Raymond Pettibon, American Cartoonist
By Dan Morris

From the mid-1970s to early 1980s, Raymond Pettibon created a massive body of work for SST Records. He conceived and designed promotional flyers, album cover artwork, and posters most often for the band Black Flag. At the same time, Pettibon was producing zines containing his work. This body of work became recognizable to generations of punk rock fans familiar with Pettibon’s work for Black Flag and other punk bands. Among those fans were many aspiring cartoonists. Raymond Pettibon has been an enormous influence on comics, despite the fact that his work is not widely seen as comics and he is not regularly discussed by comics criticism. It’s past time for this influence to be recognized.

Born in 1957, Pettibon was asked by his brother Greg Ginn to produce art for his new band Panic, which soon changed its name to Black Flag. Pettibon designed not only the band’s logo, the familiar set of broken black bars, but also anything to do with the band and other work for his brother’s label SST Records. This included album covers, t-shirts, posters, and most importantly, flyers that were widely distributed in the Los Angeles area.. Pettibon continued to produce art for his brother’s band and SST Records until a dispute over unapproved appropriation of his work led him to cease working with the company. Ginn continued to appropriate his brother’s work for a variety of later Black Flag releases. Pettibon has since worked mostly in a gallery art context, exhibiting his drawings and paintings around the world.

Though many other artists are associated with the punk rock aesthetic, Raymond Pettibon is maybe the most iconic and most uniquely suited to influencing comics. Though he did some work which could be seen as comics, most of his work during the Black Flag period was more in line with editorial cartooning, with single images and short lines of texts. This might explain why his work remains largely undiscussed, though that he was not published throughout traditional comics avenues could also be a factor. This is might also be due to Pettibon rejecting his own work as comics. In an interview with The Believer, Pettibon stated “I wouldn’t want to be defined so much by comics or cartoons. My work is more narrative than that. If you take your basic cartoon, there’s always a punchline or a joke at the end. My drawings don’t depend on that so much.” 

Nonetheless, his work should still be seen as cartooning. In other interviews, Pettibon talks about having read comics and taken influence from the work of cartoonists such as George Herriman and Milton Caniff. Pettibon makes great use of the vocabulary of comics; black and white pen lines work in conjunction with words and typography to tell a story. However, Pettibon’s work takes many of these conventions and turns them on their head. Pettibon’s lines vary between precise, scratchy, and thin to uncontrolled patches of frenetic brushwork. Words would be used ironically against the pictures. Familiar cultural icons could be subverted in the space of a single image. The effect created a striking visual representation of the music that Pettibon promoted with his work, echoing punk’s resounding rejection of authority and tradition.

Several contemporaneous alternative cartoonists seem to have been influenced by Pettibon. Jaime Hernandez and Daniel Clowes are the two most obvious candidates, even if their current work has moved away from a Pettibon-influence aesthetic. It’s hard to imagine Hernandez’s depiction of Los Angeles area punks wasn’t in some way influenced by Pettibon given the many Black Flag references strewn throughout early Love and Rockets stories. One must also keep in mind that Hernandez lived in Los Angeles when  Pettibon was at his most ubiquitous in the punk rock scene, so it seems extremely likely that he had an impact on Hernandez at some level. In a profile on Hernandez in the Pasadena Sun, Hernandez admitted Pettibon’s influence on his own work as he became more involved in the Los Angeles punk rock scene.  In an article on the online website Neumu, Pettibon is mentioned in the same breath as Daniel Clowes as two artists with a  common visual approach, though again Pettibon denies his ties to comics. The stiff figures, heavy blacks, and strong satirical bent in Clowes‘ earliest work clearly echoes the work of Pettibon. Yet these are more surface elements, and Pettibon, as a contemporary to both Hernandez and Clowes, could not have served as an early formative influence. Instead Pettibon’s influence is best felt in the next generation of cartoonists; the artists who were kids and teens that went to Black Flag shows, bought Black Flag merchandise, and saw the flyers designed by Pettibon.

Maybe the cartoonists who are easiest to identify as influenced by Pettibon are the members of the Fort Thunder collective. Still, it should be noted that the work of Fort Thunder is vastly different from Pettibon’s in terms of content. Pettibon is mostly concerned with commentary on American iconography and culture. Fort Thunder artists address a variety of issues, ranging from environmentalism to community, and all set in alien or fantasy worlds. Though some of these works could be read as political or cultural commentary, that element is clearly less of a focus than in Pettibon’s oeuvre. However,  there are many parallels between the two sets of artists. Like Pettibon, many Fort Thunder members first became known for their flyers, posters, and other work in association with the Providence music scene. Pettibon’s work can be seen as a direct predecessor to the visual approaches that members of Fort Thunder would take, with visual noise being an important element in both cases. Mat Brinkman’s skuzzy lines made with bamboo pens and graphite in works like Teratoid Heights and Multiforce share a resemblance to Pettibon’s own line work in his various flyers for Black Flag shows. The political rhetoric in Brian Chippendale’s work is hard to imagine without the influence of Black Flag’s or Pettibon’s own political commentary on Black Flag flyers and album covers. In fact, it could be said that Fort Thunder took the way Pettibon’s work was presented and took those ideas to the next level by intentionally making the promotional tools into actual art objects and not just pieces for commercial promotion.

 Even today, Pettibon’s work influences and inspires many of today’s notable alternative cartoonist. There are many elements a modern cartoonist can pull inspiration from his body of work; a commitment to a DIY aesthetic, expressionistic linework, and a variety of imagery. It also helps that Pettibon’s work is still incredible accessible in a variety of forms, from his Black Flag covers to a large volume of his promotional posters recently made available on Vice’s website. When this is taken into account, it’s easy to see how whether directly or indirectly, he’s exerted an influence on a range of contemporary artists from Michael DeForge to Julia Gfrörer. Of all modern cartoonists, Josh Bayer’s work might be the easiest to compare to Pettibon’s work. Bayer has made claim to Pettibon’s work as an influence on him growing up and in many interviews discussed the direct influence that Pettibon has had on his own work. Bayer has taken this further having collaborated multiple times with Pettibon, who is also a contributor to Bayer‘s Suspect Device comics anthology. Pettibon’s influence has come full circle in that he has influenced comics and now contributes to them on a semi-regular basis.

Despite a lack of critical recognition, Raymond Pettibon’s work has provided inspiration to a variety of modern American cartoonists. From the early alternative cartoonists such as Jaime Hernandez and Daniel Clowes to later ones like Josh Bayer and Michael DeForge, Pettibon’s influence can be clearly felt. Hopefully this assessment can provide an entry for the artist to be considered as a significant contributor to the comics art form.