The Daily Heller: Gary Panter Goes Hippie with New Underground Comic

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I received Gary Panter’s Hippie comic (re)collection Crashpad (Fantagraphics Books) today. Although it is not officially published until early February, it’s burning a hole in my Daily Heller publishing queue. Having recently finished Barack Obama’s memoir A Promised Land (filled with hope mixed with frustration) and Michel Houellebecq’s novel Serotonin (filled with depressed feelings about Western Civilization, suffocating loneliness and relentless hedonism), I was ready to happily jump into Panter’s post-Hippie, reinterpreted-Hippie world.

In 2017, Panter created an art installation, Hippie Trip, inspired by his first visit to a head shop in 1968. As part of the exhibition, he created this version of an idealized underground comic, a psychedelic trip through the Hippie scene in Panter’s rough-expressive style. Both a narrative story and an art object itself, Crashpad is presented as a deluxe hardcover reproducing Panter’s original pages at full size as facsimiles (crop marks and all). Plus, the book comes with a newsprint version of the comic tucked into the front. This gives readers the experience of tripping on Panter’s story in the form of an old-school underground comic.

I asked Panter to talk about his return to Hippieland, and how or if this had anything to do with turning 70 in August. (Also, be sure to preorder the New York Review of Comics rerelease of a classic Panter book this Spring: Jimbo: Adventures in Paradise.)

Like me, you recently turned 70 (and what a millstone and milestone it is). You’ve stopped teaching at the School of Visual Arts, where I happily ran into you a few times before shutdown. Nonetheless, you’re still pumping great Panter comics. What is the tradeoff?
[Regarding teaching at] SVA, my knees wore out. Getting home on the train standing after standing all class doing wall critiques got me. And my prostate, which almost got me, kind of weakened me generally. Art school is full of rejects and weirdos but comics has a higher ratio of the damaged and infantile. Not so many arrogant people, maybe, as in painting, but dweebs that got younger and younger. I made two friends a year, which made it all worth it. But it was time to use my time more selfishly.

I recall when you published FOG in 2017—it felt to me part homage and part time travel back to days before American culture had turned (or maybe it had just returned again) to shit. Crashpad—although your “idealized” version of underground comics post-dates the epoch by over 50 years—also feels current. Do you agree?

We have finished the second issue of FOG. The plague has affected how and when we will publish it. But pretty soon. Former student Char Esme is the designer again, and this time I shared writing with Byron Coley, legendary underground writer, friend from SLASH days. It is meant to be current and a little trigger of culture. Char is a very nice person, but she is into scary faceprinting, so the new issue will feature more scary face painting. I am encouraging my neat baby Hippie friends, of which there are a lot. And I met a bunch at SVA.

What was your motivation in stirring up the psychedelic brew for one last hurrah?

55 years since a cultural explosion that is lost to time. Encoded in bad cliches. I think the new Beatles documentary might convey the culture power of that moment, invested in the charm and talent and species necessity of the Beatles and psychedelic and ecological concerns. Most people think the world is in ruins and that we are doomed. I think the Hippies, when they weren’t totally fucking up, had interesting concerns and proto-strategies for repair and revision. So at the end of my life I feel an urgency to talk about repair and the possibility of pulling out of this shitstorm alive as a species.

Was this indeed a parody or another way of telling your story?

Crashpad is not a parody. It copies the form and is lightly critical, but is hopeful and tries to offer wisdom of some sort. There is a lot of what I knew about Hippies at the time in the early ’70s in Texas that is funny to me, so I addressed those stories. I was not in such a desert place as these Hippies in my comic.

One big driver for me was that I was too young to really participate in underground comics, and this is my chance to finally participate in Hippie comics. I was at home going to church and making freaky art in my garage. My Hippie comics are pretty gentle, because I got out a lot of the transgressive stuff over with years ago. I make a different kind of comics now. This is one version of that. I did experimental comics that were unconventional. This one is pretty conventional, on purpose. Even the opening psychedelic section will be somewhat familiar to readers of trippy comics tropes. I am friends with Spiegelman, Williams, Moscoso, Griffith, Noomin, London, and Wilson, Spain, Crumb, Lynch, Kominsky, Williamson, McMillan, Griffin were all swell to me. This is an ode to their very skuzzy masterful revolution. Hippie comics were rapey, macho and stupid but they were also revelatory—they did have a visionary aspect. Hard to explain to young people why they were very important and not just nasty.

What makes you happy (in these days of COVID depression)?
My daughter loves me and is pretty happy and I am friendly with her mom, though we aren’t together any more. The world is endlessly complex and very interesting. I am very grateful for the ride. I am grateful that I remain curious as well.