The Transmigration of Flex Mentallo
“It’s not death. It’s something new.” – Lord Limbo
Okay. Who here’s read Flex Mentallo?
I see a couple of hands. That’s good. Just for the record, I’d have answered ‘no’ until about a week ago. A few of you look confused and a little hesitant. Don’t worry about it. There’s no pop quiz. None of this is going to get graded. It won’t be on the final exam.
Okay. Enough of you look confused that I’ll give you some of the background, but beware that the truth of Flex’s story is far more beguiling than his powers of Muscle Mystery, where the twitch of a bicep can shatter concrete or invoke the power of the Bodymind and defuse Certainty-shattering bombs tossed carelessly by Faculty X. The story of Flex Mentallo is something that could have only come out of comics and is just as weird (and sad) as anything else that Grant Morrison has come up with.
Flex started life as a side character in Mr. Morrison’s lauded run on Doom Patrol. Inspired by the Charles Atlas bodybuilding advertisements that used to run in the comic books of yore (I’m just old enough to remember them clearly; Alan Moore made use of them for his Veidt Method ads in Watchmen.) My actual memory of his appearances in Doom Patrol is a bit sketchy, as I’m still reconstructing that run. Originally he showed up as a long-haired, bearded homeless man wandering the streets with no clue as to his heroic true identity. He later revealed himself to be Flex Mentallo, Hero of the Beach, whose powers extended beyond the obvious and merely physical.
Some years after Mr. Morrison finished his run on Doom Patrol, he revisited the character of Flex Mentallo in a 4-issue miniseries, released in 1996 (under the Vertigo imprint.) The character of Flex is clearly the same as the one from Doom Patrol, but the story resides quite neatly in its own continuity (and perhaps could be seen as the ultimate imaginary story, but more on that in a while.) It’s safe to say that Flex Mentallo has nothing to do with the rest of the DC universe as a whole, well, not explicitly. There are certain overlaps and reflections, which I’m not going to spoil for anyone. Some are quite subtle and some smack you in the head like an anvil, shocking in their honesty and sadness.
So, the miniseries comes and goes, mostly without fanfare as far as I can see. Truth be told, I wasn’t following comics all that much in those years, so it’s possible that I missed it. Time passes. Let’s fast forward to 1999 or so. Here’s where things begin to get weird.
Sometime before then, I’d ordered the Charles Atlas course since it was the closest thing to Flex merchandise I could think of and I desperately wanted a Flex Mentallo action figure or poster or something. In one of my last e-mails to the company after finalizing my purchase, I casually mentioned Flex Mentallo as an example of how pervasive and influential Charles Atlas had been on popular culture, that he’d even inspired this fantastic comic book. I recommended that they check it out, and they thanked me for the recommendation.
Surely I do. Unfortunately, this case would be the death of Flex Mentallo.
With lawyers involved, rational discourse has utterly failed. As far as I’m concerned, when companies bring in lawyers, they’ve effectively gone nuclear and there’s no longer any point talking to them. You wait for the explosions, then the fallout, then wait out the half-life of the radiation and life continues.
Though DC effectively wins the case, for some reason they agree to never reprint the Flex Mentallo miniseries as well as any issues of Doom Patrol in which he appeared. You can read the summary judgement of the case at this page. This might make you wonder why DC hasn’t moved forward on any of those trades, even though there’s great demand for ‘em? This is not to say that people don’t want these and don’t have long memories. They do. Just this year at SDCC , Karen Berger (group editor at Vertigo/DC) was asked about the fate of the Flex Mentallo TPB, and her reply was “I can’t talk about that.”
But that’s not the end of Flex. He’s made of sterner stuff than that. Death alone could not hope to contain him.
Though Flex has been killed off in just about every meaningful way (at least in our trade-driven comics economy today) he lives on. A work such as this, of pure imagination and unvarnished love of the silver age, can’t be killed so neatly. Physically, Flex only exists on a few thousand (now fairly pricey) comics. No convenient and affordable trade for him. To find Flex, you either need to have friends who’ve got a copy (and will let it out of their sight long enough for you to read it) or you need to undergo a Quest.
I didn’t know that I was on a quest until I’d read The Invisibles and joined in some online discussion of it and heard the hushed name of Flex Mentallo for the first time. People said that it’s everything The Invisibles was, but managed to pull it all off in 4 multilayered and wondrous issues. People said that it was better than just about anything that Mr. Morrison had written. Being a somewhat newly-converted fan and filled with renewed enthusiasm, I started to look for Flex.
He’s not an easy guy to find. Then again, I don’t use stuff like Kazaa or Soulseek or any of that spyware jazz, so maybe I was just looking in the wrong place. I hear there’s newsgroups where folks swap scans of comic pages, but I’m not into that, really. I’ve got too many to read as it is. But finally, after months of looking up and down Ebay auctions ($40 for the set seems like an average) I was ready to throw in the towel. I’d received derisive snickers from friends who worked at stores when I asked for them to keep an eye out for the distinctive leopard-spotted trunks and godly physique; most of them were looking for copies themselves.
And then one night, I received a message. I can’t relay the contents of that message verbatim, but let’s just say that as a result of it, my quest has come to an end. I’m now an initiate of the great Muscle Mystery (though you wouldn’t know it by looking at me). You ask “was it worth the effort?” and I’ll answer “Indubidably.”
You see, Flex has become something more than a comic book. A comic book is an object, a thing. Yeah, it can spark something magical out of your head when you connect with the page, but Flex has leaped onto another plane. In the series, Flex is revealed to be nothing more than the wish of Wally Sage, brought from the world of fiction into the real world by nebulous powers which may or may not have actually manifested themselves.
In our world, Flex is quite nearly a fiction, an urban myth, a comic that’s spoken of in hushed whispers so as not to arouse the ire of his former publisher or the well-meaning Atlas estate. Occasionally, he crosses over into our world, sometimes in the form of a quarter-bin find, sometimes in an expensive Ebay auction, and sometimes even in the form of Xeroxed pages handed over in a loose-leaf stack. Flex avoided becoming a mere comic book and through death, found himself transformed into something far more rare and far more precious.
Is Flex Mentallo that good? Is it so good that you need to find it in whatever form you can? I certainly think so. It’s a brilliant (though not always subtle) view of the ultimate Silver Age story dropped into the modern world and how all those goofy and ridiculous concepts can cross over into something far bigger than themselves. Imagine a superhero comic plotted by William S. Burroughs or Alain Robbe-Grillet, but with an unabiding love for the sheer mad ideas that can only be properly expressed in comics. Imagine the sweetest, saddest lament for the unrestrained imagination of the silver age being mobbed by black-leather-clad and tooth-gritted vigilanties, guns blazing and oozing sex in their sweat, only to still come out triumphant, not only due to muscle, but to heart.
In some ways, Flex Mentallo is the purest distillation of Mr. Morrison’s pursuit of superheroic themes, though it’s more than that. Ultimately, it’s a testament to the power of our ability to change our own world, though perhaps too figuratively for some. We all can’t just utter a magic word to change our worlds from bad to good, but Mr. Morrison believes the ability is not outside our grasp.
To those of you who think that the fellow who ‘killed’ Flex should be strung up by his extremities, I have this to say. Were it not for him, you wouldn’t have seen the White Queen in Grant Morrison’s run on New X-Men. Once again, Ken Kneisel, upon meeting with Mr. Morrison at SDCC:
We were discussing Emma and what a great suggestion she was and how she was the perfect character for him to write, his “voice”, etc. I even explained to him the dream that had led me to make the suggestion in the first place. The he mentioned that [Emma Frost] was my karma for Flex. I grabbed his arm and said, “You know about that?” He said, “Of course I know about that.” I explained that it was completely unintentional but he seemed to understand already.
Flex was killed without malice or even a realization that the email was like mistletoe to Balder. But then legends are never created on purpose. Legends grow out of history, not out of marketed and pre-planned crossover events. Works of great honesty and imagination fall into history, even if that history is brief in the making.
And for anyone who’s read Flex Mentallo and wants to dig a little deeper, head over to the Flex Mentallo annotations pages, put together a couple of years back by Jason Craft. It certainly enriches the reading experience, though it’s by no means necessary to your enjoyment of it.
Special thanks to Duncan Falconer, Ken Kneisel and Graeme McMillan who all assisted in the writing of this piece.
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