FLEX MENTALLO #1-4, DC Comics/Vertigo, June to September 1996Flex Mentallo, Man of Muscle Mystery, first appeared in the pages of Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol as a superhero whose origin was the same as the one that "Made a Man out of Mac" from the back of all those comics.
Yeah, this one. So if Flex isn't out in trade paperback form yet, you can probably blame the Charles Atlas estate (that, and the words "the Charles Atlas had body homoerotic wish-fulfillment" in issue 2). Born from such a staple of comics, Flex Mentallo's own series became a postmodern meditation on the genre. Ergo, those excellent parody covers by Frank Quitely, all approved by the World Body-Building Association.
So while Flex is helping the police deal with Faculty X, who have been leaving a trail of harmless cartoon bombs and stuff you could get from comic book ads like x-ray specs and decoder rings, artist Wally Sage is rummaging through the comics he used to draw as a kid. And wouldn't you know it, they prefigure/are the Flex Mentallo story.
Back in Doom Patrol, we learned that Flex was brought to life right off the page by Wally to help him, though he later died in Flex's arms. But is Wally still alive? In a postmodern spin, I'm writing this part of the review WHILE READING, and when I got to this part, and the following page...
...my own cat, my own BLACK CAT, did exactly this. (I'm gonna go feed him now, then read the whole mini-series, then come back, ok?) Well, that was certainly creepy (though since the scene occurs at my house 3-6 times a day, I shouldn't be that surprised).
But aside from my own delusions, Morrison piles on the realities as thickly as he can. Is the story a hallucination by an ODing rock star (or did he take placebos)? Or is that rock star an identity forced on Flex by the weird element, UV Mentallium? Is he home or in an alley? Is it a cancer victim's fevered dream? The Hoaxer's greatest hoax? Is the apocalypse really come, or is it a metaphor for one character's death. Is it another Crisis that has pushed aside all the heroes, or just the way superheroes tend to leave us when we enter adulthood and our moms throw them away? Or is the truth simply that this is just a comic, and anything can happen? Or that we make comics to remind us of the truth? (I'm barely scratching the surface here, by the way.) Morrison isn't too nice to himself when discussing the topic: "Now the superheroes are as fucked-up as the fuckin rejects who write about them and draw them and read about them. All the heroes are in therapy and there's no one left to care about us." (Put a checkmark next to that therapy story, it'll turn up in his Zatanna comic.)
This is all pretty bad news to us comic book geeks. Flex himself speaks for a generation when he notes, as a previously fictional character: "Too bad my friends are all just characters in a kid's homemade comic book." Yeah, I know how you feel. Wally later says: "Who needs girls when you have comics?" While I've never been that far gone, it does raise a number of issues about fantasy vs. reality. Can women compete against superbabes? Flex's journey through a superhero orgy would only really arouse Jason Lee in Mall Rats:
Have you ever seen a three-foot-wide nipple? It ain't pretty. Don't get me started on the downstairs.
I'm looking through this stuff, and there's all-too-often more ideas crammed in a single panel than many series ever come up with in a year! I wish I was kidding, but Morrison throws away tons of ideas I would love to see as entire stories. Look at this throwaway sequence of Flex's memories:
Origami, the Folding Man? The Lucky Number Gang? The Power of Beyond let loose from the Baffling Box? And don't get me started on the school for sidekicks, the guy who got divine powers by solving a magic crossword puzzle, the matchbox burial of diminutive heroes, or Walter-Ego who once made himself see in the dark by convincing himself that in darkness, people cast bright shadows of light. The superhero universe Flex may or may not live in is a Vertigoed Silver Age I could read about every day.
In the end, the fate of the polyverse hinges on reaching the Place Where Ideas Come From and knowing the truth. Are we in a comic, or aren't we? And to people who say the Silver Age wasn't realistic, I would agree, but Morrison gives the best one-line explanation of his Silver Revival in issue 4: "Only a bitter little adolescent boy could confuse realism with pessimism." As usual, brilliant.