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Flex Mentallo: The "Citizen Kane" of comics?
on March 24, 2005
"Flex Mentallo" was supposed to be released as a trade paperback in 1998 or so, but humorless men in suits who represented the Charles Atlas Company put a stop to that. Why? It's a sad, pathetic story. Flex, a character wholly created by Morrison, made his first appearance in Morrison's joyously avant garde "Doom Patrol" series (I believe it was in issue #35; I'm too lazy to dig out the issue to confirm). When he first appeared, Flex looked more like Alan Moore than a hulking he-man: bearded, grimy, wrapped up in a dirty trench coat. Eventually he realized who he was: "The Man of Muscle Mystery," and regained his normal appearance - basically, he was the spitting image of Charles Atlas, complete with leopard-skin trunks.
Flex's origin is also a hilarious parody of those old Charles Atlas funnybook advertisements. You know: skinny dweeb gets picked on by beach bully, sends away for a muscle-building manual. Only the manual Flex received taught him all sorts of esoteric uses for his muscles; now, each muscle was capable of a different power. For example, flexing his bicep might result in an earthquake, flexing his lats might allow him to see the future. And just to really hammer home the Atlas parody, every time Flex strikes his "hero pose," the words "Hero of the Beach" float above him: the exact same slogan that hovered above the character in the Charles Atlas ads.
The issues of "Doom Patrol" with Flex didn't cause any trouble, and this series, published about 5 years later, didn't either. So what happened? Apparently, an overzealous fan brought the "Flex Mentallo" series to the attention of Charles Atlas Company representatives, more out of a "hey, you guys might think this is funny" attitude than anything else. Unfortunately, Atlas saw no humor in it, and threatened DC/Vertigo (the publishers of "Doom Patrol" and "Flex Mentallo") with a lawsuit. Long story short: DC won the case, but the verdict was that a percentage of the profits of anything published in the future featuring Flex would go to the Charles Atlas company. It is only now, years later, that DC is getting around to publishing the remaining issues of Morrison's "Doom Patrol" in trade paperback form, and DC reps claim that it is only sales of these that will promise a "Flex Mentallo" collection. In other words, DC has spent so much money on this lawsuit, they now will only publish "Flex" if the "Doom Patrol" trades sell exceptionally well.
But what about the comic itself? "Flex Mentallo" could easily be seen as Grant Morrison's masterwork, though I still prefer "The Invisibles." "Flex" is not only a celebration of superheroic myth, but also of comics themselves. Each issue represents a different "era" of comics, and the narrative is post-modern and fractured to a point. It's also one of the more literary comics out there, and will no doubt turn away those looking for mindless action and violence. "Flex" would appeal to only a select few readers; its fame these days is no doubt due to its rarity, but also to the rising fame of Morrison and Quitely (who later worked together on "New X-Men.")
Issue #1 gives tribute to the "Golden Age," those comics from the `30s and `40s with simple good-versus-evil plots, where the hero usually won by knocking the villain out cold. We see that "Flex" seemingly takes place in a different reality than the "Doom Patrol" comics; no mention is made of the Patrol or any other DC heroes. Flex is about to enjoy an egg sandwich in the local diner when a shadowy figure hurls a bomb at a group of people. Flex uses his muscles to scan the bomb, and it turns out to be a fake. The police call Flex in for help in the investigation; turns out these fake bombs are showing up everywhere. Flex suspects that his old partner-in-crimefighting, The Fact, is somehow involved, and resolves to get to the bottom of it. Meanwhile, in another narrative, a young rock star named Wallace Sage, the man who created Flex as a child, has just taken loads of drugs in a bid for suicide, and calls up the Samaritans. All he wants to do is talk about comic books before he dies.
Issue #2 is the "Silver Age," the weird and psychedelic comics of the `50s and `60s. Flex continues his quest to find The Fact. Along the way he reminisces about his past adventures, all of them Silver Age-type goofiness. (The issue also features one of the very best splash pages I've ever seen: a shot of Flex squaring off against his Silver Age nemesis "The Mentallium Man.") First Flex comes across a group of delinquents who are shooting up with a lethal drug that unleashes the hero within. Then he discovers there is a group of superheroes who might be able to help him; apparently they're the last such group of costumed fighters left in the world. They're called "The Legion of Legions," and Flex sets off to find them. Meanwhile, Wallace Sage continues his drug-hazed diatribe with the Samaritans, espousing on his love of comics. He also tries unsuccessfully to free a buried memory, something that happened to him as a child.
Issue #3 is the "Dark Age," those `70s and `80s comics that swayed into nihilism, with heroes just as dangerous as the villains: comics like Frank Miller's "Dark Knight Returns." Journeying into the underground of the nameless city this takes place in, Flex begins to question the bizarre adventures he had back in the Silver Age; very nice commentary by Morrison on the incongruity of continuity-heavy comics. Things get even more unreal as Flex discovers an underground club for "adult superheroes." Here Frank Quitely unleashes every costume he can think of, as we witness at least a hundred different heroes in various, exquisitely-detailed costumes engaging in all manner of "adult" situations. It's a costumed orgy, and Flex warily makes his way through it, trying to find the transporter tube that will take him to the Legion of Legions headquarters. Wallace Sage continues his soul-plumbing, and finally remembers his suppressed memory - as a child, he actually met a group of superheroes. And in a third narrative, the crusty police chief from issue #1 hooks up with supervillain "The Hoaxer," and the two of them set off to find Flex and help him "save the world."
Issue #4 is the "New Age," or what I gather Morrison hopes comics will one day be: positive myths in which readers discover that they themselves are superheroes. But first we witness how actual superheroes invaded our reality, centuries ago, as their reality was destroyed in a "Crisis on Infinite Earths"-type tragedy. Crashing into our reality, they embedded themselves in our imaginations; this is why comic books were invented, Wallace Sage realizes. The heroes in our subconscious are using them to show us WHO we can really be; we're all heroes, ourselves. The crusty chief and The Hoaxer pass through the "adult club" from issue #3, finding everyone there dead. The two of them use the transporter tube to go to the Legion of Legion headquarters, and there they team up with Flex to defeat the "villain" behind everything, a man-on-the-moon faced opponent who turns out to be none other than Wallace Sage. Or Wally, that is - here he is a cynical teenager who confuses "realism with pessimism," as Flex puts it. Flex gets the best line in the series here, when he tells Wally: "Being clever's a fine thing, but sometimes a boy just needs to get out of the house and meet some girls." The series ends with Wallace Sage rejoicing in the hero within, and the formerly-repressed superheroes of our imaginations being set free into our world.
But that's just a recap of the narrative elements of "Flex Mentallo." There's a lot going on in this series. In many ways it's even an autobiography, as a lot of Wallace Sage's memories are no doubt Grant Morrison's own. Even the illustrations are post-modern, referencing other comics in both style and manner. There are also little in-jokes; in issue #2, Flex goes to a coffee shop, and you can easily spot Clark Kent and Ozymandius (from "Watchmen") dining inside. Morrison is on-form throughout, and it's easy to see why he considers this to be one of the best things he's written. (Incidentally, the fact that "Flex" has been blocked from publication as a trade collection sends Morrison into fits of rage.)
Frank Quitely's artwork is a joy to behold. Quitely's style is a mixture of cartoonish and finely-detailed. It doesn't look like anyone else I can think of, and his art here is without question the best I've ever seen in a comic. His work on "Flex Mentallo" is probably his best ever, and even Morrison stated it was "the most beautiful artwork to ever grace one of my scripts." Quitely himself once claimed "Flex Mentallo" was "more important than the Bible for comic fans," returning the compliment.
So, let's hope one day soon you'll be able to press "add to shopping cart" immediately after reading this review. DC has made several positive comments recently about "Flex" being published in trade form, so don't spend an arm and a leg on those back issues. Have faith, because it seems fairly certain that this book will appear someday. The sooner the better - when I'm in the mood for a re-reading, I'm usually too lazy to get the issues out of storage. Pretty lazy, I know. Flex needs to give me a good talkin' to.