This interview with Gary Panter was conducted over a crackling phone line in New York in the spring of 2004. Panter had recently released his magnum opus Jimbo in Purgatory, a reading via comics of the middle part of Dante’s Divine Comedy, the Purgatorio , via Boccaccio and a host of other classics of European literature — particularly of the medieval and renaissance eras — dressed in pop culture drag.
Surely one of the most unusual works of comics of the past couple of decades, it is an incredibly dense and (let’s face it) difficult work. layered as it is in intertextual reference. But it rewards the committed reader, providing an oblique viewpoint upon the classical tradition, and not the least its humanist iteration as born in the late middle ages and developed through the renaissance to shape Western culture as we know it. Although its particulars may largely be forgotten today, Panter insists upon its currency and situates it at the heart of contemporary culture in what is merely the most hubristic manifestation of his ongoing efforts to break down the barriers between so-called high and low culture. By demonstrating that the two were always of a piece, fruitfully synthesized in multifarious ways through the early modern period, and alive and kicking today.
The interview was originally published in Danish at Rackham back in 2004, and was followed by my review of the book, which we also reprinted here recently. We named Jimbo in Purgatory Book of the Year back then, and the interview and review were at least in part an effort to get behind the scenes a little bit in order to unpack the work for the first-time reader, as well as to provide a little extra for Panter connoisseurs. I hope we succeeded, even if Panter’s subsequent edits never made it to my inbox, leaving a few lacunae in my transcript exposed and unelucidated. A pity, but in a way not inappropriate.
I’d like to start out by asking you about how the project came about. What prompted you to embark upon Jimbo in Purgatory? Which thoughts and ideas did you bring to it initially?
Two things happened. The first was that I started reading Finnegans Wake along with the footnotes to it. Secondly, I started thinking about why I had named my first Jimbo collection, the Pantheon book, Jimbo in Paradise. It clearly had to do with Dante, but I’d never actually read Paradise, I hadn’t read the Comedy. The reading of Joyce and the footnotes to it lead me to all this medieval stuff, all this satirical stuff, which really appealed to me, while Dante lead me to Boccaccio…