Another day, another dive into the psychedelic brain of Grant Morrison, one of the greatest minds in comics. Today, I talk about my favorite comic book of all time. It’s the one that blew my mind and changed my life. Let’s get to it. (And let’s also link to the archive).
192. Flex Mentallo
Our pal Greg Burgas just wrote about Flex last month, I know, but I can’t let Flex not appear on this list, and this week is the best time to put him in. Greg’s piece was brilliant, of course, so read it now if you haven’t, and read it again if you have.
I too have written about Flex Mentallo before, two years ago, on my other blog that I rarely fiddle with anymore. Shortly after I wrote it, Cronin invited me to join Comics Should Be Good. I’ll always thank Flex for that. I hope you don’t mind if I re-use the images from that. And maybe some of the points I made. Because of my close relationship with the book (not in a creepy way or anything), my having written about it before, and me posting this so close to another great analysis of the book from this very site, I’d have to say this particular entry is the hardest one to write yet. But, what the hell. Onwards!
Flex Mentallo was a four issue mini-series, which, like every comic we’ve looked at so far this week, was published by Vertigo. Like yesterday’s entry, it was written by Grant Morrison and drawn by Frank Quitely, G-Mozz’s greatest collaborator. I believed his comic marked the first time they ever worked together. It also happens to be the greatest comic book ever made, though your mileage may vary.
The character of Flex Mentallo originally appeared in Grant’s Doom Patrol run. He was a parody of the Charles Atlas bodybuilding character from the old ads. DC got sued over it by the Atlas Estate. DC won, but apparently refused to reprint the Flex mini, so it has become a hidden relic, a holy grail of comics collecting. It’s also stolen off the internet a lot. When I first read Flex, I hadn’t read Doom Patrol– in fact, as I write this, I still haven’t read the whole run, as I’ve only made my way through four trades of it. That didn’t stop me from loving it, though.
As I said above the fold, this comic changed my life. I got it, I read it, my mind blew up. I was high on comics. It made me believe in superheroes– and if it hadn’t achieved that, I probably wouldn’t be typing this right now. It completely cemented my unabashed love of the comics medium and the narrative device of the superhero, which is the greatest literary invention of the 20th century and, yes, has become like unto a modern mythology. The Flex mini tells us why and explains that the superheroes are living in humanity’s collective unconscious (very Jungian), in the Land of “Where-You-Get-Your-Ideas.” This comic is, at its core, a love letter to superheroes. Unfortunately, it’s not mainstream friendly, and actually requires a lot of knowledge about the comic book industry to fully comprehend, but luckily it’s also got some delicious themes that are universal, and not just for comic lovers.
There are quite a few other characters besides the brawny, archetypal Flex, of course. The other main character is Wally Sage, the creator of Flex Mentallo– Flex knows he was once fictional, you see, and was made real. Wally’s the guy who created him, but this is another version of Wally, one dying in an alley and working his way back through his life story on a suicide hotline. He finds his ramblings drifting back to comics and superheroes, the embodiment of his childhood imagination which he’s yearning to reclaim. The villain of the whole book turns out to be the adolescent Wally Sage, who’s going through a phase of superhero hatred. Flex and a few other characters (I’ll get to them in a second) defeat him (Flex: “Being clever’s a fine thing, but sometimes a boy just needs to get out of the house and meet some girls”) as the adult Wally Sage finds his “magic word” and ushers the superheroes back into the world, to save the day once more. Wally’s story is about ideas, imagination, the correlation between cynicism and maturation, and the ability to choose one’s own destiny. It’s powerful stuff, and really affected me.
Minor, but still important characters include the “villainous” Hoaxer, whose arc is all about, in a roundabout way, self-deception and imagination. There’s also Lieutenant Harry, who undergoes tragedy (his wife dies of cancer), who gives into despair, who has nothing left except himself and a useless fish, and who, even though he swears he doesn’t believe in them, helps bring back the superheroes. He teams up with Flex and the Hoaxer to defeat the Man in the Moon, and brings hope back to the world. Here he is, along with the Hoaxer, in what’s maybe my favorite panel in the whole thing:
Flex also meets an entire cast of marvelous, frightening, utterly bizarre characters living in a ridiculous and weird world. Frank Quitely’s art shines in this book. He hadn’t reached the artistic heights of his later works, but he gets a chance to draw beautifully ugly people and creatures, and deftly handles every strange thing Morrison throws at him, from the Mentallium Man to Wally Sage’s mundane life to the underground superhero orgy. As always, he sells the emotion, he sets the mood, he gives us terrific layouts and tells the story perfectly, riffing on all sorts of comic tropes. It’s great art.
The mini-series is post-modern, yes, and self-aware, and deconstructive, and reconstructive. It analyzes reality and fiction and decides that they’re the same thing. It’s not just a comic; it’s an experience. Here, let me share a paragraph from the old piece I wrote on Flex, because I don’t think I could say it any better now:
“Welcome,” says the comic. “You have been inhabiting the first ultra-post-futurist comic: characters are allowed full synchrointeraction with readers on this level.” It is after this that Wally Sage discovers and says the magic word that brought the universe into being, and the world is transformed; the superheroes become real once more, seen in a breathtaking final page as they soar into the sky. It all hinges on the power of belief; belief in life and love and comics and superheroes and the world. It gives us hope for the world and the future, and a renewed appreciation for the concept of the superhero.
Flex Mentallo shows us the hidden majesty behind the mundane– the fantasy inside the reality. Yes, it changed my life. I didn’t just want to be writer– I needed to be a writer. Specifically, I needed to write comics, the ultimate art form. And, you know, I’m working on it. This comic is about the power and the truth of fiction. It’s about ideas. And ideas are the most powerful things of them all.
Well, that’s my bit on Flex. Maybe I’ll write about it every two years. That’ll be fun. If you’re interested in even more on Flex after this post, the old one, and Greg’s awesome piece, you’re in luck. I’ve got Flex Mentallo annotations for you, and other great looks at Flex here and here. Dig it!
As for a wrap-up, well, I’ll leave it to Flex to end this one: