Raised in Texas, artist Gary Panter moved to L.A. in the late 1970s and made an immediate mark on the L.A. punk scene with his now iconic poster for the Screamers, among many other fliers, posters and comic strips in Slash. But his amazingly varied art and music career really took off from there, most notably as set designer for 3-time Emmy-winning Pee Wee’s Playhouse. His work is now in galleries and museums around the world. He talked with PKM from his home in Brooklyn.
Starting out as a Texas ex-pat bumming around the thriving punk scene in Los Angeles in the late 1970s, Gary Panter elbowed his burgeoning drawing acumen into show flyers and eventually through the halls of the influential new wave magazine, Slash, essentially helping create the iconography of American West Coast punk. You have all seen his Screamers image, one of the three or four most iconic images now deeply embedded into the DNA of punk graphics.
Unlike so many talented souls, Panter survived the crazy original punk era, as he turned his passion into general freelance graphics gigs for publications big and small, and ultimately into one of the great artistic and pop culture collaborations of the end of the century.
From 1986-1990, Panter created the sets for the Saturday morning TV classic, Pee Wee’s Playhouse, bringing the reduced-then-exploded midcentury dreams of Paul Reubens – and by extension, the subversive, 1950s re-think impulse of the early-‘80s art underground – to glorious life. Together, Pee Wee and Panter did for children’s television what Twin Peaks did for nighttime TV dramas – forever morphing them into something irrevocably weirder and smarter. One cannot shake Panter’s hand enough for that. But don’t shake it too hard, as he still has tons of work to do.
His bibliography contains around 16 collections, countless comics, fliers, T-shirt designs, and more; not to mention the jaw-dropping, two-volume PictureBox Books monograph, Gary Panter, from 2008 that should be in a glass box in the foyer of every art school. He developed one of the first interactive cartoons, Pink Donkey and the Fly, for Cartoon Network. And recently, he and artist Joshua White have created lightshows for parties at his studio space and art galleries around the country.
Panter’s abilities and influence go beyond even his insanely prolific and influential illustration work, and whoever eventually writes his biography has quite a task on their hands.
PKM: So, give us a quickie history of where you grew up, and where you were living when you first started taking your drawings seriously.
Gary Panter: Was born in Durant, Oklahoma in 1950. We lived in a house trailer on the great plains, mostly until 1954 when we moved to Brownsville, Texas, on the border of Mexico. In 1958, we moved to Sulphur Springs, Texas, 80 miles east of Dallas. My mother said I started drawing as soon as I could hold a pencil. So my identity was always artist.
PKM: What would you consider your first real influence – and this could be a Quisp cereal box, Bugs Bunny cartoon, what have you…?
Gary Panter: My dad, Mel Panter, was a cowboy and Indian painter when I was young. He gave it up to raise three kids, and when he retired he painted again like crazy. He painted cartoon characters over my crib—Sylvester, Tweetie, and Bugs. I don’t remember that. But he was my influence at first.
PKM: Was there a moment where you first really thought, as you finished a drawing, that, “Hey, I think I’m not too bad at this?” And do you remember what that drawing was?
Gary Panter: Not really. By now I feel that sometimes, but it was always a struggle to learn and get better. There was joy in it, but I wasn’t thinking “I am so great” very much.
PKM: Concurrently, do you have a memory of the first time someone annoyingly told you, “Oh, you can’t do that for a living?”
Gary Panter: When I was a child, people would take my drawings and say, “Someday I will sell that for a million dollars.” My illustration teacher in college, Jack Unruh [at East Texas State University—now Texas A & M-Commerce], was very frank about how hard an illustration career was.
I was always a fan of weird stuff as a kid. My first LP was Music For Robots, which I ordered from Famous Monsters when I was about ten.
PKM: What are some early musical memories, while still in Oklahoma or Texas?
Gary Panter: I grew up surrounded by country music on TV and radio. My mother played piano and both my parents sung around the house. We went to a church all the time that forbade instrumental music. I got pretty burnt out on country music and don’t seek it out much.
PKM: So when / how did you find yourself in L.A.?
Gary Panter: I graduated in 1974 from ETSU as a painting major and moved to Dallas. That year and the next, Jay Cotton, Ric Heitzman, and I formed our performance art group, APEWEEK. We did various things: a radio show on public access radio in Dallas; puppet shows in galleries; posters and fliers; had a museum show at the CAM in Houston; and screamed and laughed a lot. Ric went to grad school in Chicago, I moved to L.A., and the next year Jay moved to L.A.
After college, I couldn’t get any work doing art in Texas, my first marriage ended, and APEWEEK fell apart, so I drove to L.A. in my blue ‘62 Chevy pickup. It blew up at the beginning of the trip and ate all my money in a little town beyond Fort Worth, and then really ate it in Cabazon, 75 miles from L.A. There was a junkyard by the highway. I sold the truck for peanuts and bought a bus ticket to L.A., then came back a month or so later and got the stuff out of the back of the truck. It was a cool truck. I wish I still had it.
PKM: You’ve noted that Cal Schenkel [renowned album cover designer] was a big influence – so I’ll assume Frank Zappa’s music was too. And like any kid in the middle ‘70s, you were probably weaned on the uber-pro, big stadium bands that were dominating Rock in the early decade. So when these uh, untutored punk bands started cropping up, did you feel you instantly “got it,” or was there a period of sort of befriending bands and getting into their sounds as time went on?
Gary Panter: I was always a fan of weird stuff as a kid. My first LP was Music For Robots, which I ordered from Famous Monsters when I was about ten. The Mothers of Invention and Captain Beefheart blew my mind. They were idea music to me. I saw Hendrix and Soft Machine, T Rex, Jethro Tull, and Moving Sidewalks while in Texas. Punk rock was sped up rock in the mode of the Stooges. So it seemed to be about energy and restarting at zero, which was exciting to me, but I like weirder music.
PKM: Do you have a memory of the first punk show that “changed you,” where you really felt transformed for good?
Gary Panter: The scene was a change. The music didn’t change me much. I was looking for weird music and so bands like Magazine, The Fall, Pere Ubu, XTC, Devo, the Residents, etc. were more interesting to me. Sex Pistols and PIL first records are great records. The Weirdos were a real standout punk band in L.A. They were great. I saw maybe 100 punk shows, so I saw a lot of bands. The Plugs, The Screamers, and The Zeroes were cool bands to me.
PKM: Is there a band or three you’d like to name who you really loved but maybe don’t get the historical name-drops, who maybe weren’t around that long or you think are generally underrated?
Gary Panter: Dinosaurs With Horns, Zoogz Rift was fun. Pend and Needles, The Shake Shake.
PKM: What are some other early shows that really made an impression on you. And here’s where the “Did you see the first Ramones’ L.A. show” question comes around…
Gary Panter: I never saw the Ramones and don’t have much interest in them. I realize that they are important. The Screamers shows were funny and few. The Weirdos shows were great. I saw Buttholes Surfers, Black Flag, maybe PIL at the wrestling arena in L.A., not sure if it was the same night. Many bands, thousands of punks, 1980s.
PKM: Can you tell us a random Darby Crash story, or just a general recollection?
Gary Panter: Darby was always nice to me. My wife at the time was the manager of the Germs, so I saw most shows. Darby never said much to me. He seemed like a lost seeker, though he was a leader. He was closeted and worried about that for some reason. These days it is not a big deal, and there were tons of gay kids in punk. And he fucked around with heroin. Don’t do that. It will make you into a shit version of yourself, and that goes for coke and speed too in my view. He died too young.
PKM: How did the association with Slash magazine come about?
Gary Panter: I saw it on a newsstand and realized it was a place the work I had been making for a few years would fit, so I got in touch with them, and they were funny, nice people who wanted to do something.
PKM: The legend is of a buzzing loft space full of scrappy debates about music, and politics, and what should go in the next issue, etc. Do you have a story about the Slash workspace you would tell to express your experience there?
Gary Panter: I am a hermit type person, so I went there to drop off my work. Claude, Steve, Melanie, and Philly were the core. I met Chris D, Will Amato, and Byron Coley, and David Allen, the graphic artist. And bands would be around. We would stay up late and do paste-ups. Sometimes I helped. Bob Biggs bought it and it changed, and I eventually left town. Lot of cigarette smoking and White Russian drinking.
PKM: With the way most music websites work these days – where there is not enough income flow to afford such luxuries as an office or a drip coffee machine – do you ever just marvel at the situation at Slash, that you really were able to do whatever work you wanted, and do it as a job? Or am I mythologizing Slash and your involvement there?
Punk rock was sped up rock in the mode of the Stooges. So it seemed to be about energy and restarting at zero, which was exciting to me, but I like weirder music.
Gary Panter: I didn’t make any money from Slash, or almost any cultural endeavor I have done. Very little money. Some people can turn things into money. Good for them. Steve Samiof had been on his own since he was 16, and so he was a hustler of goods. Buy something in one end of town, sell it for more at the other end of town. The rent was cheap, I guess. They hustled. No one made money. The record company did later.
PKM: Well, you knew this was coming – the Screamers image/logo. Can tell us how you came up with it, what the band thought of it?
Gary Panter: I met them at the Slash party where they first played, as far as I know. They looked cool. I was new to town and the scene was new. I started going to band rehearsals and trying to draw bands, but it didn’t really work out. They hired me to do the logo and wanted the copyright, so I charged a little more. I had an android wrestling character when I was in Dallas that gets electrocuted in a storm —a comic I never developed—and the image was relevant to the Screamer which was a combination of them, not a portrait of Tomata du Plenty.
PKM: Your work for RAW – it seems like at that point, it was a complete immersion in and dedication to illustrating. Did you make some music along the way, and was the choice as simple as, “Well, musicians make even less money than comics artists, so fuck that,” or what?
Gary Panter: I did illustration to make money. My only skill is art. My paintings didn’t find a place in the art world—that is rare. Religion stunted my music. I made music a little with friends in high school, but the whole thing was discouraged and frowned on. So I made music alone. In the early ‘80s, my agent in Japan, Mr Ishii, told me that if I made a record, he would release it on his label, OVERHEAT. So I traded studio time for art, and prevailed on friends and friends of friends to make an LP that was released in Japan, Pray for Smurph. It was the first time Incas were in the studio. Well, the first time was in San Francisco with the Residents. We recorded some things that ended up on the LP; and I recorded at Rick Potts’ house a tune for the Elvis Zombies’ book flexidisc that ended up on the LP. Most of the record was recorded at Shangrilla studios in Zuma Beach where all the giant bands recorded.
PKM: I guess your main gig around that time was working on Pee Wee’s Playhouse. So can you give us the basic story of how that came about, and maybe a story of meeting Paul Reubens? Was he already doing Pee Wee on stage when you met him?
Gary Panter: I got a call from a collaborator with Paul who wanted me to do a poster for his stage show for free. I went to see his act. He was very funny and on a similar beam as the performance art group I had in Texas with my friends. We all ended up working on the show at various times. One thing led to another. Since I was a kid I was fascinated with kids’ TV, so that fulfilled a wish I had.
PKM: Is there a story of chatting at a party or something where the actual idea of the TV show happening came up?
Gary Panter: It is a long story and for others to tell. I got burned out from Pee Wee. It was a great show and an honor, but TV work is not for me. Hollywood showbiz work is not for me. It made me tired. I have my own work to do.
PKM: I don’t know how much you hung around during shooting for the show, but I’m wondering if there were any cast members you got to know a bit – and if so, who seemed to be the biggest music fan? Was there anyone else who worked on the show that came from the L.A. punk scene?
Gary Panter: I was friends with most of the actors – Paul, Lynn Stewart, John Paragon, John Moody, Phil Hartman. They were wonderful, funny people. I imagine that they all went to punk shows sometimes. Phil Hartman had already won an Emmy for his design of the Poco album cover; his brother was in the record industry. But these people were all into acting and performance first. Art is about obsession. You have to do it, or you don’t.
PKM: Were there any anthropomorphic characters, like Chairy or Globey, that you wanted to do that got axed?
Gary Panter: Paul and I pitched an animated show to Cartoon Network. A Pee Wee in space show, but there was no money. It would have been fantastic, but it didn’t happen.
PKM: You won three Emmy Awards for Pee Wee’s Playhouse, right? Did you go to the award ceremonies? And if so, and nutty story from one of those?
Gary Panter: I think we were nominated four or five times and won three times for sure. The mom from the Brady Bunch sat at our table one year, but I was from a slightly older TV generation than that, so I didn’t know what to say.
PKM: In general, what sort of leash did the CBS suits have on Pee Wee’s Playhouse? Or did you guys feel pretty free with it?
Gary Panter: The women executives at CBS gave Paul free rein, and he paid the cost over-runs because he wanted to make that kind of show.
PKM: I know Pee Wee’s stage show was a bit more adult-oriented, but obviously, with the TV show, he was going for something more kid-oriented.
When it became for kids, we became very aware of that, and Paul was very insistent on trying to be responsible to children on the show, and also entertaining their parents. He could have made a lot more money making candy and sugar cereal, but he wouldn’t do that.
PKM: Around the same time as Pee Wee’s Playhouse, CBS also had an amazing reboot of Mighty Mouse, from Ralph Bakshi. First off, I find it amazing that both these shows appeared on what is considered the most “conservative” of the Big Three networks. But aside from that, do you remember the “controversy” about the scene where Mighty Mouse sniffed a flower, and some squares claimed it was a reference to snorting cocaine, and that was supposedly the reason that cartoon was cancelled?
Gary Panter: I love the old Mighty Mouse, and I was happy to see good animation and care in the new stuff. But animators will sneak their own baloney into work in an infantile way or to be revolutionary and fuck things up. I don’t know more about it. Watch the old shit.
My wife at the time was the manager of the Germs, so I saw most shows. Darby never said much to me. He seemed like a lost seeker, though he was a leader. He was closeted and worried about that for some reason. These days it is not a big deal, and there were tons of gay kids in punk. And he fucked around with heroin. Don’t do that. It will make you into a shit version of yourself.
PKM: How did you meet Matt Groening? Did you find him particularly ambitious? From what I’ve read and seen over the years, he seems so self-effacing, very “Midwest,” for lack of a less tiresome adjective…
Gary Panter: Leonard Koren was putting out Wet before Slash, I was doing stuff for them, and he showed me Matt’s comic and I liked it. No one else I knew was self-publishing Xerox comics. I wrote him a fan letter, and we met and became pals. We were both Zappa/ Beefheart and weird music fans. We both wanted to invade culture with media somehow. Matt is kind of a winner. He is very smart, very nice, very tolerant, secretly observant, and not afraid to ask for what he wants. And he is pretty much the same guy I knew since the beginning. Success destroys a lot of people. He seems fine and jolly while working very hard.
PKM: Maybe I should know this, but did you ever work on The Simpsons?
Gary Panter: No. Pee Wee burned me out, and working with friends can be very tricky. Designed a Simpsons trading card and some sneakers.
PKM: When did you officially move to NYC, and how did you decide to move here?
Gary Panter: 1985. My second marriage was over, I was getting bored, and needed a big change. I was too afraid to move to New York in 1973. It looked scary. So I went to L.A. first. Plus L.A. has palm trees. I have lived in Brooklyn for about 33 years in various spots. Right now near Prospect Park. I met another girl in New York. We raised a kid together. Our daughter Olive is a tall, tattooed sign painter living in LA. She is into many kinds of music.
I only got mugged once in Brooklyn – three guys with guns. Everyone in the world who is killing each other is living side by side here in peace. There are nice people. If you were to want to wear a skirt and a beard and eye makeup and full tats and big nose ring, no one would kill you or notice you. Small culture happens. Make small culture happen somewhere. I finally got to make music in Brooklyn with friends, and that has been my social life for years.
PKM: Can you tell us about your next book that Desert Island will be releasing?
Gary Panter: The Desert Island book is a selection from many years of sketchbooks. It will be hardbound and in Popsicle-colored ink.