Each issue of Flex Mentallo is loosely aligned with an era of comics, and the second issue takes us into the Silver Age. The Silver Age was notable for crazy experimentation, often putting straight-arrow heroes, like Superman, into increasingly bizarre situations. The wild identity shifts and malleable realities of 1950s Silver Age comics seemed to presage the explosive cultural changes of the 1960s. For Grant, the wonder and experimentation of the Silver Age was lost as comics moved towards the grittier, reality-based works of the 1980s. The purpose of this series is to synthesize those gritty comics with the more wondrous older works to create a new, post-deconstructionist approach to super-hero comics. That purpose will be fully realized in issue four; for now, we’re still tripping through Wally’s childhood memories.
The issue opens with a trippy flashback in which young Wally sees a bunch of kids shitting on the floor. This scene feels more like a childhood dream or some kind of warped memory as opposed to an actual recollection. On acid, all his memories bleed together, and these fragmented moments grow into something larger. So the fish and castle in the fish tank become a whole city, and a dream might turn into this bizarre shitting memory.
But he doesn’t want to talk about that. He wants to talk about comics, about “something cheerful before [he dies],” and that segues us into Flex and his Silver Age adventures. Flex exists in a world where all his adventures are real, yet he speaks about them in the way we as comic fans do. So Mentallium Man was part of his rogue’s gallery, and he recalls their fight as “one of [his] greatest exploits.”
Flex, despite being the title character of the miniseries, remains a pretty simple character. He had some good times in the old days and doesn’t quite fit it in today’s world. He was born from the mind of a child and never went through the sophisticated updates that other heroes did. This fits with Flex saying that “The ‘Fact’ has escaped like me, into the real world.” His memories are comics; that’s where his adventures took place, but the “real” world he’s in doesn’t seem to be quite like our real world. In the series, there are at least three different planes of reality. Underneath everything is the world where the Legion of Legions lives, the world that was destroyed by the Absolute. On top of that is the world Wally Sage lives in, the world that was built by Nanoman and Minimiss, the world where the super-heroes hide themselves in comics. Then, there’s the fictional reality that Wally Sage invented, where Flex Mentallo and the Fact come from, where they had their initial adventures.
So, has Flex escaped into the Wally Sage reality? Or is his escape into the “real world” more a metaphor for the way comics have changed, for the way that wonder and craziness have been replaced by real world logic and grimness. I’d argue the latter is the case, though in this comic, trying to figure out a strict linear reality is pretty much pointless. It all bleeds together, everything that happens is real, and you just have to enjoy the ride. Later on, Flex meets Wally Sage in the ceramic world. Did this ever “happen”? Is it what Wally is seeing on his acid trip? Is it what Flex is seeing as he seeks the Fact? It doesn’t matter; the significance of the scene is how it shows Wally interacting with a fictional character, the way that kids latch onto super-heroes and look up to them.
Next up, we see Flex facing the many strange varieties of Mentallium, including one that can force him to “explore complex issues of gender and sexuality.” Many Silver Age Superman stories were about a straight-arrow hero struggling to keep his identity secret and his life normal, despite the many, many bizarre transformations he underwent. As Morrison discusses in Supergods, these stories reflect an era of surface conformity with outlandish desires bubbling just under the surface.
Also notable is the idea of the Ultraviolet Mentallium, which can “turn [Flex] into anyone, complete with a whole life and memories.” Much of Morrison’s work centers on awakening experiences. When the characters in The Invisibles met Barbelith, they were reminded of their true selves, they became actualized as the people they were meant to be. Similarly, in this series, the super-heroes exist to show us the world we could have if we can only remember that magic word. The potential is always there, but we choose to wallow in these put-on identities, with the problems and concerns intrinsic therein.
Super-hero comics are a perfect venue to explore these issues because they can turn psychological battles into literal battles. Our identities are so fragile. What makes you who you are? If you change your memories, are you still the same person? This Mentallium is an example of how the most absurd super-hero concepts can actually tell us a lot more about the world we live in than something set in the real world.
Flex’s impending identity crisis bleeds into Wally Sage’s own. Looking in a mirror as a child, Wally saw an infinite reflection of himself. Wally does what writers do, he takes a real-world phenomenon and turns it into a comic book concept. So, the mirrored reflections become “Endless parallel worlds. Infinite versions of [Wally].” On these other worlds, he could be anyone. Does that mean that his individual existence has no meaning? Like Flex, is he subject to the whims of Ultraviolet Mentallium? He concludes that if so many versions of him exist, if his life is so arbitrary, then “it doesn’t matter if [he dies].”
Flex wanders the streets of this dirty town, of the super-hero world post deconstruction, and eventually finds some kids tripping on Krystal. I love the stream of consciousness way Flex just happens onto this place. It has no particular connection to what’s come before, or what will follow in the story, but it fits thematically and just feels right at the time. Sometimes that’s where the best art comes from, just trusting your instincts and doing what feels right in the moment. It turns writing or drawing into something closer to improvisation, that live performance feeling of inventing something on the spot.
The guy in the bathroom looks like a contemporary version of Kamandi and refers to himself as “the last boy on Earth.” He’s a Silver Age character who just doesn’t fit in the world that comics have turned into. So he decides to take this drug that will reveal the entirety of the universe, “Everything that has happened, is happening, will happen, could happen, couldn’t happen,” ultimately revealing that reality is “the imaginary story.” For fictional characters, fiction is reality, therefore reality is fiction. Our world is an imaginary story. So, this whole dark time could just be a bad dream, one they can wake up from if they just find the way.
On one level, this can all be read as a comment on comics and how they’d changed, but I think it also fits with the way a lot of people view the world around us today. There’s this tendency to mythologize the past, to think that everything must have been cooler and more alive back then. For conservatives, it’s the ’50s, this mythic age when Americans were strong, families were normal, and everyone was happy. For liberals, it’s usually the radical ’60s, a time when they really did believe that we could change the world. People want to get back there, but they don’t realize that image is a false construction. Back then, people had the same troubles as we do now, it’s just that those troubles get washed away in a sea of nostalgia.
What this series is really about is growing up. The passage from childhood to adulthood in our society is typically about giving up silly things, ‘childish’ things, and becoming a serious, more productive member of society. You can read the entire passage, from wacky heroes to grim / gritty, as a metaphor for our own growing up. Flex recalls hanging out with his crimefighting buddies, watching My Favorite Martian, which really sounds a lot like being a kid, not having to worry about a job or relationships, just having fun in the moment. Flex is the creation of a child, and in many ways, his purpose in the series is to incarnate the wonder we felt when looking at the world as a child, when it was easy to get lost in crazy comics and to make our own. In issue #1, Wally says that the comics he drew were so “pure.” That’s what Flex is; he’s about tapping into the idea place and coming out with something that shows a child’s new perception of the world, not an adult’s weary one.
But the series isn’t about just cherishing the childhood point of view and creating some kind of prolonged adolescence. It’s about integrating the childhood wonder with the adult world and growing up into a synthesized whole. And as with everything in the series, there’s more than one meaning. Flex isn’t just designed to show the child’s view of the world; in a lot of ways, he’s a child’s view of what an adult should be, he’s noble and kind, the ultimate father, yet devoid of the cynicism of real adults. He calls Tiff, an obvious man dressed as a woman, “Miss.” Flex may be a conservative figure in a lot of ways, but he accepts people for who they are and accepts, without prejudice, people who deviate from the norm. I love that panel where Tiff says “Miss…” because it tells us a lot about what being a hero is. It’s not always battling a villain; sometimes it’s just simple kindness. That kind of sentiment sounds pretty cheesy, but when you play it out as well as Grant and Frank do here, it makes total sense and feels right.
Flex soon finds the Kamandi boy tripping on Krystal. They say that “it makes you feel like a Superman, but then you die.” The drug opens the door to the world underneath our one, the world where the heroes are real. I love when he says, “I just remembered how to turn on my… solo vision.” It’s not that we lost the power, it’s just that we don’t remember it anymore. This leads to a wonderfully trippy series of panels that bring him to cosmic awareness. He has moved outside the game and sees the world for what it is. While cosmically aware, he sees the super-heroes, he sees that they’re waiting to return, and it blows his mind. Like The Invisibles, it’s about evolution; “we’re like ants” next to what the super-heroes are.
It all concludes in a strange, sad series of panels where Flex can’t get the Kamandi boy the crossword puzzle, can’t get him the magic word that will actualize him and save the universe. The man dies, and the world is not yet saved. In many ways, I see this work as a reaction to Alan Moore’s Miracleman. That series was all about trying to contextualize the strangeness of the Silver Age in a real-world context. Of course those wacky adventures weren’t real, they were the creations of a delusional scientist. There, the discovery of the magic word leads to immense amounts of destruction, and our “hero” winds up as a fascist dictator. For Grant, super-hero books have their own logic and morality; of course weird stuff is possible, that’s just how it is in their universe. And of course good always wins, that’s the way their morality is structured.
But, that doesn’t mean the books don’t have something to say about our universe. Wally equates ’50s super-hero comics to the rise of LSD in the ’60s. Those Superman comics were totally insane, and I could easily see them being snapped up by the ’60s counterculture both for the sheer bizarreness and as a commentary on how hollow social norms really are. If Superman can barely keep a normal life together, how could a regular guy hope to do it? And after reading a story where Superman inexplicably is transformed into a guy with a lion’s head, the images Quitely presents here aren’t particularly far fetched.
This history lesson bleeds into Wally’s own personal issues. He wonders why super-heroes couldn’t save us from the bomb, why they “didn’t stop my mum and dad fighting?” The obvious answer is they’re not real. But, that doesn’t work so well in this series. Ultimately, I’d argue that super-heroes are designed to show us a model of how to live our lives. They can give an example that can inspire someone like Wally Sage to live a better life, but they can’t just step in and save him, especially when it turns out that he’s both the hero and the villain of this story. Grant returned to this theme briefly in his aborted The Authority run, which centered on the idea that we know super-heroes can save the world, but can they save Ken’s marriage?
We get another flashback to the weird circle-of-shitting scene, but this time, Wally’s holding an alien’s hand. In The Invisibles, Grant uses those green aliens to represent the Other, be it God or some other extra-dimensional intelligence. It’s the lens society has given us for processing intelligences greater than ours. So until he’s really ready, he’s going to see the super-heroes who created our world as aliens.
Flex goes to a bar and is taunted by Killer Kitten. She’s a totally sexualized super-hero, foreshadowing Flex’s journey next issue. But following this encounter with the worst of what the heroes have become, he’s reminded of the best of what they can be, when an old man tells the story of meeting the Legion of Legions in space. This encounter reminds me a lot of the astronauts encountering Barbelith behind the moon in the last issue of The Invisibles. It’s beautifully drawn by Quitely, a totally visually surreal moment.
In the context of the series, each era of comics is analagous to an era of our own personal growth, and the Silver Age is childhood, when wonder and imagination run rampant and we don’t always see the darker subtext to what we’re doing. Works like Watchmen and Miracleman would bring out the previously unexamined possibilities of super-heroes, they would help the medium grow. And just like Wally as a teenager, on the path to maturity, comics had to reject what came before.