The Invisibles is Grant Morrison’s definitive work about our world, the nexus of his philosophical worldview, simultaneously the source and culmination of his ideas about our universe. But there is another world, the super-hero world, and for him, it’s a world that’s just as valid and alive as ours, if not more so. Flex Mentallo is a philosophical treatise on the super-hero comic, the definitive exploration of what makes the form work and why it’s important for the world as a whole. Super-hero comics are a guide to a post human world, and Flex Mentallo is our first step on that journey. It follows up and expands the themes of Doom Patrol and Animal Man and provides inspiration for what he would do later in Seven Soldiers and All Star Superman. It’s a synthesis of sixty years of super-hero stories that mashes up everything that came before and spits it out with a new vision for the future.
Flex is a particularly important work in the context of Morrison’s career for several reasons. For one, it’s his first collaboration with his favorite artist, Frank Quitely. Together, they would go on to create several of Morrison’s most notable works. Quitely’s style is a bold, expressive, and colorful break from the more low-key artists he had collaborated with on his ‘80s and early ‘90s works. Around this time, he started working with more big name, blockbuster artists, and there’s more emphasis on visual spectacle in his work. This change is perhaps best expressed in the shift from people like Steve Yeowell on Volume 1 of The Invisibles to Phil Jimenez on the more glamorous second volume.
Flex is also a key transition work in Morrison’s approach to super-heroes. Before this, he had mostly shied away from straightforward heroics, focusing instead on the troubled outcasts of Doom Patrol or the meta games of Animal Man. Flex is the moment when he embraces super-heroes in all their wild absurdity. It’s Morrison throwing off the shackles of Alan Moore and others’ deconstructionist ‘80s work and paving the way to a brave new day-glo future. Flex would inspire Morrison’s smash hit JLA run and pretty much everything else he’s done since in the genre.
Flex languished in limbo for many years after publication but recently returned to print in a new hardcover edition. It’s not quite clear yet what the return to print has done for the work’s reputation. It seems like most of the people who really wanted to read it had already hunted it down, but it does make it a lot easier to tell people to give it a look. And it’s great that it returned to print shortly after Supergods, since in many ways, this is a more succinct summation of all the themes, history, and ideas contained in that book.
The series begins with a big bang, a cartoon genesis. In The Invisibles, John a Dreams steps outside the game and serves a variety of roles to move the universe towards its predestined ending. The Fact is a similar figure here; he exists at different moments in time and serves as the catalyst for both Flex and Lt. Harry’s quest. If, as the end of the series posits, our world was created as a place for super-heroes to hide in, it would stand to reason that the big bang would be a cartoon bomb, which spirals off into a million pieces of cosmos.
The story begins with an epic zoom-out, moving from the Fact to the cosmos to the Fact again (this time rendered in blue and white, like the kid on drugs’ view of the cosmos in issue 2) and eventually out to an airport diner where Flex stands tall. There is a subtle change in Flex’s visual presentation over the course of the four issues. Here, he’s very much the uncomplicated square-jawed hero, almost a cartoon. He gradually gets “realer” as the series goes on, less out of place in the universe. It ties in to the general progression of the series from Golden Age to Silver Age to Bronze Age to New Age, over the course of the four issues.
Frank Quitely is one of the greatest comics artist of all time, and this series, like everything he does, is a visual masterpiece. The variety of scenes he draws, the worlds he creates, are all amazing. And throughout, the storytelling is totally spot on. To paraphrase Coppola describing Apocalypse Now, this comic isn’t about an acid trip, it is an acid trip. You can read this straight and still go on a mind-bending journey right from that first panel.
Flex loosely draws on the mythology Grant established in his Doom Patrol run. It makes sense that this would be Flex’s next journey after what he went through in the Pentagon, but this Wallace Sage is alive, despite another Wallace Sage dying in Doom Patrol. It doesn’t seem to be a direct continuation, rather it’s an alternate universe take on the story we saw in Doom Patrol, expanded into its own narrative. The frequent jumping between different, loosely-linked realities can make the series difficult to follow. There’s a desire to know which is “real.” Is the Flex story just a vision of this guy who’s tripped out on acid? That would be the logical conclusion, but in the Morrison universe, it doesn’t quite hold. Each story is equally real; Wallace is alive in a world close to ours, and Flex is alive in a world of his own, a world that Wallace Sage created. The act of telling a story is the act of traveling to another world that exists in your own mind, but ideas don’t come entirely from your mind, as we’ll find out later in the series. There is something outside ourselves that we channel into stories, and that’s the place where Flex is. Wallace gave Flex life through the comics he drew, and eventually, Flex will save his creator.
Flex and Lt. Harry talk about Faculty X, an organization that’s devoted to “showing us how fragile the whole system is.” It eventually is revealed that Faculty X is the multi-dimensional form of the Fact, and what he’s doing is preparing them for the imminent return of the super-heroes. That’s why we see paraphernalia from the Legion of Legions in Harry’s cabinet. Notably, the bombs the Fact throws aren’t real, but people still behave like they are. The idea of a bomb, the image of a bomb, can make people react in the same way as a “real” bomb.
This gives way to Wallace Sage reading a story about the Fact and Wax Worker. He talks about how you don’t think and analyze yourself when you’re a kid, “you just do.” The dichotomy between childhood awe and wonder and adolescent doubt is central to the series. Wally gets so wrapped up in his own problems, he loses sight of the wonder of the world around him. He can’t lose himself in those simple pleasures anymore because what once was amazing now just feels kitsch. That’s what happens to a lot of people as they grow up in our world; this layer of irony grows around you, wrapped up in your own failures and perceived inadequacies, and it becomes hard to enjoy the world. Comics are a medium that still struggle to grow beyond “Zap! Bif! Pow! Comics aren’t Just for Kids Anymore,” and so much of that becomes overcompensating. Wally may have been a geeky, lonely kid, and on some level, he still is that kid, hating who he is, hating the stuff he liked. As we find out at the end of the series, it’s that adolescent self hatred that’s the real villain, the inability to love the world the way he used to.
Each issue features a page or two discussing a specific age of comics. On pages 12 and 13 of the first issue, Flex reflects on the simpler times that were the Golden Age. Much like he did with Batman during his run with the character, Grant considers the entire history of comics as a series of events in a single life. So, it’s not like a different Flex lived during the Golden Age, this Flex was alive in the wacky Golden Age and is left to reflect on why his world has become so much darker and more subdued. While I love some deconstructionist super-hero stories, it can’t be too much fun for the heroes themselves to have their worlds torn down.
Things start to get weird when Wallace flashes between petting his cat and standing in the rain, manipulating time and reality. It’s hard to create any sort of linear narrative or strict definition of what’s real, it just sort of flows from moment to moment. I feel like that’s how our minds actually work. When I’m not directly engaged with doing something, I shift between the world around me, a story I’m creating, my own memories, stories that I’ve read or movies I’ve seen, all bleeding together. So, who’s mind is this work taking place in? Whose worlds are we moving through? The logical answer would be Grant’s own. Grant has said he styled Wallace’s apartment after his own, a vision of who he could have been if he’d stayed in a band instead of choosing to write comics. The story is Grant’s most autobiographical, an attempt to integrate all kinds of experiences from his own life into a coherent narrative, bleeding between real memories and the stories he’d created, integrating specific experiences from his own life like a creepy vision during a childhood hospital stay.
One of the strongest things about Flex is the way it explores the actual experience of reading comics and how much of an influence it can be on kids. That’s what sticks with Wally in the end because it’s what helped shape his view of the world. It’s simultaneously something to aspire to and an impossible thing to match. Our world can never be as exciting as theirs, at least not until it is. Lying in the hospital, we get a throwback to Barbelith from The Invisibles. This universe’s Barbelith is a giant green lamp hanging over his hospital bed, “an alien intelligence, watching me, conducting some kind of experiment on me.” Barbelith is typically the source of an enlightenment experience. This is echoed later on when the color green is associated with Limbo, the Third Eye hero who guides Wally to the place where ideas come from. He has to suffer through this experience on his journey to enlightenment later in the series. At the school, Flex speaks to the janitor about the lack of role models for kid sidekicks today. Grant has said that the reason he writes super-hero comics is because he sees the super-hero as the model for future versions of humanity. So, if this model is dragged down in violence and muck, what will become of humanity? We need someone to save us, but we’ve trapped our heroes in the “real world,” we’ve taken away what makes them wonderful. The janitor says, “It’s just people who need saving. The world’s fine as it is.” We can create change through individual action, we don’t need to shift some cosmic paradigm.
The issue ends with Flex stopping another bomb and narrowly missing the Fact once again. The Fact is the spark that ignited the universe; he is, in many ways, God. And he’s also the person Wally is speaking with on the phone this whole time. So, the whole conversation that frames the story is a discussion with God. It’s Wally trying to figure out what his life means and whether he should give up and die or grow beyond his adolescent self and embrace who he could be. He has the crossword puzzle, he just has to find out the magic word. And in the end, it’s his own creation who will save him; a being who emerged fully formed out of his own mind will rise up, take his hand, and show him a better world. That’s what art can do, that’s what comics can do.
The work of Grant’s that comes closest to Flex Mentallo for me is All Star Superman #10. In each case, Morrison uses the super-hero as an aspirational figure, a perfect being we try to live up to, who inspires and saves us when we’re down. All of Flex is contained in the one page where Superman stops Regan from jumping off the building. That’s the essence of this series: when things are at their worst, channel the heroes, live like them. If Superman can destroy an evil sun, surely we can get over a bad breakup or a bout of depression.