The Man o’ Steel’s Hawaiian Vacation

First, a little cinematic/literary/comic-book mystery. Most of you will remember this scene from Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill: Vol. 2:

As everybody "knows," this whole dialogue was stolen nearly beat for beat from Jules Feiffer's comics-crit classic, The Great Comic Book Heroes. (I said so myself, back in one of the very first posts I ever wrote for Comics Comics -- kinda embarrassing to re-read for multiple reasons, lo so many years later.)

Or so it always seemed. Now things aren't so clear. As old CC readers will remember (and as one light-hearted fan will be particularly delighted to recall), I've been reading a lot of Pynchon lately. This binge didn't end with Gravity's Rainbow, but has now continued into Slow Learner and Vineland. (After 1200+ pages, I'm ready to take a break, so don't worry about me sharing whatever comic-book references may be found in Mason & Dixon until at least 2012.) Though there are certain very broad similarities in the way they both re-use tropes taken from popular and pulp genres, Quentin Tarantino's never struck me as the Pynchon type (he seems more like a Leslie Charteris man). However, the resonance between certain sections of Vineland and Kill Bill is startling. Namely, there's Vineland's blonde female ninja assassin DL Chastain, who can end a man's life by using an esoteric technique called the Vibrating Palm, or Ninja Death Touch—the victim doesn't feel it, "but a year later they drop dead, right when you happen to be miles away eating ribs with the Chief of Police." I'm not the first to notice these similarities, but one particular superhero-related congruence seems to have gone unremarked. You see, after this very Blood-spattered Bride-like figure is sent on a mission to kill a man who wronged her (and many others) years ago, she decides (à la Uma) that she'd rather just drop out of the whole assassin biz and start a new, less glamorous life. As she does so, she remembers an old, and eerily familiar, conversation:

"Superman could change back into Clark Kent," she had once confided to Frenesi, "don't underestimate it. Workin' at the Daily Planet was the Man o' Steel's Hawaiian vacation, his Saturday night in town, his marijuana and his opium smoke, and oh what I wouldn't give...." An evening newspaper ... anyplace back in the Midwest ... she would leave work around press time, make a beeline for some walk-down lounge, near enough to the paper that she could feel vibrations from the presses through the wood of the bar. Drink rye, wipe her glasses on her tie, leave her hat on indoors, gossip in the dim light with the other regulars. In the winter it would already be dark outside the windows. The polished shoes would pick up highlights as the street lamps got brighter ... she wouldn't be waiting for anybody or anything to happen, because she'd only be Clark Kent. Lois Lane might not give her the time of day anymore, but that'd be OK, she'd be dating somebody from the secretarial pool. They'd go out for dinner sometimes to this cozy Neapolitan joint down by some lakefront, where the Mussels Posillipo couldn't be beat. "So instead of being able to fly everyplace," her friend had replied, "you'd have to climb into some car you're still making payments on, drive on out, you, Clark Kent, to the scene of some disaster, blood, corpses, flies, teen technicians wandering around stoned, eyewitnesses in shock.... Superman never has to get involved with any of that. Why should anybody want to be only mortal? Better to stay an angel, angel." DL, more generous in those days, only thought her friend had missed the point.

So it's tough to figure out, right? Did Tarantino steal the dialogue from Feiffer, or Pynchon, or both? Or is it all just a set of crazy coincidences? I mean, David Carradine's original monologue is very close to Feiffer's, but connecting the Clark Kent/Superman idea directly to a blonde female ninja assassin seems so, um, unintuitive that it's remarkable that both Pynchon and Tarantino did it. My current theory is that Tarantino must have read this part of Vineland, then remembered the somewhat different Feiffer/Superman riff, and combined them together, but -- that's kind of complicated and implausible, and alternate suggestions are welcome. Figuring this out would be a good use of your time.

On to Comics Journal news:

Yesterday, Dan reviewed David Collier's Chimo, and Rob Clough introduced the latest incarnation of his "High-Low" column by looking at two recent releases from Revival House Press.

Today, animator Richard O'Connor turns in a review of the new Bill Plympton book, Independently Animated.

Also, don't miss designer Eric Skillman's behind-the-scenes look at the upcoming issue 301, which will be out very soon.


Thomas Pynchon isn't the only novelist who takes inspiration from the comics. Ishmael Reed, author of the essential Mumbo Jumbo, has a new book coming out next month, which sounds interesting. As he puts it in a recent profile: "Since I don't like the modernist novel in which the omniscient narrator smothers his characters to death with psychoanalysis, they called my characters cartoonish. So I made this new character of mine a cartoonist. I've always been in a dialogue with my critics."

So, as is probably obvious to many of you, we aren't above a little light theft ourselves, an kind of stole the idea of "A Cartoonist's Diary" from a recurring feature on The Paris Review's website. Now they have cruelly snatched the idea back, and this week, they are featuring New Yorker cartoonist Zachary Kanin. (Day two is here.)

And finally, another video:


13 Responses to The Man o’ Steel’s Hawaiian Vacation

  1. Dan_Parmenter says:

    I had never seen any part of Kill Bill prior to this clip and I didn't even make it all the way through the clip (is the rest of the movie this awful?). Putting aside the very good questions/concerns you raise about Pynchon, I notice that Tarantino didn't even get the basic story right. The Feiffer version of the story used Superman (wakes up every day and he's Superman) and Batman (has to put on his batsuit) whereas Tarantino's version uses Spider-Man instead of Batman as an example of the character who must put on his costume to become a hero. But every nerd who's ever had a version of this conversation (I'm sure that Feiffer didn't originate it, though his version is hilarious) knows that Spider-Man is actually kind of a special case since some of his powers are innate (wall-walking, proportional strength of a spider) while others (the web-shooters, the spidey-gizmos that trigger his "spidey sense") are based around gadgets. (As I recall, one of the criticisms of the recent Spider-Man movie series was the elimination of the mechanical web-shooters.)

  2. evandorkin says:

    Tarantino takes from all over the place, he freely admits it. And while I'm not a fan, I don't think he's stupid, I mean, I read Vineland and I'm no genius. I could see him hearing about it having crazy chicks and superhero refs in it and giving it a whirl. Beyond that, he's an avowed fan of Hong Kong martial-arts flicks, and there's a tradition of the 'delayed killing blow" in those flicks, characters are dealt a time-delayed blow that will kill them after they walk a hundred steps, for instance, or a specific series of events takes place, or a period of time elapses. Who knows?

    Excuse the geekery but Peter Parker didn't use any gadgets to trigger his spider-sense. It was innate. Actually, it was drawn in little squiggles above his head like black seat (eerie!). And while I'm on the subject (heaven help me), Peter Parker is certainly a 'special case" because he's the world's biggest idiot. If he could invent web fluid compounds, a mechanical system to eject said compounds, design and sew an intricate costume and invent and create a set of one-way eye lenses — all in one night, mind you — he should have been a $*#%@ millionaire rather than a pathetic schmuck unable to cash a check earned during a wrestling match. Oy.

  3. Tim Hodler says:

    The word "steal" might have made this post sound more judgmental than I meant it to — I personally don't mind much where Tarantino or any other artist gets his/her ideas, as long as they use them well. And certainly you are right that the Ninja Death Touch is reminiscent of a thousand different b-movies. But the specific Clark Kent/blonde assassin association seemed a little weird to find in two places. Maybe it's more common than I think?

    I'll leave the Spider-Man/Peter Parker angle for others to hash out.

  4. evandorkin says:

    Oh, sure, the Spider-Tracers, I get you now. Sorry, but the way you phrased it was kind of confusing, "triggering his spider-senses". Now where does the Spider-Mobile come into all of this..?

    Tim — I don't care if you want to label Mr. T a thief, he's pretty damned blatant and semi-reckless about it (imho) and only because he's a beloved awesome visionary cinematic genius does he not catch more shit over it. Like Alan Moore, bringing it back to comics, and probably upsetting some folks. Although I think Moore's a more clever fella about it.

  5. s_hirsch says:

    I recently read Mason & Dixon, so to get you started on the comic book references:

    At one point in the middle of the book M&D meet a Kabbalistic Sect at a pub or meeting house called the Rabbi of Prague and a certain "nautical looking" guy with huge forearms, a pipe, and one squinty eye translates God saying to Moses: "I AM THAT WHICH I AM." hyuk hyuk

    Beyond that, there's a penny dreadful that keeps popping up, detailing the ongoing adventures of an anti-hero called The Ghastly Fop – this is not really a comic reference per se but the fact that it's a serial adventure that goes on for decades and involves crime fighting put me in mind of mainstream monthlies.

    While also not strictly comics, that Kabbalist sect Popeye belongs to greets one another with the Vulcan salute and the phrase "live long and prosper."

  6. Tim Hodler says:

    Ha ha. Well in regards to the Moore-as-thief thing, the man himself goes into it a bit (including Grant Morrison's accusation that he ripped off the novel Superfolks) in a recent interview that should be appearing in every comics site on the internet over the next fifteen minutes (assuming it hasn't already happened and I just missed it).

  7. JeetHeer2 says:

    I'm not at all a fan of Alan Moore's work (although I admire the man himself and his principles & ideas) but I have to say he's clearly someone who has creatively taken existing ideas and made something new with them through great cleverness and intelligence. I suppose you could say that same for Tarantino but it does seem to me that Tarintino's appropriations are a lot less digested and closer (often word for word close) to the original source material. So I'm with Evan on this one.

  8. patford says:

    Appropriations never bother me, everyone does it, and if you trace things back step by step you'll end up sitting around a Neanderthal campfire.
    I don't enjoy Moore or Tarintino, but I'd have to place Moore way ahead of Tarintino.
    Tarintino is to film what Matt Drudge is to journalism.

  9. Dan_Parmenter says:

    I read Superfolks during the height of my Moore obsession (circa 1986) and it certainly knocked him slightly off the pedestal I'd put him on. OTOH, I'd argue that he made damned good use of his borrowings. Superfolks is an amusing novel, but it's nothing special whereas Moore's Superman story "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow" and Marvelman (the two works most heavily indebted to Superfolks) remain as favorite among Moore's wildly uneven overall body of work. I love all of Moore's Superman stories.

  10. SeanMRob says:

    Completely agree about the un"digested" nature of the Tarantino "appropriations." I mean, how else do you read the Bruce Lee jumpsuit except, "Wow, there's a great outfit in this Bruce Lee movie! Yoink!" Seriously, watching some of his movies, I feel like I'm suspended in some type of really expensive multimedia collage.

    As an aside, this very morning I read a letter from "Jiet Heer" in an early Comics Journal letters page chastising the Journal for failing to correctly name "Watchmen". Very interesting….

  11. steven samuels says:

    I mean, how else do you read the Bruce Lee jumpsuit except, “Wow, there’s a great outfit in this Bruce Lee movie! Yoink!”

    Yeah, that pretty much sums it up. He doesn’t digest stuff so much as he throws it from his plate onto the wall with his spoon. One could say the same thing about Robert Rodriguez and so many other pop culture junkie director geeks.

    <evandorkin- and only because he's a beloved awesome visionary cinematic genius

    Not in serious cineaste quarters, he’s not. Maybe with the fanboys…

    And I seriously doubt QT has ever crossed paths with Pynchon’s work. If he has, there’s nothing in his work to show for it.

  12. Kim_Thompson says:

    Actually, setting aside my own preferences as apparently the lone Tarantino fan on the board, Tarantino is quite well respected in any number of "serious cineaste quarters" (an expression that for some reason I "hear" as being spoken in the voice of THE SIMPSONS' Comic Book Guy) — unless you play the fun circular-reasoning game of "no serious critic respects X and if a critic respects X that means ipso facto he's not a serious critic, therefore no serious critic…". That said, has no one noticed that the surname of Beatrix Kiddo's alter ego, "Plimpton," is about as close as you can get to "Pynchon" without actually being "Pynchon"? Line up a third coincidence, Tim!

  13. Pingback: Carnival of souls: Special “this is gonna take a while” edition « Attentiondeficitdisorderly by Sean T. Collins

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