Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery Deluxe Hardcover – Apr 10 2012
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"A compelling work by one of the best writers of the modern era...Grant Morrison at his metaphysical prime."--iFanboy
"Morrison and Quitely have the magic touch that makes any book they collaborate on stand out form the rest."-MTV's Splash Page
"The Paul McCartney/John Lennon of comics."--Nashville City Paper
"Writer Grant Morrison and artist Frank Quitely might be the the best one-two punch in comics"--Toronto Metro News
About the Author
Grant Morrison has been working with DC Comics for twenty years, after beginning this American comics career with acclaimed runs on ANIMAL MAN and DOOM PATROL. Since then, he has written such best-selling series as JLA, BATMAN and New X-Men, as well as creator-owned titles as THE INVISIBLES, SEAGUY, THE FILTH, WE3 AND JOE THE BARBARIAN. Morrison has also expanded the borders of the DC Universe in the award-winning pages of SEVEN SOLDIERS, ALL-STAR SUPERMAN, FINAL CRISIS and BATMAN, INCORPORATED, and he currently reinventing the Man of Steel in the all-new ACTION COMICS.
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The character of Flex Mentallo first appeared in DC Comics' DOOM PATROL #35 (by Morrison and Richard Case), looking like a character from a 1950s Charles Atlas advertisement and sporting an origin story that was a parody of Atlas' comic "The Insult That Made a Man out of Mac". There the resemblance ended, however, as the mysterious bodybuilding course he received granted his individual muscles all sorts of super powers, such as altering reality or seeing the future. It was all done in fun, no one was hurt, and things went on as normal.
In 1996, Morrison and Quitely's FLEX MENTALLO mini-series expanded on the character, to much critical acclaim, and DC Comics was slapped with a lawsuit by Charles Atlas Ltd., claiming that the character had damaged their trademark. The prosecution failed to prove that the damage occured, but for some reason I can't fathom, DC agreed to not reprint the miniseries in trade format. Quite a shame, as FLEX MENTALLO was another of Morrison's brilliant examinations of the comic book medium, focusing (as with ANIMAL MAN) on the after-effects of DC's CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS.
NOW HEAR THIS: DC has recently announced that they will be reprinting Grant Morrison's entire DOOM PATROL run in trade format. Hopefully, this will somehow include the Flex Mentallo appearances...
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Flex's origin is also a hilarious parody of those old Charles Atlas funnybook advertisements. You know: skinny dweeb gets picked on by beach bully, sends away for a muscle-building manual. Only the manual Flex received taught him all sorts of esoteric uses for his muscles; now, each muscle was capable of a different power. For example, flexing his bicep might result in an earthquake, flexing his lats might allow him to see the future. And just to really hammer home the Atlas parody, every time Flex strikes his "hero pose," the words "Hero of the Beach" float above him: the exact same slogan that hovered above the character in the Charles Atlas ads.
The issues of "Doom Patrol" with Flex didn't cause any trouble, and this series, published about 5 years later, didn't either. So what happened? Apparently, an overzealous fan brought the "Flex Mentallo" series to the attention of Charles Atlas Company representatives, more out of a "hey, you guys might think this is funny" attitude than anything else. Unfortunately, Atlas saw no humor in it, and threatened DC/Vertigo (the publishers of "Doom Patrol" and "Flex Mentallo") with a lawsuit. Long story short: DC won the case, but the verdict was that a percentage of the profits of anything published in the future featuring Flex would go to the Charles Atlas company. It is only now, years later, that DC is getting around to publishing the remaining issues of Morrison's "Doom Patrol" in trade paperback form, and DC reps claim that it is only sales of these that will promise a "Flex Mentallo" collection. In other words, DC has spent so much money on this lawsuit, they now will only publish "Flex" if the "Doom Patrol" trades sell exceptionally well.
But what about the comic itself? "Flex Mentallo" could easily be seen as Grant Morrison's masterwork, though I still prefer "The Invisibles." "Flex" is not only a celebration of superheroic myth, but also of comics themselves. Each issue represents a different "era" of comics, and the narrative is post-modern and fractured to a point. It's also one of the more literary comics out there, and will no doubt turn away those looking for mindless action and violence. "Flex" would appeal to only a select few readers; its fame these days is no doubt due to its rarity, but also to the rising fame of Morrison and Quitely (who later worked together on "New X-Men.")
Issue #1 gives tribute to the "Golden Age," those comics from the `30s and `40s with simple good-versus-evil plots, where the hero usually won by knocking the villain out cold. We see that "Flex" seemingly takes place in a different reality than the "Doom Patrol" comics; no mention is made of the Patrol or any other DC heroes. Flex is about to enjoy an egg sandwich in the local diner when a shadowy figure hurls a bomb at a group of people. Flex uses his muscles to scan the bomb, and it turns out to be a fake. The police call Flex in for help in the investigation; turns out these fake bombs are showing up everywhere. Flex suspects that his old partner-in-crimefighting, The Fact, is somehow involved, and resolves to get to the bottom of it. Meanwhile, in another narrative, a young rock star named Wallace Sage, the man who created Flex as a child, has just taken loads of drugs in a bid for suicide, and calls up the Samaritans. All he wants to do is talk about comic books before he dies.
Issue #2 is the "Silver Age," the weird and psychedelic comics of the `50s and `60s. Flex continues his quest to find The Fact. Along the way he reminisces about his past adventures, all of them Silver Age-type goofiness. (The issue also features one of the very best splash pages I've ever seen: a shot of Flex squaring off against his Silver Age nemesis "The Mentallium Man.") First Flex comes across a group of delinquents who are shooting up with a lethal drug that unleashes the hero within. Then he discovers there is a group of superheroes who might be able to help him; apparently they're the last such group of costumed fighters left in the world. They're called "The Legion of Legions," and Flex sets off to find them. Meanwhile, Wallace Sage continues his drug-hazed diatribe with the Samaritans, espousing on his love of comics. He also tries unsuccessfully to free a buried memory, something that happened to him as a child.
Issue #3 is the "Dark Age," those `70s and `80s comics that swayed into nihilism, with heroes just as dangerous as the villains: comics like Frank Miller's "Dark Knight Returns." Journeying into the underground of the nameless city this takes place in, Flex begins to question the bizarre adventures he had back in the Silver Age; very nice commentary by Morrison on the incongruity of continuity-heavy comics. Things get even more unreal as Flex discovers an underground club for "adult superheroes." Here Frank Quitely unleashes every costume he can think of, as we witness at least a hundred different heroes in various, exquisitely-detailed costumes engaging in all manner of "adult" situations. It's a costumed orgy, and Flex warily makes his way through it, trying to find the transporter tube that will take him to the Legion of Legions headquarters. Wallace Sage continues his soul-plumbing, and finally remembers his suppressed memory - as a child, he actually met a group of superheroes. And in a third narrative, the crusty police chief from issue #1 hooks up with supervillain "The Hoaxer," and the two of them set off to find Flex and help him "save the world."
Issue #4 is the "New Age," or what I gather Morrison hopes comics will one day be: positive myths in which readers discover that they themselves are superheroes. But first we witness how actual superheroes invaded our reality, centuries ago, as their reality was destroyed in a "Crisis on Infinite Earths"-type tragedy. Crashing into our reality, they embedded themselves in our imaginations; this is why comic books were invented, Wallace Sage realizes. The heroes in our subconscious are using them to show us WHO we can really be; we're all heroes, ourselves. The crusty chief and The Hoaxer pass through the "adult club" from issue #3, finding everyone there dead. The two of them use the transporter tube to go to the Legion of Legion headquarters, and there they team up with Flex to defeat the "villain" behind everything, a man-on-the-moon faced opponent who turns out to be none other than Wallace Sage. Or Wally, that is - here he is a cynical teenager who confuses "realism with pessimism," as Flex puts it. Flex gets the best line in the series here, when he tells Wally: "Being clever's a fine thing, but sometimes a boy just needs to get out of the house and meet some girls." The series ends with Wallace Sage rejoicing in the hero within, and the formerly-repressed superheroes of our imaginations being set free into our world.
But that's just a recap of the narrative elements of "Flex Mentallo." There's a lot going on in this series. In many ways it's even an autobiography, as a lot of Wallace Sage's memories are no doubt Grant Morrison's own. Even the illustrations are post-modern, referencing other comics in both style and manner. There are also little in-jokes; in issue #2, Flex goes to a coffee shop, and you can easily spot Clark Kent and Ozymandius (from "Watchmen") dining inside. Morrison is on-form throughout, and it's easy to see why he considers this to be one of the best things he's written. (Incidentally, the fact that "Flex" has been blocked from publication as a trade collection sends Morrison into fits of rage.)
Frank Quitely's artwork is a joy to behold. Quitely's style is a mixture of cartoonish and finely-detailed. It doesn't look like anyone else I can think of, and his art here is without question the best I've ever seen in a comic. His work on "Flex Mentallo" is probably his best ever, and even Morrison stated it was "the most beautiful artwork to ever grace one of my scripts." Quitely himself once claimed "Flex Mentallo" was "more important than the Bible for comic fans," returning the compliment.
So, let's hope one day soon you'll be able to press "add to shopping cart" immediately after reading this review. DC has made several positive comments recently about "Flex" being published in trade form, so don't spend an arm and a leg on those back issues. Have faith, because it seems fairly certain that this book will appear someday. The sooner the better - when I'm in the mood for a re-reading, I'm usually too lazy to get the issues out of storage. Pretty lazy, I know. Flex needs to give me a good talkin' to.
Fortunately, this book is quite a "Deluxe" edition, as DC/Vertigo applied the Fables Deluxe series standard of quality:
- The paper stock is glossy and heavy weight and the printing quality is great.
- The book features a full-color printed hardback under the dustjacket (unlike the rest of DC/Vertigo HCs that have just a shamelessly dark grey presentation. That's right, dark grey, not even true black).
- It's a solid glued binding book. Of course I would have liked a sewn one, but given that this is a slim volume and there's almost no gutter loss, I can totally live with the glued binding.
Other good things to consider:
- The dustjacket features a new illustration by Frank Quitely, really beautiful.
- The original comics were re-coloured for the ocasion. I'm usually against re-colouring, but in this case I'm happy with the results. The original comics were presented in a typical mid-nineties digital colouring fashion that hasn't aged that well. The new colouring is a great enhancement that respects the original intent, but with a much better use of the tools.
- We get a 14-pages section of extras at the end of the book, with sketches and original artwork by Quitely.
- We also get a 4-pages prologue which was previously featured in issues #2 and #4 of the original series as a 2-part article section.
- Finally, the overall design of the book is quite nice and eye-catching.
This is a great opportunity to get this series, it was out of print for legal issues for about 15 years and was nearly impossible to get due to the insane bidding prices. Get this book, OWN IT, because this is the kind of work that you will read once and again and again and again, and then again and again. That's just how multilayered this book is!
People who aren't intimately familiar with comic book mythos might be a bit confused, if not outright lost, by the sheer volume of references that give this book a lot of its kick. However, there is still a damn good tale about madness, death, isolation, love, magick, the people we could have been and the people we were.
The fact that Morrison manages to cram this into four short comic books is a testament not only to his skill as a writer, but also to the power of the medium.
Of course, that's all a moot point, because due to copyright issues, this trade will probably never be published. Still, if you can find the individual issues, they are well worth it.
In 1996, Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely created (or, "brought back" if you want to buy into the mythos) "Flex Mentallo, Man of Muscle Mystery".
It ran for four glorious issues.
Then it disappeared.
It was one of the most complex, weird, wacky, dark, light, hard to follow (you REALLY had to read it 2/3 times to get the timelines/worlds straight. And even then you had to go back and forth to make sure that where you thought you were was, in fact, where you were), hard to stop reading, series... well, ever!
It was also a love song.
What Shakespeare felt for his "Dark Lady"
What Abelard felt for Heloise
Morrison & Quitely Felt for comics.
And that was part of the problem.
It was so "inside", the number of people who could get it, let alone those willing to make the effort to try, was, apparently, too limited.
Well... times have changed.
The audience for Comic books has grown so we can even pretend to call them Graphic Novels.
And... Flex Mentallo is back.
Will YOU love it?
See the opening quote.
But here's the thing, on a second run through I started to consider the possibility that maybe on this occasion Grant Morrison was successful. Maybe what I was reading was one of the best comics I have ever read; one that might even break into my top 10 list that includes comics like Watchmen, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Kingdom Come. I am so reflexively put off by Morrison's endless attempts at creating a mystical reading experience, an experience that often contains more gibberish than enlightenment that I couldn't see clearly. I absolutely love this book. I've seriously enjoyed other books by Morrison (and despised others) but this one perhaps more than any other really struck home.
Flex Mentallo was created by Morrison way back in 1990 appearing first in the Doom Patrol and then in his own four issue mini-series which is collected here. Holding his place as one of the most bizarre DC heroes ever Flex is essentially a comic character brought to life.... in a comic. Literally, he is Mac from the old Charles Atlas ads who followed Atlas's training routine to gain muscle and beat up the bully who kicked sand in his face. His title of `The Man of Muscle Mystery' is an apt name for his ill defined muscle powers which he only uses a couple of times throughout the series. He walks the streets in animal prints with his ultra manliness and when he uses his Muscle Mystery the words `Hero of the Beach' shine above his head in bright lights. But the book isn't about a muscleman in printed briefs. It's about imagination and creativity and dying and living and the place of comic books in our lives. The capper for me was the great ending that really left it up to the reader to decide what happened.
If you're looking for a humorous book filled with superheroes check out Top-10 by Alan Moore but if you're looking for a surreal almost David Lynchesque experience this is the one. Morrison describes it as `ultra-post futuristic'. I would call it a self aware comic deconstruction. Bravo to Morrison and bravo to Frank Quitely for his marvelous visuals. Morrison has produced a book that is thoughtful and truly deep rather than just mumbo jumbo. I have written probably a dozen reviews on Grant Morrison and have lambasted him on some of his serious misfires but this one is a homerun and will hold a prominent place in my collection. I am now changing my stars from four to a highly deserved five. BTW: If you enjoy the comic deconstruction of Flex Mentallo I heartily recommend `The Supreme: Story of the Year' by Alan Moore.