Illustration and Resentment 1: Panter Rumble

I wrote the following post last August, but never put it up on the blog, mostly because I was so discouraged by the controversy it describes. It pains me to state what slowly reveals itself to observers of the field: that much of illustration has been sustained, yet also disfigured, by a culture of resentment. Consider this a warmup for the post to come. I will try to provide more framing thoughts in the next outing–in the meantime here's a first tour through precints of professional–and precious–bitterness.

I've gone back to this post now because after taking a break from the blog and writer in question I have returned to find another jeremiad from February of this year, to which I take greater exception. More soon...

Over at Illustration Art, David Apatoff’s blog that celebrates lost or undersung illustrators and cartoonists, a sort of graphic firestorm has raged since the end of July. The subject of the tussle? The value and significance of Gary Panter’s work, occasioned by Dan Nadel’s two-volume opus on Panter for Picturebox.

David has a big readership, and he delivers by posting interesting work with reflections on same. But Mr. Apatoff chafes on the fact that the work he champions has remained obscure beyond illustration history buffs. The celebrity bestowed on the best of the 80s-through-now generation of “art comics” drives him nuts. He’s also bothered, as are many, by the exclusion of illustration from the precincts of high art. The occasional derangement of his otherwise critical steadiness stems from these irritations: sometimes he opines, immoderately, before he really looks, or—probably more accurately, because he strives to be responsible—sometimes he can’t see past his opinions when he looks.

Many critics have struggled with the same challenge. In fact we all do, if we are honest with ourselves.

I have engaged David before on these grounds.

Here is David on Panter in his opening post:

…most of the time, Panter produces the kind of art you'd expect to find in a decent high school literary magazine. 

He goes on to hold the punk-inflected Panter to standards of hostility and defiance demonstrated by Johnny Rotten and Jean Dubuffet, as a way of questioning his authenticity. More significantly and quite differently, David seems irritated by Panter’s reputed disavowal of commercial illustration work, as insufficiently free and personal. Apatoff fails to understand why so much attention should be lavished on Panter. He concludes: “My only explanation is that shallow, immature times call for shallow, immature art.”

That line could have been written by a recalcitrant modern in every decade since Courbet. Which in and of itself does not make it wrong or false. But the blame-the-audience gambit is typically a losing one, at least in the present tense. If you’re an Old Testament prophet, it can work, but then you’ve got a supernatural advantage. To my knowledge, not the case here. (And woe to me, if so.)

I think Panter is a complicated figure—meaning I think his work is mixed. I commented atIllustration Art thusly:

David, you are truly a resource--you help unearth lost careers, you bring interesting insight to much of what you present, and (as you know) I think occasionally you succumb to the torches-and-pitchfork school of art criticism, often in defense of that ill-defined, shimmering notion of Great Art. On those occasions when you light the lantern and rush to the barn to grab an implement, one of the tools you select is your rusted but still useful outflanking hoe, or rake, or whatever it is that you use to deflect potential charges from the left by quoting the antibourgeois perspective. Shrewdly, you swing that thing more aggressively than your expected attacker. Hence, you attempt to club Gary Panter over the head with Johnny Rotten and Jean Dubuffet, the latter with dink in hand. Quite a maneuver! (I trust you didn't pull an oblique muscle) 

Except. I am unpersuaded that your encounter with Panter does not begin with irritation. I know his work, I have heard him lecture. I have met him, though I do not know him. And my impression from hearing him speak is that he strikes a pose in much the same way that many artists do, as an urgent naif. He works crudely when he wants, which is often, and he reins it in when he needs to. He's quite a canny guy, and in our managed-perception era he plays the role necessary to create a cult of interest. …Gary Panter has worked for a long time to become "Gary Panter," and others are involved in that process. The crafted persona, the feigned disinterest in commercial work as inauthentic, the sheer volume of work, much of it so "urgent" as to be structurally indifferent to an extreme, it's all part of the same thing, and it's based on prevailing biases in the market and in the persisting Van Gogh-Pollock-Basquiat myth, except minus the death part and with cartoons thrown in. I don't think it's cynical. But it is conscious.

Subsequently I got slammed by a commenter for advocating Paris Hilton standards, etc. Gary Panter’s “artistic integrity” was questioned. A battle was joined, more or less, between Panter advocates and detractors. The comment thread is over 60, which for blogs like these is a pretty healthy number.

As I have read back through this material, it seems to me that the discussion bears certain hallmarks of all comparable discussions. I’ll come back to that subject in a second installment of this reflection. In the meantime, I’d like to offer a little engagement with Gary Panter’s work, for my own purposes if nothing else.

Like many, I saw the Masters of American Comics show several years ago. Unlike those who saw it in New York and Newark, I saw the whole thing in one place, at the Milwaukee Art Museum. Jeff Pike and I went together. The exhibition itself deserves comment, as a good example of what happens when a thoroughly embedded popular form is brought into an art museum—it’s de-functionalized, de-socialized. But that’s another subject.

The show was broken into two big chunks: celebrated comic strip creators and their works (from early to mid 20th century) and famous comic book artists (from the middle of the century through to the present). I was transfixed by a variety of the original drawings: in the strip group, Milton Caniff and Chester Gould, plus the tearsheets of Lyonel Feininger; in the book group, Jack Kirby and Chris Ware, especially. Several of those included from the present will naturally fall away in future such roundups, as the more durable works and careers emerge. Among those likely to fall away will be the able but ultimately mannerist Charles Burns, and Gary Panter.

In fact, from my perspective, Panter’s Jimbo comics from the Raw era more often than not fail to cohere visually. I will readily confess that I am, before almost all else, a formalist. Someone’s text may be wonderful, her plotting inspired, her image sequences well-reasoned. But if the realization of form isn’t there, I can’t or won't stay with it. I hasten to add that I do not mean "good drawing" as synonymous with "realization of form." (Good drawing is often a term of reaction.) Honestly, Panter’s comics work repelled me in Milwaukee, in part I am sure because I saw his work near the very end of a huge show, but the same did not occur in my viewing of the Chris Ware pages, which I saw equally late in the day. I will go back to them sometime, because I think they demanded something of me that I could not supply that day. A more enervated viewing, perhaps. (An aside: Mr. Apatoff declared in the back-and-forth of comments in this thread that Chris Ware "can't draw well," which all but confirms my point about the phrase as a term of reaction.)

All that said, I really like some of Panter’s illustration work, which draws on reserves of depictive insight otherwise concealed. I have posted a few such works within this post. One of the things I really like in some of Panter's work is his strategic use of transparency and overprinting. The image at the top of this post, a cover for Marvel from last year, features a transparent mid-value gray for a key drawing. The gray lets the underlying color add value and body to the drawing. I'm very fond of that image, and of Panter's color use in general--especially when it's kept in check by a project to which some other player is a party. It keeps him honest.

I'd also add that Panter is extremely productive, which I admire. The guy bangs out a bunch of work. When you're that productive, your batting average doesn't have to be high--and in fact, speed and devil-may-care energy can work as a creative strategy. If you bat .250, you can get inspired work one out of every four times.

But finally my own conclusions about the merits of Panter are somewhat beside the point. I think the Panter rumble over at Illustration Art captures a tedious reality: too much writing about art and commercial images is ideological. When such writing is offered by illustrators (or those purporting to speak for illustrators) descriptive passages are typically few and far between. Instead, the reader is subjected to highly opinionated interpretive passages which trade on presumed descriptions and assumed definitions: such as that so-and-so “can’t draw”, or that “the art world” thinks that so-and-so is a “genius”, and isn’t that absolutely the dumbest thing that anybody has ever heard of. David Apatoff is certainly capable of description, but his writing is often so marked by resentment that sometimes even his description operates like would-be covert interpretation.

As I suggested at the top of this post, I will return to the subject of illustration and resentment in the next few days.