[Another thread in our Morrison Reading Project.]


I have to say at the outset that this is one of the Holy Grails of comics for me (as it is for a lot of other people). It has long been reputed to be some of Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely's best work, but a planned trade paperback collection was shelved years ago due to a Charles Atlas lawsuit. Here it is at last, and I must say I didn't quite believe it until I held it in my hands. The hardcover Deluxe Edition opens with "Flex Time," an essay outlining the fictional history of the character Flex Mentallo. A bit of research revealed this to be a reprint of the text material included in issues #2 and #4 (see The Annotated Flex Mentallo for this and much more). The four-issue miniseries is reprinted complete with the full original covers. A sensible approach, given that the trade dress was an integral part of the design.The book is rounded out by 15 pages of Quitely's sketches and pinups.

The series was completely recolored, and radically so. Tom McCraw's original color palette was considerably brighter than the subdued one employed by new colorist Peter Doherty. It's similar to the recoloring done on the earliest issues in The Absolute Sandman. I know the rationale there was to restore the colors to what was originally intended, but have been unable to find an official explanation for the recoloring here. I own only issue #3 of the original issues, but even a cursory look reveals dramatic differences. Here is a gallery of "before and after" images. 

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Issue #1: "After The 'Fact'," Part One: Flowery Atomic Heart


The opening panels depict a terrorist bomber, followed by an explosion which becomes the Big Bang, which in turn becomes an egg being cooked for Flex Mentallo. Flex is at the airport, about to eat his egg sandwiches, when a bomber leaves a cartoon bomb (it's a round black bomb with a fuse on top labeled "BOMB") and runs off. Flex starts to use his Muscle Mystery power, but the bomb fizzles out. Scenes featuring suicidal artist Wally Sage start inter-cutting with a discussion about the bombs at the police station. These bombs have been appearing everywhere...and there are cartoons of Flex and the police officer having the very discussion we have been seeing. Those seemingly random opening images are beginning to make sense. Clues had been pointing to an old-time crimefighter called the "Fact." Flex tracks him down to an abandoned School for Sidekicks. Then when he pursues a bomber into a photo booth, he is left with nothing but photographs of the "Fact."

A dense first issue for the miniseries, which creates far more questions than answers. But there are at least two different versions of reality presented: the "real world" which Flex inhabits, and the comic book reality created by Wally Sage. Flex was made real, and he thinks the "Fact" may have also gotten out somehow. 

Issue #2: "After The 'Fact'," Part Two: My Beautiful Head


This issue opens with Wally Sage, lying outside in the rain talking to a suicide hotline. He says he's committing suicide and phoned to talk about comics, because he wants to talk about something cheerful before he dies. Cut to Flex remembering his fight with the Mentallium Man, where he found himself losing his identity under the influence of Ultra-Violet Mentallium (which is a much longer name than Red Kryptonite). Back in the present, Flex tries to help the victim of a drug overdose, who sees godlike superheroes coming to save the human race. Then he meets an astronaut who swears that he saw superheroes during a space walk. And the issue closes with Wally Sage again...he's seeing multiple universes converging.

This issue ramps up the theme of a multiverse. There is more to reality than meets the eye, with or without drugs.

I bought the hardback of this also. I have/had the individual issues, and read them as they came out, but haven't since. A quick look through the HC does reveal some nice additions to the issues.

I bought the complete set of original issues on the same Free Comicbook Day that I started my Micronauts collection in ernest, so they have been sitting in my Morrison box, unread, until this time.

 

Before that I had acccess to all but issue 3 from my brother's collection, in inverse of your pervious exposure to the Hero of the Beach, Mark.

 

I finally read issue 1 this morning and it was much fun.  I recall the text pieces as being a kind of first draft of Supergods, now that I think about it.  Looking forward to reading those again, too.

 

As I say, it's just a lot of FUN.  No I don't know what the Fact starting the big bang on the first page means, or why that should segue to a picture of himself again that appears on an egg. 

 

"This is Your Brain on Drugs" was both funny and appropriate, given where the rock star segments take us, and the general surreality of much of the action in this comic.

 

It's probably a deliberately Watchmen-esque 9-panel grid that The Fact blows up with his cartoon bomb on page one.  Morrison is presenting a different direction for superhero comics here.  Superhero comics have been hugely influenced by Moore's grim-n-gritty masterpiece for over 20 years*, and Morrison is still trying to explode the paradigm. 

 

As Flex a very central and personal work, there are lots of call-outs to Morrison's life that I know of now, and to his other work.  Morrison's intro to the New Gods Omnibus vol 1 can be read on Amazon.  There he mentions the counter-culture savvy uncle whose New Gods comics were just too heavy a brew for his young mind.  (He also admits that he'd only read some of the New Gods comics for the first time in preparation for writitng that very introduction, which I found surprising.  It seems to be the Jimmy Olsen comics.)  Here we see the young autobiographical character sitting at a gathering in his uncle's pad.  Perhaps this is the reference he is making about the Mandoo the Mysterious story 'The Collapse into the Nucleus'.  It sounds New God-like, but Mandoo would seem to be a thinly veiled Dr Strange.

 

In issue one, the 'realistic' character's obsession with superheroes is no doubt Morrison's.  In a way, the series seems to be a fictional exploration of whether these bright, once-innocent and positive creations should mean anything to a grown-up in the modern world. Prepare to find out, Mark!  :-)

 

"Hero of the Beach" - Wonderful stuff.

 

I'm just sorry that my reread of the Doom Patrol isn't complete yet, so that I could read this as a sequel of sorts to Flex's appearances there.  I know that there are problems with doing that.  I wonder was some of the hold-up for Flex Mentallo due to DC being unhappy that a character who had originally appeared in their Doom Patrol comic was being used as a creator-owned property here?

 

Finally, this Mindless Ones blog post gives a reading of the new colour scheme in terms of the thematic content of the series.  The comments give good commentary on it, together with links explaining some of the reasoning behind it.  (I will look at your other links after I've read all four issues, Mark.)  Although I like it's dayglo charm, the colour in my copy is indeed very of its time.  It looks exactly like the colouring in Morrison's issues of Doom Patrol.  Maybe that dates it too much?

 

I'm off to the bus home now, and a read of issue 2 on the way....

 

*One of the reasons that Before Watchmen will struggle to say anything new.

You made several good points, I just singled out a few I wanted to comment on. Yes, it is a fun comic! It definitely has a Silver Age feel to it: unabashedly heroic, bright and shiny. At some point I intended to comment on the Doom Patrol connection: there isn't one, apart from the return of Flex and his creator, Wallace Sage. I don't think this mini requires any knowledge of the Doom Patrol at all, including Flex's appearances there. And I was surprised to note that this is NOT creator owned. So there's no logical explanation for why DC waited so long to reprint it, having already reprinted the Doom Patrol issues Flex appears in. He even appears on the cover of Doom Patrol Book 4: Musclebound. Flex was definitely a creative manifesto for Morrison, so much so that he devoted most of a chapter of Supergods to it. I need to get my hands on that and reread that chapter. But I intend to write up issues 3 and 4 first: I did read the entire thing over the weekend.



Figserello said:


I finally read issue 1 this morning and it was much fun.  I recall the text pieces as being a kind of first draft of Supergods, now that I think about it.  Looking forward to reading those again, too.

 

As I say, it's just a lot of FUN.  No I don't know what the Fact starting the big bang on the first page means, or why that should segue to a picture of himself again that appears on an egg. 

It's probably a deliberately Watchmen-esque 9-panel grid that The Fact blows up with his cartoon bomb on page one.  Morrison is presenting a different direction for superhero comics here.  Superhero comics have been hugely influenced by Moore's grim-n-gritty masterpiece for over 20 years*, and Morrison is still trying to explode the paradigm. 

In issue one, the 'realistic' character's obsession with superheroes is no doubt Morrison's.  In a way, the series seems to be a fictional exploration of whether these bright, once-innocent and positive creations should mean anything to a grown-up in the modern world. Prepare to find out, Mark!  :-)

 

I'm just sorry that my reread of the Doom Patrol isn't complete yet, so that I could read this as a sequel of sorts to Flex's appearances there.  I know that there are problems with doing that.  I wonder was some of the hold-up for Flex Mentallo due to DC being unhappy that a character who had originally appeared in their Doom Patrol comic was being used as a creator-owned property here?

 

Finally, this Mindless Ones blog post gives a reading of the new colour scheme in terms of the thematic content of the series.  The comments give good commentary on it, together with links explaining some of the reasoning behind it.  (I will look at your other links after I've read all four issues, Mark.)  Although I like it's dayglo charm, the colour in my copy is indeed very of its time.  It looks exactly like the colouring in Morrison's issues of Doom Patrol.  Maybe that dates it too much?

Issue #3: "After The 'Fact'," Part Three: Dig The Vacuum


The third installment opens with the police lieutenant Flex had spoken to earlier. He's at home with his wife after work, thinking about the apocalyptic signs he's been seeing. He doesn't believe in superheroes, because they went away and abandoned humanity to its fate. All but Flex Mentallo.Two pages later he is attending his wife's funeral, in the daytime. Most of the action in the miniseries takes place at night, in fact during one night. So I find this scene puzzling: it doesn't seem to be a flashback (the earlier night time bedroom scene takes place the same day as his meeting with Flex), but the rest of the narrative follows the timeline of Wally Sage's dark night of the soul. Afterwards the lieutenant calls on the Hoaxer, a supervillian who specializes in illusions. The two of them will play a major part in the series climax. Then we get more on Sage's background: his childhood fascination with comics, his lack of connection with the real world, his girlfriend's accusations about his inability to feel emotion. And the trail of the Fact leads Flex into a club for "adult" superheroes. It's a lurid S&M club populated by superhero wannabes--which Flex (later described as a "Boy Scout" by the Hoaxer) finds startling and uncomfortable--but it houses a transport tube to the headquarters of superhero team the Legion of Legions.

Morrison takes his most direct shot at "grim and gritty" superheroes here. I especially like the heroes crawling into the costume of a giant Power Girl analog. 

Issue #4: "After The 'Fact'," Part Four: We Are All UFOs


Flex has made it to the satellite HQ of the Legion of Legions (multiple versions of the Fact assemble the stage set as he regains consciousness). The Legion is gone, having escaped the death of their reality by becoming fictional in ours in the previous issue.Wally discovers he had taken M&Ms instead of a lethal dose of pills, then finds himself in his apartment...on the Moon. The whole cast has assembled. Flex, Hoaxer, and Harry confront a mysterious villain in a man-in-the-moon mask. He claims to have created the whole world, and will now destroy it. He is unmasked as Wally Sage. Hoaxer gives a succinct summary of Morrison's verdict on "adult" superheroes: "I think you want everyone to be dead because looking at life makes you realize what you're missing. Only a bitter little adolescent boy could confuse realism with pessimism." Wally realizes he's had a great life. He wants to live, and doesn't want the world to end. He's back in the alley. It's morning. He finds the crossword with the magic word, and reactivates the world of superheroes. His girlfriend wakes up and looks up in the sky. All of the superheroes are returning, a dramatic splash page that looks like they are flying out of the sun.

At some point I intended to comment on the Doom Patrol connection: there isn't one, apart from the return of Flex and his creator, Wallace Sage. I don't think this mini requires any knowledge of the Doom Patrol at all, including Flex's appearances there.

 

Flex Mentallo the series is wonderfully self-contained, isn't it? Every line and every word contribute to the complete package and it feels very complete and finished.  It vies with The Filthfor being Morrison's most artistically satisfying work, in how it sustains the focus on its own argument and brings everything to a good conclusion, if deliberately open-ended in both cases.

 

The Filth is a kind of dark sequel to Flexisn't it?

 

Still, nerdy fanboys will be nerdy fanboys.  I am one, and I'm looking forward to seeing where Morrison left Flex in his Doom Patrol issues to see how the two versions play off each other.  If Wallace Sage seems very different here than he was in Doom Patrol, well, there is a third Wallace Sage, writer of Flex Mentallo, in the two spoof columns about Flex's publishing history.

 

(Weren't they funny though?  How both the Gold and Silver eras ended for Flex were hilarious!)

 

Flex was definitely a creative manifesto for Morrison, so much so that he devoted most of a chapter of Supergods to it. I need to get my hands on that and reread that chapter.

 

I'll try to remember to read it myself tonight, but first I want to try to sum up what I thought were the reasons for some of the creative choices which came across as 'gibberish' to the Baron.

 

I thought Flex Mentallo, the comicbook series tackled head-on some of the issues raised in this thread about supposed 'realism' in comics, or 'pessimism' as the Hoaxer correctly labeled it.

 

You can't hoax a Hoaxer!

The End of the World!

 

I liked how the whole thing can be read as one night in the life of a successful musician, where he almost dies from an overdose and we see that all his inner life is threatened with being wiped out along with him.  Of course in a way, given that we each experience the world differently and our perception of it is unique, then a whole world does die when one of us passes away.

 

Reality does indeed DIE at DAWN!

 

Obviously this is a deeply personal work to Morrison.  I’m sure he did wonder how his love of superheroes would measure up if he found he was going to die, or if he contemplated ending it all, as sensitive souls do now and again.  In this book he works out what superheroes and their bright world mean in the great scheme of things, faced with the apocalypse of death.  It looks like a superhero apocalypse, but really, it is about one man’s possible death.

 

To the wider world, superheroes are frivolous childish distractions at best, so there is some justification here of where their value lies.  Superheroes representing a deeper and truer reality might not be the case, but it works for Grant/Wally!

 

A certain commentator* on this board back when Final Crisis was first being published rather perceptively mentioned that it was very like TS Eliot’s Wasteland, where the meaning can be gleaned from bringing together and juxtapositioning “these fragments I have shored against my ruin.”

 

The plot and structure of Flex Mentallo is very much about the main ‘real’ character shoring  fragments against his ruin:  Bits and pieces of old comics, stories he created and half-forgotten childhood memories all strung together in some kind of semi-coherent way.

 

The background to The Filth also seemed to imply a character on the verge of death trying to sift through fact and fantasy in an attempt to obtain meaning.  Perhaps they are flip sides to the same story.

 

*Not the Baron, although this post and the following one are dedicated to His Most Bizarre Majesty!  :-)

Gibberant Choherish...

 

There is a reason that the timeline seems messed up in this little story, beyond Morrison trying to be all ‘Vertigo’ and clever.

 

I’m sure that a certain type of over-literal reader would be put off by the fact that the timeline doesn’t seem to make sense.  At the most basic level, Flex is trying to save the world while his creator is dying in an alleyway.

 

But then Flex keeps running into younger versions of the main character as if the Man of Muscle Mystery's adventure took place in the past instead of the present.  He even signs an autograph for young Wally at one point.

 

Morrison is illustrating a truth about how time works differently for our funnybook heroes than for us.  Certainly the relationship isn’t straightforward.

 

I first read The Dark Knight Returnswhen I was about 16.  I thrilled to Batman pushing that upstart gang-leaders face into the mud.

 

I read it later in my twenties, and Batman was still pushing that guy’s face into the mud.  If I’d gone back to that page after finishing it then, Batman is still experiencing the same triumphal event, but I’m several hours or days older.  I don’t know if I read it in my 30s, but a huge swath of my life would have passed, and Batman hasn’t aged a day!

 

This is what Morrison is getting at with Flex encountering Wally again and again, at different stages of the same adventure.  The difference with my story and Batman’s rainsoaked grudge match with that kid, is that we are now seeing the reader’s encounter with the hero from the perspective of the fictional character, assuming they could be allowed to see us.

 

Flex is having the same adventure, but Wally is intersecting with it at different ages of his life.

 

A significant piece of information that Flex gives early on seems to offer the reader a straw of narrative certainty to hold onto.  Flex states that he’d come to life and his creator Wally Sage had then died in his arms.  As the story unfolds it’s obvious that this didn’t happen in quite that order.

 

And then Wally pretty much lives (probably Photobucket) at the end of the story, seeming to negate what Flex had said.  This is something a little different to the strange way that our timelines and that of our heroes don’t flow in parallel.  We do see Wally Sage die in Flex’s arms in issue 4, but it’s the teenage Wally who was bringing on the end of the world.  That miserable teenager dies so that Wally can move out into the world and embrace what it has to offer - both on the dark rainy night of the suicide attempt, and in Wally’s past.

 

It’s the positive side of the superhero paradigm which Flex represents that saves Wally both times, so the moment is at once in the past and the present.

 

So the jumping around in the two lead characters timelines in relation to each other is absolutely crucial to the argument Morrison is making in his brightly coloured superhero apocalypse.

"I, the Counting Tree!"

I've said it before, but...

Where else you gonna get this stuff?

I’m sure that a certain type of over-literal reader would be put off by the fact that the timeline doesn’t seem to make sense. 

 

<homer simpson voice>I think he's talking to me.</homer simpson voice>

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