Friday, August 22, 2008

Graphic Lit: Gary Panter and Jack Kirby

Few artists have been able to combine the conflicting aspects of high and low culture as successfully as Gary Panter.

Appearing on the art scene in the late'70s and early '80s, he was an important member of the "Raw" crowd, frequently contributing to Art Spiegelman's seminal comics anthology.

His work, with its messy, slashing lines and abrasive, in-your-face attitude, was strongly allied with the punk rock scene of the time. Readers holding his books had to be careful lest they cut their fingers on his drawings.

Influenced by the psychedelic and underground comics of the 1960s as well as fine artists like Picasso, his comics disregarded conventional narratives, opting instead for an expressionist approach.

Yet Panter is not some obscure artist slinging paint in a lonely garret. He's done album covers for the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Frank Zappa, designed children's playrooms and won the 2000 Chrysler Award for Design. Most famously, he was the production designer for the acclaimed Saturday morning show "Pee-Wee's Playhouse."

Now Panter is celebrated in a ginormous, two-volume, slipcased coffee table book simply titled "Gary Panter."

This obvious labor of love focuses primarily on Panter's skill as a painter. The first volume devotes almost three-fourths of its contents to his work on canvas, with his comics and other work sampled toward the back.

The second volume, featuring a wealth of sketchbook pages, is more revealing, offering hints to the artist's development and thought processes.

Overall though, the book is a wonderful testament to Panter's artistic skills. I'm in awe of his ability to take oddball items like old 10-cent toy packaging and, through his brush, refigure and transform it into something extraordinary and significant. His work both satirizes and celebrates America's "trash" culture.

Panter continues to influence generation after generation. One can hope this definitive collection, despite the high price, will continue to spread the good word. It's about time he got a book like this.

'King of comics'

One of Panter's biggest influences is Jack Kirby, the comic book creator who strode like a colossus over the medium during much of the 20th century.

Now the man who helped bring to life Captain America, the Fantastic Four and the Hulk, to name just a few, is the subject of his own coffee-table biography, "Kirby, King of Comics" written by longtime friend Mark Evanier.

Evanier has been working on an in-depth biography of Kirby for several years, but this isn't that book. It's more of a cursory overview of the man's life and accomplishments, designed for those curious but unfamiliar.

What makes the book worthy of purchase is the lavish and loving treatment of Kirby's art work. In addition to full-page covers and panels, there's a wealth of sketches and penciled pages, enough to satisfy the devoted.

At times the book veers dangerously close to hagiography. Beyond a few broad strokes, Evanier doesn't really make a case for why Kirby was important; he assumes readers will just infer it from the art. There are also a couple of odd editorial choices -- a foldout spread of painter Alex Ross reproducing one of Kirby's classic panels seems like a real waste of space.

We've been blessed recently with a number of handsome volumes collecting Kirby's work in recent years.

While this book is a welcome addition, I long for a more detailed biography.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2008

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At 2:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

For an alternative view on Panter:


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