence we have here on Earth, and fear transforms us. The world is now being transformed by the people in Afghanistan we abandoned several years ago.

“The men I know are more freaked out than my women friends. I guess it’s some ancient thing that has to do with men having to guard the village and die if necessary, but lots of my men friends are still having a hard time. I recently attended one of my daughter’s soccer games, and at one point during the game I noticed that while the women were watching the game, all the men were watching an airliner flying in the direction of Manhattan. I can’t not look up when I hear a plane overhead now.”

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