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). The 1996 miniseries 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 a pinup.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Flex has some of Morrison’s trademark “weird” elements, notably the non-linearity of the storytelling. But in another sense it’s pretty easy to follow: the real hero of the story is Wally Sage, and the whole story takes place in one night, as he lies in an alley possibly dying of an intentional drug overdose. In Supergods Morrison describes Flex as “the pre-Dark Age superhero delivered–with his simple morality, his kind and friendly nature, and his hatred of bullies–into a more sinister world.” This, too, is easy to follow. When Flex is on panel, he always behaves simply and honestly. He’s unambiguously heroic.
There are some structural elements that are not as obvious. I did not notice the fact that each of the four issues took its thematic cue from a different age of comics, proceeding historically. So the first was the golden age, the second the silver age, the third the dark age, and the fourth a contemporary rebirth. They also follow Wally’s life: childhood, young adulthood, late adolescence, and finally adulthood. My thanks to Feargal Gallagher for pointing out that Flex appears to Wally at various points in his life (see the discussion here).
So, was Flex Mentallo worth the wait? It was for me. It did take some thought and rereading for me to fully appreciate it, but I think it truly is one of the jewels in Grant Morrison’s crown. It covers much of the same ground as The Invisibles, but in a more accessible (and concise!) way.