Saturday, June 14, 2008

Battlestar Galactica: 'Revelations' (4x10)

Typically, my reaction to a Battlestar season is major enthusiasm at the start, which wanes as they go through a lean period in the middle, only to be salvaged by an amazing cliffhanger at the end. So, maybe it’s appropriate that in a season where nearly every episode was really strong that the midseason cliffhanger should underwhelm a bit. Don’t get me wrong, this is a really solid episode, but I wanted something a bit more at the ending, some kind of twist or layer that would blow my mind, in the way the cylon revelation last year or the New Caprica stuff did. They’ve built up such high expectations, this cliffhanger just didn’t grab me that much.

Now, on some level it’s ridiculous to say reaching Earth, the goal of the entire series, is underwhelming, but it’s a perfect example of the journey being more interesting than the destination. Once I realized they were really going to reach Earth, when we saw it there and people started celebrating, I knew there were about ten minutes left in the episode, so I was waiting for that next twist to come. And it did, when we found out that Earth wasn’t the paradise they had been promised, it’s just another broken planet, not unlike New Caprica. I really liked that tracking shot from an aesthetic point of view, but by its very nature, I was waiting for what we were tracking to, the crazy revelation that would top everything off, but we didn’t really get any twist beyond the planet being broken.

It’s a bit hypocritical to criticize the show for not having enough of a twist. Really, I’m watching for the characters more than the narrative, but I wanted something exciting and mind blowing, and I don’t think we really got that. Admittedly, it’s near impossible to come up with an Earth that would satisfy everyone, but I think this is in a lot of ways the most predictable option. I’m guessing next season will be about trying to build a civilization with the cylons and humans, New Caprica redux. I loved New Caprica, it’s my favorite episodes of the entire series, and I’d rather see stories in that milieu than more space travel, but at the same time, that story was already told.

On a show like this, plot developments aren’t important solely on their own terms, they also have to create a viable future. Last season, I loved the cylon reveal, but wasn’t sure how it would play in the next season. It worked out really well, and I’m sure the crew behind the show will make this work in an interesting way. Still, I have that uncertainty about what it will be. It seems like so much was resolved, will the rest of the show be about the cylons and humans trying to rebuild Earth? Does the fifth cylon even matter anymore? There’s a lot of interesting questions left, but they don’t seem like questions that will open up new narrative avenues. At this point, I’ve just accepted Tigh and his gang as cylons, I don’t necessarily need a flashback to tell me how he is a cylon. I’m assuming it will be addressed, but we’ve almost moved beyond it. And, if they’re on Earth, what will the fifth cylon do?

For the fifth cylon, I’d like to see them do something different than with the others. We’ve already seen the person we thought was human revealed as cylon a bunch of times. D’Anna says the fifth wasn’t in the fleet, people are speculating that means he/she was on the basestar. I hope not, I hope it’s someone who’s just on Earth, a mysterious new character who is closest to their God. So much was made of the fifth having special knowledge and power, it’d be cool if they meet someone who actually is aware of this power, a person who is beyond the Manichean human/cylon conflict. I’m thinking of someone along the lines of Kaworu from Evangelion, a guy who takes what would be a copout appearance in the series’ third to last episode and creates a fully realized character who is key to the series’ mythology in twenty minutes.

So, I do like that they reached Earth, but I felt like this was the most obvious path for the series to take regarding Earth. It’s a dark, dank and dreary series, wouldn’t an interesting twist have been to given us a utopia and see if they could live up to it?

Tracking back, there were some brilliant moments in the episode. My favorite scenes were Tory’s change of allegiances, and embrace of D’Anna’s cylon command. D’Anna is owning the screen at all times, with a cutting competence that puts the humans to shame. Before she came back, the humans seemed in control of the alliance, now it’s the cylons leading the way, and I don’t think the humans will double cross them soon. And, Tory’s inspired by that, she’s not going to serve Roslin anymore, she’s going to take control of her own destiny. No moment in the episode was as full of foreboding and promise as Tory deciding to take the medicine to Roslin, what D’Anna had prophesized would come to pass through no action of her own.

One of my major disappointments with the last two episodes of the season is the treatment of Kara. Once she got past screaming about Earth, I really liked her committed visionary phase. I’d have loved to see more of her with Leoben, and explored what it means that she was able to rise from the dead. But, she seems to have reverted to the more stable Kara of yore. Admittedly, this is an issue of focus, her personal life wasn’t much in play, but I hope next year we return to figuring out what’s going on at her core.

The big emotional punch of the episode was Adama’s disbelief that Tigh could be a cylon. More than ever before, Adama feels old in this episode. But, at least he’s got Roslin and his son to help him out. There’s a lot of relief and emotion in his voice when he address the fleet about reaching Earth.

It’s a really good episode, but at the end, I just felt like I needed something more. There’s none of the stylistic flourishes we typically see in a season finale, none of the hypnotic impressionistic sequences the series does so well, and nothing so crazy you’re just left in disbelief. I’d rather see the show honor its characters and narrative than just throw crazy stuff out there, but still, just a little something, please?

Either way, I’m excited to see what they do in the last run of episodes. I hope they don’t all go back to Galactica again. Let’s see this new world being built, let’s see if Earth can be the promised land they all hoped for. And let’s get to it before March 2009, please,

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Flex Mentallo #3: 'Dig the Vacuum'

Issue 3 of Flex Mentallo brings us into the ‘dark age’ of superhero comics, starting with the Dark Knight parodying cover, which ever features faux autographs from the creators. This quickly segues into a Watchmen style rainy city and gritty captioned voiceover. What Morrison does here is evoke the spirit of those books in the same way he evokes the Silver age, simultaneously pointing out its ridiculousness and paying tribute to what made it successful. If you’ve read early issues of Animal Man, you know how much of an influence Moore was on Morrison back then, and the opening page shows that he can still capture that feel. My favorite moment on the page is when Harry says “Jesus! When did I start talking to myself,” undermining the whole notion that somehow the caption box is more realistic than the thought bubble.

The subsequent page features a number of interesting things. Harry’s wife dreams of two people buried in a cigarette pack, residual memories of Nanoman and Minimiss seeping back into the world. However, the word they’re seeping into is one filled with worrying and fear. She’s constantly scared, unable to watch the news because it makes her feel bad. I’ve seen a lot of people like this in the real world, who are so inexplicably scared of everything, who read the newspaper just to talk about whatever awful events were reported on that day. The sadder the story, the more worthy of discussion it is.

This ties into the mindset that the best is behind us and we’re living in a world on a downward spiral, that today’s kids are bad and the world quickly headed for disaster. Why do people feel this way? It all ties in to a fear of change. The world is evolving, not every part of that evolution is good, but societal change will always happen. Today’s Grand Theft Auto is yesterday’s gangster rap, proof that this generation of kids is irrevocably messed up. Bush has played up this fear, of change, of others, to serve his own agenda, but a large part of this series is showing that the fear is something that must be overcome. The world we live in now has to die to make the new one, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

This issue is all about the hard times we must go through on our journey to the light. Before things can get better, they have to get really bad. The Filth ends with Greg using all the shit he has to deal with to fertilize his flowers, a perfect summation of the themes of a lot of Morrison’s work, the idea that we have to suffer through bad times because that’s what makes us stronger. I think it’s a valid point, people can go along in destructive patterns and it’s not until they absolutely bottom out that they really do something about it, and change their lives for the better. The temporary pain is worth it in the long run.

I’ve had this debate with people before, and the opposing point is usually, but what about the starving child in Africa who dies because he has no food? What point does his suffering have? That’s a tougher call. Morrison’s work is written with the mindset of someone in a fairly stable society, one where not many people are starving to death, and his philosophical points come out of that perspective. But, I’d argue on a societal level, the people worse off are there to remind us of how we all need to change things. It may be awful for the individual, but the more people suffer that fate, the more we will all work to make things better for everyone. The thing is, we’re only just becoming aware on a global level, so it’s hard for people to think beyond themselves, or their own country, and recognize that we need to help everyone. That’s our next evolution, to become a single global society.

Next up, Harry meets with the Hoaxer. The concept behind the Hoaxer ties into the illusory nature of our reality in the series. With only a magazine and a flashlight, he can make Harry believe he’s in the woods, just as the superheroes are able to construct our entire universe as an illusion to hide in. We believe it’s real, but in actuality it’s a construction, our own kind of prison. But, as the Hoaxer says, “implicit in the design of any prison is the means of escape from that prison,” in this case it’s the magic word.

Next we trip through various events in the life of Wally Sage. This is the bad part of the trip, all his fears and negative feelings spiraling in his mind, motivated by the guilt and self loathing at the core of his being. Essentially, the series is about the character coming to terms with who he is, recognizing that the parts of himself he hates and thinks are immature are a part of him, and just as valid as anything else. Society teaches us we have to behave a certain way, to give up ‘childish things,’ like comics, as we grow up, but there’s no particular reason for that. The more crazy ‘childish’ things we give up, the more we become the same.

He begins by asking where we get our ideas from. In the case of this series, ideas come from the bleed between the superhero universe and our own. The superheroes seed themselves into fiction to remind us that they’re out there. That’s visually conveyed in the panel with Nanoman and Minimiss, in which Nanoman is imprisoned and she touches him. Our minds touch their prison and come back with information.

The rest of the sequence is less connected to the overall narrative of Flex Mentallo, and more interesting as an exploration of the character’s, and by extension Morrison’s own, psychology. I think of the most damning, and relatable things for me, is the scene where his girlfriend says he writes songs about love, but doesn’t really feel it. As someone who writes stuff, I have that same kind of reaction to bad stuff happening that he does when he says “Maybe I can get a song out of it.” Art is the transformation of feeling into song or film or comic. You pour emotion into it, and hopefully emotion comes out in the viewer. But, at the same time, when does creating art put a distance between you and the world? For Wally, he’s more concerned with the conceptual idea of love than the actual experience of it, and that’s why he ends up pushing everyone he cares about away, and sits in an alley alone, dying.

The reason Wally can’t emotionally engage with anyone ties back to his adolescent self loathing, manifested in the Moonman next issue. All his guilt in this issue seems to tie back to the drawings he made of Thundergirl and Supernova naked. In doing this, he turns the comics that sparked his imagination as a child into something elicit and wrong. He is literally using the pieces of his childhood for adult purposes, and that creates a whole vortex of emotional uncertainty. He feels like it’s wrong, and wants to “sick it all out,” but this is a natural part of growing up.

The problem for Wally is that he isolated himself and didn’t engage with the world around him. He says “who needs girls when you’ve got comics?” But, that isolation led to both his messed up relationships and an inability to deal with women on a meaningful level. He imagines the girl in the alley, who looks like Thundergirl, being raped, a manifestation of the way in which he has corrupted the heroes. He can’t engage with a pure hero like Flex anymore, he has spread the seed of destruction on the comics he once loved. The superheroes have become “as fucked-up as the fucking rejects who write about them and draw them and read out them.”

He’s at his low ebb of self loathing here, saying that there’s “no one left to care about us. No one at all.” Except, there is. Flex is the piece of him that remains untainted by all his guilt, and that good piece of him can pass through the dark and save Wally. More than the two previous issues, there’s a direct correlation between Flex’s adventure and what we see Wally going through. Flex, the symbol of childhood, passes through the confused sexuality of adolescence, while we see Wally’s flashbacks to the same period in his own life.

Flex ponders the issues raised by the dark age of comics, and tries to find “rational explanations for past weird adventures,” a clear reference to Moore’s Miracleman, which posited that all the crazy Silver Age adventures were mental hallucinations generated by a scientist to train superheroes. Flex passes Faculty X on his way through the sewer and ponders if they are “only one man, pretending to be dozens.” That’s the case, Faculty X is the Fact split through time, it is one core of being taken and spread throughout the timestream. I like the notion that “the bombs that Facutly X use destroy not objects but certainties.” That ties in nicely with the notion of growing up, the idea that we have to shed the things we believe in and take on new attitudes. It can be hard to lose that belief, but it’s part of our evolution.

Wally plunges deep into self loathing, unable to express himself to his girlfriend for no particular reason other than the simple fact that he has built this emotional wall around himself and won’t break through it. He tries to remember the magic word that will liberate him, but can’t, he’s stuck in his dark period. The heroes can’t give the word to him, they can only help him find it himself.

Next up, we find Flex journeying into the dark underbelly of ‘adult superhero’ world. The narrative captions get a bit screwy here, the blue boxes typically associated with Flex now put Flex in the third person. If Wally is the creator of Flex, is he also the architect of Flex’s narrative? Is he projecting himself, as Flex, on this mission? I think you can read it that way, certainly it’s what’s encouraged by the first/third person slip. Wally would have taken Flex down in to this mire as a way of indulging the same desires he had earlier when drawing Thunder Girl.

From there, the blue captions seem to focus exclusively on Wally’s discussion of the events. He goes on a self loathing/revelatory rant, and comes to the conclusion that Frederic Wertham was right, comics really are just twisted adolescent power fantasies. This approach to comics are just another way of undermining them. People who don’t want to engage with the social importance of superheroes write them off as simple adolescent power fantasies. Yes, certain books do have elements of escapist fantasy, exploring how awesome it would be to have a secret identity and be someone important, not the face that society sees.

I think there’s a fundamental appeal to the secret identity concept, and on some level, we all do have secret identities. To others, we appear as mild mannered whoever, doing his/her own thing and going along. The world at large isn’t aware of the churning mess of ideas and emotions that lives within everyone’s brain. One of the things I really hate in contemporary pop culture narratives is the fetishization of the ousider, implying that only the rejects have something going on beneath the surface, and your ‘ordinary’ person leads an unexamined life. Some people are more analytical than others, but everyone has their own issues, everyone wants things they can’t have and wants to be someone they’re not. Everyone’s striving for something, everyone has a side they don’t show the world.

But, back to the comic, the whole trip to superhero orgy land is about unlocking one of the things that is inherent in the books. People where skintight costumes, there’s a lot of imagery that can be interpreted as sexual, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a problem. The way Wally sees it, this reading strips the characters of their power, and I think that’s the goal of a lot of these ‘dark age’ comics. A book like Identity Crisis takes out the superpower elements and reduces the villain to simply a rapist. I feel like the brilliance of the superhero concept is in its ability to take the issues we face everyday and turn them into battles of cosmic importance. It’s the same issue that came up with those 9/11 books set in the Marvel Universe, the rules aren’t the same there. Nobody’s going to get worked up about a terrorist attack when cities are destroyed seemingly everyday.

On a purely visual level, the orgy sequence is a major success. There’s such a sleazy vibe to all the images, particularly the way Quitely abstracts human form. The giant woman is just a body, no face, only her sex organs matter. Other panels are simply a mash of entwined limbs and bodies, all engulfing Flex. Quitely always seems to draw books where he winds up drawing scenes with hundreds of superheroes, and he always manages to give them all unique, interesting designs.

This whole reverie ends with Wally quoting the ubiquitous newspaper headline I quoted in my review of issue one “Zap! Pow! Look Out! Comics aren’t just for kids anymore.” The inherent thinking there is that adults wouldn’t want to read the sort of crazy stories put out in the Silver Age, they’re only interested in “serious” work with adult themes and violence and sex. I’ll be the first to say that a lot of Silver Age comics were awful, just as a lot of ‘Dark Age’ comics were awful, but I think it’s reductive for society to decide that those crazy adventures of yore were only interesting for children. The whole superhero orgy works as a rebuke of this, pointing out how hollow and sad some of those superhero deconstructions were. The concept is about being able to go anywhere and do anything, why stay stuck on the street level? I don’t think it’s about not making those kind of comics, it’s about remembering that comics can be anything, and you don’t have to be sad to be mature. If there’s one message to this work, it’s that there’s nothing childish about being happy and embracing the wonder of the world.

Wally sees himself at the nexus of multiple universes. In this story, there’s so many universes, the image could refer to a number of things. The next panel, with the skeleton from the ban the bombzine implies that his childhood memories are colliding with the present, his mind is losing touch with its footing in time as he slips further and further into the acid trip.

The bottom two panels of that page raise the question “How could you love anybody the way you loved Thundergirl? You try and it’s like heaven…But it’s only like heaven. It’s not heaven, is it?” This line has a lot of possible interpretations. In the context of the narrative, it refers to the idea that our world is just a construction, Thundergirl is at the core of things, and the illusions we put on the surface will never match the teeming essence of life at the center. When Wally says the magic word, he unleashes that realer reality and experiences life in a way he never had before.

But, our world most likely isn’t based around a core of superheroes. So, the line reads more as a psychological issue for Wally. He’s grown up so immersed in this fiction, he’s been living with these archetypal essences, the gods of our reality reincarnated in the form of fictional beings. So, maybe it’s not such an unreal conclusion, is it? What Morrison does in JLA is equate each of the seven heroes with a Greek god, and he puts them through epic stories that play as modern myth, full of the same larger than life symbolic narrative that characterized Greek mythology. According to him, superheroes are the contemporary incarnation of the same gods that have recurred throughout our history. They have been made obsolete in religion, so they have to show themselves to the world in this new form.

But, still, isn’t it kind of sad that he could never love anyone like he loved Thundergirl? A lot of the work is about the adolescent Wally’s inability to come to terms with the fact that his life isn’t like the comics, isn’t as crazy and exciting as Flex. In Flex’s own narrative, we see a desire to return to simpler times, and Wally shares that. Nothing in his life can live up to the idealized childhood he created, and no real woman can live up to the idealized woman he built out of the superheroines he read about. But, at the same time, this very fact makes him feel bad, he doesn’t want to feel that, he wants to feel ‘normal,’ but it just won’t work. Flex punctures this whole self indulgent mytholigization of struggle next issue, as we’ll soon see.

Wally trips through various moments from his life next. He and his girlfriend pass from regular reality to the ceramic village world. The ceramic village is the secret lair of his self loathing adolescent self, still drawing him in and trapping him in old, bad patterns. Next, we go back to the circle of shitting image from earlier, but this time they’re around an exploding nuclear bomb. The circle of boys, with Wally on the outside seems to represent his fear, fear of exclusion, fear that there’s some massive unseen force out there working to destroy him. Young Wally equated the bomb with a comic book apocalypse, it is an element of the irrational fear that powers the Moonman.

Wally has constructed a whole narrative of abuse or abduction, likely because that’s how our society teaches kids to deal with the things that happened to them. There’s this relentless drone of fear drummed into us, psychologists dig into the psyche seeking childhood traumas to blame for adult failures. But, there doesn’t need to be some huge mysterious problem, it can be as simple as an encounter with the unknown. The unknown can seem scary until you face it. Here, young Wally seems to have dealt fine with meeting Lord Limbo, but over the years, he has deemed this impossible, and turned this good memory into a mysterious, dark experience.

Earlier, Wally pondered where he got his ideas from, unaware that he had been taken to that place as a child. On one level, the entire series is about Wally learning to deal with what he experienced as a child, both this superhero encounter and on the simple level of the things that happened to him, the magazines he saw and the strange, irrational fears he had. I worry that kids are losing touch with this strange, other world. My parents grew up in Brooklyn and as kids, they hung out on the streets and went around on their own. I didn’t do that, we usually hung out inside, and played video games or things like that. Parents are too scared to let their kids go off on their own, and if you constantly tell kids to suspect strangers and fear them, they’re going to have these kinds of reactions to the world around them. Yes, child abuse is a serious problem, but staying inside and being scared of the outside world is its own problem too.

The notion that superheroes show us where we get our ideas from is interesting. In JLA, Morrison had Metron say that superheroes would provide the guide for human evolution, and that’s been a recurring theme in his work. They are our template for post human existence, and you could argue the army of superheroes surging the world at the end of the series is really just the next stage of humanity actualizing itself. In that sense, the final scene is the same moment as the last issue of The Invisibles, just seen from a different angle.

But, more on that next time.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Battlestar Galactica: 'The Hub' (4x09)

This season of Battlestar has been consistently brilliant in a way the series never achieved before. With the exception of last week’s wheel spinning and odd character developments, it’s been one great episode after another. More than ever before, I have a feeling of things growing and changing, that pretty soon there’ll be no status quo to go back to. My biggest gripe with the series throughout its entire run has been this relentless pull to return to the character and plot dynamics that were set out at the start of the series. We’ve always got to have Lee and Kara in a tense, possibly romantic relationship, we’ve got to have the cylons as villains, the fleet being pursued, Adama ruling the fleet. Things have changed along the way, but invariably that change is wiped away and we return to the basic status quo.

After last season’s finale, I felt like the show was at a turning point. The revelation of the final four was so bold, and seemingly out of nowhere, it could have sunk the series if it wasn’t handled right. I’m still not sure how they were able to hide in the fleet, or what their exact nature is, but watching those characters deal with being cylons has been fascinating. But, that doesn’t really play into this episode. The other major plot that’s changed things this season is the cylon civil war. In season three, they experimented with doing a cylon plot, but it was more of a travelogue and didn’t have much forward narrative momentum. Here, the cylon plot is arguably more interesting than the humans, and it’s exciting to watch them try to work with humanity for a common goal.

This episode features a number of great things. It was great to have D’Anna back, and Lucy Lawless really ran with the role, right from the first moment when she snapped Cavill’s neck. Say what indeed. Was that the last Cavill around? I’m guessing there’ more of them out there somewhere, so hopefully we’ll see Dean Stockwell back. Her greatest moment was definitely the conversation with Roslin, where D’Anna totally fucks with her, all while kicking back in a bathrobe. If I had to get unboxed, that’s definitely how I’d roll.

Elsewhere, we get some interesting philosophical questions raised over with Helo. If this Eight has Athena’s memories, are they same? Is betraying her for Roslin like betraying his own wife? If he sleeps with her, is it really cheating? You know Helo was thinking about the threeway with two versions of Sharon, or at least I was. Anyway, Helo’s allegiance over the course of the series is interesting. He’s consistently been more likely to help out the cylons than Sharon-Athena. Sharon knows she can’t slip at all or she’ll lose her place in the fleet. As she said earlier this season, she chose a side and is going to stick with it. But, Helo is aware of the way the president is double crossing the cylons. He doesn’t like it, but there’s nothing he can do. I think it was pretty cruel of Roslin to screw them over after she made the cylons complicit in destroying the resurrection hub, but I guess she’s always been prone to value survival over doing the right thing.

The main action of the episode was the space battle, and it was perhaps the most gorgeous in the series’ history. I’ve mentioned before, but the effects team on the show has moved beyond simply creating credible images and on to creating beautiful, artistic ones. The missiles exploding like fireworks, the supernova like image of the hub exploding, the surging tracking shot through the battle, it was all gorgeous.

This episode saw Baltar swerving rapidly between zen messiah and crazy egomaniac, frequently within the same scene. Roslin brings out the worst in him, and vice versa, seldom have we seen the characters more pathetic and childish than when they were screaming at the hybrid, trying to get her to tell them something. The hybrid is one of the show’s best creations, she seems totally alien, it’s hard to imagine an actress gets in that tub and plays her every week.

Anyway, the most intense scene of the episode was Roslin grilling Baltar, finding out that he did in fact give the cylons the defense codes, but has forgiven himself for it. She’s so full of anger at him she shakes, but in the end, she decides to save him rather than let him die. I thought she already knew he had done this, but I guess hearing him say it make a difference. Baltar has owned up to his crimes, and she’s not so eager to forgive. I think Baltar actually has some good points for Roslin. Throughout the series, we’ve seen her do awful things, all in pursuit of human security. How will her desire for control mix with Lee’s ascent to president when she returns to the fleet?

But, I don’t think that’s the Roslin development most people will be talking about after the episode. Finally, she and Bill admit they’ve got feelings for each other and kiss. It’s been a long time, one of my favorite moments of last season was the scene with the two of them lying together on New Caprica. It captured a feeling of hope and idyllicness that nothing else on the show’s really had. But, here, they’re reunited and finally ready to share their feelings. It was a great ending to the episode.

It’s unfortunate we’ve got a six month break (at least) after next episode. The show’s been so good, I don’t want it to take that long a break. But, at least we’ve got one more, and what I’m sure will be an absolutely infuriating cliffhanger coming up next week.

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.