This interview with Gary Panter was conducted over a crackling phone line in New York in the spring of 2004. Panter had recently released his magnum opus Jimbo in Purgatory, a reading via comics of the middle part of Dante’s Divine Comedy, the Purgatorio , via Boccaccio and a host of other classics of European literature — particularly of the medieval and renaissance eras — dressed in pop culture drag.
Surely one of the most unusual works of comics of the past couple of decades, it is an incredibly dense and (let’s face it) difficult work. layered as it is in intertextual reference. But it rewards the committed reader, providing an oblique viewpoint upon the classical tradition, and not the least its humanist iteration as born in the late middle ages and developed through the renaissance to shape Western culture as we know it. Although its particulars may largely be forgotten today, Panter insists upon its currency and situates it at the heart of contemporary culture in what is merely the most hubristic manifestation of his ongoing efforts to break down the barriers between so-called high and low culture. By demonstrating that the two were always of a piece, fruitfully synthesized in multifarious ways through the early modern period, and alive and kicking today.
The interview was originally published in Danish at Rackham back in 2004, and was followed by my review of the book, which we also reprinted here recently. We named Jimbo in Purgatory Book of the Year back then, and the interview and review were at least in part an effort to get behind the scenes a little bit in order to unpack the work for the first-time reader, as well as to provide a little extra for Panter connoisseurs. I hope we succeeded, even if Panter’s subsequent edits never made it to my inbox, leaving a few lacunae in my transcript exposed and unelucidated. A pity, but in a way not inappropriate.
I’d like to start out by asking you about how the project came about. What prompted you to embark upon Jimbo in Purgatory? Which thoughts and ideas did you bring to it initially?
Two things happened. The first was that I started reading Finnegans Wake along with the footnotes to it. Secondly, I started thinking about why I had named my first Jimbo collection, the Pantheon book, Jimbo in Paradise. It clearly had to do with Dante, but I’d never actually read Paradise, I hadn’t read the Comedy. The reading of Joyce and the footnotes to it lead me to all this medieval stuff, all this satirical stuff, which really appealed to me, while Dante lead me to Boccaccio…
And you’d never read that kind of stuff before?
No, I had never really read the classics. I have always read a lot. I would usually find an author I liked and read everything by him, but it would usually be modern stuff — I had read a lot of Borroughs, Ballard, Pynchon, Burgess, and various exciting stuff, but never really the classics except for the stuff they had us read in school.
So what was it about Dante that grabbed you?
The architecture of Dante is really seductive, to a lot a people. Seeing it, you just go “wow — you can wrap anything around this thing.” And I started applying it to what was happening to Jimbo in the comics I was doing at the time. He was following these girls…
That would be in the Zongo series of Jimbo comics that came out in the mid-90s, right? I’ve only seen the first three issues…
Yeah, it was in the Zongo comics [the main part of the story was later collected as Jimbo's Inferno in 2006]. They’re kind of hard to find today because they were making fewer and fewer of them. I really put myself into those books. Initially, I thought it would be a really neat opportunity for me to get my work across to a readership, but they really didn’t do well — I also guess there was a problem with their distribution; I mean they were being distributed to places where they were selling Simpsons comics, and they also looked really rough. The idea was that they progress and become increasingly elaborate as the story goes along, so the early ones are really incredibly loosely drawn, while the later ones become tighter and more organized, with the intention of ending up with this really complex construction at the end. The last one is a version of the Inferno. Though nowhere near as elaborate as my Purgatory. It was basically what got me going, and the elaborate construction that is Purgatory grew out of that.
Yeah, one really gets the sense that it is so much more reflexive and constructed than anything you’ve done before, a lot of which has been really loose and kind of freeform.
Yeah, I like to approach each project in a different way, and Dante’s structure is just such a compelling model. He himself says that everything is happening on many levels in his poetry, I think in relation to his explaining his encoded poems to Beatrice in the Vita Nuova.
How do you mean?
Well, the Comedy is just so many things at the same time. While clearly this enormous Catholic cosmology, it is also incredibly seditious; aside from its giant beauty, it’s also like a dirty joke, a pit and peak — a vagina, a peak and an ejaculation.
And that’s what Boccaccio taps into, presumably?
Yeah, Boccaccio stuck by the encoded humor and satire of Dante. He comes out and tells it straight in the form of bawdy stories. He saw what Dante was doing, the astounding presumptuousness of it. I mean, he puts himself in this place where he passes judgment on everyone and often in very irreverent ways.
I’m asking specifically because the connection you see between Dante and Boccaccio really seems to have been the driving force of the project, at least initially, and while the connections you make sometimes indeed appear resonant, many of them also seem tangential at best.
I just got the notion that there was a connection, and if you think about it – why are there so many boring, moralizing stories in the Decameron? He seems to be addressing specific topics, to be looking for topics in Dante to address. But yeah, absolutely, sometimes it doesn’t quite fit, and sometimes I’ll already have used a story that fits a particular canto elsewhere. I might be wrong; some of the connections are probably not there.
In any case it provides for compelling juxtapositions of similar ideas, treated in quite different ways…
Yeah, what I really wanted to do was a book for myself and my readers. When I was doing the Zongo comics, I figured that there might possibly be 20,000-30,000 people out there that want to read my comics. Now, most of those people I might not be able to reach, so my actual readership is much smaller, maybe a thousand or so. I’m really mostly working for a small crew of readers. And I was looking for change here; I thought “I’m going to write a book for those readers. This is for me, not for a market. I’m going to really please myself.” And it’s really, quite simply a folly. My friend Ric Heitzman, whom I worked with on the designs for Peewee’s Playhouse, was building an actual folly in his backyard at the time, and I thought that would be something to do — this thing that is simply built for its own sake and doesn’t necessarily make a lot of rational sense. But at the same time it was very important to me. So I thought, “If I’m going to build a folly, let’s write a good one!”
You have previously mentioned your strict religious upbringing as a major factor in your approach to your work, not the least in this particular case.
Yes, me and religion. I grew up in this fundamentalist Christian milieu in Texas, so dealing with all this satirical stuff was really good for me, for untangling some of what was impressed upon me as a child. Now, my family are really nice people, their friends are nice, I’m not putting them down, but their thinking is kind of clannish. You have all these churches that all profess to offer the Truth, it’s just clannish, and I’m thinking that if Jesus had any real message it would be to break down all these clans. I suppose the churches provide a sense of local community, but they also isolate themselves from each other and the rest of the world. There’ll be fifty churches in a tiny Texan town, each of which asserts itself as offering the One True Faith. Sometimes they get together — like after 9/11, most of these churches and their congregations got together to pray, except the kind I grew up attending. They’re like the Taliban; even in a case like this, they go “We can’t pray with these people, because they’re going to burn in Hell.”
If you grow up like that, it becomes a blinder, a lock on your brain, which I guess is what most of this country is suffering from. Most people think that either this country is the One True Country, or they think theirs is the One True Religion. Growing up, I became a reactionary, which is kind of a lame thing to be in a way, but I really ended up not liking organized religion. Now, Dante lived in a time where you could be jailed, if not beheaded, for criticizing people like that. And he just emerges as this poet-politician-pharmacist guy and writes this monumental poem, in the vernacular, where he describes these popes shoving pitchforks up each other’s asses in a burning pit. He has these monks wearing lead robes to comment on how Catholic monks were getting into such excessive finery and wouldn’t wear red robes anymore. That takes a lot of balls to do. His work is this ecstatic metaphysical event that cracks open all these things that the church has turned to stone, into institutions — Dante comes along and takes all that apart and puts himself up there with the writers of the Bible.
It’s very presumptuous and very daring.
Yes, and he obviously also part of a classical tradition. What happens is a mix of biblical and classical sources, informing each other. It’s simply audacious and very helpful for somebody like me.
How so, more specifically?
When you can move effortlessly between ideas and literal-mindedness, you’ve broken out of the trap. Everyone I know in Texas believes that the Earth was formed in six days, etc. They believe that there’s actually a Satan with horns and everything, while it seems so obvious that Satan is an idea, and that sort of belief is hugely prevalent in America — it’s really an idea taken literally. Dante masters allegorical writing, writing about ideas. And then Boccacio comes along and tries to write something like Hustler Magazine, with all these seemingly very literal stories that of course are equally allegorical. And then I think somebody like Petrarch sees what he’s doing — the danger of it — and calms him down, so he spends the rest of his life translating classical texts and stuff. The Decameron was inflammatory stuff, it was risky. This was the time when Tyndale had his hands chopped off simply for translating the Bible. Being literal was dangerous.
All this led me to satire. These guys who think outside the box, and often write in some kind of code, when they can’t get away with writing it straight. And it’s not necessarily all that accessible; when Swift writes, he writes a sea of words, and if you want to catch something, you have to sail into the book and find it — he’s not going to come up and say it directly.
Yeah, I was going to ask about accessibility…
In some ways this is how I perceive my book; I don’t pretend to stand by that stuff, but I think I’ve made something visually. And the idea was also to provide a good reading list for my readers — go read Lucian, go read Ovid’s erotic poetry. Everybody around here plays video games all day; I teach comics and my all students know the last five years of comics history, but I want to tell them to go read all the good stuff — read Rabelais, read Chaucer.
Returning to Dante: the satire is there, definitely, but I wouldn’t expect you to say that the Comedy isn’t intensely religious…
Oh no, Dante was very religious, and very serious, but the richness of this thinking goes beyond what you were allowed to think. Maybe it’s, actually not so far from intellectual Catholicism at the time; the high-level scholastic and Augustinian discourse of the time, I’m very ignorant of all of that, but there is definitely a difference in the level of discourse of something like that and what most people were exposed to. I mean, this is a time were monks in Ireland would dip the Book of Kells in water and beat their sick cows with it to cure them — a very literal-minded religious approach to an everyday problem.
Whereas Dante’s thinking is visionary and idea-driven.
Yes, the Comedy is probably the result of a single instance, a singular vision. He probably saw the complete Comedy in one night where everything just poured into his brain — a great hallucination which he would spend the rest of his life remembering.
So you’re suggesting he had a vision under the influence of hallucinogens?
Yes, I think it’s likely. Remember, Dante was a licensed pharmacist and likely had access to and knowledge of these substances. He probably ate mushrooms or took some other form of hallucinogenic.
So you would regard hallucinogens as a powerful source of artistic inspiration?
Yes, but it depends. I took LSD in the early 70s, and later, in the early 80s. In the 70s, it was a completely devastating experience — I’m still working off that trip — later it wasn’t that big a deal. It really depends on the situation and how you use it. I had a friend calling me the other night, saying “Gary, I’m taking LSD with this girl out here in Miami and it’s amazing,” and I just went “Look, everything is going to be back to normal in the morning.” It’s not a very recreational thing, it’s kind of shamanistic. Hard drugs I flee like the plague, psychedelic drugs are very powerful and dangerous and definitely not for everybody, and regarding soft drugs, I don’t get why we have so many people locked up over them in this country, it just makes no sense and is really the consequence of an inhumane policy of no vision, claiming the religious and moral high ground. It seems to me that John of Revelations, for example, must have suffered from red mold or something — it’s a powerful vision. George Bush doesn’t have a vision.
We’ve already touched upon it, but I’d like you to elaborate a little upon the thoughts behind the structure and form of the book, if possible.
I decided early on that my approach would be very procedural. I wanted a sense of rhythm, so I went with a basic structure where each spread consists of a fairly dense, contracted page on the left, with a grid of four by three panels, and a less dense, more expansive one of the right, with a grid of three by three panels. The idea is that it expands and contracts rhythmically, like a heartbeat. I also wanted to make something that looked somewhat like an illuminated manuscript, which is why I framed each page with these borders, referring both to the past and the 20th century.
Procedurally I, as mentioned, worked on the assumption that Boccaccio had encoded Dante, so I went through the two works side by side, looking for connections. If I couldn’t find a word or a theme, I would look for something visual; fluttering flags, for example. Anything. I would also read a lot of other stuff, looking for quotes that would somehow state whatever theme I’d come up with, like fluttering flags or whatever. If I was dealing with the abuse of alcohol, I could go to [George] Cruikshank, for example, his screeds against alcohol from the 1830s. So it would grow and become this kind of sculptural construction, kind of a mosaic. Once I made a connection, I would divide the number of words in the canto with the words in the Boccaccio story and then divide that with the amount of panels on the page, to get a sense of how to spread out the narrative.
So you would actually compose the page according to a very schematic structure? Were you trying to divide up the words you needed for each panel exactly?
Well, I would calculate an average and use that as the basis to know how far each panel should progress the story – where I would put each of the elements that corresponded with the individual canto and so on.
Your approach seems to become increasingly mosaic-like as you go along; the first ten pages or so follow the Dante canti and Boccaccio stories in question quite closely, whereas later you move further and further away from them as source material and incorporate a much wider variety of material.
Yeah, that’s right. At first I didn’t quite know how to approach it, and I knew I wasn’t going to do anything I did over again later, so it basically was a continuation of my approach with the Zongo comics where I would start sloppy and then tighten up and go increasingly complex as I went along. So by the time I reached Purgatory it became really intricate and took several years to complete. When I began Purgatory, I was literally trying to tell the stories of Dante and Boccaccio, but that was just unsatisfying, so I figured I could slow down and make it tighter, more convoluted, since that’s also what Dante does; when you read Paradise, it’s like there’s a big hand coming down to you from above, telling you to bow down your head. Paradise is really loaded with information; it becomes fairly tedious at times, Dante is listing all these heroes of his.
Yeah, and it’s also where he gets into the most complex theological and philosophical discussions, the most abstract stuff…
Yeah, it’s really interesting, because, again, you have these different levels of meaning, and I really see Paradise as incredibly erotic. It’s basically about how Dante aspires towards Beatrice, who is put in the place of the Divine. There’s a very carnal aspect to it.Have you considered doing something similar to Jimbo in Purgatory with Paradise? I know there was the Pantheon collection, but…
It came to mind to do something similar, to continue the story, but then I did this print, representing the different generations of cartoonists spiraling inwards towards the present in what is kind of a cartoon-analogy to Dante’s pantheon of personal heroes in Paradise…
Is that the one on the inside of the dust jacket of McSweeneys #13?
Yeah, that’s the one; I originally did it as a print. It’s kind of a take on Paradise, but I might want to do something more, although I don’t think I want to do a Paradise like this Purgatory… I don’t know — it could be anything.
OK, let’s look at some specific examples from the comic to arrive at a fuller picture of your approach. Your treatment of Dante’s canto 11, for example, mystified me a bit, since it is so ripe with possibilities for thematic exploration, dealing as it does with the nature of art and the transience of human endeavor. You turn that whole thing into a bunch of dirty limericks!
Yeah [chuckles] I just decided early on to follow my whims; if I got distracted visually, for example, I’d go with that distraction. The dirty limericks here are about Boccaccio. I would really like to hear what Dante and Boccaccio experts would have to say about it — my ears would probably be red afterwards.
I guess your introduction of that kind of material was also an attempt to honor the humor in Dante and Boccaccio, and — I could imagine — an attempt to temper the gravity of the material and the danger of coming off as too pretentious.
Yeah, I knew that if I made it too heavy, nobody was going to come with me. That’s also the reason I added the page with the record recommendations in the back — to sort of round it off on a playful note. While the Purgatory book was in production, I sent photocopies of it over to my friend Bruno Richard in Paris, and he sent me back the record page, basically meaning “What the fuck?” [Matthias laughs]
Related to that, possibly, is your use of popular culture — a constant in your work, but extremely palpable here because of the lofty context. Sometimes there seems to be kind of an asymmetrical relationship between what you use and what you represent. An example is in canto 12; in Dante he sees these sculptural reliefs in the floor that are basically a history of mythological representations of human hubris and the transience of our lives, and you replace that by these B-movie posters…
Yeah, they’re posters from Japanese monster movies…
Right, OK, I guess I first want to ask what your interest in popular culture is, and why you use it here?
I use it because pop culture is the reigning mythology now, just like In Roman times everything was referring to the gods, for example. I got into Japan from watching Godzilla movies, these hokey Japanese monster movies, and there’s something mythological about that — it resonates with Japanese culture and history. I went and started reading about Japan on the basis of that.
The same important messages that used to be conveyed by mythology are today conveyed by popular culture, and that’s not to excuse popular culture — most of it is mind numbing — but it definitely reflects important things about us and our time. If I, for example, look for harbingers in my comics, I see them: just before the Tsunami disaster in Southeast Asia, for example, I had done this drawing of a beach with a threatening wave on the horizon. If you look for this kind of stuff, it’s there, but I think its best to avoid thinking about it.
Things happening around me in the world as I was working also made it into the book. One thing that was happening was the bombing of Serbia, and when Jimbo is on the mountain with all the dead bodies — that was Serbia. And I have the death of Princess Di, the crashed car, in the place of Violent Death, along with John Lennon. I have Frank Zappa in the Valley of Negligent Kings. I was looking for specific traits in many of the pop-culture figures, much in the way that Ben Johnson derives the humor of his characters from giving each of them a distinct character trait. I for example place Boy George amongst the slovenly, who are too lazy to seek out their own salvation, preferring to loaf around and wait for it to come to them.
I generally just tried to find connections, things that resonated with the themes and situations described by Dante. And since he also fills the Comedy with contemporary characters and stories that would probably since have been largely forgotten were it not for him, and basically things he just likes, I figured it was natural to do the same. I was also looking at it as my remembrance of the latter half of the 20th Century — the period in which I had lived for what will be most of my life, and which was ending as I was working. I wanted to acknowledge that.
Right. Part of the reason I wanted to ask you about your use of popular culture was also that, in a way, its use can — along with such things as the record page — be seen as kind of an ironic, self-conscious gesture, which can seem as a kind of copout, given the thematic profundity of the work, like you’re having it both ways.
Yeah, well, I didn’t feel very defensive about it. Pop culture is something most people can relate to, and it’s really analogous to Dante’s references and, at an even more basic level, his use of the vernacular for the Comedy. One thing I did worry a little bit about was turning the whole thing into this ‘rock and roll heaven,’ so I tried to put all that, all those bands I like, on one page and get it out of my system. I also try to maintain some kind of consistency in the way I represent things throughout the book; the angels are mostly Japanese toys, for example, except for the one I draw as the robot from Metropolis.
…Which is the one that in Dante descends upon our protagonists and talks about human aspiration and idealism, something you seem to entirely leave out in your version…
Yeah, I can be totally criticized for not often addressing the material, and instead looking for thematic resonances. I see it as kind of a combination of what I usually do in my comics and what I do in my paintings. In my comics, I’m usually telling some kind of story or something around the story. In the paintings, I don’t tell stories and it’s all about images that resonate with each other. I don’t regard myself as a profound intellectual thinker, and I didn’t feel constrained by intellectual concerns here, I never do; it’s an associative thing. I was trying to build a bell. In a way it’s the biggest copout ever.
Well, in other places you seem to be very attentive to the themes Dante is concentrating on; you for example seem to quite profoundly follow and comment upon his discourse on love throughout the book.
Yes, especially at the very end. I was wondering how I was going to convey this, since it is so important. How to represent Beatrice. Beatrice is Twiggy, who was just omnipresent in my sexual awakening, this androgynous look, very boyish.
That’s very appropriate…
Yeah, Dante kind of gets into that by addressing several of his homosexual teachers, some of which he places on the Mount, which is quite heretical.
Yeah that too, but I meant appropriate since Dante’s relationship to Beatrice surely dates back to the days of his own sexual awakening, and even before.
Yeah, they were children when they met, and when she died really young, he was called upon to write a poem on her funeral. The Comedy is very sexual; it’s a big topic in the book, human sexuality versus institutional restrictions. Dante was struck by her for the rest of his life, and went about transforming the whole of Catholic doctrine into following this girl to Heaven. The relationship between the two is very vividly rendered — probably the most acute ‘Boccaccio-moment’ in the Comedy is when Beatrice scolds Dante, just after they first meet in the Garden.
I’d like to ask you about your representation of the Earthly Paradise and its agents towards the end of the book. There’s that mysterious woman, Dante meets by the stream, who leads him to Beatrice, Mathilda…
Yeah, I think she’s that Indian toy.
Is she? But what about the woman in the Stetson whom he meets on the following page, in the garden? Wouldn’t that be Mathilda? She’s the one that leads him on through the garden, to Beatrice?
Well, it’s all quite mysterious — who are all these women in Dante? I kind of relate it to Joyce’s writing about this girl waiting on a beach. But, yeah, I guess that Texas cheerleader is Mathilda, I have her leading him along, first one side of the stream, then the other.
I find it interesting that you chose to almost exclusively use Michelangelo’s poetry for the scene where Dante has to go through the fires of purification and enter the Earthly Paradise. It’s the only place in the book where you almost become entirely coherent, because you are mostly quoting one source. And Michelangelo is all about transcending the flesh, which I find to be more purely Platonic than what Dante is expressing in these canti…
Well, I chose to use that because it just seemed so appropriate. It’s quite physical; it really seems like a kind of flagellation. He seems to be struggling with his physicality, with his homosexuality and all these things in a very physical way. It’s very much in the style of somebody who is working with his hands, of a sculptor.
Could you address the humorous and profane interest and tone of the book? I’m thinking of it in relation to the transcendental aspects of Dante. You seem very insistent on the profane aspects of him…
Yes, I’m certainly interested in all of that, but I’m not so different from most people. I’m in favor of friendship and fidelity and believe in moral values and all that, but when you believe like I did and take everything literally, and decide to break away, a lot of questions come up. You’re aware that you should have values, but where should they come from? What should they be? This book attempts to be an articulation of that. I guess all my work is; I’m probably only always writing one comic strip in different forms. I’m probably not very good at it [laughs]. It’s like coming down from LSD. A billion dollars worth of fantastic imagery was great, but I’m glad it stopped. I have ideals, but seduce me and see what happens. I don’t know; I’m an average Joe.