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“Jimbo” strip (1987), page 4. Gary Panter.
Smooth, even, uninterrupted flow is very often held up as the cardinal virtue for a sequence of comic book art. And most of the time, it is. Cartoonists are able to get around one of the fundamental problems of the comics medium — accurately depicting the passage of time — when they can create the sense that their panels represent a unified, unbroken section of time in motion, rather than single frozen moments put in order. But it all depends on what kind of comic is being made. In sequences where the forward thrust of the action isn’t the most important thing for the reader to feel, flow goes out the window, and other, more unusual considerations begin to play a greater role.
Most often, sequences that lack a definite sense of linear motion are atmospheric, establishing a sense of tone or place that eventually provides a background for more typical action storytelling. But on the page above, Gary Panter is up to something quite different. Atmospherics require extended exploration of a single theme, which is the last thing on Panter’s mind. Rather than spend the time taken up by multiple panels evoking a setting, Panter simply gives his establishing shot a vast amount of space, grounding his sequence with the single, nearly half-page sized panel of gloomy, cavernous sewer innards that literally hangs over the rest of the page. It’s the same trick George Herriman frequently employed in his panoramic Sunday strips: keep readers in plain sight of a setting and there’s no need to beat them over the head with it in every panel.
What Panter proceeds to do with the rest of his page, however, goes far past even Herriman’s shifting backgrounds. The fine-arts consciousness Panter brings to everything he does has always made his comics stand out from the pack, and here he approaches the multiple-imaged canvas of the page like a painter more than a cartoonist, giving each frame he draws a completely separate visual identity. It’s a bracing approach to the comics form: if the space to make more than one picture is there, why make them all look exactly the same?
So Panter pivots from the scratchy, punk rock Doré impression in the first two panels into a beautiful bit of prime-era Kirby copyism in panel three, throwing up a glossy, high-style veneer before stripping his next frame down to the bone with a ratty-lined panel that sinks into the off-balance primitivism of outsider art or children’s drawings. The next two pictures retain the simple shapes and awkward posing of panel four, but introduce Panter’s inimitable cubist inking style and a deep-focus perspective that comes close to vertigo-inducing after the total flatness of the frame that prefaces them. Panel seven highlights the its moment of shock with a flat black background that pushes the white, minimally lined figures forward, bringing the focus back to the characters after a sequence of panels that foregrounded the drawings themselves. And with panel eight we’re back where we started, swimming through a thick haze of crosshatching, with the forced perspective and childlike lurch of the intervening panels incorporated into the style of the first.
This is about as far as comics can get from steady flow: a barrage of imagery with no connecting stylistic thread whatsoever, flash after flash of vision, unified by little more than the piece of paper it’s all printed together on. And yet it works, and works beautifully, for a few different reasons. First is Panter’s subtle, considered matching of style to substance. The switchups in drawing style mirror what the drawings depict: most obvious is the stark, graphic approach employed on the pop-out shot in panel seven, but just as impressive is the way the Kirbyism of panel three highlights a vision of heavy machinery, or the emphasis the near-Picasso inking approach in panel six brings to its crouched, crumpled figure. Second is the way Panter grounds each panel in the same subject matter: style aside, this is a page about Jimbo walking through the sewers, and that’s exactly what each panel depicts. Panter’s spoken of trying to reduce his characters’ visuals down to “hieroglyphics”, and no matter how he’s drawn here, Jimbo is perfectly recognizable as himself in every frame, a steady note playing through the discordant intervals of the rest of the page.
Most of all, though, this page works because it achieves what Panter is trying to achieve. This isn’t a failed attempt at smooth storytelling, it’s a triumph of a kind of comics making that Panter himself was instrumental in creating. This is noise comics, in which each panel is not just a new space and a new time but a whole new territory, something wild and undiscovered. Each picture on this page hits like a jackhammer, bludgeoning the reader’s eyes with a vision of something completely new, forcing the reader to reorient every time a new panel comes a long. We engage this page as explorers more than readers, just as Jimbo engages his sewer network on it. It’s an approach to comics that’s born of pure joy in drawing, a creative impulse too restless and alive to stay in one space for long. Panter’s gift is in his ability to share that joy with readers, to display the strobe light of his vision in ink on paper for all of us to discover with him.