THE COMICS ARTIST Gary Panter creates what I think of as “good postmodernism.” His work, which emerged from the countercultural hippie and punk contexts of Texas and Los Angeles, embraces a DIY aesthetic that synthesizes high art, religious imagery, pop culture, and industrial materials, crossing a variety of media. He has spent the four past decades making paintings, comics, music, light show performances, and — perhaps most formatively for me and others who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s — the sets for Pee-wee’s Playhouse. An inspiring combination of the monstrous, the angular, and the lo-fi, Panter’s works are at once palpably handmade and meditatively complex.
Panter’s new comic, Songy of Paradise, brilliantly elaborates his aesthetic. The comic both comments on our world and disavows everyday concerns in exchange for the pleasures of thinking along under-traveled paths. While only 40 pages, the book is large in size — about 11-by-15 inches — so it feels like you are looking at Panter’s original pen-and-ink drawings themselves, rather than reproductions of them. This quality lends the book a hand-drawn, intimate feel, making its pages feel not only like original comic book art but also like the leaves of an illuminated manuscript. In any case, the artist’s hand is always very near. This makes sense, given that Songy of Paradise describes itself, on its title page, as a story “Wherein Satan And A Hillbilly Re-Enact The Temptation Of Jesus In The Desert, Hewing To John Milton’s Epic Poem Paradise Regained But Without Milton’s Verbosity.” As the copyright page notes, the book was supported and informed by research at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, at the New York Public Library. This comic is thus a work of archival research, a transformation of Milton and the tradition of illuminated texts into DIY cartooning.
Songy, the title character of the work, is a hapless yet harmless hillbilly on a vision quest. He roams the desert, wearing a stocking cap over his pointy head and a rope belt cinching up his worn shorts, waiting for enlightenment. Instead of experiencing an awakening, however, Songy encounters Satan, who tempts Songy with food, riches, and power. Panter’s hillbilly Jesus is uninterested, wishing only to have some kind of transcendent moment — which is denied him, it turns out, by not only the devil, but also an indifferent God and the security state. Wandering around, waiting for something to happen to him that would give him some new insight into the world and himself, Songy falls on his face.
Like Panter’s earlier large-format comics masterpiece, Jimbo in Purgatory, Songy of Paradise makes full use of the comics page. Panter’s vast designs sometimes take up the entire page, with inset panels denoting the passage of time within a vast, static landscape. This strategy makes Songy and Satan’s conversations and journeys feel immediately existential, a human and divine drama that ranges, in Panter’s illustrations, from Assyrian gods to bar food. The work includes numerous allusions to other illustrations and images; without footnotes, the experience of reading Songy of Paradise is one of intuiting that the figures and designs on each page come from … somewhere. This experience of encountering iconography from many times and traditions has an expansive effect. It removes this story from its Miltonian context and creates something like an anti-theological meditative space that displaces the version of religious thinking that clutters the media of our time.
Songy of Paradise is certainly about religious experience and feeling, though it is about it in a particular way. Not a devotional text, the book offers an encounter with the language and visual culture of Protestant theology, while at the same time offering no sense that the paradise to which Songy aspires exists. Instead, God and Satan are figures through which Songy can test alternatives to his everyday life. At the book’s outset, Songy is baptized, and sets out on his journey. He thinks, “I’ve never been on a vision quest before, yet I am confident, given my patient nature, that I will stay the course and see what develops.” When confronted by the Devil, though, Songy turns out to want not an alternative to his life, but more of the same. In response to Satan’s plea for Songy’s friendship, so that they can share in Satan’s “hope that mankind might evolve and thrive,” Songy snaps back, “That is the sorriest bunch of clap-trap I ever heard! You lost me at your ‘inner burning sparkles’ and your evolution stuff! I like things right like they are, Jack!” At the conclusion of Book Three, as they enter their final conversation, Songy tells Satan, “Us simple mountain folk don’t need no new principalities. We are already filled to the gills with constant prayer and abiding fear.” Songy’s refusal of Satan amounts to both a realization of how hemmed in his life is and, perversely, an embrace of those limits.
It turns out, then, that there is no outside. No heaven or hell exists that Songy can access, or that he wants to access, yet the idea of an outside structures Songy’s thinking and is hard to shed. This worldview is, I think, both personal and cultural. Panter was raised in a religious family in Texas, and in a 2009 interview with The Believer, he discussed religion: “I don’t like religion very much. I think it’s all about people trying to be very certain about things that are very uncertain. But spirituality and superstition, I have to admit, I am affected by. I have no reason to believe there’s a deity, but superstitiously I still function like that.”
Like Panter, I was also raised in Texas, in a religious family, and surrounded by like-minded people. Conservative Protestant life in Texas channels people into a narrow worldview, one in which heaven and hell seem closer destinations than faraway, fallen places like New York City or Los Angeles. Songy of Paradise is psychological in the sense that Panter works through his religious upbringing here, channeling the way of thinking implanted in him into a synthetic riff on Milton that amounts to a reflection on the ontology of heaven and hell. After all, it’s the belief in an afterlife, in a paradise, that can underpin such contemporary beliefs as the idea that climate change isn’t real. These beliefs have pernicious effects on our world, and Songy of Paradise makes visible how they can persist and even thrive in a climate of self-righteous insistence on one’s own purity.
Aesthetically, Songy of Paradise is both a handcrafted comic and a pastiche culled from other sources and imaginaries. In his 1980 “Rozz-Tox Manifesto,” Panter “call[s] for popular environmental manipulators, primitive industry, an avant-garde placed squarely in the entertainment field, for archaeologists and synthesizers.” Songy in Paradise makes sense within this framework, as an archaeological dive into Milton’s Paradise Regained, illuminated manuscripts, hillbilly caricature, political cartooning, and meditative yearning. Panter synthesizes this material into a work of graphic philosophy about how we’re all stuck in the world together. We can’t regain a paradise that was never ours, and a transcendent view of world history and political power offers little but incentives to violence.
But where does that leave us, and where does that leave Panter’s hillbilly character Songy? This question ends up being more difficult to answer than one might anticipate, for Songy of Paradise is just as much a work of research as it is an expression of Panter’s conflicted relationship with the contemporary United States. What Songy shows us, even as he can’t articulate it himself, is that there is no outside, no transcendence, no other world waiting for us than the damaged one we already inhabit. As Panter wrote in his 1980 manifesto, “Capitalism for good or ill is the river in which we sink or swim, and stocks the supermarket.”
It’s not for nothing that the oppressive force in Songy of Paradise turns out to be not Satan, but a Predator drone.
Daniel Worden teaches in the School of Individualized Study at the Rochester Institute of Technology. He is currently completing a book titled Neoliberal Nonfictions: The Documentary Aesthetic of Our Age.