Sunday, June 08, 2008

Flex Mentallo #2: 'My Beautiful Head'

The second issue of Flex Mentallo takes us into the Silver Age, and having just read a bunch of Silver Age Superman stuff, it makes a lot more sense to me than it did on the first couple of reads. The series as a whole makes a lot more sense thanks to that reading, it’s easier to understand where Flex the character, and Grant are coming from when they talk about the change in superhero comics, the loss of wonder and craziness. Yes, a lot is gained through the exploration of superheroes in a world closer to our own, but a lot is lost as well. The purpose of this series is to synthesize the deconstruction and the older works to create a post-deconstructionist new approach to superhero comics. That’s what issue four’s about, for now, we’re still tripping through Wally Sage’s life, trying to understand how his story fits in with Flex’s.

The issue opens with a trippy flashback to a weird scene where young Wally sees a bunch of kids shitting on the floor. He’s being taken there by a green clad man, likely another incarnation of Limbo, the third eye superhero who’s fully revealed next issue, guiding Wally down this same hallway. I feel like this scene has to be a childhood dream, or some kind of warped memory, not an actual recollection. On acid, all his memories bleed together, and it’s singlular moments from childhood that grow into something larger. So, the fish and castle in the fish tank become a whole city, and a fractured dream might turn into this bizarre shitting memory.

But, he’s here to talk about comics, about “something cheerful before I die,” and that segues us into Flex and his Silver Age adventures. The Mentallium Man. One of the things I love about the series is the way Flex exists in a world where all his adventures are real, and he speaks about them in the way we as comic fans do. So, Mentallium Man was part of his rogue’s gallery, and recalls their fight as “one of my greatest exploits.” Flex, despite being the title character of the miniseries, remains a pretty simple character. He had some good times in the old days, and doesn’t quite fit it in today’s world. He was born from the mind of a child, and never went through the sophisticated updates that other heroes did.

This fits with Flex saying that “The ‘Fact’ has escaped like me, into the real world.” His memories are comics, that’s where his adventures took place, but the ‘real’ world he’s in doesn’t seem to be quite like our real world. In the series, there are at least three different planes of reality. Underneath everything is the world where the Legion of Legions lives, the world that was destroyed by the Absolute. On top of that is the world Wally Sage lives in, the world that was built by Nanoman and Minimiss, the world where the superheroes hide themselves in the fictional world. Then, there’s the fictional reality that Wally Sage invented, where Flex Mentallo and The Fact come from, where they had their initial adventures.

So, has Flex escaped into the Wally Sage reality? Or is his escape into the ‘real world’ more a metaphor for the way comics have changed, for the way that wonder and craziness have been replaced by real world logic and grimness. I’d argue the latter is the case, though in this comic, trying to figure out a strict linear reality is pretty much pointless. It all bleeds together, everything that happens is real and you just have to enjoy the ride. Flex meets Wally Sage in the ceramic world, did this ever ‘happen,’ is it what Wally’s seeing on his acid trip? Is it what Flex is seeing as he seeks The Fact? It doesn’t matter, the significance of the scene is how it shows Wally interacting with a fictional character, the way that kids latch onto superheroes and look up to them.

Next up, we see Flex facing the many strange varieties of Mentallium, including one that can force him to “explore complex issues of gender and sexuality.” Those Silver Age superhero stories were all about a guy struggling to control his life, to keep his identity secret and return everything to normalcy, despite the many, many bizarre transformations he underwent. The plots may be a bit nonsensical, but they do raise a lot of questions about gender roles in that era.

Also, I love the idea of the Ultra-violet Mentallium which can “turn me into anyone, complete with a whole life and memories.” Much of Morrison’s work centers on awakening experiences, when the characters in The Invisibles met Barbeltih, they were reminded me of their true selves, they became actualized as the people they were meant to be. Similarly, in this series, the superheroes exist to show us the world we could have if we can only remember that magic word. The potential is always there, but we choose to wallow in these put on identities, with the problems and concerns intrinsic there in. Superhero comics are a perfect venue to explore these issues because they can turn psychological battles into literal battles. Our identities are so fragile, what makes you who you are? If you change your memories, are you still the same person? This Mentallium is an example of how the most absurd superhero concepts can actually tell us a lot more about the world we live in than something set in the real world.

Flex’s impending identity crisis bleeds into Wally Sage’s own. Looking in a mirror as a child, he saw an infinite reflection of himself. I remember seeing the same thing as a kid, in the Haagen Daaz next to the local movie theater. It always fascinated me, seeing the endless mirrors, looping on themselves. Here, Wally does what writers do, takes a real world phenomenon and turns it into a comic book concept. So, the mirrored reflections become “Endless parallel worlds. Infinite versions of me.” On these other worlds, he could be anyone, does that mean that his individual existence has no meaning? Like Flex, is he subject to the whims of Ultraviolet Mentallium? He concludes that if so many versions of him exist, if his life is so arbitrary, then “it doesn’t matter if I die.”

Flex wanders the streets of this dirty town, of the superhero world post deconstruction, and eventually finds some kids tripping on Krystal. I love the stream of consciousness way Flex just happens on to this place, it has no particular connection to what’s come before, or will follow in the story, but it fits thematically and just feels right at the time. Sometimes that’s where the best art comes from, just trusting your instincts and doing what feels right in the moment. It turns writing or drawing into something closer to improvisation, that live performance feeling of inventing something on the spot.

The guy in the bathroom looks like a contemporary version of Kamandi, and refers to himself as “the last boy on Earth.” He’s a Silver Age character who just doesn’t fit in the world that comics have turned into. So, he decides to take this drug that will show you the entirety of the universe, “Everything that has happened, is happening, will happen, could happen, couldn’t happen,” ultimately revealing that reality is “the imaginary story.” For fictional characters, fiction is reality, therefore reality is fiction, our world is an imaginary story. So, this whole dark time could just be a bad dream, one they can wake up from if they just find the way. He talks about how sick he is of the darkness of reality, how he wants something different.

On one level, this can all be read as a comment on comics, and how they’d changed, but I think it also fits with the way a lot of people view the world around us today. There’s this tendency to mythologize the past, to think that everything must have been cooler and more alive back then. For conservatives, it’s the 50s, this mythic age when Americans were strong, families were normal and everyone was happy. For liberals, it’s usually the radical 60s, a time when they really did believe that we could change the world. People want to get back there, but they don’t realize that image is a false construction. People had the same troubles as we do now back then, it’s just those troubles get washed away in a sea of nostalgia.

What it’s really about is growing up. The passage from childhood to adulthood in our society is typically about giving up silly things, ‘childish’ things and becoming a serious, more productive member of society. You can read the entire passage from wacky heroes to grim/gritty as a metaphor for our own growing up. Flex recalls hanging out with his crimefighting buddies, watching ‘My Favorite Martian,’ which really sounds a lot like being a kid, not having to worry about a job or relationships, just having fun in the moment. Flex is the creation of a child, and in many ways, his purpose in the series is to incarnate the wonder we felt when looking at the world as a child, when it was easy to get lost in crazy comics, and to make our own. In issue one, Wally says that the comics he drew were so “pure,” that’s what Flex is, he’s about tapping into the idea place and coming out with something that shows a child’s new perception of the world, not an adult’s weary one.

But, the series isn’t about just cherishing the childhood point of view and creating some kind of prolonged adolescence. It’s about integrating the childhood wonder with the adult world, and growing up into a synthesized whole. And, as with everything in the series, there’s more than one meaning. Flex isn’t just designed to show the child’s view of the world, in a lot of ways, he’s a child’s view of what an adult should be, he’s noble and kind, the ultimate father, yet devoid of the cynicism of real adults. He calls Tiff, an obvious man dressed as a woman, “Miss.” He may be a conservative figure in a lot of ways, but he accepts people for who they are and is able to deal with out of the norm things without prejudice. I love that panel where Tiff says “Miss…” because it tells us a lot about what being a hero is. It’s not always battling a villain, sometimes it’s just simple kindness. That kind of sentiment sounds pretty cheesy, but when you play it out as well as Grant and Frank do here, it makes total sense and feels right.

Flex soon finds Kamandi boy tripping on Krystal. They say that “it makes you feel like a Superman, but then you die.” The drug opens the door to the world underneath our one, the world where the heroes are real. I love when he says “I just remember how to on my…solo vision,” it’s not that we lost the power, it’s just we don’t remember it anymore. This leads to a wonderfully trippy series of panels that bring him to cosmic awareness. It’s my favorite image in the issue, the man’s face rendered solely in the starry pattern we previously saw used to show The Fact when he ignited the big bang and started the universe. He has moved outside the game and sees the world for what it is. While cosmically aware, he sees the superheroes, he sees that they’re waiting to return, and it blows his mind. Like The Invisibles, it’s about evolution “we’re like ants” next to what we could be, next to what they are.

It all concludes in a strange, sad series of panels where Flex can’t get him the crossword puzzle, can’t get him the magic word that will actualize him and save the universe. The man dies, and the world is not yet saved. In many ways, I see this work as a reaction to Alan Moore’s Miracleman. That series was all about trying to contextualize the strangeness of the Silver Age in a real world context. Of course those wacky adventures weren’t real, they were the creations of a delusional scientist. There, the discovery of the magic word leads to immense amounts of destruction and our ‘hero’ winds up as a fascist dictator. I love the series, I think it’s one of the three best superhero comics of all time, but I also think it betrays a fundamentally different understanding of the genre than Morrison has. Moore, even when he was trying to ‘reconstruct’ heroes in the ABC books feels too cold and logical to fully embrace the insanity of superhero comics. For Grant, superhero books have their own logic and morality, of course weird stuff is possible, that’s just how it is in their universe. And, of course good always wins, that’s the way their morality is structured.

But, that doesn’t mean the books don’t have something to say about our universe. The page where Wally equates 50s superhero comics to the upcoming rise of LSD may be a bit head on, but it really works in context. And, having read those books, it makes a lot of sense. Those Superman comics were totally insane, and I could easily see them being snapped up by the 60s counterculture both for the sheer bizarreness and as a commentary on how hollow social norms really are. If Superman can barely keep a normal life together, how could a regular guy hope to do it? And, after reading the story where Superman inexplicably is transformed into a guy with a lion’s head, the images Quitely presents here aren’t particularly far fetched.

This history lesson bleeds into Wally’s own personal issues. He wonders why superheroes couldn’t save us from the bomb, why they “didn’t stop my mum and dad fighting?” The obvious answer is, they’re not real. But, that doesn’t work so well in this series. Ultimately, I’d argue that superheroes are designed to show us a model of how to live our lives. They can give an example that can inspire someone like Wally Sage to live a better life, but they can’t just step in and save him, especially when it turns out that he’s both the hero and the villain of this story. Grant returned to this theme briefly in his aborted Authority run, which centered on the question, they can save the world, but can they save Ken’s marriage?

We get another flashback to the weird circle of shitting scene, this time Wally’s holding an alien’s hand. In The Invisibles, Grant uses those green aliens to represent the other, be it God or some other extra-dimensional intelligence. It’s the lens society has given us for processing intelligences greater than ours. So, until he’s really ready, he’s going to see the superheroes who created our world as aliens.

Flex goes to a bar, and is taunted by Killer Kitten. She’s a totally sexualized superhero, foreshadowing Flex’s journey next issue. But, following this encounter with the worst of what the heroes have become, he’s reminded of the best of what they can be, when an old man tells the story of meeting the Legion of Legions in space. This encounter reminds me a lot of astronauts encountering Barbeltih behind the moon in the last issue of The Invisibles. It’s beautifully done by Quitely, a totally surreal visual moment.

After our ascent to the stars, we prepare for a plunge into the underworld, as Flex sets out through a path of death and despair and Wally slips into darkness as well. This is a really fantastic, complex issue. Quitely nails everything he draws and Grant manages to pack an almost absurd amount of concepts into one single issue. This is the definitive superhero story of all time.


David Golding said...

The cover of #2 seems modelled on British rather than American comics, though nothing specific springs to mind.

The splash of Flex in #1 shows off Frank Quitely's attention to detail by showing off Flex's package, something not normally seen in skin-tight male superhero costumes. #2 has a lot of interesting bits. The gents that the Krystal scene takes place in is apparently modelled on a well known gay beat in Glasgow. The bar where Flex meets the astronaut is obviously a gay bar, and Killer Kitten is a fag hag. Check out an aged Clark Kent making eye contact as he leaves with another man, who then follows him out. Gender roles and secret identities, there's a lot going on.

I feel like Kamandi dies because he just wants escape. Morrison has never been about escapism. If he were Moore or Miller he probably would leave it at Kamandi's death---they like to beat up on the weakest behaviour of comics past. But the scene is revisited in #4. For Morrison, it's not enough to escape into a vision of the superhero world, you've got to bring the superheroes into this world. The reason the superheroes didn't save us from the bomb is: well, we didn't save ourselves from the bomb either. But we still can.

Patrick said...

Quitely's really amazing, i didn't even catch that detail with Clark Kent on the first read. That's Miracleman he's leaving with I take it. Any work that Morrison does with Quitely feels so much more nuanced and layered than most of his other stuff. Just flipping through the issue, the faces tell you so much. Reading this next to something like Morrison's Batman or JLA, it becomes really clear what a huge difference art makes to the overall impression of a story. Drawn by someone else, I'm sure Flex still would have been great, but it's only Quitely who can keep everything totally clear and emotionally relatable, no matter how strange it gets.