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CSBG Archive

365 Reasons to Love Comics #192

Another day, another dive into the psychedelic brain of Grant Morrison, one of the greatest minds in comics. Today, I talk about my favorite comic book of all time. It’s the one that blew my mind and changed my life. Let’s get to it. (And let’s also link to the archive).

7/11/07

192. Flex Mentallo

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Our pal Greg Burgas just wrote about Flex last month, I know, but I can’t let Flex not appear on this list, and this week is the best time to put him in. Greg’s piece was brilliant, of course, so read it now if you haven’t, and read it again if you have.

I too have written about Flex Mentallo before, two years ago, on my other blog that I rarely fiddle with anymore. Shortly after I wrote it, Cronin invited me to join Comics Should Be Good. I’ll always thank Flex for that. I hope you don’t mind if I re-use the images from that. And maybe some of the points I made. Because of my close relationship with the book (not in a creepy way or anything), my having written about it before, and me posting this so close to another great analysis of the book from this very site, I’d have to say this particular entry is the hardest one to write yet. But, what the hell. Onwards!

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Flex Mentallo was a four issue mini-series, which, like every comic we’ve looked at so far this week, was published by Vertigo. Like yesterday’s entry, it was written by Grant Morrison and drawn by Frank Quitely, G-Mozz’s greatest collaborator. I believed his comic marked the first time they ever worked together. It also happens to be the greatest comic book ever made, though your mileage may vary.

The character of Flex Mentallo originally appeared in Grant’s Doom Patrol run. He was a parody of the Charles Atlas bodybuilding character from the old ads. DC got sued over it by the Atlas Estate. DC won, but apparently refused to reprint the Flex mini, so it has become a hidden relic, a holy grail of comics collecting. It’s also stolen off the internet a lot. When I first read Flex, I hadn’t read Doom Patrol– in fact, as I write this, I still haven’t read the whole run, as I’ve only made my way through four trades of it. That didn’t stop me from loving it, though.

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As I said above the fold, this comic changed my life. I got it, I read it, my mind blew up. I was high on comics. It made me believe in superheroes– and if it hadn’t achieved that, I probably wouldn’t be typing this right now. It completely cemented my unabashed love of the comics medium and the narrative device of the superhero, which is the greatest literary invention of the 20th century and, yes, has become like unto a modern mythology. The Flex mini tells us why and explains that the superheroes are living in humanity’s collective unconscious (very Jungian), in the Land of “Where-You-Get-Your-Ideas.” This comic is, at its core, a love letter to superheroes. Unfortunately, it’s not mainstream friendly, and actually requires a lot of knowledge about the comic book industry to fully comprehend, but luckily it’s also got some delicious themes that are universal, and not just for comic lovers.

There are quite a few other characters besides the brawny, archetypal Flex, of course. The other main character is Wally Sage, the creator of Flex Mentallo– Flex knows he was once fictional, you see, and was made real. Wally’s the guy who created him, but this is another version of Wally, one dying in an alley and working his way back through his life story on a suicide hotline. He finds his ramblings drifting back to comics and superheroes, the embodiment of his childhood imagination which he’s yearning to reclaim. The villain of the whole book turns out to be the adolescent Wally Sage, who’s going through a phase of superhero hatred. Flex and a few other characters (I’ll get to them in a second) defeat him (Flex: “Being clever’s a fine thing, but sometimes a boy just needs to get out of the house and meet some girls”) as the adult Wally Sage finds his “magic word” and ushers the superheroes back into the world, to save the day once more. Wally’s story is about ideas, imagination, the correlation between cynicism and maturation, and the ability to choose one’s own destiny. It’s powerful stuff, and really affected me.

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Minor, but still important characters include the “villainous” Hoaxer, whose arc is all about, in a roundabout way, self-deception and imagination. There’s also Lieutenant Harry, who undergoes tragedy (his wife dies of cancer), who gives into despair, who has nothing left except himself and a useless fish, and who, even though he swears he doesn’t believe in them, helps bring back the superheroes. He teams up with Flex and the Hoaxer to defeat the Man in the Moon, and brings hope back to the world. Here he is, along with the Hoaxer, in what’s maybe my favorite panel in the whole thing:

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Flex also meets an entire cast of marvelous, frightening, utterly bizarre characters living in a ridiculous and weird world. Frank Quitely’s art shines in this book. He hadn’t reached the artistic heights of his later works, but he gets a chance to draw beautifully ugly people and creatures, and deftly handles every strange thing Morrison throws at him, from the Mentallium Man to Wally Sage’s mundane life to the underground superhero orgy. As always, he sells the emotion, he sets the mood, he gives us terrific layouts and tells the story perfectly, riffing on all sorts of comic tropes. It’s great art.

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The mini-series is post-modern, yes, and self-aware, and deconstructive, and reconstructive. It analyzes reality and fiction and decides that they’re the same thing. It’s not just a comic; it’s an experience. Here, let me share a paragraph from the old piece I wrote on Flex, because I don’t think I could say it any better now:

“Welcome,” says the comic. “You have been inhabiting the first ultra-post-futurist comic: characters are allowed full synchrointeraction with readers on this level.” It is after this that Wally Sage discovers and says the magic word that brought the universe into being, and the world is transformed; the superheroes become real once more, seen in a breathtaking final page as they soar into the sky. It all hinges on the power of belief; belief in life and love and comics and superheroes and the world. It gives us hope for the world and the future, and a renewed appreciation for the concept of the superhero.

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Flex Mentallo shows us the hidden majesty behind the mundane– the fantasy inside the reality. Yes, it changed my life. I didn’t just want to be writer– I needed to be a writer. Specifically, I needed to write comics, the ultimate art form. And, you know, I’m working on it. This comic is about the power and the truth of fiction. It’s about ideas. And ideas are the most powerful things of them all.

Well, that’s my bit on Flex. Maybe I’ll write about it every two years. That’ll be fun. If you’re interested in even more on Flex after this post, the old one, and Greg’s awesome piece, you’re in luck. I’ve got Flex Mentallo annotations for you, and other great looks at Flex here and here. Dig it!

As for a wrap-up, well, I’ll leave it to Flex to end this one:

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18 Comments

This comic was so impressive, I bought two extra sets when it came out to give to friends. (I wonder if they still have them?) That was YEARS ago! If I’d've known that we’d never see a trade, I’d've bought lots more. Think of all the late(r)-to-the-table Grant fans I could selling it to! I never Ebay; how much is a run worth, I wonder?

Are we going to see Zenith this week? As a lad who grew up reading 2000ad, it has a special place in my heart.

I didn’t get it. It sucked.

This is one of those books that will either blow my mind, or completely let me down, presuming that I can ever find a copy.

I wasn’t blown away the first time, but it’s one of those books that have stuck in my mind and caused me to read it again a few times and appreciate it more each time.

I read this and I’m a better man for havind read it.

“I’ll be right here if you need me.”

Tom Fitzpatrick

July 11, 2007 at 8:24 pm

For those of you who are looking for back issues of Flex Mentallo:

Try: http://www.dougcomicworld.com/

The catalog still lists the whole set.

Fantastic series. I need to dig it out of the loft to reread it.

Looks interesting… I’m a relative newcomer, and a late developer too. I’ll add it to my list.

Every time I read Flex, I’m finding more and more stuff in there. It’s so complex. Adam_Y, you should definitely try and read it by any means necessary, even just for Quitely’s amazing detailed work.

“The catalog still lists the whole set.”

They don’t have a price, though, which I think means they don’t have ‘em.

“I never Ebay; how much is a run worth, I wonder?”

I’ve seen it go anywhere between $20 and $60.

“in fact, as I write this, I still haven’t read the whole run, as I’ve only made my way through four trades of it.”

From what I understand, DC has said that they will reprint this series in trade if ‘Doom Patrol’ sells well enough. So… BUY MAGIC BUS.

Especially because ‘Magic Bus’ has, back-to-back, two of the best cliffhangers *ever*.

Honestly, I can’t imagine this series will stay out of print for more than another year or so. I know DC isn’t great about trades, but Morrison and Quitely are on their best and (at least one of) their biggest book, and it sells ridiculously well. I’m 100% positive it will be released, but I bet it will have a higher price (17.95, maybe even 19.95) to make up for the money lost to the lawsuit.

Wait, I don’t get what its about.
Its about some guy who can bring superheroes to life, but he has a split personality?

One day I might be lucky enough to get to read this for myself.

I’ve always liked to cite Flex as explaining why a 30-something (well, 40-something now) man can still enjoy reading comics, and nothing has changed my mind since, despite the best efforts of DC and Marvel…

The ending, when Vic realized what the crossword puzzle word is that he’s been trying to figure out for the whole series, and looks at the reader with a “heh” expression, gives me chills every time. yeah, I’m strange like that.

A set sold on Ebay a few days ago for $131. (Seriously.)

Flex is easily the most complete summation of everything I love about superheroes ever. I’ve got a couple half-finished drafts on my own site about it, but I always choke– I don’t know if I can do it justice. It’s that important. Flex has what can best be described as my mission statement with regards to comics, too.

I just wanted to talk about the comics, see? All those shitty, amazing comics…

FM says so much in such little space. “Why do people get so ashamed of things?” is just one of many lines that stick in my head.

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