Scottish superscribe Grant Morrison has told some of the greatest stories ever with iconic superheroes including Superman, Batman and Wolverine, but what really distances him from his contemporaries are meta-fused, surrealistic projects such as “The Invisibles,” “The Filth” and “Flex Mentallo.”
Following his page-stealing yet limited appearances in Morrison’s counterculture hit “Doom Patrol” in 1990, Flex Mentallo was featured in his own self-titled miniseries in 1996. Long a critical darling, the miniseries was unavailable to a generation of readers as it remained out of print and uncollected — until now.
Emblazoned with “YOU! BUY THIS COMIC NOW OR THE EARTH IS DOOMED!!” across its back cover, Vertigo Comics rereleased “Flex Mentallo” this week in a deluxe hardcover format. Featuring art by megatalent Frank Quitely, and re-colored by Pete Doherty (the series was originally colored by Tom McGraw), “Flex Mentallo” is Morrison at his finest. In part a parody of the classic Charles Atlas comic book advertisement from the 1940s, Flex Mentallo is a wild ride of epic storytelling and at the same time a small, tender piece which will break your heart at several turns.
Morrison himself counts Flex Mentallo as one of his favorite creations and in this exclusive interview with CBR News, the writer shares his thoughts on the character’s secret origin, explains how Muscle Mystery works and teases (literally teases) the possibility of “Before Flex Mentallo.”
CBR News: It’s been some 15 years since the critically-acclaimed “Flex Mentallo” was originally released. Are you pleased to see the Man of Muscle Mystery return in all his glory in the newly released Deluxe Edition from Vertigo Comics?
Grant Morrison: Oh yeah. I was really happy to see it. And Pete Doherty has done such a great job on the new coloring. It’s like a whole new book.
Were you surprised it took DC Comics so long to collect it?
I guess. I would like to have seen it done back in the ’90s but Charles Atlas got in the way. It was more to do with the fact that we had a court case. And even though DC won the thing, I think it was very much a sensitive book. I kind of imagined it might never be seen again after that. But it was just one of the things that [DC Comics Co-Publisher] Dan DiDio really wanted to do for a few years. And this year, he’s finally doing a lot of these books that he’s wanted to do and this is one of them.
You pose the eternal question of “where do ideas come from” in the pages of “Flex Mentallo.” So, where do your ideas come from?
That was really the main question of the book. And it’s one of the questions that writers always get asked. And I thought in that book, I would at least try and answer it. Ideas come from a race of action superheroes that live in all of our heads, so I guess that’s where they come from.
Do you believe in superheroes?
I have to believe. I’ve been making a living off of them for the past 30 years. I better believe.
Did you have a Man in the Moon lamp on your nightstand growing up in Glasgow that inspired you as a young writer like the one in Wally Sage’s bedroom?
No, I didn’t have anything specific like that. I had a lot of little, weird totems and things that came off my granny’s fur coat — these weird little heads of minx and foxes. Those were kind of my things. I didn’t have the Man in the Moon lamp. That was actually owned by a friend of mine. And it was something that he had when we were a little bit older. I just kind of threw it into the story because I had seen it recently at the time.
“Doom Patrol” was a pretty wild ride. Why did you feel it was necessary to delve even farther from the beaten path and unleash a character as bold as Flex Mentallo?
It was the nature of the book. If you look at the stuff I’ve done over the years, it’s always about, “What’s this book about?” And with “Doom Patrol,” I was given a bunch of characters that come with the tagline, “The World’s Strangest Superheroes,” so for me, it’s always been about getting to the heart of what the property is about. And if it’s Superman, you try to get to his classical heart. If it’s Batman, you try to do something very intricate. It’s a detective story but it’s very creepy — almost a horror, gothic story. And with Justice League, it’s big mythological things. I have always looked to explore the core of the feature. And with “Doom Patrol,” it was the craziness and the strangeness.
I was really trying to get to the heart of the absurdity. I knew the opportunity was very much welcomed and Flex gave a completely new way of looking at that. When he first appeared in “Doom Patrol,” he was a very positive character. He described himself as America’s merriest crimefighter. He was really a very simple superhero figure. He was just that guy that never lets you down. He’s just a good guy who is almost like your big brother or your dad or someone. He’s so pure and he doesn’t have hang-ups. He doesn’t have problems but he plunges into this world where everyone else does and we get to see how he reacts to it.
Was “Flex Mentallo” a reaction to something else happening in the comics?
Obviously, comics in the ’80s were following a kind of a deconstructionalist path. Books were under a heavy influence of “Watchmen” and “The Dark Knight,” which were both completely different ways of looking at superheroes, especially as you look back at them in retrospect. [Frank] Miller’s approach was much more mythical and American widescreen while [Alan] Moore’s approach is much more cerebral and cynical. But at the time, there was a big influence from those books to do superhero characters in a much more realistic or plausible way and the stuff I was doing was a real reaction, I guess, because I find that quite dull. Not necessarily dull to read but dull as a writer to do because my tendency was to always go for the more imaginative aspects of superhero comics. Because there are things that you can do in those books that you can’t do anywhere else. I thought it was possible to do adult comics without having to deal with social realism because normally when you are doing adult superhero stories, the way to do it is to make it more realistic. And I wanted to do adult stuff that was less realistic with the same big issues that we all have to think about.
You mentioned the obvious influence of the famous Charles Atlas ad, “The Insult that Made a Man out of Mac.” As a child, a young man, or even as a creator, did you ever get sand kicked in your face?
No, you know, I was really lucky as a kid that I was never bullied. My father brought me up to be non-violent, which meant I had a lot of good tricks and strategies for avoiding fights. There was only one time where I actually did get into a fight and I had so much pent up aggression, I was a little spitfire of a kid, but otherwise I just didn’t have anything like that ever happen to me. But I can sympathize because I understood what it was like to be a non-violent kid so I had to find ways that didn’t rely on violence. I was a skinny kid, as well so I identified with Mac in those adverts even though I didn’t have to deal with bullying.
How does ‘Muscle Mystery’ work?
For the Muscle Mystery, again I’m taking the stuff from the Atlas ads quite literally. In the ad, you see him when he gets the Atlas course and there is this sign above his head that says, “Hero of the Beach.” And obviously that’s just a graphic to suggest that the guy is now more potent and powerful but I took it seriously. What if that actually happened? And that was part of the manifestation of muscle mystery. Muscle Mystery was just an observation that the body and the mind are one thing rather than two separate things and when he flexes it causes ‘bodymind.’ Even the tiniest flex of his bicep causes his psychic effects to happen so there was this notion that he could command his body and mind. He doesn’t have the same horrible western dualism that the rest of us have to deal with. Bodymind is all one thing. Everything he does from the twitch of an eyebrow to the flex of a bicep will create these, like I said, fantastic and bizarre psychic effects.
You literally wrote yourself into “Animal Man” and King Mob from “The Invisibles” also owes much of his likeness to you. Are you more Flex Mentallo, Wally Sage or the Hoaxer in this story?
I guess there is a bit of all of us in them. I think we all have these characters in us. Flex is definitely a part of me, but he’s also part of my dad and other big guys that I have known that are quite buff and physical. There is a writer in the story so there is a little bit of me in that, but there’s also the Hoaxer and he’s the very archetypal supervillain who is up to something. You never know quite what he’s up to but what he’s up to is sort of benign. They are all just parts of me, but I think they are kind of parts of everyone else, too.
Flex Mentallo, including this series and his run in “Doom Patrol,” really only had a handful of appearances and yet he is one of the most cherished characters of the late ’80s/early ’90s. Are you surprised that he has remained a fan-favorite after all these years?
I think the character was quite popular, but, likewise, Rorschach only had 12 appearances. And in that case, the character was so strong people have never forgotten him, so I think it was just the strength of the character and the simplicity and potency of the character.
Is he a character that you would ever return to? Do you have other Flex Mentallo stories you want or need to tell?
I am hoping DC does “Before Flex Mentallo.” [Laughs] I suddenly realized that Flex is one of the characters that I really wanted to own but I didn’t. And because he appeared in “Doom Patrol” first, which was a DC book, he kind of became a DC character even though every single character in the miniseries was basically created. It’s kind of like a creator-owned book but it isn’t.
He could show up anywhere. Geoff [Johns] could put him in the Justice League. I have this strange fear that he is going to appear somewhere someday.
So no one has ever approached you about using him?
No, I don’t think they’ve realized that they can. The character seems so attached to me, so probably no one would do it. Geoff had him in “Teen Titans” very briefly. He was in a poster on the wall at the Doom Patrol HQ. But maybe in a couple of years, everyone will realize they can use him — but that would be horrible.
While we don’t want to remind writers he’s available to appear in their series, there will also definitely be a whole new generation of readers who will find Flex Mentallo because of this new deluxe edition. That’s a good thing, right?
Of course, maybe some kid will read it and they’ll get an idea that they want to do something with it, as well. And that’s cool, as long as they don’t do some heavy reconstruction where he’s a bastard but I guess you have to take whatever you get when you hand over a character to the world.
The series was drawn beautifully by one of your frequent collaborators, Frank Quitely. The proof is on the page, but what does he bring to a project?
Obviously, what he brought is his fantastic drawing skills. He is able to do things that only previously lived in my dreams, which I find fascinating. Seeing the plant Earth rising above the sea was brilliant. He just captures the exact feeling of my dreams. I think the great thing is that he knew nothing about superheroes at the time. He was a comic fan but he liked Moebius and a lot of different stuff. I would say to him, something about Billy Batson growing into an old man and Frank would say, “Who is Billy Batson?”
And this all took place at a time when you couldn’t send him a link to a Google image.
Exactly, there was no chance. I could maybe hand him a few comics but the kind of language that I was used to talking to people about comics, [those] who were familiar with the characters, I just couldn’t do it with him. And I think that made the book look very different because it wasn’t based on anything. He approached the characters in a way that made them look quite bizarre and quite unworldly and I think that really suited the book. And apart from that, he’s just the greatest artist in comics. But again, the fact that he didn’t know the subject, he came to it very fresh and I think that shows.
You’re currently writing “Action Comics,” which I am really enjoying, and you and Frank, of course, had great success with “All Star Superman.” Do you see any similarities between the Man of Muscle Mystery and the Man of Steel?
I think there is definitely a connection between Flex and “All-Star Superman.” Flex is certainly part pulp hero and part early matinee hero and even part explorer. He’s that kind of figure, just a square-jawed good guy, and Superman obviously has elements of that. The Superman I am doing in “Action Comics” has a bit more darkness to him, and there is a bit more ambiguity to him, so I don’t see them as being the same. But I think they are both the ultimate simplistic form of what a superhero is as an idea.
The “Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery” Deluxe Edition is available now from DC/Vertigo.