Grant Morrison’s Day-Glo Years:

Flex Mentallo, Part 3: “Dig the Vacuum”

Issue 3 of Flex Mentallo brings us into the “dark age” of super-hero comics, starting with the Dark Knight parodying cover, which even features faux autographs from the creators. This quickly segues into a Watchmen style rainy city and gritty captioned voiceover. What Morrison does here is evoke the spirit of those books in the same way he evokes the Silver Age — by simultaneously pointing out its ridiculousness and paying tribute to what made it successful. If you’ve read early issues of Animal Man, you know how much of an influence Moore was on Morrison back then, and the opening page shows that he can still capture that feel. Morrison undermines this when Harry says, “Jesus! When did I start talking to myself?” — as if a caption box is inherently more realistic than a thought bubble.

Back at home, Harry’s wife dreams of two people buried in a cigarette pack, residual memories of Nanoman and Minimiss seeping back into the world. However, the world they’re seeping into is one filled with worrying and fear. She’s constantly scared, unable to watch the news because it makes her feel bad. I’ve seen a lot of people like this in the real world, who are so inexplicably scared of everything, who read the news just to talk about whatever awful events were reported on that day. The sadder the story, the more worthy of discussion it is.

This ties into the mindset that the best is behind us and we’re living in a world on a downward spiral. Why do people feel this way? It all ties in to a fear of change. The world is evolving, not every part of that evolution is good, but societal change will always happen. Today’s Grand Theft Auto is yesterday’s gangster rap, the proof that this generation of kids is irrevocably messed up. Change is scary, but the world we live in now has to die to make the new one.

This issue is all about the hard times we must go through on our journey to the light. Before things can get better, they have to get really bad. The Filth ends with Greg using all the shit he has to deal with to fertilize his flowers, a perfect summation of the themes of a lot of Morrison’s work; the idea that we have to suffer through bad times because that’s what makes us stronger. I think it’s a valid point; that people can go along in destructive patterns and it’s not until they absolutely bottom out that they really do something about it, and change their lives for the better. The temporary pain is worth it in the long run.

I’ve had this debate with people before, and the opposing point is usually, but what about the starving child in Africa who dies because he has no food? What point does his suffering have? That’s a tougher call. Morrison’s work is written with the mindset of someone in a fairly stable society, one where not many people are starving to death, and his philosophical points come out of that perspective. But, I’d argue on a societal level, the people worse off are there to remind us of how we all need to change things. It may be awful for the individual, but the more people suffer that fate, the more we will all work to make things better for everyone. The thing is, we’re only just becoming aware on a global level, so it’s hard for people to think beyond themselves, or their own country, and recognize that we need to help everyone. That’s our next evolution, to become a single global society.

Back at the police station, Harry meets with the Hoaxer. The concept behind the Hoaxer ties into the illusory nature of our reality in the series. With only a magazine and a flashlight, he can make Harry believe he’s in the woods, just as the superheroes are able to construct our entire universe as an illusion to hide in. We believe it’s real, but in actuality it’s a construction, our own kind of prison. But, as the Hoaxer says, “implicit in the design of any prison is the means of escape from that prison,” in this case, it’s the magic word. 
His hoax also has resonance with storytelling itself. With just words and pictures, Morrison is able to make us believe we’re in this wild super-hero universe, not just sitting there holding a comic.

Next, we trip through various events in the life of Wally Sage. This is the bad part of the trip; all his fears and negative feelings spiraling in his mind, motivated by the guilt and self-loathing at the core of his being. Essentially, the series is about the character coming to terms with who he is, recognizing that the parts of himself he hates and thinks are immature are a part of him, and just as valid as anything else. Society teaches us that we have to behave a certain way, to give up ‘childish things’ like comics, as we grow up, but there’s no particular reason for that. The more crazy ‘childish’ things we give up, the more we become the same. 

Wally begins by asking where we get our ideas from. In the case of this series, ideas come from the bleed between the super-hero universe and our own. The super-heroes seed themselves into fiction to remind us that they’re out there. That’s visually conveyed in the panel with Nanoman and Minimiss, in which Nanoman is imprisoned and she touches him. Our minds touch their prison and come back with information.

The rest of the sequence is less connected to the overall narrative of Flex Mentallo, and more interesting as an exploration of the character’s (and, by extension, Morrison’s own) psychology. One of the most damning and relatable things is the scene where his girlfriend says he writes songs about love, but doesn’t really feel it. As someone who writes, I have that same kind of reaction to bad stuff happening that Wally does when he says “Maybe I can get a song out of it.” Art is the transformation of feeling into song or film or comic. You pour emotion into it, and hopefully emotion comes out in the viewer. But, at the same time, when does creating art put a distance between you and the world?

Wally is more concerned with the conceptual idea of love than the actual experience of it, and that’s why he ends up pushing everyone he cares about away, sitting in an alley alone, dying. 

The reason Wally can’t emotionally engage with anyone ties back to his adolescent self-loathing, manifested in the Moonman next issue. All of his guilt in this issue seems to tie back to the drawings he made of Thundergirl and Supernova naked. In doing this, he turns the comics that sparked his imagination as a child into something elicit and wrong. He is literally using the pieces of his childhood for adult purposes, and that creates a vortex of emotional uncertainty. He feels like it’s wrong, and wants to “sick it all out,” but this is a natural part of growing up.
Morrison did the same thing as a teenager, another example of just how directly the series is pulled from Grant’s own experience.

The problem for Wally is that he isolated himself and didn’t engage with the world around him. He says “who needs girls when you’ve got comics?” But that isolation led to both his messed up relationships and an inability to deal with women on a meaningful level. He imagines the girl in the alley, who looks like Thundergirl, being raped, a manifestation of the way in which he has corrupted the heroes. He can’t engage with a pure hero like Flex anymore, he has spread the seed of destruction on the comics he once loved. The super-heroes have become “as fucked-up as the fucking rejects who write about them and draw them and read about them.”

He’s at his low ebb of self-loathing here, saying that there’s “no one left to care about us. No one at all.” Except, there is. Flex is the piece of him that remains untainted by all his guilt, and that good piece of him can pass through the dark and save Wally. More than the two previous issues, there’s a direct correlation between Flex’s adventure and what we see Wally going through. Flex, the symbol of childhood, passes through the confused sexuality of adolescence, while we see Wally’s flashbacks to the same period in his own life.

Flex ponders the issues raised by the dark age of comics, and tries to find “rational explanations for past weird adventures,” likely a reference to Moore’s Miracleman, which posited that all the crazy Silver Age adventures were mental hallucinations generated by a scientist to train super-heroes. Flex passes Faculty X on his way through the sewer and ponders if they are “only one man, pretending to be dozens.” That’s the case, Faculty X is the Fact split through time, it is one core of being taken and spread throughout the timestream. I like the notion that “the bombs that Facutly X use destroy not objects but certainties.” That ties in nicely with the notion of growing up, the idea that we have to shed the things we believe in and take on new attitudes. It can be hard to lose that belief, but it’s part of our evolution.

Wally plunges deep into self-loathing, unable to express himself to his girlfriend for no particular reason other than the simple fact that he has built this emotional wall and won’t break through it. He tries to remember the magic word that will liberate him, but can’t; he’s stuck in his dark period. The heroes can’t give the word to him, they can only help him find it himself.

Next up, we find Flex journeying into the dark underbelly of ‘adult superhero’ world. The narrative captions get a bit screwy here as the blue boxes typically associated with Flex now put Flex in the third person. If Wally is the creator of Flex, is he also the architect of Flex’s narrative? Is he projecting himself, as Flex, on this mission? I think you can read it that way, certainly it’s what’s encouraged by the first/third person slip. Wally would have taken Flex down in to this mire as a way of indulging the same desires he had earlier when drawing Thunder Girl.

The way Wally sees it, this reading strips the characters of their power, and I think that’s the goal of a lot of these ‘dark age’ comics. A book like Identity Crisis takes out the superpower elements and reduces the villain to simply a rapist. The brilliance of the super-hero concept is in its ability to take the issues we face everyday and turn them into battles of cosmic importance. It’s the same issue that came up with the crying Doctor Doom 9/11 story set in the Marvel Universe – the rules aren’t the same there. Nobody’s going to get worked up about a terrorist attack when cities are destroyed seemingly everyday.

From there, the blue captions seem to focus exclusively on Wally’s discussion of the events. He goes on a self loathing/revelatory rant, and comes to the conclusion that Frederic Wertham was right; comics really are just twisted adolescent power fantasies. This approach to comics is just another way of undermining them. People who don’t want to engage with the social importance of super-heroes write them off as simple adolescent power fantasies.

There’s a fundamental appeal to the secret identity concept, and on some level, we all have secret identities. To others, we appear as mild-mannered whoever, doing his/her own thing and going along. The world at large isn’t aware of the churning mess of ideas and emotions that lives within everyone’s brain. One of the things I really hate in contemporary pop culture narratives is the fetishization of the outsider, implying that only the rejects have something going on beneath the surface, and your ‘ordinary’ person leads an unexamined life. Some people are more analytical than others, but everyone has their own issues, everyone wants things they can’t have and wants to be someone they’re not. Everyone’s striving for something, everyone has a side they don’t show the world.

On a purely visual level, the orgy sequence is a major success. There’s such a sleazy vibe to all the images, particularly the way Quitely abstracts human form. The giant woman is just a body, no face, only her sex organs matter. Other panels are simply a mash of entwined limbs and bodies, all engulfing Flex. Quitely always seems to draw books where he winds up drawing scenes with hundreds of super-heroes, and he always manages to give them all unique, interesting designs.

This whole reverie ends with Wally quoting the ubiquitous newspaper headline of the late ’80s and ’90s: “Zap! Pow! Look Out! Comics aren’t just for kids anymore.” The inherent thinking there is that adults wouldn’t want to read the sort of crazy stories put out in the Silver Age, they’re only interested in “serious” work with adult themes and violence and sex. I’ll be the first to say that a lot of Silver Age comics were awful, just as a lot of ‘Dark Age’ comics were awful, but I think it’s reductive for society to decide that those crazy adventures of yore were only for children. The whole super-hero orgy works as a rebuke of this, pointing out how hollow and sad some of those super-hero deconstructions were. The concept is about being able to go anywhere and do anything, why stay stuck on the street level?

It’s not about not writing “grim and gritty” comics, it’s about remembering that comics can be anything, and you don’t have to be sad to be mature. If there’s one message to this work, it’s that there’s nothing childish about being happy and embracing the wonder of the world.

Next, Wally sees himself at the nexus of multiple universes. The next panel, with the skeleton from the ban the bombzine implies that his childhood memories are colliding with the present, his mind is losing touch with its footing in time as he slips further and further into the acid trip. The skeleton is another image drawn from Morrison’s childhood, from his parents’ work as anti-nuclear activists.

The bottom two panels of that page raise the question “How could you love anybody the way you loved Thundergirl? You try and it’s like heaven…But it’s only like heaven. It’s not heaven, is it?” This line has a lot of possible interpretations. In the context of the narrative, it refers to the idea that our world is just a construction, Thundergirl is at the core of things, and the illusions we put on the surface will never match the teeming essence of life at the center.

When Wally says the magic word, he unleashes that realer reality and experiences life in a way he never had before.

  But, our world most likely isn’t based around a core of super-heroes. So, the line reads more as a psychological issue for Wally. He’s grown up so immersed in this fiction, he’s been living with these archetypal essences, the gods of our reality reincarnated in the form of fictional beings. So, maybe it’s not such an unreal conclusion, is it? What Morrison does in JLA is equate each of the seven heroes with a Greek god, and he puts them through epic stories that play as modern myth, full of the same larger than life symbolic narrative that characterized Greek mythology. According to him, super-heroes are the contemporary incarnation of the same gods that have recurred throughout our history. They have been made obsolete in religion, so they have to show themselves to the world in this new form.

 But, still, isn’t it kind of sad that he could never love anyone like he loved Thundergirl?

A lot of the work is about the adolescent Wally’s inability to come to terms with the fact that his life isn’t like the comics, isn’t as crazy and exciting as Flex. In Flex’s own narrative, we see a desire to return to simpler times, and Wally shares that. Nothing in his life can live up to the idealized childhood he created, and no real woman can live up to the idealized woman he built out of the super-heroines he read about. But, at the same time, this very fact makes him feel bad, he doesn’t want to feel that, he wants to feel ‘normal,’ but it just won’t work. Flex punctures this whole self-indulgent mytholigization of struggle next issue, as we’ll soon see.

Wally trips through various moments from his life next. He and his girlfriend pass from regular reality to the ceramic village world. The ceramic village is the secret lair of his self-loathing adolescent self, still drawing him in and trapping him in old, bad patterns, as will be revealed next issue.

Next, we go back to the circle of shitting image from earlier, but this time they’re around an exploding nuclear bomb. The circle of boys, with Wally on the outside seems to represent his fear; fear of exclusion, fear that there’s some massive unseen force out there working to destroy him. Young Wally equated the bomb with a comic book apocalypse; it is an element of the irrational fear that powers the Moonman.

Wally has constructed a whole narrative of abuse or abduction, likely because that’s how our society teaches kids to deal with the things that happened to them. There’s this relentless drone of fear drummed into us, psychologists dig into the psyche seeking childhood traumas to blame for adult failures. But there doesn’t need to be some huge mysterious problem; it can be as simple as an encounter with the unknown. The unknown can seem scary until you face it. Here, young Wally seems to have dealt fine with meeting Lord Limbo, but over the years, he has deemed this impossible, and turned this good memory into a mysterious, dark experience.

The notion that super-heroes show us where we get our ideas from is interesting. In JLA, Morrison had Metron say that super-heroes would provide the guide for human evolution, and that’s been a recurring theme in his work. They are our template for post-human existence, and you could argue the army of super-heroes surging the world at the end of the series is really just the next stage of humanity actualizing itself. In that sense, the final scene is the same moment as the last issue of The Invisibles, just seen from a different angle.

Ultimately, this issue’s journey into darkness parallels Wally’s own trip through adolescence. As a teenager, it’s easy to hate everything around you, to react and rebel against everything you were in an effort to build an adult identity. Comics did much the same thing. That era produced many masterpieces (Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, Miracleman), but also some embarrassingly overwrought works (Batman: The Killing Joke). It was all a part of growing up, but where to go from there? Morrison charts that course next issue, presenting a bold vision of the future for super-heroes and our world!

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