The Walrus Blog

Pynchon and comics

In his new novel, Inherent Vice, released last week and reportedly self-promoted here (though I have my doubts), there’s a part where Thomas Pynchon has a character say, “I am aware of the Freak Brothers’ dictum that dope will get you through times of no money better than vice versa….” Later, another says, “Listen, I came up in Temecula, which is Krazy Kat Kountry, where you always root for Ignatz and not Offisa Pup.” Now, I haven’t finished the book just yet, but still I got to thinking about Pynchon and comics.

Ever attuned to the lower frequencies of American culture, the wavelengths where rock and roll and monster movies and The Tube all play out, Pynchon is an author who can ably salt away a few references to comics, too, throughout his works. The guy hips himself to so many things—from 18th century naval battles to Jacobean revenge drama to the intricacies of rhinoplasty—that to happen across nods to underground comics, or moral outlooks articulated by way of classic cartooning like George Herriman’s comic strip Kat, is simply par for a very wide-ranging course.

But as with the other details he piles into every sentence, Pynchon’s often able to spin his comics references into much more than just bits of period colour or incidental asides. So describing the map of a German rocket-building site in Gravity’s Rainbow as looking “something like a Wilhelm Busch cartoon face, some old fool for mischievous boys to play tricks on,” leads to the Busch-created hellions Max and Moritz launching the novel’s climactic rocket, which in turn points back to Wernher von Braun’s naming a couple test rockets after the duo (thanks to Weisenburger’s GR Companion for that tip, of course).

Or, also in GR, protagonist (non-agonist?) Tyrone Slothrop’s reading of a Plastic Man comic allows Pynchon to launch into a couple extended meditations on the superhero. Slothrop begins by envisioning Plas, like other heroes of the time, as an instrument of the state, dripping his “perfectly deformable” body into secret Nazi labs. Later, though, Slothrop becomes a superhero himself, after smoking too much reefer and deciding a horn-bedecked opera helmet looks like the nose of a rocket. Thing is, this superhero—”Raketemensch!”—becomes legendary not from any do-gooding, but instead from liberating a supply of hash out from under the nose of President Truman, and  engaging in some fully costumed S and M with a washed-up film actress. There’s also Slothrop’s phantasmic, blundering, disintegrating superteam, the Floundering Four, who suit up once the book’s started to unravel in earnest, to show just how much “Outside and Inside interpierc[e],” how much the establishment wraps itself up in revolt, and how difficult it may be to maintain any kind of monolithic struggle when there are so many other, smaller ones going on elsewhere.

So, when Plastic Man and his superhero cohort reappear a few pages from the end, it’s no wonder they’re flummoxed. Seeing that final, fatal rocket, Superman’s curl goes gray, the colours of his cape wilt; Submariner runs into trouble; real-world chemistry confounds ol’ Plas. “‘Too late’ was never in their programming,” they realise, too late—and programming is the key word here, since a Hero seems to be something that can only ever really exist with Their permission, and supervision. Pynchon sized up the starry-eyed inutility of superheroes long before Marvel had Spider-Man and Dr. Doom crying about 9-11, or whatever the hell happened there.

But others have meditated on Pynchon’s use of comics before, and done so with keener insights. There’s also, however, the matter of comics’ use of Pynchon. We’ve lately seen a similar consideration of comics connections to Pynchon’s teacher, Vladimir Nabokov. I’m wondering what it says about who reads whom, what preferences are fashionable, and how much Pynchon is strictly for the nerdiest nerds only, that while Nabokov’s followers include underground great Jay Lynch and contemporary standardbearers Chris Ware and Dan Clowes, drawing up a similar list for Pynchon means including a practicing magician, a pornographer, and a gonzo superhero revisionist. Ah, but what a genre-hopping Pynchonian bunch that is—and Pynchon, at least, can claim one of the reigning old men of American humour (or, I suppose, “humor”) as one of his partners-in-crime.

Arnold Roth—baroque stylist, alumnus of such cartooning institutions as Playboy, The New Yorker, and Britain’s Punch, and key contributor to Harvey Kurtzman’s great humour magazines like Humbug—provided the illustration that accompanied “The Secret Integration” in the December 1964 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. The short story is Pynchon’s last to date, and the author claims it as his own favourite—or, at least, the one that embarrasses him least. Roth’s vision of this tale, where precocious chums try to negotiate their way through the grown-up world’s murky rationales and illogical prejudices, is a fitting one. The looming presences and half-understood flourishes are all there in Pynchon’s original, and Roth’s crooked lines and swollen figures match up well with the author’s own skewed exaggerations—still subtle, when he wrote this story.

Decades later, Alan Moore was certainly the most avowed of Pynchon’s followers in comics, whether dropping the man’s name in early interviews, or facing off about his value as an influence with future collaborator Eddie Campbell. In a 1982 chapter from V for Vendetta, Moore’s anonymous anarchist, V, even reads from Pynchon’s first novel, V. For his book, Moore borrows Pynchon’s notion of V (as both character and letter) as a point of almost arbitrary convergence, an empty and unknowable vessel into which can pour any amount of anxieties or fantasies. Other than such a direct reference, however, it gets tough to pinpoint Pynchon’s presence in Moore’s works.

There’s that vaunted paranoiac theme, I guess, where history has over-determined our present (as in From Hell), or where some shadowy They has created a sinister architecture which we can only ever live through and sometimes, maybe, catch glimpses of. The overarching designs that haunt Moore’s books, though, get revealed to be far more definite than Pynchon’s shadowy, possibly non-existent ones. Moore’s works are just as scarred as Pynchon’s by the threat of the Bomb and the idea of war, just as mistrustful of power, while his sense of humour is just as groan-inducing, and Lost Girls is certainly as filthy as Pynchon’s raunchiest setpieces (minus, perhaps, the coprophagy). But it’s in his songplay that Moore most resembles Pynchon, setting some extended sequences to lyrics almost as silly as the other author’s, and even, apparently, naming one of his real-life bands Eddie Enrico and His Hawaiian Hotshots, after Vineland‘s Eddie Enrico and his Hong Kong Hotshots.

And then there’s world famous rock group Buckaroo Banzai and the Hong Kong Cavaliers—can all these names be mere coincidence, I ask you? 1984′s The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension is the single most Pynchonian cultural artefact that Pynchon had no hand in whatsoever, so it’s not impossible that the author tipped his hat to this film when coming up with a name for that band’s brief appearance in 1990′s Vineland. In any case, Buckaroo Banzai perfectly captures the idea-mad, freewheeling tenor of a Pynchon book, the disregard for boundaries of genre and tone and taste, and the unabashed delight in everything trashy and sad and profound about this here modern world of ours. Including the Marvel comic book adaptation of the film feels like a bit of a cheat, here—like, I doubt the comic creators realised that the movie appropriates Pynchon’s Yoyodyne corporation, from V. and The Crying of Lot 49, as the name for the company serving as the front for a race of alien invaders. Sure, the comic is capable mainstream work of a kind we don’t see much of anymore, which means that it was meant to sell off of newstands to anyone who was interested, with writer/artist team Bill Mantlo and Mark Texeira telling a silly story in all seriousness, clearly and unobtrusively, with little pretension and copious verbiage. Anyway I basically just wanted an excuse to show a drawing of the great Jeff Goldblum accompanied by mentions of a Pynchon creation and Orson Welles. Big deal, so what.

Zak Smith exhibited his Pictures Showing What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon’s Novel Gravity’s Rainbow at the 2004 Whitney Biennial, and it came out as a book in 2006. This is sort of a cheat, too, I suppose, but: hundreds of images coordinated into linear sequence? Sure, I’ll squish that into some kind of comics category. Besides, there’s enough comics content here to justify its inclusion in any such survey as this one. Smith visualises the Floundering Four, for one, and he depicts Slothrop-as-Rocketman’s hash-fuelled debauches—and even shows our man relaxing beachside with that old Plastic Man comic book. I admire Smith’s project more for its cumulative chutzpah rather than any drawing or effect in particular, but it’s one of the only attempts I know of to set down the kind of amorphous images that swirl in a reader’s head when encountering Pynchon.

Frank Miller’s 2006 cover for Gravity’s Rainbow, on the other hand, captures none of what I see in Pynchon, and conveys none of what I value about Miller’s work (though to be fair the brand of thin-lined, poised dynamism that I liked in Miller has been absent from his work since the ’80s anyway). I’ll grant that it’s a striking design, that it probably presents an image of what somebody thinks of the book—hey it’s about a rocket! and um it’s messy, stern, and important—and that maybe it’s even successful in moving units. Still, there are others in the Penguin series that play better to the strengths of the designer (Anders Nilsen applies his disturbing whimsy to Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales) or the work in question (Art Spiegelman usefully overthinks Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy). There’s certainly a more suitable GR cover out there, and there’s even a preferable comic-booky Pynchon cover—unrepentantly goofy, though ugly—but hey, rumour is that Pynchon wanted Miller, so there you go.

Finally, from just a couple weeks back, we have… wait, what?

Sally Forth?


Pynchon must be positively tickled.

* * *

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  • Erik Ketzan

    Good survey.

    An early critic of Gravity’s Rainbow (Richard Poirier, “The Importance of Thomas Pynchon,” 1976) implied that Pynchon referenced Zap Comix somewhere, but I’ve never known exactly where. Perhaps he, too, meant the Whiteman story. There’s also a line in The Crying of Lot 49, “a face is symmetrical like a Rorschach blot” (pg 18), that may have planted the seed of Rorschach in Alan Moore’s mind (although it’s a pretty tenuous link)… The complexity of the prose in Moore’s novel, Voice of the Fire, seems to indicate some Pynchon influence, although to echo what you say, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly how. The Miller cover is funny for the reasons you mention; it features almost nothing recognizable as trademark Pynchon or Miller, although I suspect that’s because Miller has never read GR, and based his cover on whatever impressions he gleaned from skimming the text, the first few pages (which it seems to illustrate), and whatever. I like it, though. It reminds me of a limited edition of Ulysses illustrated by Matisse, who never read Joyce’s book and based all the drawings on The Odyssey, instead :)

    Finally, this comic strip from Cat and Girl: You can even order the bumper sticker.

  • Pingback: Thomas Pynchon y los Cómics « Comicopia

  • Dave Monroe

    “Loren Passerine, on his podium, hovered like a puppet master, his eyes bright, his smile practiced and relentless.” (Lot 49, Ch. 6, p. 183)

    Cf. …

  • Pingback: Weekend Quickies | The Pandemonium Of The Sun

  • Tim U

    Don’t forget Pirate Prentice’s batman, Corporal Wayne…

  • Andrei

    I always thought there was a connection between Grigori the octopus and the squid in Watchmen.

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