Frank Miller Week: Miller and Gravity's Rainbow

If I had been involved in the decision making which resulted in Frank Miller's commission to illustrate the cover for a new edition of Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, Miller's would likely not have been the first name to come to my mind. Rick Veitch, whose Maximortal, like Gravity's Rainbow, considers some of the dangers inherent in the use of comic book heroes as propaganda, seems an obvious choice. Robert Crumb is another. But sometimes the obvious is not the best, particularly when dealing with a writer as intentionally diversionary as Pynchon.

But leaving aside for the moment Miller's suitability for the job, it is important to point out that comics are really central to what Pynchon does in Gravity's Rainbow. The book is too damned long and complicated to get into an extended discussion of what happens, but it is enough to know that it largely takes place in Western Europe during the final months of the Second World War and is concerned in varying degrees with the German V-2 rocket program, race and imperialism, with a healthy dose of scatology and buggery mixed in.

The novel's ostensible hero, Lt. Tyrone Slothrop, discovers that a map that he keeps of his sexual conquests in and about London matches precisely with a map of sites targeted by German rockets—Slothrop always comes before the bombs. This leads him to discover that he may have been programmed at birth by a secret cabal of Fascist occultists, known as PISCES, to play some part in the creation of the Raketestadt (Rocket State). Along the way he temporarily assumes the identity of Rocketman, instrument of Raketestadt propaganda, then joins the quixotic quest of the Floundering Four, heroes of the preterite, and is eventually deconstructed and left to languish in a sort of postmodern version of the Negative Zone.

Miller's decision to rely on minimalistic, negative imagery nestled in a wildly entropic background is pretty much dead on. Pynchon employs images of sexual violence and scatology in order to convey Nazi propagandists' version of the threat posed by inferior races. Moreover, he does not shy away from the phallic association of rockets—they are more or less the massive steel penises with which the Raketestadt buggers the degenerates of the world. Thus, Miller's stark rocket stenciled into a background of Pollock-y drips and smears conveys pretty succinctly Gravity's Rainbow's barrage of great white dicks smearing about in shit, semen and the ashes of bombed-out cities.

What is doubly interesting about this illustration is that it turns out that Miller returned to the image of a rocket, nosecone down and foregrounded by Superman, on the variant cover of All-Star Batman & Robin the Boy Wonder #4, thus implicitly associating that maligned series with Pynchon's almost universally praised novel. Bizarre though that may sound, when considered in this context, it goes a lot to explain Miller's conception of Superman and the relationship between Superman and Batman in this and his other Batman books. Superman, though ostensibly subjecting himself to the rules and norms of his adoptive planet, is not of our world and is in a position of superiority over humans in pretty much every sense that matters. He thus aligns quite neatly with the propagandistic hero of the elect as envisioned by the psychopaths at PISCES. Batman, on the other hand, is the hero of the preterite. He spends his time in Gotham's slums, wrestling with pimps and defending prostitutes. His day job as billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne is nothing more than a distasteful cover, which allows him to live his real life, wallowing about in the city's piss and shit, unmolested.

But while Gravity's Rainbow is perhaps the incredibly cumbersome key to this portion of Miller's oeuvre, this is still the guy who is ostensibly going to launch Holy Terror! on the world. Though, as with much of Miller's more controversial work, this is perhaps not as contradictory as it might seem. While Pynchon was clearly aware of the potential dangers of comic book propaganda, he was also demonstrably anti-Fascist and it would be difficult to argue that he would have opposed the propagandistic aims of many World War II-era comics.


Abhay said...

I enjoyed this one. Thank you.

david e. ford, jr said...


Thanks for reading and the kind words.