“Your old stuff was better.”
The first time a cartoonist hears this—and be rest assured, all of us will hear or have heard this calumny—that cartoonist knows, whether he or she will admit it to himself or herself or not, that he or she has achieved a status that has moved past fan favorite to star to legend, to punching bag.
I earnestly and honestly believe, from hard earned personal experience, that the Golden Age of Comics is twelve. Since what has the deepest impact on us when we discover comics is the content, it is often difficult to separate oneself from a first love.
Once codified, tastes related to our curious medium, a medium rich in transgression and equally burdened by crushing banality, are difficult to shake off. Thus, many of us are unwilling to allow talent to grow, to mature, into something else, a transition that might be identified as a betrayal of that first love.
And then there’s Dan Panosian.
And herewith is an overdue apology. I spent most of the 1990s doing other things for a living, so I was only peripherally aware of the onslaught of a new and, to my eyes, profoundly uninspiring talent pool engaging with an avid audience whose taste seemed, to be kind, deeply degraded.
When I heard Dan’s name, I automatically lumped him in with that cohort of talent, most of this crowd producing work of overmuscled men and women with massive breasts bolted on the bodies of boys, in overblown dramatic pastiches of the work that had made them famous.
Many of these men—and to be sure, they were all men—have faded away. A few continue to work, doing somewhat evolved material that echoes their early efforts, with perhaps a touch of irony and self awareness—but to be clear, only a touch.
And of course, there are a few who remain active, producing the same nonsense they fed to the maw two decades ago.
And then there’s Dan Panosian. And that apology.
When, a few years back, someone mentioned to me that Dan was doing interesting work, it went right by me. The idea just didn’t register for me…
…Until I saw the work, and, I was stunned. Needless to say, I’ve been on the receiving end of the “Your old stuff…” canard, with resentment its fatuous misjudgment of a series of career choices that had left behind desperate attempts at fanservice in an attempt to achieve another, not quite identified goal.
Now, here I was as guilty of that selfsame willful ignorance, first dismissing, with contempt prior to investigation, then making a complete 180 in regard to the work—which, in no uncertain terms, is brilliant.
Panosian’s drawing is rich with character and characterization, demonstrating a range of actorly understanding of the expression of attitude and performance in his portrayal of those characters. To be clear, for some, this might be enough.
But, and this is the key, the clincher—he’s also one motherfucker of a picture maker. It’s that thrilling combination of design combined with character drawing that makes for a cartoonist who delivers what those of us who truly understand what comics are about—images, whether individual panels, or pages, with the all too elusive but equally all too necessary narrative value. There is a confidence, a nerviness about Panosian’s work that is incredibly seductive.
To make all this abundantly clear, Dan Panosian is a talent who has grown exponentially from one of those manboy fanservice sensations of his youth into a mature and prodigious talent that veterans such as I can only look on with genuine admiration, a touch of awe, and more than a jot of envy.
I love Dan Panosian’s work, and I hope to live long enough to see him react to some know-nothing hitting him with that willfully ignorant and toxic remark that tops this introduction.
Mark my words, it’s all too likely.
HC: When and where’d you spend your childhood—and how much of that experience informs your work experience as a cartoonist?
DP: I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. Outside the city there’s surprisingly a lot greens, mountains and hills. During Elementary School, my father grew tired of the Winters and we moved to a beach town in Central Florida. So landscape wise, it was very different. In terms of my work, since most nearly all of it is fiction based, I tend to draw trees and the outdoors the way I remember Ohio. I think that’s because I was so young and when we create fiction, at least for me, it’s all about accessing that part of yourself that is most childlike.
HC: I can’t speak for anyone but me, but it seems obvious that there’s a bifurcation between the work that introduced you to the comic book business and the work you’re doing today.
We all grow, or fade, as talent, but I stand by my contention above.
Do you agree with that assessment, or do you feel this is a mischaracterization of your experience?
DP: My first introduction to comics was thanks to my father, a commercial artist who always wanted to be a cartoonist. He showed me the work of Joe Kubert and Neal Adams. Later, Walt Simonson and John Buscema. So my foundation was rooted in some pretty solid artists. When I re-introduced myself to comic book collecting I was very much consumed by John Byrne and just a few years later, Jim Lee. When I began working in the business at Marvel and DC, I tried to emulate Jim primarily. A decade later my father passed away and I abandoned comic books and worked as a commercial artist.
I realized, after another decade had past, that I really missed the freedom and the creativity of working in the comic book field. But because I had spent so much time away from comic books, I think my original influences took over. Today I approach my work with a bit of a nostalgic bent. I want to infuse the illustrative sensibilities of the past into what I create today. I don’t want my work to look old fashioned, but I do want it to evoke aspects of the comic books that inspired me as a kid. Plus, I’m a big fan of the early illustrators outside of the comic book world. My work is all over the place I guess. But as usual, you’re right!
HC: If you agree with me, is there any way you can speak to the process that led you from where you were to where you are? This may sound granular and personal, but I speak for myself and I’m certain others would be fascinated by at least a brief overview of the process.
DP: I guess I got a little carried away in my answer above and covered that for the most part. Sorry. There are so many illustrators that influenced the great comic book artists from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. When I discovered them, it really opened my eyes to an art world that is largely ignored by many comic book artists. But that’s the snotty side of me talking [ and he tends to talk a lot... ].
HC: In that regard, were you a fan of comics as a kid—either newspaper strips or comic books?
If so, which? And why?
DP: I liked both, mainly because my father did. He would show me what was good and what was bad. No art lessons per se, but he was very good about critiques. He loved Frank Frazetta and Harvey Kurtzman. It was interesting to listen to him explain away their artistic virtues.
HC: Of pulps—either of the actual thing or the latter-day stuff—paperback originals, as an example?
Again, if so, which?
DP: I guess that would fall into the Frazetta category. But my father also introduced me to the old radio shows like the Lone Ranger. So those stories certainly had an influence on how I structure my work.
HC: What movies, music, radio and television drama informed your growing up years?
DP: A lot of Humphrey Bogart movies. The African Queen. Maltese Falcon... Like I mentioned, The Lone Ranger. Early Tarzan movies and TV shows. I loved the Adam West Batman TV series.
HC: In that time in every boy’s life between FIREMAN/POLICEMAN/COWBOY, what was an early ambition that consumed you before you became who you are?
DP: I had a best friend and his father worked for the FBI and, once again – my father was very religious, so believe it or not, I wanted to be a priest...
HC: What and when did you first seriously entertain the idea that you could do the job?
DP: The Marvel Try Out book came out when I was 14 and I completed some work and sent it in to Marvel. Len Kaminski, a submission editor at the time, wrote back to me about pay structure and insurance policies.... He said I needed a bit more work but I would be at Marvel in no time! I was in shock and so were my parents. My inking was basically a mix of Terry Austin and Jeff Dee [ from TSR games, the parent company that produced Dungeons and Dragons ]. So he must have seen promise since Terry was the most popular inker at the time.
HC: Was there an artist whose career you first want to supplant?
DP: Supplant, no. For a while I wanted to be as prolific as Byrne. But by the time I was 25 I realized that was going to be impossible. It was a very humbling moment. But I grew to accept my limitations. Limitations are great because even if you slightly exceed them, you’re a success in your own eyes. In a perfect work, I’d like to display as much skill as Frazetta. Aim high, right?
HC: In that regard, can you point to an artist who was an early inspiration who remains of interest?
DP: I still enjoy breaking down a Frazetta painting. Especially ones from the mid to late 70’s. Looking at the reflective light and the choices he made [ which always look effortless ].
HC: In that same regard, can you point to an artist you once held in high regard in whom you’ve lost interest?
DP: Ooh. I hate to say which one[s]... But mostly my core interests have remained the same.
HC: Is there a genre in fiction that you love beyond others?
DP: I love the Swords & Sorcery genre. But I also love Westerns and Crime Noir.
HC: Is there a genre in fiction that you loathe?
DP: Super Hero comics have become a little boring to me. I’m not a big fan of Space Opera either.
HC: Is there a genre that your fans would be surprised you dig?
DP: A surprise, no? I tend to draw a lot of sketches from the genres I find most appealing. So I doubt there’s anything that would surprise anyone. Sorry Howard.
HC: Is there a book you hate that everyone loves?
DP: Probably. I’m not a big fan of most of Stephen King’s work. But there are few that are just awesome. With that said, I really enjoyed his book On Writing. It’s brilliant. I’m a fan of him personally. I think he’s terrific.
HC: Is there a book you love that everyone hates?
DP: If I was more well read, I could probably give you a good answer on that one. Maybe I’m just not aware of too many authors that aren’t regarded highly. My favorite writers are Steinbeck and Oscar Wilde. Not exactly obscure choices but I really love their beat work!
HC: Five favorite movies since the birth of film.
DP: The African Queen, Shane, Hard Times, The Producers and Goldfinger.
HC: Five favorite television series since anybody started actually caring about the medium.
DP: Batman [ 60’s ], Deadwood, Mad Men, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Better Call Saul.
HC: And finally, you’re one of the most physically fit guys in a notoriously sedentary talent pool.
You look like a superhero, for god’s sake. What’s that about?
DP: My dad was a genuine tough guy from the Depression Era. Before he was a commercial artist, he was a boxer. So he loved films like Rocky and anything with Clint Eastwood and Bronson. As you can tell, he really had a big influence on me. I wanted him to respect me -so I wanted to be a good boxer and a good artist. I fell out of religion a long time ago but I’ve come to realize that my father touches nearly every aspect of my adult life. Maybe too much.
HC: As ever, many thanks for your time and consideration.
DP: Anytime, Howard. It’s an honor to be a part of your interviews. I’m a genuine fan of yours and the more I get to know you, the more I pat myself on the back for having such good taste! Also, my father liked your work too... So what choice did I have?