When Dallas Met Tokyo Met Mars: Gary Panter's Lost 'Dal Tokyo' Comic

The acclaimed artist's early-'80s, post-apocalyptic drawings return in a new compilation book.

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Dal Tokyo, the absurd, punk, sci-fi, postmodern, post-apocalypse comic strip that began in 1983 and is set in a "future Mars that is 'terraformed' by Texan and Japanese workers" was artist Gary Panter's earliest opus. Panter's ratty line was the gold standard of post-underground comics, but this emblematic series of strips was all but lost until Fantagraphics recently published the first collection of them in an extra-narrow, horizontal gem of a volume featuring his faux Japanese lettering on the cover.

Panter, who went on to design the sets for Pee Wee's Playhouse and publish graphic novels based on Dante's rings of hell featuring his famous Jimbo character as protaganist, recently talked to me about the genesis of his resurrected first born.

At the time of Dal Tokyo's conception, Panter was influenced by A Clockwork Orange—both Anthony Burgess's novel and Stanley Kubrick's movie—as well as a poem by a high school friend, Max Watson, about a time rupture that causes all times and cultures to coexist in their home town of Sulphur Springs, Texas. "Max's idea was the seed for a confluent-culture project," says Panter, who says he was inspired by Watson's "love of dinosaurs and oddball cultural stuff" from his childhood, like cargo cults and monster movies.

He also became enamored with the work of Philip K. Dick while in college, admiring the author's "near-future approach to science fiction." In fact, Panter became friends with Dick and before his death used to visit him in Orange County. I asked Panter whether Blade Runner was a prime influence. "About the time the Blade Runner movie was coming out, I was told that some of my faux Japanese style lettering was on the wall of the Blade Runner design office," he says. "So I may have had one ounce of influence on Blade Runner's look."

But Dal Tokyo goes back further in time to when, after graduating art school, Panter, the child of Texan "holy rollers," was working as a janitor in a Dallas insurance company. It was then that the visual and verbal ideas started flowing. But it took years before he could get them out anywhere. "In my mind, my comic characters lived there and I had envisioned a society, but it wasn't coming out fast enough in my other comics to be visible," he says. "So when there was the prospect of doing a comic for the LA Reader, every week, it seemed like the project already had the most material in it and wanted out of my brain."

"I did the weekly for a year (1983-84) and it was hard, because even though it looks scratchy, it was ambitious and took a long time to draw," he says. "My hair fell out after a year from various stresses was under, and so I stopped making it and the editor didn't like it anyway, because it was strange and not commercial, so we agreed for me to terminate the strip." Years later, Panter's agent in Japan, Shizuo Ishii, asked him to draw it for a reggae magazine monthly, RIDDIM. "He gave me complete freedom with it, so as a monthly and with freedom I couldn't say no," he says. "Plus, having it appear in Japan only in a reggae magazine seemed like the ultimate place for it."

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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