Gary Panter’s Songy of Paradise Profanes & Pays Tribute to Milton

Comics Reviews Gary Panter
Gary Panter’s Songy of Paradise Profanes & Pays Tribute to Milton

Writer/Artist: Gary Panter
Publisher: Fantagraphics
Release Date: July 19, 2017


Following his cover versions of Dante in Jimbo’s Inferno and Jimbo in Purgatory, legendary punk artist Gary Panter now completes his trilogy (sorta) with Songy in Paradise. In some ways—its title, its dimensions, its less-than-100-percent reverential approach to canonical literature—it’s a continuation of the project. In others, it’s a departure. Rather than featuring Jimbo, Panter’s alter ego with a buzz cut, it takes Songy, a more simple, hillbilly-type fellow, as its protagonist. And, despite the book’s title, which seems to suggest the last third of The Divine Comedy, in which Dante ascends through the celestial spheres, it tackles Milton’s Paradise Regained. Written three and a half centuries after Dante’s terza rima imagining of the three realms that follow death, it’s a Protestant tale rather than a Catholic one, written in blank verse that sets its sights on majesty rather than Dante’s nimble concatenations. The Divine Comedy is a lovely puzzle box; Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained are rich with the divine inspiration Milton claimed produced them, full of humanity but not to the same gross extent as Dante’s vision. So where does Panter fit in?

Songy in Paradise is in some ways a parody of Paradise Regained, substituting our partially toothless buddy (a Cletus slack-jawed yokel analogue) for Jesus, replacing the Anointed One as Satan tempts him in the desert. When the Prince of Lies asks Songy to demonstrate his powers by turning stone to bread, Songy replies, “You came out here to tease me with some rock and biscuit twaddle?” The contrast of elevated and vernacular language is funny, which is the point, but Panter’s book is also faithful to its source.

Satan isn’t always frightening. He cajoles, he flatters and he tries to lead Songy to violate his vision quest in many ways. The little guy doesn’t budge. He’s not interested in anything the archfiend has to offer. Early on, Songy says, “That is the sorriest bunch of clap-trap I ever heard! You lost me at your ‘inner burning sparkles’ and your evolution stuff! I like things right like they are, Jack!!” Jesus is a mite bit more eloquent in his responses, but the sentiment isn’t very different.

Songy of Paradise Interior Art by Gary Panter

The size of Panter’s pages (15-¼ inches tall by 11-¼ inches wide) conveys a similar sense of importance, as does the gorgeous design of the book, bound in purple with loads of gold foil stamping to convey the light of God. The lines of text in the speech bubbles are often long, mimicking Milton’s even, rolling diaogue. The fact that Songy is an idiot could be seen as undermining Milton’s point, but the tradition of the holy fool is an old one. Just because the character’s language and general demeanor are unsophisticated doesn’t mean that he doesn’t speak truth or that he is unworthy to embody the word of God. Panter’s being silly, but, having made his way through Dante, Boccaccio and the like, he’s also cognizant of theologically inspired literature.

Songy of Paradise Interior Art by Gary Panter

Also: the drawings are fantastic. Satan shifts his shape constantly, appropriate for the great dissembler, now a friendly-looking Syd Hoff-ish dinosaur (whose fangs become more prominent panel by panel), now a reptilian old man with a cane, now a fearsome dragon-like beastie. The complexity grows page by page, with circles of stars evoking the spheres and calling to mind the ceiling decorations of Greek Orthodox churches. There are braids and thorns and raindrops and spirals of lightning and clouds and, in the middle of it all, a resistant bumpkin who just wants to do his thing. It’s a lot to take in, and although it’s partially a joke, it’s also partially not. If Panter were only making the case that Songy is a moron, you might be able to file the book under parody, but Songy in Paradise is as serious as it is goofball, as awesome (in the original meaning) as it is entertaining, as much of a tribute to Milton’s vision as it is a testament to Panter’s own.

Songy of Paradise Interior Art by Gary Panter

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