April 2, 2021

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The Apotheosis of a Punk in Gary Panter's Jimbo: Adventures in Paradise from NYRC

Jimbo holds a special place in my comic-reading history. Along with Mike Allred’s Madman, the 1990’s Zongo incarnation of Jimbo represents my first foray outside the world of mainstream superhero comics. For an 8th grader raised on Superman and Green Lantern, a book like Madman was certainly weird, but familiar enough. It spoke essentially the same language, if in a far cooler and slightly less accessible dialect. Jimbo, on the other hand, was entirely foreign, dropping only a few cognates here or there, and I truly had no idea what what I had encountered when it first entered my world. I’m not sure specifically how I came across it, or why the shop owner even let me buy it. I’m 100% certain I didn’t understand it in the slightest. 

To be fair, I’m not particularly confident I understood Madman either.

Fast forward more than twenty-five years to a new collection of the late 80s iteration of Jimbo, Adventures in Paradise, the original publication serving as a compilation of the first ten years of Panter’s Jimbo cartoons from Slash and Raw. This new edition from New York Review Comics is oversize (perhaps a little larger than the Treasury Edition format) with ever-so-slightly glossy pages that undoubtedly contrast Panter’s scrawling style while helping to highlight and contrast the textures that define his panels. Jimbo’s history is perpetually linked with punk rock, and Adventures in Paradise reflects the sounds of the 80s American Underground captured in thick black ink. Raw and emotive, but with a subtle if not tender core, these 80s Jimbo works capture not only the nuclear anxiety of the Reagan years, but also the convergence of late hippie ethos with punk rock aesthetics. Adventures in Paradise collects strips over forty years old, and consequently accrues a historical element, a retrospective of not only the style of the second wave of Underground Comix, but also a worldview that is almost dumbfounding in its prescience even by today’s standards.

Panter sets the tone for the Jimbo stories we’ll encounter as his titular character muses on the nature of dreams, arguing that the most unsettling aspect of dreams doesn’t lie in the surreal or the fantastical, but as they crest into realism. The realest dreams are the most nightmarish. It’s almost impossible not to read the entire collection through this lens. Panter sends us into a fever dream on paper, and this thesis holds true. Throughout the collection, Jimbo encounters bizarre situations, including futuristic worlds connected to the city’s sewer and automated fast food restaurants; he meets and reckons with Nancy, and he attempts to disarm a nuclear bomb. But it’s in the reality that Jimbo’s existential dread manifests most clearly; it’s when things seem normal that Panter’s work is the most unsettling. 

Panter's thin and rough lines alternate with his denser pages characterized by thick inks and panels stuffed with otherworldly renderings.

The element I appreciate most about Adventures in Paradise is Panter’s uncompromisingly raw style. It’s not specifically that the art isn’t refined. No, Panter can create heavily detailed panels. He deliberately works in textures, and the pages feel appropriately layered and rough. I almost wish I could run my hand across them. Panter's line structure is cleaner than it often appears, and it alternates from being thick and dense to thin and more free-flowing. 


Page 12 of Adventures in Paradise provides a definitive example of Panter's contrasting style. Here, we see Panter conjure what could be a page from Kirby's Fourth World epic.

As I mentioned above, it’s practically impossible to separate Jimbo from punk rock, and as I read Adventures in Paradise, I couldn’t help thinking about chord structure and specifically about the more avant-garde bands of the 80s scene, those rooted in the noise and nihilism of punk, but with a more intentional approach. Panter's work feels deliberately distorted, and I thought of the bands that made noise because they wanted to see where it would go, not because they were restricted to noise by primitive skill. In other words, I thought about bands like Sonic Youth, Big Black, or The Butthole Surfers. Adventures in Paradise feels noisy, like there is a static on the page. Panter moves from thin-lined, rough sketch work to hyper-detailed, high contrast scenes in a manner of panels. At points, Panter appears to be funneling his approach through a cubist or surrealist lens, channeling it all into a highly Fauvist rendering of neo-expressionism all while still functioning as a student of pop-art. At other times, he’s positively Kirby: otherworldly, geometric, and impeccably stylized. 

    


Panter's style morphs from page to page and even from panel to panel. On some pages, Panter's first draft approach connotes his raw punk frustration, while his more intricate pages reveal the sense of nuclear anxiety that permeates the entire collection. Even Panter's lettering captures this dynamic. There are points where his lettering seems deliberate and articulated, and others where it seems that Panter changed his idea about the direction of the dialogue mid-lettering. The shifting polarity of Panter's vision reveals Jimbo's specific neuroses, caught somewhere between an immediate agnosticism and a terrifying vision of the future. And there is a good rationale for such an outlook - Jimbo's world combines the end point of Cold War paranoia with the increased commodification of the nascent stages of late-capitalism. Forty years later, Jimbo's predictive anxieties come manifest in the hyper-immediate climate characterized by the Internet of Things, gig economies, and looming artificial intelligence. 

Panter the sage - it's almost as if he predicts Olivia Jaimes' Nancy reboot.

What jumps out at me is thus the sheer prescience of Panter’s philosophy. Despite producing the majority of Adventures in Paradise forty or more years ago, his anti-consumerist critique of late-capitalism is equally fresh and poignant today, perhaps even more so. Panter’s landscape eerily anticipates some of the most frustrating hallmarks of the 21st century. He expresses a horrifying picture of stifling big box suburban life and an all-too uncanny portrait of an automated workforce. While recent books like Marc-Uwe Kling’s Qualityland and Claire North’s 84k seem frighteningly accurate in describing the immediate future, reading Adventures in Paradise reminded me of my first encounter with Vonnegut’s Player Piano. There is a disconcerting, unsettling feel to Panter's predictions. It's almost frustrating to think someone saw the world we'd encounter with such clarity of vision. I can’t help but wonder what it was like to read Jimbo’s adventures in their original context. Did they seem outlandish? Were people able to see past the counterculture antagonism through to Panter’s punk polemic?


Panter closes the collection with what amounts to an ongoing story. Parts of Adventures in Paradise link together, while others stand alone. An overarching tone certainly permeates this book, but for most of the collection, Panter isn't necessarily trying to tell a story. It isn't presented in the original publication chronology, but rather one Panter describes as a "rambling coherence." In the last portion of the text, Panter's style seems to coalesce as does the narrative itself. Building from Jimbo's scattered adventures, our protagonist becomes a hero proper, charged with dismantling an atomic bomb amidst a wasteland of science fiction creatures. Washed in azure, the final section is indicative of Panter's vision of pop art cum neo-expressionism. It's fitting that the apex of this world combines two art styles known for blending the high and the low, because that truly seems to be who Jimbo is -  a hickish punk at the center of the world itself.

Jimbo: Adventures in Paradise arrived in comic stores this week, and is available from a number of alt-comics retailers as well as its publisher, New York Review Comics