Comics of the Decade: Gary Panter’s Jimbo in Purgatory


This is part of a Metabunker series celebrating a great decade in comics with Rackham by reprinting select reviews of the decades’ best comics from the Rackham archive, along with a number of new pieces.

Thus the unfacts, did we posses them, are too imprecisely few to warrant our certitude.

– James Joyce

In the twelfth canto of Purgatorio, the last step on the way before Dante can put behind him the burden of pride and rise up to the second terrace of Mount Purgatory, he stumbles — stooped and strained by sin — on an enormous comic, cut into the rocky pavement.

The comic tells the story of vanity and presumption from the dawn of time to the Biblical era. He is thus given the opportunity to reacquaint himself with the story of Niobe, Queen of Thebes, whose aggrandizement of her seven children over the goddess Leto’s two, lost them to the arrows of the gods and was transformed into a statue. Or the tale of the weaver Arachne who was punished for besting Pallas Athena with her art had to spend the rest of her life spinning webs as a spider. Or the tale of the Syrian warlord Holophernes who gave himself over to the murderous hands of the avenging Israelite Judith, or – not the least – the story of King Nimrod of Babel left broken on the plain of Shinar, his aspirations struck down in bitter confusion of language.

Gary Panter’s commentary track in comics, Jimbo in Purgatory, substitutes a diagonally placed tapestry of fifties B-movie posters for Dante’s comic. Standing in for the poet is his recurrent, Candide-like muscle man Jimbo, whose origins trace back to the early seventies, while Dante’s guide on the mountain, the Roman poet Virgil, is replaced by Jimbo’s parole officer, the box-shaped robot Valise. The angel who descends on them from the mountain and tells them about the transience of all life appears here in the form of the robot woman from Fritz Lang’s SF parable Metropolis (1927).

Panter’s version of the conversation is a fragmented jumble to Dante’s moving reflection on human worth. An exchange of classic nonsense and raunchy limericks stitched to samples from Boccaccio, Chaucer and Milton. The result is a poetic confusion of meaning in which twentieth-century pop artifacts are tried in the court of the classics, read in eclectic zigzag to engage only halfway tongue-in-cheek the questions raised by the source material.

The example is Joyce’s irreverently sublime language fuckery in Finnegans Wake (1939), and like it, Jimbo in Purgatory is dense and hard to access for the cursory reader. Panter is nowhere as complex as Joyce but still demands considerable intellectual and associative engagement of the reader, but he also rewards it in spades. Beyond functioning as an atomized if rich reading list, the comic is an exquisitely funny and inspiring synthesis of more than half a millennium’s worth of Western thinking.

Jimbo in Purgatory grew out of a series of earlier Jimbo stories. In 1988 Panter collected a number of short and very different pieces, some of which had originally been printed in Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly’s classic Raw Magazine, to fashion a rambling dystopian cacophony, epic in scope and mind-bending in form, also named after Dante: Jimbo in Paradise.

And in the mid-nineties, Panter’s buddy Matt “Simpsons” Groening published seven Jimbo comic books by Panter on his imprint Zongo Comics. Initially conceived loosely and rendered naively as if by a fork, Panter elaborated the series into a pop reading of Dante’s Inferno, which became a test run for the more complex Purgatory. (This story was eventually published in collected form as Jimbo’s Inferno in 2006).

As mentioned, Panter’s foundation is Purgatorio, the central part of Dante’s tripartite Commedia — his so-called Divine Comedy — an epic, visionary poem written in the early decades of the fourteenth century. It narrates Dante’s journey through the classical and Christian imagination, with lines drawn back to antiquity and forwards to his own troubled times. Dante’s lucid structure provides Panter with his own, formally as well as allegorically. He mixes in the Decameron, Giovanni Boccaccio’s rich conglomeration of stories profane and fatal from the mid-fourteenth century.

As others have done before him, Panter intuits connections between the individual tales of the Decameron and Boccaccio’s stated paragon, the cantos –- or ‘songs’ — of Dante’s Commedia. These connections are thematic as well as iconographic, but are also based on structural parallels between the two works: the Comedy consists of a hundred cantos, each regularly composed of between forty and fifty terza rime (three line stanzas using chain rhyme) — an introduction and thirty-three in Inferno, and thirty-three each in Purgatorio and Paradiso. The Decameron, similarly, is composed of a hundred stories told by ten narrators in groups of ten over a total narrative of ten days. The parallels that Panter draws between individual songs and stories from the two works at times feel forced, but just as often resonate beautifully, and provide the spine of his narrative structure.

Of central importance, too, is Dante’s clearly articulated narrative space, in the case of Purgatorio the terraces of the mountain up which the sinners must move in order gradually to purify themselves to reach salvation. Panter, who usually works very extemporally, meets this challenge in a bravura performance. Each page corresponds to a song and the story is built with unfailing rhythm, like a heartbeat — the left-hand pages consist of a four-by-three panels, while the facing, right-hand pages open up in a three-by-three grid. Contraction and expansion, lub-dub, lub-dub.

Panter's graphic playfulness on display


Each page is bordered in a fashion that suggests a medieval illuminated manuscript, while at the same time tying together songs taking place on the same terrace of the mountain. The pages are also laid out symmetrically, forming an organized, harmonious whole underneath the variations and sense of movement dictated by the panel-to-panel narration from right to left. A resonant mise-en-scène of Dante’s order in comics form.

These choices result in Panter’s most condensed and exacting work to date. Where he normally works on a primitivist kick, he here seeks the boundaries between scrawl and control, actually consolidating his punk-pop approach to the classics. His vitality of line has always been a crucial strength, and here he engages it almost alchemically in a symbolic space, where every detail is so rich in meaning, and where his natural sense of design works in the service of an exploration of imperfectly rendered ornament. We get craggy rings of fire, shaded by hatching varying startlingly from panel to panel; we get webs of electrical zigzag that transform into old Norse-style patterns outside the panel border; we get wavy reams of thistle, funky-awkward starry skies, small, cute and fat clouds of smoke, spirals of steam seemingly molded from pastry dough, sizzling Kirby Krackle, and lots of other wonderful cartoon candy.

Iconographically, Panter works according to a number of principles in close step with his source material, but he simultaneously draws upon his own pop cultural image bank and personal formation. The Roman politician Cato the Elder, who meets Dante and Virgil at the foot of the mountain, becomes Bruce Lee wielding his nunchuks, because –naturally — he played the Green Hornet’s sidekick Kato in the sixties TV series. Among the slothful passively awaiting salvation on the fourth terrace of the mountain, we find Boy George standing in for the Florentine lute-maker Belacqua. Among those who have perished under violent circumstances, we encounter John Lennon and stumble upon a car wreck referencing Princess Di’s death around the time Panter drew the page. Similarly, Frank Zappa (quite naturally) heads up the faithless kings, along with Henry Rollins, Jimi Hendrix, and other rock idols of Panter’s.

The faithless kings.


One might accuse the cartoonist of inconsistency in that he places many still-living people on Mount Purgatory, where Dante obviously only includes people who have passed on. Panter’s reasons are probably mainly practical — limiting himself to dead people would resonate less well with the kind of pop cultural framework within which he is working — but his version of the mountain is explained somewhat tongue-in-cheek in the introduction as being a ”…vast infotainment center built in the shape of Dante’s Mount Purgatory”, in which all the players “…strive for university degrees in literature”, rather than an allegory of salvation of the source material.

The avaricious sinners on the fifth terrace, who in Purgatorio lie with their heads pressed against the ground, are here — again following current events at the time of creation — the victims of the US bombings in Kosovo. The mysterious Mathilda, who Dante meets at the summit, is a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader. And the Earthly Paradise through which she leads Jimbo draws upon the suburban topography of Panter’s childhood town Sulphur Springs, Texas — Panter gives this particular sequence a strange beauty by leaving it entirely silent. Last, but not least, Dante’s beloved Beatrice, to whom the Commedia is dedicated as the ultimate love poem, is here personified by the androgynous sixties idol Twiggy, who in an ironic parallel to Dante’s unrequited first love played an important role in Panter’s sexual maturation. The personal encounter with twentieth-century mass culture is thus ensconced on Mount Parnassus, just like Dante did it with his friends and the political and cultural figures of his time.

Panter largely avoids the problems entailed by such an ironic treatment of his material. Although he was clearly unable to resist the temptation of inserting a list of record recommendations at the end of the book, he never stoops to the easy cop-out offered by his punk attitude, because he takes seriously his role as an interlocutor in a centuries-old discourse. As was the case in the Zongo Jimbo comics (aka. Jimbo’s Inferno), the narrative increases in complexity and fragmentation as it progresses — surely a result of the work process itself. The first cantos stick closely to Dante and Boccaccio, but as he goes along Panter adds more and more material into the mix and often strays far from the narratives two main literary constituents. The approach is associative — Panter is not philologically stringent, but rather combines themes and motifs from different texts at will and as they occur to him, making fragmented rather than cohesive sense. In some cases this approach fails in actualizing the enormous potential of the source material, such as when he dumbs down Dante’s unforgettable discussion of art and creativity in the eleventh canto by recasting it as a silly duel on limericks between Jimbo, Valise, and two dwarfs with Chesire cat smiles and stalked eyes.

A missed opportunity.


On the other hand, the self-flagellation of Michelangelo’s transcendental poetry rings true in a sequence showing Jimbo’s entry into the Earthly Sulphur Springs-Paradise. Dancing gogo poodles spiraling in sync articulate the master’s disavowal of the physical condition and longing exaltation of humanity’s hopeless quest for what lies beyond it. The homosexual Michelangelo is thus placed discretely among the lustful as described in the twenty-seventh canto of Purgatorio, more precisely those who have been guilty of sodomy. But more essentially his words become the invocation that leads Jimbo through the benediction to true love in the following canto. Purgatorio’s moment of passage linked to Michelangelo’s transcendental aspiration as depicted in his self-portrait as St. Batholomew’s flayed skin in the in the Sixtine Chapel Last Judgment. A beautiful and resonant coupling of two of the greatest visionaries of the Renaissance.

Jimbo in Purgatory is far from perfect, but despite its ironic distance it represents a deeply serious engagement with the Western canon and beyond that the big questions at its center. In the spirit of its model, it is an arrogant and presumptuous construction, but a liberating one in its efforts to locate and uncover the continuities of life. With humor and a spectacular visual imagination, Panter serves up a lavish and remarkably generous, but never chaotic book that reminds us of the way in which truth emerges socially –moved by the power of will, thought, and faith.

Gogo-poodles quoting Michelangelo.

In sync with its contents, the book combines the virtues of traditional craft and mass-production. It is an oversize, canvas-bound book impressed with gold leaf on the cover. The pages are reproduced without the fuzz of halftone patterns, but still manage to bring out the grey nuances of the original ink drawings. A triumph.

Originally published in Danish on the Rackham website in 2005. Other installments in this series: David B.’s L’Ascension du haut mal (Epileptic), Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Goražde, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again, Sammy Harkham et. al. Kramers Ergot 4, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Daniel Clowes’ Ice Haven and The Death Ray, Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan — The Smartest Kid on Earth, Dominique Goblet’s Faire semblant c’est mentir, Chester Brown’s Louis Riel Read also our 2004 interview with Panter on Jimbo in Purgatory.

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