An award-winning children’s-show set designer facing off with a novelist whose best-known creation is a sad-sack Brooklyn private eye with Tourette’s syndrome. It sounds like a recipe for an evening of mutually exclusive worldviews played out in puzzled, awkward silences. But when the designer is Gary Panter (whose hat trick of Emmys for Pee-wee’s Playhouse is only the most public face of an enormous oeuvre of graphic and visual innovation) and the novelist is Jonathan Lethem (whose Motherless Brooklyn is only typical in a career made up of dazzling, genre-bending stylistic about-faces), the possibilities start to multiply.
Which is why the appearance of the two onstage at the Hammer Museum, as part of the “Masters of American Comics” exhibit, drew a varied SRO crowd of fan-boys and literati, as well as respect-paying peers like Edwin Pouncey (a.k.a. Savage Pencil — Panter’s English counterpart in the invention of the scraggly-line school of comic art). The lingua franca of the conversation was comic books: Lethem being arguably the leading American literary figure maintaining one foot in the Marvel universe, and Panter — well — a bona fide certified master of the medium. The evening began with a quick slide show of Panter’s work — a mash-up of influences, including Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, off-register Mexican print advertising, Mayan codices, psychedelic light shows, Bazooka Joe, Polish circus posters, and an encyclopedic familiarity with the comics.
Toward the end of his generous preamble, though, Lethem articulated a deeper connection. “For me, one of the most exciting things about what I would very, very loosely say is my generation of writers or musicians or cartoonists or painters is the lack of self-consciousness about influences, the inversion of Harold Bloom’s principle that artists are always trying to destroy or conceal their lineage. Instead, there’s a sort of ecstasy of influence.”
Though both now live in Brooklyn, neither has the Purity of Essence that marks a true New Yorker. Panter retains the relaxed and courtly airs of a Southern boy who broke free of an austere Church of Christ upbringing and headed north to become the cartoonist laureate of the L.A. punk scene. Lethem’s affect is 100 percent New York literary, self-absorbed and articulate to a fault, belying the decade or so he spent licking stamps for the Philip K. Dick Appreciation Society in ’80s Berkeley and the scattershot incorrectness of his enthusiasms.
Having established unapologetic pop pastiche as their underlying common ground, the two proceeded to manifest the collage principle in a peripatetic conversation alternating between Lethem’s sharp analysis and Panter’s warmly surreal anecdotes. With Lethem playing interviewer, they touched on esoteric topics such as Dante’s relation to Southern Baptist Christianity (remedial), the lost Pee-wee screenplay (ready to roll, Mr. Bruckheimer!), the secret identities of the Residents (fnord), Dylan’s dead-fish handshake (over a rejected cover design for his underrated born-again record Shot of Love) and Philip Dick’s vast flavored-snuff collection.
A surprising amount of talk revolved around their respective fathers’ painting practices. Lethem’s father abandoned academia in the late ’60s to eke out an existence as a radical bohemian artiste in the communes of Brooklyn. Panter’s dad gives unknowingly equal voice to his inner cowboys and Indians. “My dad ran a dime store, but he was a painter,” commented Junior. “He’s still a painter. His work’s psychedelic, but he doesn’t know it. He’s the kind of guy who jumps out of bed in the middle of the night with some idea about some little motif he can put in a painting. Then, when he does the painting, it’s like some horse’s ass — elongated, like Salvador Dalí’s skull penetrating the piano — seen through the cowling of a Conestoga wagon with a tornado coming out of it. And he doesn’t seem to think there’s anything strange about that. Growing up around painting — it kind of does something to you.”
Until puberty, Lethem too thought he would be an artist like his father before him, and regularly attended his father’s figure-drawing klatches. This might explain his ability to write and speak about art in a way that is neither embarrassing nor unintelligible. It certainly freed him from the prejudice that hobbles most Lit Crit approaches to the comics — that they are little more than illustrated short stories gone cancerous. And it clearly had an effect on how he pieces together — and talks about — his fictions. “One of the things that I think I’ve become aware of in the most recent work I’ve done is that the game, or enterprise, of revealing yourself more directly produces new prisms — it creates another set of masks, another virtual reality that becomes instantaneously as plastic as the ones you previously constructed to intentionally hide the personal material. It makes me think a lot about the way in which metaphoric languages are simultaneously a way of connecting with people and an intentional defeat of connection.”
A little highfalutin perhaps, but insights any artist can relate to. Panter waxed equally philosophical but, as usual, took the edge off the angst with a dose of the droll. “It’s a weird, broken world,” he declares. “It’s a fucked-up world where there’s beautiful sunsets and we die. And have to go the bathroom. So I’m always looking for the really interesting and exciting part. And in making my own reality in my comics — where I’m like the little mini-God, y’know — I can leave out all the animals I don’t like.”