Grant Morrison’s Day-Glo Years:

Flex Mentallo, Part 4: “We are All UFOs”

At last, we reach the end of this great four part novel known as Flex Mentallo. The last issue clarifies a lot of what came before, and heralds the launch of a new “reconstructionist” super-hero era, designed to synthesize the depth and emotion of late ’80s grim-and-gritty super-heroics with the joy and wonder of the Silver Age. Not everything that followed has lived up to the promise of this issue, but Alan Moore, Frank Miller and Grant himself all embraced the new, it’s all true, love the stuff we were ashamed of and make it work message of this issue.

It all kicks off with a flashback to the super-hero world that preceded our more mundane reality. Lord Limbo revealing that the “Polyverse” is in danger of being destroyed by “The Absolute.” This ties back to Crisis on Infinite Earths, and its destruction of the DC multiverse. The multiverse made it difficult to have a coherent narrative reality, to hew to continuity and definitely say what was ‘real’ and what was ‘unreal.’ Instead, there was a hugely complicated mesh of different realities that would occasionally cross over, depending on the needs of the story.

It makes it difficult to engage in the continuity of characters’ stories when there are several different versions of them floating around. Who is the ‘real’ Superman? Earth 1’s younger Superman or the older Earth 2 Superman? For certain stories, it doesn’t really matter what’s real. 1950s Superman comics told the most bizarre stories possible, and always returned to the same status quo by the end. Did Superman really grow a lion’s head at one point or was that an ‘imaginary story’? The strength of these super-hero characters is that they can go through myriad transformations and revisions, and still return to the strong concept lying underneath.

In a lot of ways, the old comics were a self regulating version of hypertime, the revised continuity system developed by Morrison and Mark Waid in the late 90s. The basic concept of hypertime was the idea that all the stories told about these characters are true, and every single story branches off a central timestream. The central timestream is made up of the stories that have resonated the most over the years, other elements that don’t fit into modern continuity branched off of the main timestream and died out. So, the best stories survive, while weaker stories gradually fade away. Hypertime makes it easier to manage continuity because it allows for a self repairing timestream, a continuity that serves the story rather than the other way around.

This whole opening sequence serves as a play on the in universe happenings of Crisis. These wacky Silver Age characters are facing an enemy so large he will engulf their entire world. So, they have to hide themselves in fiction. Much of the series’ arc is about the way that the world has changed, it’s become too ‘real’ for the wacky adventures of characters like Flex Mentallo or Lord Limbo. The wonder they represent as been reinterpreted as angsty darkness, much like the DCU itself. Crisis was designed to streamline DC and create a new universe that was more realistic and relatable. But, layered in that new world is the spark of wonder that came before, the destruction of the multiverse is just another enemy to be beaten, and eventually these heroes will be liberated.

The greatest strength of the opening sequence is the distillation of an epic super-hero conflict into a few emotionally potent moments. Quitely’s art is obviously brilliant, but Morrison manages to build this whole crazy world and tear it down in three pages. My favorite panel is Nanoman and Minimiss shrinking down, trying to remember “Don’t forget the word…Sha…a…Sha…Oh God, it’s love, it’s…”

So, the magic word, Shaman, which unlocks Wally’s subconscious, is associated with love. The whole arc of the series is on one level about Wally rediscovering his love of the world, moving beyond his self imposed isolation and re-embracing all the good things around him. He must pass through the darkness to get to the man in the moon, the trigger image that will let him unlock the heroes and help humanity, and himself, actualize its full potential. But, for now, the world is destroyed and the heroes lock themselves in comics to stay alive.

Next, we check in with Harry and the Hoaxer, standing amidst the dead bodies of the heroes from the super-hero orgy last issue. This issue is all about leaving old paradigms behind and evolving into something new and better. Those heroes were trapped in their current mindset, and consequently, they could not become part of the new age. As Flex says on the next page, the heroes turned on each other, and tore each other to bits. People like “Deathtrappist” and “The Kill Klaw Klan” are clear parodies of those edgy Dark Age heroes like The Punisher or Youngblood.

The image of Flex broken up into many component images, floating through some kind of beautiful abyss, is one of Quitely’s strongest and most meaningful in the issue. The single individual is broken up into many component pieces, all of which add up to become a whole. I also love the next page, where the blank green world gets filled in by Faculty X members, who shuffle like stage hands, wheeling in the props that make up the world of the Legion of Legions.

Faculty X is a character who existed within the story, but now finds himself outside of it, aware of all time and space, able to manipulate events to achieve his goals. In that sense, he resembles The Invisibles‘ John a Dreams, another character who stepped out of the game and gained cosmic awareness. Outside of time, one’s role in the overall human narrative becomes clear. Certain actions have to happen to ensure certain ends, and these extratemporal beings fill in the little gaps in the timestream, they put people in the position they need to be to act. The stagecrew image is apt, except these guys work to make sure the players don’t even realize that their world is a stage.

From there, we return to Wally Sage who is still spinning through time and space, eventually landing in the ceramic city of his youth. In the context of the narrative universe, Nanoman and Minimiss put trigger images into the world that will eventually remind people of the super-hero world that exists behind our reality. One of these is the MoonMan, I feel like the ceramic universe is another one. It ties back into a childhood memory, all helping lead him to the magic word.

On the next page, Wally meets his younger self, in a time hopping scene that echoes what we saw with Wally and Flex earlier. In issue one, Wally recalls seeing Flex standing in the doorway of his school when he was a kid, a moment that we see from Flex’s perspective in the issue. The fulfillment of cross-time foreseen experiences is something that crops up in The Invisibles quite a bit, particularly with King Mob’s hopscotch through a dream universe during the Billy Chang Hand of Glory ritual. If young Wally sees old Wally, and old Wally eventually sees young Wally, it means that all time exists at all moments, and if that’s the case, it means that existence isn’t so much just random happenings, it’s a massive singular organism that exists in perpetuity. It goes back to that very basic Grant concept that all time exists and if we can step outside, we’d be able to see the dinosaurs right next to Shakespeare.

This leads us into the thematic core of the issue, and the series as a whole. Wally explains that the super-heroes come from the place where ideas are made, and hid in our universe to avoid the absolute. The basic conceit of the mini-series is this idea that it’s the super-heroes who are real, and our universe that’s fake. This ties into Grant’ notion that Superman has to be more real than you. Very few people have lived longer than Superman has, and Superman will still be having new adventures when we’re all dead. The nature of his adventures will change, they might no longer happen in comics, but the character will survive when we’re in the ground.

Now, you might say it’s preposterous that super-heroes would have built the world, they’ve only been around for seventy years, but our universe has been around much longer than that. On one level, if you’re asking this question, this might not be the mini-series for you. But, to answer it, you can take two approaches. One is to look at the perspective of the series’ protagonist. Wally is a kid who was obsessed with super-hero comics. They are the models for his own behavior, they shaped his sexual development, and they’re what he’s trying to grow out of to become an adult. He essentially blocks out this childhood encounter for the first half of the book, casting Lord Limbo as an alien or a child molesting uncle rather than face up to the fact that as a child, he had the universe revealed to him in a super-hero comic. On a real world level, isn’t that what it feels like to be a kid and read a super-hero book? It’s all about seeing into this wonderful world of power and possibility that’s so far apart from your own powerless place in the world. As a kid, you don’t have any responsibility, so having to save the world wouldn’t be a burden, it would be exciting and cool. It would mean you were needed. As a kid, you can believe that these characters are real, and it would be easy to believe in a secret history of the universe where the comics are real and your world isn’t.

So, if we’re to consider this series essentially the cosmic enlightenment of the human race from the end of The Invisibles, just seen from a different perspective, it would make sense that Wally would see the being coming to reveal the truth about the world and make us all into gods in a world of wonder and amazement as superheroes. That’s his template for dealing with the fantastic in the same way that in The Invisibles, Dane’s is aliens or Fanny’s is the gods of Mexican myth.

On another level, the notion that super-heroes are real and our world is just a projection over their fiction ties into the notion of super-heroes as the latest incarnation of the enduring storytelling mythology of the human race. Ever since the dawn of time, we’ve told stories and created gods to explain the secrets behind the workings of the world. In JLA, Grant made each of the big seven characters equivalent to a hero from Greek mythology. Are the exploits of Superman or Batman any more outlandish than what happened to Zeus?

Back then, Zeus was ‘real’; he was worshipped as a god, and the mythology was the means of interacting with him. The stories gave him his power and dominion over the world. Stories explained the secret origin of why the sun rises, the hidden truth behind the seasons and other natural happenings. There’s always been an engine underlying reality, and what is religion but a series of stories that we have faith in? This story is essentially the tale of the second coming; of heroes who died for us and built the world as a stopgap until they can return and save us all. It’s the Jesus narrative all over again; the eternal human narrative of an all powerful savior coming to take us off this world and into paradise. In that sense, super-heroes are today’s manifestation of something that’s been with us for many years. They are the enduring mythological narrative that’s resonated throughout human history, all over the planet, in every religion. Whereas God used to live in a church, now he’s hidden himself in the pages of a comic book. If God came to us today, with special powers and uncanny abilities, we’d probably understand him as a super-hero. Or at least Wally would.

“The world doesn’t have to be the way it is. We can be them” is as good a summation of all Morrison’s work as anything. At this point, Wally is no longer scared of the unknown. We first saw the freaky image of the boys in the circle from outside, now we’re above, and looking down on it, it’s amazing, not scary. Wally says that we made these stories to fill the gap, the missing wonder in our life, and discover the truth about reality. Lord Limbo had told Wally this when he was a kid, but he had suppressed it. It was implausible and didn’t make sense to his teenage self, but now, at his lowest ebb, it all surges back.

Next, we return to Flex, who is confronting the MoonMan, Wally’s self loathing teenage self. The MoonMan is all about taking away the wonder of the universe, exposing how implausible these things are and reducing things to a boring ‘realism.’ It’s all a matter of perspective. He says “I made you Flex. I made your whole sad, scabby little world to entertain myself,” as a way of reducing Flex to something insignificant. It means that Flex isn’t ‘real,’ when earlier we were astonished by the idea that Wally could believe in something so much, it would leap off the page and become real.

The MoonMan wants to bring “some realism” to Flex’s world, to hit him with black mentallium and destroy his wonder. Flex is an inherently unrealistic character; a huge guy wandering around in leopard print trunks with an old fashioned moral compass. He’s not fit for the post Watchmen/Dark Knight world of morally ambiguous characters who hate themselves as much as the enemies they’re fighting. We’ve been privilege to Flex’s inner monologue throughout the series, and most of his thoughts involve longing to meet up with his crimefighting buddies and have some adventures. It’s not realistic at all, and an angry teenager would rail against the absurdity of Flex, hating that he could have ever created something so stupid.

That page ends with Harry pointing a gun at the MoonMan, threatening to destroy him with “Six chambers of semi-jacketed realism.” Wally’s own self loathing teenage self is threatened with the very edginess he was trying to embrace, and he’s now forced to choose. Lying in the alley, Wally realizes that he took either M&Ms or Paracetamol. In ‘reality,’ he took the paracetamol, that’s what we’ve been led to believe the whole series, it’s not plausible that someone could take M&Ms and go through this whole experience, at least in our world. In Flex’s world, anything is possible, if Wally has the will to live, he can rewrite reality to accommodate that. Flipping through timespace, he can change the events that happened and heal himself. It’s what a superhero would do, and it doesn’t matter if it’s absurd, it’s still possible.

Wally describes the ceramic castle world as “My head…everybody’s head.” It’s the collective subconscious, the place where ideas come from, that’s where the Legion of Legions lives. Lord Limbo tells him that Nanoman and Minimiss are trapped in a comatose state within the universe. The universe isn’t fully alive yet, the limits and sadness we feel are the universe getting further and further from the initial spark of life. In this case, we once again have a concept that can be interpreted on multiple levels. On one level, this story is about Wally’s own life hanging in the balance. You could read this whole cosmic journey as Wally coming to terms with himself, the choice to live or die his own. Lord Limbo is like the spirit of Death, offering Wally a choice.

However, you can also read it on a cosmic level. Humanity itself is in a stasis state, something’s missing, we’ve all felt it, and if we just remember who we’re supposed to be, the universe will explode into brilliant life. But, we need to believe strong enough to make it real. As Limbo says “Before it was a bomb, the bomb was an idea.” Everything we imagined can become real if we try hard enough. That line also ties nicely into the series’ opening image, The Fact throwing a bomb that creates a Big Bang which is presumably the universe coming into existence. So, it reinforces this notion of our universe as a construction. It’s an idea someone once had, and ideas can evolve and become better. “No more barriers between the real and the imaginary.”

But, Wally isn’t quite ready to face that yet. He says “I can’t be remembering this. I’m losing my fucking mind.” People find it difficult to deal with the extraordinary around them, they reduce things to the most boring, rational explanation rather than seeing the wonder all around us. That’s not to dismiss science or anything like that, just because we know why the sun crosses the sky, doesn’t make it any less amazing that it happens everyday. To look at a world without wonder is to see things like MoonMan Wally.

Earlier, Flex got a Fact card that said “The fish got changed more often than the water,” which refers to Harry replacing his wife’s fish so she wouldn’t know it had died. The MoonMan reduces Harry’s efforts to just “the sentimental fish story.” The MoonMan version of Wally is filled with disdain for real emotion and caring. He’s become so isolated, so ashamed of the things he does like that he declares “There is no love in this world anymore.” He thinks that growing up means giving up the optimism of childhood. To sum it up “Get with the program, happy endings are for kids.”

That’s a sentiment we see a lot in the world. Works of fiction that are called ‘realistic’ invariably focus on characters who suffer massive amounts of personal trauma while living in a boring, rundown world. Yes, that’s a part of the world, but it’s not the only thing that’s real. Stories can inspire us and do so many things, particularly with superheroes, who are inherently unrealistic, there’s no need to be bound by the constraints of our current reality. Super-heroes can serve as an example, they can guide us to a better life; one where happy endings are the norm. What this story is saying is that our reality doesn’t have to be this way, it’s not the only thing that’s real, so why should we only think in terms of the way things are now. Things can be better, we don’t even have to change the world, we just have to change our mind and see M&Ms instead of Paracetamol.

Ultimately, it’s Wally’s own creations who save him. Wally may be saying “There is no love in this world anymore,” but his own creation is holding strong. Harry’s love is stronger than Wally’s disdain for himself, and an idea can’t be killed by a gun. The Hoaxer pretty much sums it up when he says “I think you want everyone to be dead because looking at life makes you realize what you’re missing. Only a bitter little adolescent boy could confuse realism with pessimism.” This leads into an utterly absurd comic book moment where Flex flexes his muscles, displays the giant hero halo and defeats the MoonMan.

The work has demanded reading on multiple levels through out, but in this moment all the realities telescope into one. Flex’s mission hasn’t really been about finding The Fact, it’s been about helping Wally overcome his own issues. Notably, Wally invokes Flex’s own creation myth when he criticizes super-heros as “pathetic fucking power fantasies for lonely wankers who’ve had so much sand kicked in their faces they look like the opening credits of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’!” Wally is of course talking about himself, confronted with the utter absurdity of those characters he loved so much, he rejects them, but they don’t reject him. Earlier in the series, someone asked who would save the world, and the answer was the superheroes, that’s what they always do. So, in this series, the world is Wally’s mind, and it’s up to Flex to save him.

Flex is beyond the irony and self-consciousness that so plagues Wally. He asks Flex “Do you know what you are,” a question that is trying to puncture Flex, to point out how ridiculous he is, to point out the fact that he’s only a piece of fiction. But, Flex isn’t phased, he knows exactly who is, “I’m a superhero.” Flex knows his purpose is to help people, it’s to guide humanity forward, and he’s going to do that one person at a time. Morrison has talked a lot about super-heroes as our evolutionary template.

Typically, I interpreted that as being about gaining powers and abilities, literal physical evolution. But, in this moment, we see the way that superheroes are also morally evolved. In All Star Superman, it’s not so much the powers that separate Superman from ordinary people; it’s his morality, his love and existence beyond a simple good/bad paradigm. Lex Luthor, his prime foe, is so petty and violent, with all the worst traits of humanity. Superman is the best we can be, and so is Flex. He might not be a mature or realistic character, but if we believe that someone so good hearted can be real, it can make everything better.

Flex says exactly what Wally needs to hear at this moment, “Being’s clever a fine thing, but sometimes a boy just needs to get out of the house and meet some girls.” Essentially, the best way to get over all his psychological trauma isn’t to drift into an emotional cocoon and cut himself off from the world. The wonder is all around us, it’s in other people, and Wally’s best option is to embrace the world around him. Wally mutters about his adolescent desire to abandon the world, “to be the last boy on Earth,” but that’s all posturing. It’s not what he really wants, Flex shows him the way.

And, in a glorious panel, Wally re-embraces life. He decides that it wasn’t paracetamol, it was M&Ms. The adolescent, self-hating part of his psychology has been defeated and he’s realized he’s got “a brilliant life.” So much of the way we feel about the world is a matter of perspective. You can focus on the positive, the things you’ve got going for you, or dwell in what you don’t have, that’s the difference between happiness and sadness. I think we’ve all got that self-loathing piece of ourselves in there deep down, it’s easier to feel alone sometimes than to reach out to the world. But, in that huge burst of light, Wally chose to look at the good side, to see the M&Ms, and that made all the difference.

The last few pages of the series show us the birth of a new age. As I mentioned before, I see this as the equivalent of the final issue of The Invisibles, as all the gears of the universe whir into action and kick start the next stage of evolution. Wally is seeing it as super-heroes crashing into our world, all the technology we imagined becoming real, an entire world waking up and becoming what it was meant to be. I love the way Quitely has the spiraling freeze frames of Nanoman and Minimiss cycle through the page, and stop at the moment when they become aware. They made the universe and now it’s waking up again.

Then, we find out that the person Wally’s been talking to this whole time was The Fact. Early in the series, he says how nice this person was, how helpful he was on guiding Wally along. The Fact listened to what he had to say, he kept him hanging on at the worst points in his psychosis, and enabled him to actualize his potential.

Flex wraps up his role in the mini-series standing on the bridge of a ship, waiting for the Legion of Legions. He has faith. I love the final lines he speaks directly to the reader “All we can do is hope. This is Flex Mentallo signing off. I’ll be right here if you need me.” Flex is less a character than a god, an incarnation of pure heroism, built to save us when we most need it.

Morrison just keeps piling on elements as we move to the end, kindly informing us that “You have been inhabiting the first ultra-post-futurist comic: characters are allowed full synchrointeraction with the readers at this level.” This presages Wally unlocking the code. The narration goes on to tell us that the key is in the man in the moon, which has two readings. One is that it was in Wally himself, once he overcomes the emotional issues that were personified by the MoonMan version of himself he unlocks his evolutionary potential and is able to grow out of his childhood state and become an adult, along with the rest of humanity.

The other reading is more cosmic, it’s the idea that the superheroes were waiting behind the moon, like Barbelith was in The Invisibles. We saw this back in issue 2, with the crazy guy at the bar. Hearing the activation code, Nanoman and Minimiss start kicking the universe into being, and Wally completes it by writing “Shaman.”

The word “Shaman” has many layers. One is the obvious play on “Shazam,” subverting our expectations by giving us a different magic word. “Sha-Man” could also be a super-hero name. The reading I like most is the idea that super-heroes are today’s religious figures, they’re the ones guiding us forward, so a magic super-hero would be a Shaman. Shaman are all about exploring consciousness, trying to heal wounds and help people. That’s what the best super-heroes do, they’re explorers, charting humanity’s path forward. The whole thing reminds me a lot of Zatanna, the most distinctively magic superhero Morrison’s worked with.

And, the crossword ties into the crossword he used in Seven Soldiers #1. Language is magic and completing the puzzle means launching the spell. That leads the wonderful image of Wally bursting with light and energy, evolving into the super-hero he was always meant to be. The whole series is about Wally coming to terms with his issues, and realizing that he already is a superhero, he just had to remember to see it that way. Nothing in his life changed except his perception, he realized that the things he created in the past were great, not something to be ashamed of. His life wasn’t a waste, he wants to live, and he’s now living more than ever before.

The series ends with one last nod to the reader, as The Hoaxer thanks us for our participation in the experience. Then, the super-heroes hit, hundreds of them soaring down onto the Earth, coming home. This is evolution, this is the change of reality, leaving our limits behind us and becoming a more real, more exciting and better world again. It’s all real at the end here, Wally is saved, the world is saved, and the heroes are coming home.

This is one of the densest, most idea packed works of fiction in any medium ever made. But, it’s also light and effortless. You can do a close reading and try to understand everything, or you can just sit back and get lost in the moment. Other than The Invisibles, it’s my favorite thing Morrison has ever done.

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  1. Flex Mentallo is one of my favorite works too. I’ve enjoyed revisiting it very much. Thanks, Patrick!

  2. Dave Tucker says:

    This was an amazing write-up, and it really helped me identify and understand several of the themes and narratives of Flex. I just finished it for the second time the other day, and I got a lot more out of it this time. Granted, I enjoyed the hell out of it on the first reading, but a second inspection gives you so much more appreciation. Truly an amazing comic.

    I have a son who is just beginning to get into superheros right now, and I was initially worried that by turning him onto one of my loves so early, he might cast it out as “kid-stuff” when he hits adolescence. The theme of never outgrowing your childhood superheros renewed me with a sense of faith and anticipation that these morality tales follow you through your entire life, and even though you may turn your back on them for something more mature, a second-look as you get older can prove to be more inspirational and helpful than you ever would’ve imagined!

    Now onto the Invisibles for a massive re-read.

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