Hi, and welcome to Comics You Should Own, a semi-regular series about comics I think you should own. I began writing these a little over fifteen years ago, and I’m still doing it, because I dig writing long-form essays about comics. I republished my early posts, which I originally wrote on my personal blog, at Comics Should Be Good about ten years ago, but since their redesign, most of the images have been lost, so I figured it was about time I published these a third time, here on our new blog. I plan on keeping them exactly the same, which is why my references might be a bit out of date and, early on, I don’t write about art as much as I do now. But I hope you enjoy these, and if you’ve never read them before, I hope they give you something to read that you might have missed. I’m planning on doing these once a week until I have all the old ones here at the blog. Today I’m checking out a candidate for best mini-series ever! This post was originally published on 10 June 2007. As always, you can click on the images to see them better. Enjoy!
Flex Mentallo by Grant “Sadly, my only muscles are in my brain!” Morrison (writer), Frank Quitely (artist), Tom McCraw (colorist), and Ellie De Ville (letterer).
Published by DC/Vertigo, 4 issues (#1-4), cover dated June – September 1996.
There are some SPOILERS ahead, but it’s not really a spoilery kind of story, so I think we’ll be all right.
If Doom Patrol is the greatest long-form story in comics history (as I’ve argued), then Flex Mentallo can make a claim as the best four-issue mini-series ever published. I wouldn’t go quite that far, but it’s in the discussion. In this trippy comic, Morrison took all the ideas he usually plays with and distilled them into a short, punchy, cosmic, goofy, sad, and astonishing story that can be seen in two contradictory ways, both of which are equally valid. This series might be the apotheosis of a theme he began toying with in Animal Man (the glory of Silver Age comics and the wonder of Multiple Universes) and can’t seem to put down now. One reason why his post-Flex work is not as great as this and what came before is that he keeps returning to the same well. You’ll notice I skipped The Filth for a reason – Morrison says quite a bit in that series that’s the same in Flex Mentallo, and he does it better in this book. Just because he continues to delve into these ideas doesn’t invalidate the amazing work he does here, before it became a bit stale.
First off, let’s get the plot out of the way, because it’s fairly straight-forward (it’s weird, because it’s Grant Morrison, but still fairly straight-forward): Flex Mentallo is a superhero who was created by a kid named Wally Sage, and somehow he became “real.” He discovers that another character Sage created, the “Fact,” has also become real, and is leading him through a mystery. The mystery, we discover, is that superheroes were once real, but in order to escape a malevolent energy force called the Absolute, they turned themselves into fictional heroes in our imaginations. Therefore, our world is not real, just a fictional construct where the heroes could hide and where the Absolute couldn’t get them. What Flex discovers is that the heroes are coming back. And so they do.
What this plot really does is allow Morrison to examine several different pet themes of his, from the notion of reality to the goofiness of Silver Age comics to the power of imagination to the history of comic books in general. The plot functions simply as a way to move Flex and Wallace Sage, now a burnt-out junkie musician who may or may not be committing suicide, through the layers of meaning that Morrison is dealing with. Ultimately, Flex Mentallo is the story of comics themselves, and it’s there where I want to start.
What exactly is the Silver Age? According to most people, the Silver Age in comics began in 1956 when the Flash returned to superhero comics. Morrison himself, in an issue of Flash, claimed that the Silver Age began in 1955. Being as general as possible, the Silver Age is a time in comics when superheroes were defined by science, specifically nuclear science, and outer space (Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, the Hulk, et al.). The stories tended to be fantastical explorations of either outer space or inner space, with science looked at as both as help and a sinister influence. There’s also, to be honest, both a naïveté to the stories and, if you’re looking for it, a subtle hint of the creators taking way too many drugs. I have no idea if the creators back then were smoking pot and dropping acid before they sat down to draw and write, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were true. The Silver Age ended, I suppose, when the new and improved X-Men burst onto the scene in 1975. Maybe. Or when Stan Lee shipped issues of Amazing Spider-Man without the Comics Code. Possibly.
Many people read comics like this and think that Morrison is in love with Silver Age comics. Certainly, he has done a lot of work that indicates he holds the inherent goofiness of the comics from those years in high esteem. His latest project, All Star Superman, is practically a love letter to the Silver Age. It’s not as good as Flex Mentallo, however, because Flex is specifically a critique of the Silver Age, as it wends its way through comic book history and shows that those comics were not as innocent as we’d like to view them through our rose-colored glasses. Morrison is certainly interested in exploring certain themes of the Silver Age, but he rarely writes comics that whole-heartedly laud those bygone days (All Star Superman does, of course, and JLA did, to a certain extent, but that’s about it). He’s far less enamored of writing “Silver Age” stories and far more interested in looking at why those stories enchant us and what that says about our fascination with superheroes’ perversions and glories. Those two things, Morrison points out, are often intertwined, and therefore we can’t speak of one without speaking of the other. At first glance, Flex Mentallo certainly appears to be a homage to the Silver Age, but it’s not. Flex spends a lot of time thinking about “the good old days,” but Morrison has his narrator, Wallace Sage, point out that during the Silver Age, things started to get a little weird. “It was like the hard body [of the Golden Age hero] began to turn soft, the masculine heroes becoming fluid and feminine, always changing shape. … All that stuff was like, like a prophecy of the arrival of LSD on the streets of America … the comic writers and artist intuited the social transformation in their work …” In the text pieces that appear in issues #2 and 4 that tell the history of Flex the character, Morrison goes further than that, flatly stating that the publishers and writers and artists of the Silver Age were all drug-using degenerates (I say that in the nicest possible way). The funny thing about the Silver Age has always been that these were grown men writing and drawing these books, and even if they were done for children, the subtext is always much darker. Writers in the 1950s knew about homosexuals, and they knew that people would read Batman and Robin’s living arrangements differently if they were adults than if they were children. Adults might not have been reading comics in the 1950s, which is why they could get away with some weird stuff, but it’s fairly obvious what’s going on underneath the surface in many Silver Age comic books. Morrison’s genius is that he is able to write a wonderful parody of the time period without coming off as condescending. Flex’s arch-nemesis, the Mentallium Man, is both a perfect Silver Age creation that wouldn’t look out of place in a Superman comic from 1958 as well as a critique of those very comics – the powers of the Mentallium are odd, to say the least: pink Mentallium invites the victim “to explore complex issues of gender and sexuality,” while silver Mentallium robs someone of their sense of humor. These powers show us that the Silver Age was in fact a hotbed of twisted emotional traumas and discoveries, as the creators worked out their fears and dreams on the page. Morrison does the same thing, and does it brilliantly.
Flex Mentallo can also be read as a history of comics in general, not just the Silver Age. Each issue corresponds somewhat roughly to a period of development in comics. Issue #1 is the Golden Age, in that Flex is presented as a pure hero who needs to solve a mystery – who is Faculty X, why are they leaving fake bombs lying around, and what does his old teammate the “Fact” have to do with it? There’s even a Superman origin story and a Captain Marvel origin story thrown into the mix. Issue #2 is the Silver Age, as the Mentallium Man makes his debut, new “science” heroes like Nanoman and Minimiss show up, an astronaut tells Flex his story of the heroes in outer space, which is a Silver Age theme, andÂ a junkie shoots up Krystal and becomes “cosmically aware.” Plus, we get the absolutely stunning full-page shot of the heroes descending on the city. Issue #3 gives us the “Dark Age” or Bronze Age or whatever you want to call it, but the comics are “grim-‘n’-gritty.” It’s no coincidence that the cover of issue #3 is a parody/homage to The Dark Knight Returns, as that book is the template of the “grim-‘n’-gritty” phenomenon. This is the issue in which Flex enters the “Knight Club,” where the various superpeople hang out and indulge in their wildest sexual fantasies, but it’s also the issue in which Wallace Sage speaks of “worlds colliding” and how comics aren’t for kids anymore. The first quote is obviously referring to DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths, which also helped usher in the “grim-‘n’-gritty” world of modern comics by destroying all the quirky worlds of the Multiverse, something Morrison never got over. This issue ends with a young Wallace Sage holding the hand of one of his superhero creations, about to enter the land of “where-you-get-your-ideas,” which sets the stage for the fourth issue. Issue #4 is Morrison’s hope for the future of comics, one in which the imaginative stories of his youth return with a more mature edge, but never losing the wonder of the comics medium. The Hoaxer gets the best line of the issue (and perhaps the comic) when he tells Wallace Sage (as the Man in the Moon): “Only a bitter little adolescent boy could confuse realism with pessimism.” In this issue, Wallace Sage speaks the magic word that turns people into superbeings, and all along we are led to believe it’s “Shazam,” based on our knowledge of Captain Marvel comics. But it’s really “shaman,” and when Wallace speaks it, he presumably becomes the conduit through which the superheroes can return to Earth. Morrison looks to the future of comics and sees grandness and majesty, and that’s primarily what Flex Mentallo tells us.
The fusing of fiction and reality and the attempt to blur the distinctions between them is at the heart of a lot of Morrison’s writing, and here he distills his thoughts on it much better than he does in some of his longer stories. There’s also the link between imagination and mundane reality, which is tied into the larger theme. The way Flex Mentallo begins, of course, is a way to link all of these thoughts. In a nine-panel grid on page 1, a character dressed in a trench coat and fedora (we later learn this is the “Fact”) throws a cartoon bomb at the reader. It explodes, transforming into the Big Bang. The universe coalesces into a galaxy, while in panel 8, a voiceover announces “Flight number 230 will be boarding shortly through the K-9 doorway.” We pull back from the galaxy, leaving it in a dark blue (rather than black) background, which, on page 2, becomes the indentation on the “Fact’s” fedora. The “Fact” himself becomes a cartoon drawing on the exterior of an eggshell, which becomes part of Flex’s breakfast as he waits at the airport (hence the voiceover on page 1). It’s a very cool effect that Quitely pulls off here, and it perfectly encapsulates Morrison’s ideas about levels of meaning, the creation of “our” universe (which we learn later isn’t “real”) and the way time twists back on itself. Frequently, the scenes shift from the “actual” comic to the drawings Wallace Sage made as a kid – which, not coincidentally, show some of the action of the “actual” comic. We quickly begin to wonder if Wallace Sage and Flex are existing in two separate universes – the Multiverse again – even though Flex points out in issue #1 that he used to be a fictional character but was brought to life by Wally’s psychic powers. He explicitly states that Wally died in his arms, which makes us wonder who exactly the person talking on the phone throughout the entire series is. That guy tells the suicide hotline, “My name’s … ah … it’s Sage. Wallace Sage … You can call me Wallace Sage … ‘Course it’s not real … It’s, um, it’s my secret identity. Does it matter?” So who is this? Well, he’s still Wallace Sage, as we see through his flashbacks. There’s a third Wallace Sage in the saga, as well – the artist who drew the Flex Mentallo comic book in the 1960s, according to the text piece in issue #4. That Wally Sage died in 1982. All of these “Wallace Sages” are, of course, as fictional as Flex himself, but Morrison wants us to believe that there is one true Wallace Sage, just as there is one true “Grant Morrison” or “Frank Quitely” (needless to say, that name is a pseudonym). But, in Morrison’s vision of the universe, there isn’t just one true “Grant Morrison.” There isn’t one true version of you. Or of me. We are as fictional, and as real, as Flex and Wally are.
This blending of fiction and reality allows Morrison to examine how we deal with fiction and imagination. Wallace Sage implies that growing up robbed him of the ability to draw the comics that gave him such joy in his childhood. Flex baldly states that things were better in the past. This lack of imagination in the modern world is tied to maturity, as other Morrison projects are, but what he wants us to consider is that in growing up, we perhaps inhabit an entire different universe than the one in which we lived when we were young. Wallace Sage lives in a rather dark and depressing universe. Flex, who presumably lives in the same one, is at least able to hold onto a bit of the magic of the past. When the “Fact” shows up, he puts an ironic twist on Flex’s world: what are the facts, exactly? As Flex moves through this world, he comes closer and closer to the reality of Wallace Sage, until the two join in the final issue. There we learn that the world is the way it is because it’s not real. The superheroes created it to escape from their ultimate enemy. Sage understands this, as he has a connection to them through his drawings. He says to the person on the phone: “They talk to you all the time when you’re little. They live in … I don’t know … it’s like a factory where ideas are made. They escaped from ‘the Absolute’ but the plan went wrong. Reality was flawed from the beginning. I mean, haven’t you ever felt like there’s something missing? They want to come back home. We can save the world if we can just … If I can just remember my magic word … What? No, the world doesn’t have to be the way it is. We can be them.” When Flex enters the satellite and confronts the Man in the Moon, it’s because Wallace Sage, who is the Man in the Moon, doesn’t want to believe in “the shining towers of Neutropolis, the gloomy canyons of Satellite City, the little orphanages in Farville, the plazas and monorails of Archway City.” He believes that this fiction isn’t “realistic” enough, and therefore must be squashed. But, as the superheroes tell him, Sage’s “reality” isn’t real itself, so who’s to say that it’s better? Wallace Sage’s world might be “real,” but it’s not a pleasant place. All he has to do is believe in something better, and it will be better. As Lord Limbo tells him, “Don’t be afraid: before it was a bomb, the bomb was an idea.” Ideas, of course, can change the world. Some might say they’re the only thing that changes the world. So Wallace Sage’s “reality” becomes a thing of the past, and the “fictional” world returns, supplanting the drabness of the world. It’s a “mature” world that doesn’t deal with what has become “mature” in comics. Morrison’s maturity is something different, something that expands our consciousness and helps us overcome the horror of the world rather than wallowing in it.
Expanding on this idea of blending fiction and reality is the idea of growing up, which is pretty prevalent in Morrison’s work. He returns to it in the Seven Soldiers saga, where it’s a major theme. In Flex Mentallo, he suggests it more subtly, as we’ve seen. In this comic, Wallace becomes a stand-in for humanity. He tells the person on the other end of the telephone that Lord Limbo explained that “they want us to believe the universe into life,” but in the end, all it takes it Wallace himself to believe. Wallace’s descent into despair and climb up to redemption is mirrored nicely by Harry’s, the lieutenant whom we first meet in issue #1. He returns in issue #3, where we learn that his wife has cancer (which soon kills her) and that he’s been replacing her dead goldfish with new ones for years and not telling her. As Harry despairs, he thinks: “Rain falls on the monkey house. The inmates are screeching and tearing one another apart. Nobody’s coming to save us. Nobody’s listening to the ultrasonic shrieking of our signal belts.” The evocation of Jimmy Olsen is nicely done, but the point is that Harry realizes that the superheroes are gone, and that he has to save the world himself. He enlists the aid of the Hoaxer, and they go on the same journey that Flex does. When they confront the Man in the Moon, Harry attempts to defeat him “realistically,” by pointing a gun at him and saying, “I got six chambers of semi-jacketed realism aimed right at your Sea of Tranquility.” But this pragmatic approach doesn’t work, and it’s up to the Hoaxer and Flex’s ridiculous power of muscle mystery. The Man in the Moon is clutching Black Mentallium, which induces a coma, but when Harry finds it, he says, “I thought he had coal in his hand before he disappeared, but look. It’s a diamond.” Those are the last words he speaks in the book. Harry has come through the despair to realize that life, sometimes, turns out better than you expected it to. Meanwhile, Wallace “grows up” and realizes that he doesn’t need to leave the magic behind. The magic is within him. All he has to do is speak the magic word. And so we loop back to the replacement of the “real” world with the “fictional” world, but those terms no longer have the same meanings.
Quitely’s confident art and Tom McCraw’s glorious colors certainly help Morrison get his point across. Quitely became a superstar with his (terribly interrupted) work on X-Men with Morrison. That work leaves plenty of people cold (including, to a certain degree, me) because it feels too arch. Flex Mentallo shows him with less assurance in his craft but with more wildness, and it matches the script beautifully. Flex is magnificent, while Wallace and Harry are seedy. Quitely shines on the two big full-page drawings of the superheroes in issues #2 and 4, but he also gives us a tragic and gritty portrayal of the junkie who shoots Krystal. His tour-de-force is Flex’s journey through the Knight Club in issue #3, when Morrison throws all sorts of weird stuff into the script – “Seagreen musclemen, wet from the ocean. Flexible people tied in sex-knots, girl avengers with bondage suits and bandoliers. … Intelligent alloys flowing and melting across shuddering flesh, forming pleasure armor. … Invisible women with lipsticked pouts drift by like butterflies.” – and Quitely draws it with verve and creepy beauty. Quitely is called upon to create a world that is slightly skewed, so that we don’t recognize it as our world, but recognize it as a world that is like ours. It needs to be slightly melodramatic, and Quitely’s odd style, in which the people look “normal” but are slightly off-kilter, is perfect for the book.
If you know anything about Flex Mentallo, you know that it has not been collected in trade paperback. You can probably find stuff specifically about the lawsuit brought by Charles Atlas’ company against DC, but I’m too lazy to look. Suffice it to say that DC won the case but has to pay Atlas some kind of percentage for subsequent reprintings of anything involving Flex. Considering that DC has recently reprinted his appearances in Doom Patrol, perhaps they’ll get around to giving this mini-series the trade treatment it so richly deserves. I read somewhere that DC would only reprint them if the Doom Patrol trades sold really well, but I don’t know if that’s true or how the trades are selling. I also checked out eBay, where some people are asking $50 for the first issue. It’s a shame that this comic isn’t more readily available, because it’s a wonderful book that features two creators at the top of their game. Morrison has been better (I would argue), but not very often. And this, I would argue, is Quitely’s masterpiece. If you can find them and you can get them (relatively) cheap, I would encourage you to snap them up. Wouldn’t it be nice if DC would suck it up and get this out in a collection? Sheesh.
[That last paragraph has been rendered moot by the fact that in 2012 DC did collect this in a nice hardcover. However, that was during the “old colorists didn’t know what they were doing” era that gave us abominations like the recolored Killing Joke (I don’t care if that’s what Bolland wanted! #BollandWasWrong), and DC decided that Peter Doherty would do a better job on the colors than McCraw had. They were, to put it bluntly, incorrect (Doherty, I assume, was only doing what they wanted, because he himself is not a bad colorist). Everything is muted and “realistic,” and in many places the darkening of the colors makes Quitely’s amazing pencil work harder to see, which is unforgivable. Plus, Doherty mutes the greens, which, considering Wally Sage drew the original Flex comics in green, is kind of an important color signifier that is no longer evident in the book. DC didn’t understand subtle implications, it seems. Anyway, there are too many examples of the poor coloring to go into now, so I’ll just show one, when Flex confronts the Mentallium Man in issue #2. On the left is the beautiful, freaky, bizarre original. On the right is the boring “better” coloring. You be the judge! Thankfully, it seems we’ve moved on a little from this era, so maybe at some point DC will re-print this with the original colors. We can only hope! In the meantime, I did link to the hardcover, because it’s probably easier to get than the single issues, and a lesser Flex Mentallo is still worth reading!]