DID YOU EVER HEAR THAT ONE ABOUT FLEX MENTALLO?
Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's long-out-of-print "Flex Mentallo" series is finally getting a hardcover collection later this year from DC. You may have heard about it.
But so what?
Why should anyone care about a series featuring a lead character nobody would recognize outside the Morrison clubhouse, involving other weird characters made up for this one story, and with an oddball plot that involves suicide hotlines and multiple layers of reality?
Typing it out like that, well, it seems like a silly question. Who wouldn't want to read a series like that? Especially one created by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, two guys who have spun nothing but magical gold out of their, um, magical comic book spinning wheel creative wheelie things.
Plus, "Flex Mentallo" has been forbidden fruit for a decade and a half. Unless you were lucky enough to get it off the stands when it first came out (and I know I only ever saw issue #3 on the shelves of my local shop), or pick up a cheap ebay lot back in the very early days (which is what I ended up doing, not to brag or anything), or download it illegally and read it on your computer screen, you were pretty much out of luck when it came to enjoying one of the finest works in the history of comic books.
Is that hyperbole? Maybe. But I don't have much doubt that Grant Morrison is one of the best comic book writers in history. CSBG's reader's poll placed Morrison as the second best writer ever, after only Alan Moore. Or that Frank Quitely is one of the best comic book artists in history. CSBG's similar poll, but for artists, placed Quitely also at, get this, number two, after only Jack Kirby. So unless Alan Moore and Jack Kirby collaborate on a comic, which is unlikely, but kind of brilliant to imagine, then Morrison and Quitely are the single best creative team to work in comics, ever. At least by the logic of democracy. And I wouldn't put up much of a fight to oppose such a position.
So, to recap, Morrison/Quitely, good. And "Flex Mentallo" is considered, by some, to be their "Watchmen." The ultimate example of what comics can do, and the epitome of a Morrison comic, the epitome of a Quitely comic. I wouldn't put up much of a fight to oppose that position, either. It is the quintessential work by each creator, and the exemplar of their collaboration.
It may not be as smooth of a read as "We3" or as emotionally engaging as "All-Star Superman" or as action-packed as "JLA: Earth 2" or as, uh, mutanty as "New X-Men," but "Flex Mentallo" is the purest distillation of Morrison and Quitely's comic book energy. It's a comic about creating comics that's also a tour through the history of comics, told via a fictional character talking into a novelty phone to another fictional character from a different plane of existence. Starring a ridiculously muscle-bound, hirsute man in leopard-print trunks.
I warn you, casual readers, "Flex Mentallo" can be off-putting, but not because it isn't packed with ideas or startling visuals. It can be off-putting if you're not paying attention to the details, because it isn't a story that rewards a surface reading. It's not like Morrison's "JLA" (which he transitioned into soon after completing "Flex Mentallo"), in which Morrison's Gnostic ideas are filtered through superhero mega-plots in such a way that it can be enjoyed as a pure action comic even if you ignore the subtext. In "Flex," the text is the subtext is the text is the Möbius strip that folds the comic back upon itself, but not quite, because the ending shows a way out -- an escape into a new state of being. One that indicates the direction Morrison's career would take, and where he would want to take us, as readers, as humans.
That's all well and good, and it may sound like nonsense until you've read the comic, so you might be wondering what the comic is really about. Well, it's really about the layers of reality, the relationship between life and fiction, the nature of the comic book medium itself and the idea of transcendence. In other words, it's about what almost all the best Grant Morrison comics are about. But that won't come as any surprise to anyone who has read his comics, and it's without context to anyone who hasn't read his comics. So the question remains: what makes this one different? What makes this one special?
"Flex Mentallo" spins out of Morrison's "Doom Patrol" run, though it was written years later. From Morrison's own accounts, it was an almost ritualistic declaration of a new phase in his life. He'd abandoned comic books for a couple of years after "Animal Man" and "Doom Patrol," using his "Arkham Asylum" money to travel the world. "Flex" is Morrison writing the comic book equivalent of his aesthetic manifesto. His childhood collides with his early comic book writing experiences in the comic itself, and he moves the reader through the history of the comic book medium as a process of purgation. The hero, and the reader, go through a bizarre heroic journey, descending into Hell and back out, cleansed and ready for a new era. "Flex Mentallo" not only marks Morrison's return to superhero comics, it shows that he's moved beyond the cynical view of the traditional hero. Contrast the incompetence of the Justice League during "The Painting that Ate Paris" arc in "Doom Patrol," pre-"Flex Mentallo," to the super-competence of the Justice League during Morrison's stint on "JLA," post-"Flex Mentallo." The series marks his statement about what superhero comics were, and what they should be from now on (as of 1996). And he followed up on that promise throughout the end of the 1990s on to more recent work like "All-Star Superman."
For the record, "Flex Mentallo," though maybe the most purely Morrisonian of all the Morrison comics, is just one of the significant markers along his path as a creator. I'd say that all of his work up until "Animal Man" #5 in 1988 (the "Coyote Gospel" story), and this may sound harsh, would count as his "juvenilia," as interesting as it may be (and "Arkham Asylum," written before "Coyote Gospel," might fall into that category, honestly). Morrison's first significant creative phase would be from "Animal Man" #5 through the end of "Doom Patrol," and then the new phase blasts off with the one-two punch of "The Invisibles" #1 in 1994 and "Flex Mentallo" #1 in 1996. They came out two years apart, but my understanding is "Flex" was written significantly earlier than its release, giving Frank Quitely time to pencil and ink the entire four issue series. "Flex Mentallo," pound-for-pound, is a much better series than "The Invisibles." A crisper declaration of aesthetic principles, arriving shortly before the most recent phase of Morrison's career began with "Marvel Boy" in 2000 and possibly came to an end with the finale of the Dr. Hurt storyline in "Batman and Robin." We'll see if "Batman Inc." is the start of something as different as it feels after the first two issues.
Nevertheless, it's "Animal Man" #5, "Flex Mentallo" #1 and "Marvel Boy" #1 that stand as the towering mile-markers in Morrison's career, and "Flex Mentallo" is by far the best of those three, in overall quality, in significance to Morrison's core concerns, in biographical substance and in artistic beauty.
Because, as is probably obvious, I've been writing a whole lot about what "Flex Mentallo" means in Morrison's larger career, but I've been ignoring poor Mr. Frank Quitely who only manages to provide page after page of amazing looking imagery.
Quitely had done nothing in the American superhero market before "Flex Mentallo" -- he'd done little anywhere else either, with just a handful of Judge Dredd stories, a couple of "Big Book of…" pages and a tale in "Dark Horse Presents" to his credit. But Frank Quitely was ready for "Flex Mentallo," and his work on that series is as strong as anything he has ever produced. His figure work is as detailed as ever, and his sense of physical weight (even in the typical Quitely bean-pole characters) perfectly complements the gaudy-but-spectacular superhero costumes of the dozens of brightly-clad characters who appear, sometimes only in passing.
No, this is a Quitely showcase as much as it is a Morrison one, whether it's the sky full of superheroes or the grim struggle of Wallace Sage, the stand-in for both the reader and the writer, a man who once created entire worlds, but now has seemingly lost the ability to dream of a better future.
"Flex Mentallo" begins with a bomb hurled at the reader, but it's a drawing of a bomb that's power rests in the word "BOMB" written on it's side. Its concussive force rests in the combination of art and language, of pictures and words. That's "Flex Mentallo" for you, in a single panel. But once you finally get a chance to read the whole thing, there's oh so much more waiting inside.
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.
Follow Tim on Twitter: TimCallahan