The Ultimate Pynchonian Superhero

“Four-color Plasticman goes oozing out of a keyhole, around a corner and up through piping that leads to a sink in the mad Nazi scientist’s lab, out of whose faucet Plas’s head now, blank carapaced eyes and un-plastic jaw, is just emerging.  “Yeah.  Who’re you, Ace?” (Pynchon 206-207)

“By contrast, Zwitter’s laboratory upstairs is brightly lit, well-ordered, crammed with blown glass, work tables, lights of many colors, speckled boxes, green folders—a mad Nazi scientist lab!  Plasticman, where are you?” (Pynchon 314)

The first quotation comes from a scene in which Slothrop is leisurely reading a Plastic Man comic as Sir Stephen Dodson-Truck approaches Katje and him both sunning on the beach.  He continues to read his comic when Sir Stephen asks if he is, in fact, Lieutenant Slothrop.  The sudden shift after Sir Stephen’s question to the plot of the comic is not easily perceptible.  It’s another example of a Pynchonian leap from space to space: this time between the real space of the novel and the fictional space of the comic.  It seems that after the question is asked, Slothrop reads a panel of Plastic Man then bothers to respond to the inquiry.  In the comic panel, Plasticman, also known as Plas, infiltrates a Nazi lab by squeezing himself through a keyhole and pipes presumably to gather intelligence or attack the Germans. The second quotation, although roughly 100 pages after the first, directly alludes to that very comic panel.  Here, however, what was once in the fictional space of the comic becomes part of the real space of the novel.  The fictional, hypothetical Nazi lab is no longer a product of imagination in a comic; it exists in Pynchon’s reality.  Correlatively, Plasticman’s super-sleuthing abilities would come in handy in this real space of the novel—hence, the narrator’s appeal to him.  By referencing Plasticman in the novel, and by linking him closely to Slothrop, Pynchon includes characters arguably representative of different time periods to not only comment on WWII, but also the rise of countercultures in the 1970’s.

I chose to investigate the superhero Plasticman because I had never heard of him before reading Gravity’s Rainbow.  Pynchon’s choice to use Plas was intended to directly connect with multiple aspects of the novel.  Firstly, the parallels between Slothrop and Plasticman’s characters would be fairly obvious to a reader of Gravity’s Rainbow familiar with the comic.  According to DC Comics, Plasticman was as much of a humor icon as he was a superhero icon of the late 40’s; slapstick humor was Plas’s modus operandi when battling villains.  He’s regarded as the silliest of superheroes, which certainly corresponds to Slothrop’s silly, farcical character. The emphasis on slapstick humor was partly a product of the era in which Plastic Man comics were written: the Golden Age (Condis).  The three areas of comic books are divided into three ages: golden spanning 1930 to 1955, silver spanning 1956 to 1969, and bronze spanning 1970 to 1985 (Golden Age).  The Golden Age comics of WWII  “reflect wartime anxieties,” whereas Bronze Age comics “mirror the particular troubles that faced 1970s readers,” which were namely race, gender discrimination, and drug abuse (Condis).  By pairing Plasticman, iconic of the 40’s, and Slothrop, representative of the 40’s and 70’s, Pynchon blends two distinct historical periods.  By drawing parallels between the two characters, Pynchon yet again seems to warp time by making characters from 1945 cope with the social issues of the 1970’s.

Secondly, Pynchon’s choice to include Plas reflects his personal tastes and the tastes of his friends.  The Gravity’s Rainbow Wiki states that the comic was a personal favorite of Richard Farina, the author of Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me and close college friend of Pynchon.  In his introduction for Farina’s novel, Pynchon discusses the drug and sexual culture the two rebelled against while studying at Cornell as undergraduates.  In light of the two authors’ relationship, the intertextuality in Gravity’s Rainbow seems to go on endlessly: Plas is a favorite of Pynchon’s friend who was a driving force behind the success of counterculture at Cornell in 1958, while counterculture is an important facet of Gravity’s Rainbow.  This further illustrates how Pynchon splices the timeline of United States history.  He marvelously incorporates important hallmarks of the 40’s, 50’s, and 70’s to the point where they bleed together to create a unique representation of history.

Aside from the historical function Plas serves in the novel, he also connects to Imipolex G, the new plastic developed by Jamf to insulate rockets.  Pynchon does not miss the opportunity to tie in yet another character to V-2s.  Slothrop himself also later assumes the identity of Rocketman, which—sans super elasticity—closely resembles the character of Plasticman.  With this in mind, the original quotes I selected from Gravity’s Rainbow seem more poignant.  Slothrop is transformed into a superhero to combat the forces of evil in reality, just as Plas combats fictional Nazis.  This is a translation of fantasy to reality.  Slothrop’s transformation mocks the war in a sense, since a pseudo-superhero, not an army, is everyone’s best chance at combating the Germans and prevailing.  Pynchon’s blending of history and human versus superhuman feats compels the reader to decipher his motivations for doing so.  The ultimate goal is for the reader not to accept every detail verbatim in the novel.  Pynchon’s disruptive and supernatural take on United States history illustrates the theory that “They” can present history the way “They” want to.  It requires skepticism to figure out truth in the novel, which mirrors the same skepticism we must adopt when consuming information in our reality.

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Works Cited

Condis, Megan. “Failure to Launch: Not-So-Superheroes in Gravity’s Rainbow and Superfolks.” The Journal of Popular Culture 45.6 (2012): n. pag. Print.

“Golden Age of Comics.” Comic Vine. CBS Interactive, n.d. Web. 17 Mar. 2014. <http://www.comicvine.com/golden-age-of-comics/4015-55820/&gt;.

“Plastic Man.” DC Comics. Warner Bros. Entertainment, n.d. Web. 17 Mar. 2014. <http://www.dccomics.com/characters/plastic-man&gt;.

“Plasticman.” Thomas Pynchon Wiki. Ed. Tim Ware. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Mar. 2014. <http://gravitys-rainbow.pynchonwiki.com/wiki/index.php?title=Plasticman&gt;.

Pynchon, Thomas. Gravity’s Rainbow. N.p.: Penguin Group, 1995. Print.

– – -. Introduction. Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me. By Richard Farina. N.p.: Penguin Group US, 1996. N. pag. Print.

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4 Responses to The Ultimate Pynchonian Superhero

  1. Kayla Rafkin says:

    This is an excellent way of viewing the “Pynchonian leap from space to space” that we are constantly seeing in this novel. However, I think that Pynchon has done more that just warp time and space to enable culture and society to cope with one another; he has provided a context in which they seem to be reconciled, to such a degree that the one cannot exist without the other.

  2. Patricia, very interesting post, but I was surprised you didn’t talk a bit more about Plasticman’s particular superpower, which is the ability to bend his body to any degree imaginable, which seems like a very important touchstone for Pynchon’s novel. A link to the moment he discovers his powers: http://www.comicbookbrain.com/large-jack-cole-plastic-man.php.

  3. Steph Roman says:

    Yes. I’m so glad someone talked a bit about Plastic Man, because as a bit of a superhero nerd I was astounded to realize hewas an actual comic book character I had just never heard of. It’s definitely important to point out that the different “Ages” of comics all correspond to historical and social movements. For instance, a really obvious and pertinent example is Captain America, created explicitly as a WWII super-soldier, who kicked lots of Nazi ass and did it all in the name of the good old United States. But I can see why Slothrop would find Plastic Man a much more compelling hero, especially since you point out the character was known for his slapstick comedy. Based on your description, he really does seem very much like Slothrop, especially in transcending space/ time; the two could probably be alter-egoes. That’s why pointing to Rocketman is a great addition to this post.

  4. msk58 says:

    When I first read about Plasticman in the novel I just glossed over him. I just assumed he was an inspirational hero to Slothrop, whom he can imitate, but the similarities you brought up between them and Pynchon’s personal ties to the character add greater significance to the reference. It makes a lot of sense now why Slothrop would identify with Plasticman. I would even go as far to say that the Plasticman inspired Slothrop to strive to be the hero he tries to be as the novel progresses. Although he is a schlemiel, Slothrop nevertheless tries to be the hero of the story in his quest for the Rocket 00000. He seems to try to amplify his heroic image by becoming the Rocketman (to the point of making a costume for it) and also quoting action heroes from movies. I think Plasticman is really important because reading about him seemed to instigate Slothrop’s desire to be a hero. Even though it is only a fantasy, it is nevertheless his way of attempting to define himself, to find his true identity, and to understand his purpose in the world.

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