All images courtesy of Fantagraphics
IN THE EARLY 1970s, a young artist named Gary Panter found himself marooned in East Texas and sought to imagine himself elsewhere. Panter read Jack Kirby comics and Philip K. Dick novels, but he also studied painting and the history of art. Among his formative early influences were the British architectural group Archigram, which created a series of pop-inflected speculative projects that embraced ideas of transience and metamorphosis through modular design. After a decade of postwar reconstruction in England, Archigram turned that traditional architecture on its head, conceiving of the city as an organism and prioritizing the liberty of its inhabitants. The group refused to be fettered by established practices and embraced a space-age aesthetics: “The prepackaged frozen lunch,” Archigram’s Peter Cook declared, “is more important than Palladio.” The group’s Walking City project, from 1964, imagines an automated, ambulatory urban infrastructure that supplies utilities and information networks as and where needed. The project’s design was inspired by NASA launch towers and science fiction comics, as well as agricultural implements: in 1978, Archigram’s Ron Herron made alterations to a photograph of a large farm machine, transforming workaday equipment, with a few pen strokes, into a futuristic “Walking Machine.”
Panter likewise used what was at hand to get him where he wanted to go. “I needed to believe that the broken tractor out back was a car of the future,” he has said. He was reckoning, in part, with the future of comics, and the organic, motile, humanist realm of Archigram galvanized him. “If we could get in the Archigram buildings and wear the Fool’s outfits,” he thought, referencing Marijke Koger’s psychedelic design collection, “then what kind of comics would we read after underground comics?”
Panter’s answer was Dal Tokyo, a black-and-white strip that radically redefined the elements of the form and proposed new modes of comics storytelling. Though he wouldn’t begin the strip until 1983, Panter conceived of its eponymous locale in 1972, while studying painting at East Texas State University. A futuristic colony on Mars terraformed by Texan and Japanese workers and inhabited by a considerable range of alien creatures, Dal Tokyo has served as the setting for much of Panter’s comics work since then, most extensively in his Jimbo stories. In explaining Dal Tokyo’s origins, Panter connects Texan self-mythologizing and his interest in Japanese monster movies to his desire to escape his rural outpost. Mars represented the limits of the known universe, as exotic as one might then have imagined, yet Panter can’t quite disentangle himself from his larger-than-life home world. Just as Japanese cinema could travel the distance to East Texas, so, too, could Texas — that grand frontier that would remain a Wild West through the oil boom of the 1980s — translate to another, equally wild place.
The peculiar geography of Dal Tokyo comes in the opening pages of the current volume: five maps — four of which are printed on vellum so that each map overlays the next — that describe, in succession, the Tokyo rail system in 1930, a land mass during the upper Triassic period, the Texas highway...read more