Life on Mars: Gary Panter’s "Dal Tokyo"

January 24, 2013   •   By Nicole Rudick

Dal Tokyo

Gary Panter

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 system, Martian canals as viewed from the Lowell Observatory in 1896, and the topography of Mars. Even the name of the place is a curious combination, a portmanteau of Dallas and Tokyo (just as Archigram blends architecture and telegram).

The narrative of the original Dal Tokyo, which ran in the weekly LA Reader from 1983 to 1984, follows the intersecting tales of a half dozen characters, among them Okupant X, an erstwhile ambulance driver who begins to see a vast conspiracy linking near-fatal car crashes and tabloid photography; Mr. Gabble, a crash victim who is stitched, Frankenstein-style, to his recently deceased cohort, Superfreak; Huke and Eddie, members of Mr. Gabble’s car club who trek to an automobile graveyard on the Martian plain run by cowboy car miners; Nurse Barbie, who accidentally delivers a mortal bite to Superfreak during sex and checks herself into no-bite rehab; and sub-inspector Dexter Pine Roll, art police. Panter’s narrative delivery is rarely straightforward, and he provides little to no explanation, description, or characterization to help orient the reader. He ekes the story out slowly, but the utter strangeness of his characters, physically and contextually, is consistently engrossing. His art follows suit: Panter’s famous ratty line provides a restless urgency to scenes of kinetic city life, but his immense talent in these early strips is in suggesting atmospheric detail through linework that, like the terrain it depicts, is a blend of multiple sources. A strip from 1983 is divided into two large panels: the left panel, of Okupant X and tabloid photographer Yah Tah Hey crouched outside a house, is drawn in Panter’s unique cubist crosshatch, which produces an energetic but flat and ambiguous area of space; meanwhile, the right panel mimics the visual language of ukiyo-e in depicting two smog monsters making love, their large bodies a balletic tangle of crisp lines and patterned robes.

By March of 1984, the already-fractured narrative described above had begun to dissolve even further. Two consecutive strips, for instance, are given over to a pictographic, map-based recap of the events so far; wordless street scenes are rendered wholly in Panter’s consummate punk-cubist mélange; panel divisions give way to full-strip drawings of increasingly indecipherable abstractions. At the same time, Panter was moving into other forms. In 1980, he published his “Rozz-Tox Manifesto,” which embraced, among other things, the idea of making art within the terms of commercial enterprise while also expressing the desire to explore alternatives in art culture and production. “By necessity we must infiltrate popular mediums,” Panter wrote. “We are building a business-based art movement. This is not new. Admitting it is […] Capitalism for good or ill is the river in which we sink or swim. Inspiration has always been born of recombination.”

The 1980s were an enormously productive period for Panter. His cohort in Los Angeles, where he had moved in 1976 — a motley group of practitioners including Mike Kelley, Matt Groening, Paul Reubens, Robert Williams, and Leonard Koren — no doubt helped inspire these attitudes, and his work of the time, like that of his friends, is exploratory and energetic, populist and visionary. In addition to Dal Tokyo, he was creating minicomics and publishing comics in Art Spiegelman’s Raw; writing his best-known character, Jimbo, into Dante’s underworld epic and telling Jimbo’s early stories in the book Cola Madnes; recording his first LP, Pray for Smurph; and producing paintings whose imagery is based largely on pop-cultural detritus. In 1979, he began working with Reubens, designing elements for his Pee-wee Herman stage show and, subsequently, Pee-wee’s Playhouse.

Unable to maintain the pace of a weekly strip, Panter shelved Dal Tokyo for two decades until his Japanese agent, Shizuo Ishii, revived it for his monthly reggae magazine, RiddimDal Tokyo ran there from 1996 to 2007, and the majority of the book comprises these strips. Panter initially picks up the narrative thread from the comic’s earlier incarnation, but that thread dwindles after some 20 entries. What then occurs is a dismantling of the relationship between text and image — the two elements that make up the comics form — and a reassessment of how time and space can behave across panels that, by design, are intended to be read in a linear and temporal fashion.

“Word salad” is how Mike Kelley once described the textual content of Dal Tokyo; he was doubtless referring to the Riddim-era strips, in which speech bubbles and captions no longer serve a narrative function. “Though my trepan be slowlorn, still must I the landbox fill. Ever should my cleppers be clepan. As the leppers leppin lept,” reads one. And elsewhere: “When the oyster ceases to exist, it joins the caravan innumerable. / Wiltons, axeministers, moquettes, tapestries and ingrains. Also rugs.”

Panter’s drawings, on the other hand, become overwhelmingly representational in the Riddim period. He also switched from drawing with rapidographs to composing his art with dip nibs; the thicker lines are weightier and progressively cleaner, but though the figures, objects, and landscapes are often distinct and legible, they don’t necessarily offer pellucid narratives. A Dal Tokyo strip from late 2001, for instance, looks like a miniature shrine to Western postwar popular culture: its four panels are packed with forms, including cartoonish figures, robots, modernist decor, psychedelic elements, and video-game imagery. Another strip, from 1998, reads like a surrealist children’s cartoon. The first panel depicts a house whose roof has exploded: “Our eggmen are beefing about getting splinters in their hands sliding up and down their poles all day long and night.” The second panel shows a rabbit with cap and wrench ostensibly pursuing, in the third panel, a fleeing wolf dressed as a lumberjack and wielding an ax: “Okay, eggmen — here’s 20 bucks get ten pairs in assorted sizes at the sport shop on Easy Street. / Leapin’ leggy! You’re madder than a wet hen, chief!” The last panel contains a placid landscape: “Doff dumbduffers potbelly!”

The elements of a comic strip are all present in Dal Tokyo, including teaser lines for subsequent installments (albeit poetically opaque ones: “Next: Purse size $3”; Next: Neutral trains”; “Next: Intergalactic ambuscade”), and the reader, well versed in how these elements function together, works to draw connections between a strip’s elliptical text and its imagery. Sometimes, these elements are highly abstracted but nonetheless work to the same end, as when Panter describes a sound or mood that can’t otherwise be inferred from the picture: “The skysong gradually supplanting the gameleon croaks of the nesting protoceratops” describes a still herd of dinosaurs drawn across three panels. But most often the text and picture bear no discernible relation to one another. The disjunction of a typical Dal Tokyo strip is analogous to Rene Magritte’s 1930 painting The Key of Dreams, in which the canvas is divided into four panels, painted to look like the panes of a window, and each section contains an object, realistically illustrated and denoted by a scripted label. But only one object is correctly named. Because the objects are familiar and at least one is accurately classified, the viewer instinctively tries to make sense of the remaining objects according to some new system.

In Dal Tokyo, too, the images resist an easy correspondence to the accompanying speech bubbles and captions, and vice-versa, and the disjunctions that result are thrilling. As with purely abstract comics like those of Victor Moscoso, Lewis Trondheim, and Andrei Molotiu, Panter draws out the structural concepts underlying the form’s narrative progression and parses the linguistic elements, illustrating, as it does so, that comics needn’t all be constructed according to the same principles. Through an accumulation of these experiments, Panter separates out the two elements of comics — text and image — that we take for granted as behaving in accord. Each element is each expressed in its own language and exists independent of, or side by side with, one another — presenting the reader with the opportunity, as with poetry, to create individual meaning. And unlike traditional comics storytelling, space and time in Dal Tokyo aren’t always parceled out from panel to panel; such sequencing frequently gives way to four seemingly unconnected scenes or a single scene drawn across multiple panels; and sometimes, time and space occur at once, in a kind of Duchampian vector of movement.

Panter’s montage approach to comics making — from strip to strip, panel to panel, and between text and image — eschews plot for perspective. A strip from March 2003 presents four panels of what look like stills from film or television, each with a caption: a domestic drama (“‘I have a surprise, too,’ said Frank, ‘It’s a nest that looks like a bag of hair’”); a Western (“A little cabin. Animal tracks in clay. Some ice in a pail of water”); and, over two panels, a 1950s-era sci-fi show (“Supper was over. Dishes were done. Days went by quickly”).

In truth, though, the scenes are generic, in the sense that they only enough information to suggest genres, so that we begin to ponder the clues that lead us to such assumptions. In the same way, our instinct is to read the captions in relation to the pictures, but the two relate only insofar that the some of the text contains words or a tone that popular culture instructs us to associate, directly or indirectly, with those situations (animal tracks and cabins relate to Westerns, for instance). The incongruous imagery and text Panter inserts into his panels — elven figures that stare wide-eyed at nothing, leggy young women with blank expressions, naively drawn cartoon figures overlaid with scraps of text in a medieval script — disrupt narrative context.

Dal Tokyo does not “reproduce situations,” as Walter Benjamin said of Bertolt Brecht’s theater, “it discovers them.” And the reader, awash in unfamiliar terrain, is compelled to find a new way to make sense of it. The suitability of our environs, as Archigram suggested, cannot be overestimated; new spaces in which to work, live, and interact would, the group believed, inspire a whole new way of being and would reshape how we envision the world. Panter’s medium is comics rather than architecture, but the effect of his work is the same: Dal Tokyo questions accepted notions of structure and meaning — taking them not as truth but as convention — and, taking Brecht’s advice, builds not “on the good old days, but on the bad new ones.”