The acclaimed artist's early-'80s, post-apocalyptic drawings return in a new compilation book.
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."
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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."
Panter had visited Japan at least once before starting the comic, but had also studied Japanese culture since college, with his interest in Godzilla movies and woodblock prints leading him to read up on Kabuki, Bunraku, and Noh theater.
The characters in Dal Tokyo, notably the golem-like Jimbo, emerged from his studies. "I started characters and tried to get down what they were doing and tried to remember all the balls that were in play," he says. "Once several characters were in play, and I let more and more and more characters be in play to get across the idea of the city and the landscape."
The strip was reborn from 1996 to 2007 and remains the wellspring of Panter's comic world. But it also changed from the first iteration to the second. "One thing that caused the strip to change, visually, is that I decided to use dip nibs from Japan, when I started drawing it again for RIDDIM, as opposed to the rapidographs that I started drawing the story with originally and dip nibs tend to make my drawing look old fashioned," he says. Also: "I kept all my story threads in mind and extended them, but focused more on a metafictional type of second life for the strip." Many of his paintings and prints have been developed around the Dal Tokyo comic panels. So having this book is a guide to Panter's current work, which seeks to transcend comics for something richer. Or as he says, "I am a painter and a fan of what happened to painting in the 20th century, and I tend to bring those ideas with me to comics."
Dal Tokyo might best be seen as a combination of nightmare, daydream, ramble, and sketch, with a decided stream-of-consciousness tone, which is not unlike Panter's own Texas lilting manner when talking. In fact, for all its eccentricity, Dal Tokyo is akin to a Texas tall tale. Panter might not agree.
"Making Dal Tokyo was for me kind of like dousing for water - a kind of magical sensitivity session," he says. "And a sandbox with toys I invented, featuring fragments of stories that a kid would tell you about the toys. I am perpetually curious about where humanity is going and what daily life might be like in the far and near future after I am composted, as well as being preoccupied with visualizing possible lost pasts of humanity from Lascaux until early Turkish monuments we don't know much about." He adds, though, that there's a strange optimism to his vision of the future: "Humanity will go on and on and slowly surpass the apes." Apocalyptic or not, that's a happy thought.