Back in 1996, I was the associate editor of a magazine called Juvenile Merchandising.
(It was double-duty; I was also associate editor of Auto Laundry News, the car wash industry trade magazine. People always laugh when I tell them that. “There’s a trade magazine for the car wash industry?” they ask, and I tell them, “Actually, there were three trade magazines for the car wash industry.” See, the immutable law of trade magazines is that once a journal manages to make a dime in any industry, at least two more publishers will try to chisel in. Stick around for more valuable lessons from the working world.)
That June, one of my assignments at the magazine was to cover the Licensing Expo in New York City. The exhibitors at the expo were license-holders, that is, the companies that owned the rights to various characters and properties, like Godzilla and Winnie-the-Pooh. The attendees were people who wanted to license characters for pens, videogames, bags, and, well, a bazillion other pieces of merchandise.
I had interviews set up with a number of major exhibitors like Sony and Paramount, mainly to talk about how their various characters were being used for different kid’s products, but also to try to get some of their neat giveaways, like Simpsons T-shirts from the Fox pavilion. Those companies had giant exhibit-space to show off their properties, but I also made time to wander among the smaller exhibitors and their lesser-known characters.
On the afternoon of my first day at the show, I was walking down one aisle of minor exhibitors when I saw a small booth displaying Pee-wee Herman dolls and toys, as well as some hyper-grotesque cartoons of Jimbo Comics on the counter. I was floored to discover that one of my favorite cartoonists had a stand at the expo, and I blurted out, “Holy shit! Gary Panter!”
The gentleman behind the counter started with fright. “Do I know you?” he asked.
“No, but I love your comics!” I told him. Gary smiled, relieved. I was 25, and I don’t think I’d ever met a published cartoonist. Plenty of campus comics geeks, sure, and That Guy Who Tried To Draw Like Frank Frazetta, but no one who had made an actual career out of comics.
We talked. About comics. For hours. I cleared out of his booth whenever attendees stopped by. Gary had designed the sets for Pee-Wee Herman’s old stage act, as well as the set of the Pee-Wee’s Playhouse TV show, but I don’t remember what he was trying to license. I guess since he was Brooklyn-based and the exhibit space didn’t cost too much, he gave it a shot.
I was elated both that a great cartoonist would make the time to shoot the breeze with me, and that a great cartoonist was so personable and easy-going. He was the first guy who really impressed upon me the economics of making comics while raising a family. Now that I’m middle-aged and have seen most of my idols take time to do better-paying non-comics work, I think back on that part of our conversation quite a bit.
At one point, I noted how few “mainstream” comics I was reading. “Really,” I said, “the only Marvel books I bought this decade were those monster and horror reprints they did a couple of years ago.”
“The what now?” he asked, a little surprised.
I told him that around 1994, Marvel had reprinted a bunch of old monster comics from the ’50’s in a pair of 4-issue series called Curse of the Weird and Monster Menace. “They’re great! All these old strips by Kirby and Ditko and Heath and even some Wolverton.”
“Yeah! I’ll bring ’em in for you tomorrow, if you want to see!”
And I did (along with my copy of Jimbo, so he could draw a sketch for me). He looked over the comics and asked, “Can I hold onto these?”
He thanked me, then said, “One thing: you may not get them back for a little while. I, um, have a pathological thing about the post office.”
“. . . Sure . . .”
And then we went back to another 3-hour conversation about comics, Matt Groening, married life, Brooklyn, and whatever else a 25-year-old indie comics geek and a 46-year-old punk-rock cartooning icon have to talk about.
Months and months passed, and I forgot about the comics. Then, one January day, I opened my mailbox and blurted out, “Holy shit! It’s Gary Panter’s envelope!”
(okay, maybe not)
He had decorated just about every inch of the envelope with pastiches of panels from the comics. His style was more suited for the Kirby drawings, but he threw in some good Ditko ones, too. I guess it was a fun, throwaway thing for him, but of course I’ve held onto it for a dozen years.
So that’s my story about meeting Gary Panter. I met him again in 2005 at the Comic-Con in San Diego, but I don’t think he remembered me. I should’ve mentioned the monster comics.
For more conversations and other encounters with cartoonists, writers and artists, visit The Virtual Memories Show podcast!