“I just wanted to talk about the comics, see? All those shitty, amazing comics…”
Questions of our existence come at us from different angles. Sometimes we see them head on with a dramatic life event or through deliberate study of Camus, Sartre, or Garfield. Other times they show up unannounced in strange places, like a confounding message on a public bathroom stall door, the discarded remains of a half-eaten gyro, or a funny book starring a Charles Atlas pastiche. This latter appearance occurring in Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery by Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely, Peter Doherty, and Ellie De Ville.
The character of Flex Mentallo first appeared during Morrison’s tenure on Doom Patrol. You needn’t worry about any of that (though I do recommend reading that run on its own), as this story is largely divorced from the DC Universe and his previous exploits. Rather, this gives us a separate adventure of Flex trying to find an old hero, The Fact, and solve a mystery of terrorist attacks that threaten existence. You needn’t really worry about that either (though it’s still highly entertaining to follow), because that’s ultimately a vehicle for ruminations on quasi-autobiographical experiences with comic books via a comics creator (Flex Mentallo’s creator, Wallace Sage) who is attempting to commit suicide, talking into a car phone, in an alleyway.
We’re back into one of Morrison’s favorite motifs of manufactured reality, though here it’s possibly one of their most concrete expressions of it. Although there is a bleakness, a feeling of a world falling apart, it eschews the cynicism of The Filth and instead offers hope coming out of a dying world of superheroes and the power of imagination. Similar to what would come later with the fantastical Joe the Barbarian. Even while poking fun at comics history, showcasing homages to Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns, and expressing an adolescent’s sexual awakening through superhero fetish gear and orgies.
All of it amazingly structured through the artwork of Frank Quitely and Peter Doherty. Quitely is one of my favorite artists overall, but I think there’s a preciseness and a deliberate approach to how he’s visually telling the story in Flex Mentallo that really elevates the work. It’s not just the beautiful page and panel layouts that pay homage to the earlier comics works, it’s also the character designs that hearken back to Justice League and Justice Society characters, the switch between his normal style and a simpler “cartoon” style for Wallace Sage’s art, and the overall crowd scenes that really make this shine. Much like Doherty’s colors, which balance between the darker, more somber aspects of Sage’s life and the bright, hopeful colors of Flex Mentallo and the superheroes populating the world.
It’s interesting how the disparate elements of Mentallo’s mystery are tied together to Sage’s suicide, both visually and through Ellie De Ville’s letters, giving us a mixed case font for Mentallo’s narration boxes, while taking an all caps approach for the dialogue and Sage’s boxes. The latter continuing the look of what you’d expect from a superhero comic.
Flex Mentallo from Morrison, Quitely, Doherty, and De Ville is another building block towards The Invisibles and The Filth, growing out of Doom Patrol, but still standing on its own as a fascinating look at how a comics creator can ultimately create and shape the universe. All packaged in a tidy little mystery of a muscle bound man trying to thwart a shadowy organization.
Classic Comic Compendium: Flex Mentallo – Man of Muscle Mystery
Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery
Writer: Grant Morrison
Artist: Frank Quitely
Colourist: Peter Doherty
Letterer: Ellie De Ville
Publisher: DC Comics / Vertigo
Release Date: May 6 2014 (Deluxe Edition)