Friday, June 06, 2008

Flex Mentallo #1: 'Flowery Atomic Heart'

My epic series of posts on The Invisibles from last year covered Grant’s definitive work on our world, the nexus of his philosophical worldview, simultaneously the source and culmination of his ideas about our universe. But, there is another world, the superhero world, and for him, it’s a world that’s just as valid and alive as ours, if not more so. Flex Mentallo is a philosophical treatise on the superhero comic, the definitive exploration of what makes the form work and why it’s important for the world as a whole. Superhero comics are a guide to a post human world, and Flex Mentallo is our first step on that journey. It follows up and expands the themes of Doom Patrol and Animal Man, and provides inspiration for what he would do later in Seven Soldiers and All Star Superman. It’s the definitive superhero story, a synthesis of sixty years of stories that mashes up everything that came before and spits it out with a new vision for the future.

Let me start outside the book with the story of how I found Flex in the first place. The book has never been reprinted after is original single issue release, which means there’s probably something like 20,000 or 30,000 copies in the entire world. I think that’s helped to build the legend of the series, you can’t just walk into a store and buy it, you’ve got to hunt it down. Admittedly, torrents have made it easier, but I still prefer reading on paper. I bought issues 1, 3 and 4 from a comic store in 2002. I walked in, asked if they had any and got those issues. I picked up issue 2 on Ebay and had the whole series for about 30 bucks.

Will Flex ever be reprinted? I hope so, but on some level, it’s cool that it’s so valuable. There’s a forbidden mystique around the issues, you’ll probably never see a Flex Mentallo movie, it’s not going to be a mainstream hit, it just is what it is, a tripped out acid trip journey through the border of our world and the comics world.

The series begins with a big bang, a cartoon genesis. In The Invisibles, John a Dreams steps outside the game and serves a variety of roles to move the universe towards its predestined ending. The Fact is a similar figure here, he exists at different moments in time, and serves as the catalyst for both Flex and Lt. Harry’s quest. If, as the end of the series posits, our world was created as a place for superheroes to hide in, it would stand to reason that the big bang would be a cartoon bomb, which spirals off into a million pieces of cosmos.

I love how screwy scale gets in this opening zoomout, as we journey back The Fact to the cosmos to The Fact again, this time rendered in blue and white, like the kid on drugs’ view of the cosmos in issue 2, and eventually out to a diner where our hero stands tall. One of the things that jumped out to me reading this first issue after going through the whole series is the subtle change Flex’s visual presentation goes through over the course of the four issues. Here, he’s very much the uncomplicated squarejawed hero, almost a cartoon. He gradually gets ‘realer’ as the series goes on, less out of place in the universe. It ties in to the general progression of the series from Golden Age to Silver Age to Bronze Age to New Age.

I think Quitely is the greatest comics artist of all time, and this series, like everything he does, is a visual masterpiece. In terms of sheer technical skill, We3 is the best thing he’s done, but on some level, I don’t think he’s topped this series. The variety of scenes he draws, the worlds he creates, are all amazing. And, throughout, the storytelling is totally spot on. To paraphrase Coppola, this comic isn’t about an acid trip, it is an acid trip. You can read this straight and still go on a mind bending journey, right from that first panel on.

Having just read Doom Patrol, I was wondering how this series fit in to the mythology there. It would make sense that this would be Flex’s next journey after what he went through in the Pentagon, but this Wallace Sage is alive, he died in DP. It doesn’t seem to be a direct continuation, rather it’s an alternate universe take on the story we saw in Doom Patrol, expanded into its own narrative.

This series frequently causes issues for readers, it’s pretty difficult to follow because of the linking narratives. There’s a desire to know which is ‘real,’ is the Flex story just a vision of this guy who’s tripped out on acid? That would be the logical conclusion, but in the Morrison universe, it doesn’t quite hold. Each story is equally real, Wallace is alive in a world close to ours and Flex is alive in a world of his own, a world which Wallace Sage created. The act of telling a story is the act of traveling to another world that exists in your own mind, but ideas don’t come entirely from your mind. That’s what we get to later, when Wallace travels to the place where ideas come from. There is something outside ourselves that we channel into stories, and that’s the place where Flex is. Wallace gave Flex life through the comics he drew, and eventually Flex will save his creator.

Flex and Lt. Harry talk about Faculty X, an organization that’s devoted to “showing us how fragile the whole system is.” It eventually is revealed that Faculty X is the multi-dimensional form of The Fact, and what he’s doing is preparing them for the imminent return of the superheroes. That’s why we see paraphernalia from the Legion of Legions in Harry’s desk. Notably, the bombs The Fact throws aren’t real, but people still behave like they are. The idea of a bomb, the image of a bomb can make people react in the same way as a ‘real’ bomb.

This gives way to Wallace Sage reading a story about The Fact and Wax Worker. He talks about how you don’t think and analyze yourself when you’re a kid, “you just do.” The dichotomy between childhood awe and wonder and adolescent doubt is central to the series. Wally gets so wrapped up in his own issues, he loses sight of the wonder of the world around him. He can’t lose himself in those simple pleasures anymore because what once was amazing now just feels kitsch. That’s what happens to a lot of people as they grow up in our world, this layer of irony grows around you, wrapped up in your own failures and perceived inadequacies and it becomes hard to enjoy the world.

Comics are a medium that still struggle to grow beyond “Zap! Bif! Pow! Comics aren’t Just for Kids Anymore,” and so much of that becomes overcompensating. Wally may have been a geeky, lonely kid, and on some level he still is that kid, hating who he is, hating the stuff he liked. As we find out at the end of the series, it’s that adolescent self hatred that’s the real villain, the inability to love the world the way he used to.

Flex says that both he and The Fact are fictional characters created by Wallace Sage, and that Wally died in his arms. This is what happened in Doom Patrol, which could mean that Wally created an alternate fictional version of himself who also came alive in Flex’s world. I love the fact that Flex knows he is a work of fiction, but is none less real for it. He has come to life somehow, and is going to do his thing.

Each issue features a page or two discussing a specific age of comics. On pages 12 and 13, Flex reflects on the simpler times that were the Golden Age. Much like he’s doing with Batman now, Grant considers the entire history of comics as a series of events in the same lives. So, it’s not like a different Flex lived during the Golden Age, this Flex was alive in the wacky Golden Age and is left to reflect on why his world has become so much darker and more subdued. While I love some deconstructionist superhero stories, it can’t be too much fun for the heroes themselves to have their worlds torn down.

Things start to get weird when Wallace flashes between petting his cat and standing in the rain. I love the way the series manipulates time and realities. It’s hard to create any sort of liner narrative or strict definition of what’s real, it just sort of flows from moment to moment. I feel like that’s how our minds actually work. When I’m not directly engaged with doing something, I shift between the world around me, a story I’m creating, my own memories, stories that I’ve read or movies I’ve seen, all bleeding together.

So, who’s mind is this work taking place in, whose worlds are we moving through? The logical answer would be Grant’s own. Grant started to fashion himself as the rock star of comics around this time, and always played in bands, so Wallace would be a logical alter ego. I can’t say for sure, but this feels like the most autobiographical work Grant’s ever done, an attempt to integrate all kinds of experiences from his own life into a kind of coherent narrative, bleeding between real memories and the stories he’d created. So, Flex moves into the school in his story, where he sees eight year old Wally. The times blur because fiction and reality don’t exist on the same tracks, Flex exists at various moments in Wally’s life, always the same even as Wally changes. That’s how it is for superheros, the world changes around them, but the archetype at its core remains the same.

One of the things I really like about Flex is the way it explores the actual experience of reading comics, how much of an influence it can be on kids. That’s what sticks with him in the end because it’s what helped shape Wally’s view of the world. It’s simultaneously something to aspire to, and an impossible thing to match. Our world can never be as exciting as theirs, at least not until it is.

Lying in the hospital, we get a throwback to Barbelith from The Invisibles. This universe’s Barbelith is a giant green lamp hanging over his hospital bed, “an alien intelligence, watching me, conducting some kind of experiment on me.” Barbelith is typically an enlightenment experience, later on, the color green is associated with Limbo, the Third Eye hero who guides Wally to the place where ideas come from. He’s got to suffer through this experience on his journey to enlightenment later in the series.

At the school, Flex speaks to the janitor about the lack of role models for kid sidekicks today. Grant has said that the reason he writes superhero comics is because he sees the superhero as the model for future versions of humanity. So, if this model is dragged down in violence and muck, what will become of humanity? We need someone to save us, but we’ve trapped our heroes in the ‘real world,’ we’ve taken away what makes them wonderful. The Janitor says “It’s just people who need saving. The World’s fine as it is.” We can create change through individual action, we don’t need to shift some cosmic paradigm.

The issue ends with Flex stopping another bomb and narrowly missing The Fact once again. The Fact is the spark that ignited the universe, he is in many ways God. And he’s also the person Wally is speaking on the phone this whole time. So, the whole conversation that frames the story is a discussion with God, it’s Wally trying to figure out what his life means, and whether he should give up and die, or grow beyond his adolescent self and embrace who he could be. He has the crossword puzzle, he just has to find out the magic word. And, in the end, it’s his own creation who will save him, a being who emerged fully formed out of his own mind will rise up, take his hand and show him a better world. That’s what art can do, that’s what comics can do.

The work of Grant’s that comes closest to Flex Mentallo for me is All Star Superman #10. In each case, he uses the superhero as an aspirtational figure, a perfect being we try to live up to, who inspires and saves us when we’re down. All of Flex is contained in the one page where Superman stops Regan from jumping off the building. That’s the essence of this series, when things are at their worst, channel the heroes, live like them, if Superman can destroy an evil sun, surely we can get over a bad breakup, or a bout of depression.

Hopefully tomorrow I’ll post my thoughts on issue two, a trippy journey through the Silver Age and more strangeness. Stay tuned!


Richard said...

"Comics are a medium that still struggle to grow beyond 'Zap! Bif! Pow! Comics aren’t Just for Kids Anymore,' and so much of that becomes overcompensating. Wally may have been a geeky, lonely kid, and on some level he still is that kid, hating who he is, hating the stuff he liked" really nails it. So much we see in comics today is the struggle to be not comics and shed all the stuff that's seen as childish or silly or embarassing by people who are really angry at themselves for being involved with comics. Books done in an overly "cinematic" style in an effort to show nothing that you couldn't see in a major studio film, using no techniques or effects unique to the comics medium. Sometimes I wish Mark Millar and Brian Bendis would just go to Hollywood full time and leave comics to folks who actually love the medium. Surely they've made their money and reputations by now? It's especially ludicrous with all these films based on superhero comics that more writers don't see this as the storytelling form in which you can be the most outrageous -- that's why Grant remains the top writer going. He sees this and embraces it.

I've reread Flex Mentallo more often than any comic series other than Kirby's Fourth World books and I'm still finding new stuff in it.

Patrick said...

I like some Millar, mainly The Authority and The Ultimates, but I feel like he's gone to the "what if superheroes were real" well way too many times. Both his new series 1985 and Kickass feel like they should be coming out around the Miracleman era, not today. I'm more interested in work like Flex, or Frank Miller's Dark Knight Strikes Again, which really embraces what comic books can do.

And Bendis I just don't understand. I love Jinx and Goldfish, and some of his early Marvel stuff, but was it really his goal to get to the point in life where you can write three different Avengers books a month? I think it's much healthier to mix things up, do some creator owned work, and some non-superhero stuff. I read almost everything Bendis did up to about 2003, after that there was just too much of the same kind of stuff for me to care anymore.

Jacob said...

Millar is somebody - Warren Ellis is another - who has genuine talents but has realized, correctly, that the key to success in this really competitive, information-saturated entertainment marketplace is to become a one-man brand: Mark Millar(tm). He really seems to genuinely enjoy pitching things at this sort of lowest-common-denominator level, and rating his personal success based on sales (you see this on Millarworld all the time: "Wanted has sold x hundreds of thousands of copies!"). I don't think anything he's written has the slightest significance to him as a person, it all seems to be about his perception of what other people want.

And then we've got someone like Ellis, who I think is a better writer, but he doesn't seem to enjoy the act of writing nearly as much as the act of coming up with a catchy idea and a sales gimmick. He announces a new miniseries or project every couple months and then half of them die on the vine before ever coming out, or they get a couple issues and are never mentioned again.

That's part of what I love about Morrison, on the one hand he's a canny self-promoter (and I think he's where guys like Millar and Ellis came by their skills) but I've never read anything by him (except maybe Sebastian O) that felt like it existed merely to pad out his resume or his pocketbook. Everything is personal with him, he just seems to totally lack that crust of irony you were talking about in this post, and I wish more writers could take that as an example rather than the branding and marketing.

Patrick said...

Ellis does seem more interested in the form and marketing of his series than the actual content in a lot of cases. That whole 'imaginary singles' line from awhile ago was a lot more gimmick than substance. I like some of his work, but, much like with Bendis, I sort of burned out on the same concepts and style and stopped reading most of his new stuff.

This, not coincidentally, coincided with the demise of the Warren Ellis Forum. Seldom have I seen a creator use the internet so savvily, to create this feeling that not only will his new series be the best thing ever to see print, but also that everyone who's anyone is already reading it and loving it. The forum definitely had its moments, but I think it was also a bit of a cult of personality, and not a really good place to actually discuss comics.

And I think that's a spot on assessment of what separates Ellis and Millar from Morrison. For Ellis, doing a corporate superhero comic is a paycheck, for Morrison, it can just as personal as something like The Invisibles. And, for Millar, there is no real 'personal' material, so it's hard to say he's ever "selling out." I enjoy some of his work, but his 'voice' seems to be that of a stream of consciousness fanboy coming up with various dream superhero concepts.

David Golding said...

Some way into reading Volume 2 of The Invisibles (and New X-Men) I became obsessed with this Flex Mentallo that Morrison fans talked about. The Annotated Flex Mentallo especially flipped some switch in my brain. I had to have this comic. Australian comic stores aren't as bountiful as American ones---we're further from the source, and our population is too small to support many---so I hunted on EBay. The issues were being sold in individual auctions, so it was very hard on my nerves, I didn't want to end up with #1 and #4 but miss out on the others. I had no idea if I would see these issues up for sale again. I was a bit crazy. But I won my four auctions, paying $100 (Australian), though most of that cost was in the currency exchange. I received the comics on Wednesday 3 April 2002. I've never regretted the expense.

If it were reprinted, I would buy two in a heartbeat. And copies for my friends.

I wouldn't call it the definitive exploration of the comic form, or even the definitive superhero story. It leaves too much out. For instance, it is very DC-centric. I agree it's probably the clearest and best exploration of the comic form, and its focus gives it strength.

Does Flex's representation change? I don't know. Flicking between the issues, I can't really see a difference. What did you have in mind?

I don't buy into the (Morrison-encouraged) fan interpretation of the four issues equating to four ages. The cover to #1, the alleged Golden Age issue, is a homage to a famous Silver Age Flash cover. Flex's flashbacks in this issue are to Silver Age-style villains. Captain Marvel didn't turn up at DC until the Silver Age. In fact, the ages themselves are problematic. Okay, so the Silver Age began in 1956 with the new Flash, but when did it end? With the "grim and gritty" Dark Knight Returns in 1986? But Green Arrow found out his sidekick was a junkie in 1971... Geoff Klock argues in his book that the Silver Age didn't end until recently (if it has at all), and that all those "Dark Age" comics are just late Silver Age---and also claims that this is the same argument as that made by Flex Mentallo. That sounds right to me. The setting of Flex's story is late Silver Age, grim and gritty, taking in everything from Denny O'Neil to Frank Miller, but Flex's orgins and memories are from the trippy early Silver Age. He is the Silver Age Flex. We hear about the Golden Age Flex in #2's text piece---a fighter of metal ants, a Luthor analog, and fascists---but I don't think we see him.

(Kirby's work at DC is also Silver Age, and doesn't Harry remind you of Turpin?)

Where I do see the Golden Age in #1 is in Wally's comic art. This reminds of the art you can find in Action Comics, Detective Comics, More Fun Comics, Police Comics, etc. Very rough, but with a certain energy.

Jacob said...

I miss the Ellis forum, I made a lot of good friends there (both in real life and online) but yeah, in the last couple years it got progressively weirder and less interesting, with less and less comics discussion (because Warren didn't like the comics people wanted to talk about), more groupthink, and really stupid feuds and loyalty purges. Inasmuch as any web forum reflects the personality of the people running it, I think what happened to the WEF showed us the hilarious spectacle of his desire to sell comics to people slowly being trumped by his utter loathing of the people he was selling them to.

Like you, I tuned out around then, especially since half the stuff he was pimping never materialized, but fairness compels me to admit that I've really liked a few of his more recent projects, like "Fell" and "Desolation Jones." While he still doesn't seem interested in writing any but his stock characters (tough guy, suicide girl, etc.) he's really blossomed technically, and I think he still has something to offer comics.

Patrick said...

The Flex representation changing thing might be more just a slight adjustment in Quitely's approach to the character, but I feel like there's a difference between the way he looks in those first few panels and the way he looks by the end. But, it may be more context and body language than anything, Quitely's a master of conveying information through the characters' 'acting.'

I think the series is DC-centric, but DC is a better example of the archetypal superheroes that Grant's dealing with here. It's notable that his major work at Marvel, New X-Men, wasn't pitched as a superhero work, it was more of a science fiction story.

In general, it's a bit tough to fit X-Men into the issues explored here, since, unlike all the DC heroes, it's not best known for its Silver Age incarnation. The series is probably known as an angsty soap opera, so you can't look for the glory days of the Silver Age.

I thought that the Silver Age ended in the early 70s, and the 'Bronze Age' kicked off around then, with comics like those socially conscious Green Arrows and the Claremont X-Men. These books then led to work like Watchmen and Dark Knight, the major works of the Bronze or Dark age.

I do agree that the first issue doesn't have that much Golden Age content, but I think the middle two are definitely interested in commenting on specific ages of comics. Issue #2 features that page that just discusses 50s Silver Age books, and the issue 3 is the most explicitly concerned with a specific age, with its Watchmen aping layouts and overwhelming darkness.

There's a lot of ambiguity around the book, and that's one of the things I love about it. I think it's so personal that everyone gets something different out of it.