By Holly Raymond
As a queer comics fan, I’m predisposed towards stories about apotheosis, especially when that apotheosis is self-generated. Grant Morrison is predisposed to those stories too – since Zenith in 1987 their work has consistently returned to the tricky problem of how one can bridge the gap between desire and reality, between will and world, through clever tricks of perception and framing. Comics can be the magic trick, Morrison insists over and over again, the sleight of hand… or they can be the real fucking deal, the miracle we don’t realize we’ve been holding our breath for.
So what’s Flex Mentallo: or more precisely, what is its final issue, “We Are All U.F.O.s”? It’s a miniature Pilgrim’s Progress about a person driven to cynicism by a cynical world literally “seeing the light,” the shiny golden sun of the final page.
I read Flex Mentallo as a turning point in Morrison’s writing – issue #4 hit the stands in September, 1996, just a few months before JLA #1 in January 1997 and Morrison’s full turn towards Supergods-style cape-evangelism. Previous works, while often rooted in the topoi of superhero comics, were often quite cynical about the genre. Zenith certainly, and Animal Man wrings much of its drama out of pitting a kind of silly, earnest Buddy against the artificiality of the narratives he finds himself stuck in. Even Doom Patrol, an almost overwhelmingly earnest and vulnerable series, defines itself as the negative cut-out of the conventional superhero book– these are the outcasts, the ones who couldn’t become legible within that world. Flex Mentallo is different. It calls grittiness juvenile, and holds the camp and the excess of the Silver Age up as something primal and strange and precious. It demands acts of absolute faith from its characters – we can be saved if we think we can be saved, the world won’t end unless we let it.
“Do you believe in superheroes? Imagine it real,” Wally tells the voice on the other end of the suicide hotline (a voice revealed to be the mysterious Ditko-esque The Fact), an injunction which Morrison appears to treat quite seriously as they move on from Flex Mentallo and into the beginning throes of a late 90s/early aughts superhero renaissance. Why not believe in beauty and mercy and grace? Why not insist upon it? Why relegate “realism” to grey tones and suicide attempts, and not, as the beleagured and grizzled cop Harry Christmas repeatedly mutters, “signs and wonders”? Why not be good, or, as they’ll eventually posit in All-Star Superman, stronger than we think we are? Given the choice between a man dying in a grey and beige gutter and a blue sky swarming with technicolor capes and tights (each, in this case, equally as transparently a fantasy on the page), Morrison asks, why not gamble a stamp against the gutter?
This is of course not an entirely unproblematic turn – 24 years after JLA #1 it’s difficult to still read the superhero form with as utopic and rhapsodic an eye as Morrison persuaded us to way back then – but it is a turn that is very Morrison. Having expended the use of one side of the coin, they flip it and show us an entirely new world on the inverse, it’s possibilities tantalizing. Morrison is always rapt on that moment of apotheosis, of what was obscured suddenly seeming as obvious as daylight, as the blue and red of Superman’s body. Just look at what we could have, if you could just remember where to search for it.
Holly Raymond is a professor and the author of Mall is Lost and Heaven’s Wish to Destroy All Minds. Other recent work can be found in We Want It All: An Anthology of Radical Trans Poetics, Bedfellows, Strange Horizons, paintbucket, and elsewhere. She has recently finished a PhD at Temple University and lives in Vermont with her wife. You can find her on Twitter here!
By Charlotte Finn
I am as familiar as Grant Morrison is with the fallout of the “mmm, we want it to be like this now” school of comics revamps; I was just old enough to go “since when the hell are Superman’s parents alive?” in the exact same way Mitchell Hundred did in Ex Machina. It’s not going anywhere – it’s become DC’s go-to move and Marvel flirts with it often. It looms large in superhero comics, and any series that is as metatextual as Flex Mentallo will have to grapple with it eventually.
Crisis gave a renewal, but there was always the sense that something along the way was lost; that instead of a story progressing from A to B, they had decided to take it straight from A to Q. That the merging of all those stories and all those histories was at the least, a little bit traumatic; every single contradictory point needing to be folded into one unified story, or else it gets erased out of existence entirely. It’s never fully worked, and we – being comics nerds – of course, want to make it work. For there to be no seams in the fiction.
Flex Mentallo too, deals with a multiverse, with multiple layers of reality. There’s the departed reality of the superheroes, there’s the reality of Flex Mentallo as he searches for them, there’s the reality of Wally Sage, and there’s our own reality as the series breaks the fourth wall at the end. And this is key: these realities start to mix together from the word ‘go.’ There are multiple versions of Wally Sage from different points in time and different strata of reality, all interacting – even though Wally Sage says he cannot let them touch.
But in the end: he does let them touch. He admits to himself that he remembers things that no longer were. That the superheroes who went away are still there, waiting to come back if only he wants them to.
So this could be read as another refutation of Crisis on Infinite Earths, and in some ways, it is. But I think a better way to read it is as a version of Crisis that feels that the big sin of Crisis is that it subtracted from the universe rather than added to it.
At the end, rather than it being destroyed and its last survivor being sent off to a better place, the world of Wally Sage runs together and mixes with the world of the superheroes. When Wally utters the codephrase “shaman” – which is, in addition to its traditional meaning, is a merger between ‘Shazam’ and ‘Superman.’ In this world, things do, and should, mix together; everything from portmanteaus of famous superhero words to the layers of reality that Flex and Wally straddle all throughout. Even when it doesn’t make the strictest logical sense – maybe especially so.
There is the old saying that truth is stranger than fiction because fiction has to make sense. Flex Mentallo’s reply is “does it, though?”
So naturally, I just spent nearly 500 words trying to make sense of Flex Mentallo. Old habits die hard.
By Ritesh Babu
At the heart of Flex Mentallo is Wally Sage, a broken mess of a person on the verge of suicide, who’s at the ultimate low-point, with nothing to live for, as even his relationship with his girlfriend is wrecked.
Wally Sage is, by their own admission, a ‘What If’ of Grant Morrison. An alternate timeline Grant who didn’t get back into comics, stayed in music, and was on a different life path. All the flashbacks and scenes, the upbringing, family imagery and little details, they’re all pulled straight out of their life. It’s a Grant who became a worse and worse individual, never having changed for the better. And it’s about what comes of that, and how at the end of such a path lies only death by self-destruction…suicide, a constant and consistent motif in Morrison works, even if few note that.
It’s a work asking ‘How can that me, the me-that-could’ve-been, the worst me, be saved?’ and telling a story that is basically Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective but instead of music, it’s comics. It’s fundamentally a deeply personal, almost autobiographical work, done with IP Morrison and Quitely do not even own, which feels like a good symbol of most Morrison work in general. It’s always deeply intimate.
It’s a comic that uses The Comics Ages and History as a spinal structure to reflect human development, because Grant Morrison doesn’t write Comics About Comics the way most like to think, but Comics which use the aesthetics, ideas, and fixtures of comicdom to speak to reality. The Golden Age becomes The Birth and The Baby Years. The Silver Age the delightful Childhood that follows after it – utterly wacky and weird. The Bronze Age that arrives after becomes Adolescence, with the final stage being Adulthood.
The book is split across these ages, not just comic book ages, but personal developmental ages of a human being, and its revelations are less about comics, and more about the real, the self. In the final 4th chapter (and stage), it turns out that the Adult Wally Sage is still ruled over by his Adolescent impulses, his 16 year old self caught up in the past, having never truly matured, the way many people never actually do even into adulthood.
Wally may look like an adult, he may have all the rights of one, but he still thinks life isn’t worthwhile, that everything just sucks, it’s all bleaked, it’s all fucked, what’s the point? What’s the point of any of this? Nothing matters anyway. It’s the teenage nihilist who justifies his poor, shitty behavior and emotional immaturity, while being unbearably insecure. It’s the person who’s gotta be Tough and Badass, and can’t afford vulnerability and all that stupid, cheesy soft shit.
At its heart, Flex Mentallo is about toxic masculinity, and being rid of it. About growing past adolescent fixations to be a healthy, mature adult. It’s why Flex Mentallo says this:
Wally’s own toxicity, his own dreadful ideas and assumptions have convinced him that self-destructive horseshit and cruelty are the only way to live (and die). Flex exists to be the part of his essence that asks him to grow up. It’s the reasonable parental voice, the mentor voice, which extends its hand and asks us to get back up.
Kieron Gillen’s consistently said that Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt is his Flex Mentallo. I suspect most will have taken that shallowly as ‘Haha, yeah, Superhero Metatext and Commentary’. But what it really means is that it’s a deeply personal story of the self, a self-critique of the individual who is writing it, an exploration of damaging impulses one bears, and thus a desire to be a better person.
It’s hard to write about yourself, to write such intimate, honest work, and put it out there in front of so many people, to be judged. But that’s exactly the point, that’s the ultimate expression of the very natures of these texts. To be willing to be that open, that vulnerable, to admit and express all of that, is that not the bravest act? It’s what Flex Mentallo would want.
Ritesh Babu is a writer and critic whose work has been featured in publications including PanelXPanel, ComicsXF, and ComicBookHerald. To find more from Ritesh, you can follow him on Twitter here!
By Emma Houxbois
“I was abducted by aliens in Kathmandu in 1994 because I went to Kathmandu in 1994 to be abducted by aliens.” – Grant Morrison
The question of what “really” happened in Flex Mentallo #4 has never really carried much weight for me. I originally read it in pirated scans while the miniseries languished in out of print limbo thanks to a settlement with the Charles Atlas estate, who, for whatever reason, felt injured by its existence. Unlike them, I was grateful to encounter a Morrison comic whose intent I could grasp whether or not I understood everything that transpired.
Even now that I’m fluent in Morrison’s oeuvre and can navigate most of their work with ease, the question of what “really” happened in the last issue of Flex Mentallo still fails to capture my imagination. I think it will always say more about the respondent’s opinion about Morrison as a writer specifically and imagination in general than it ever will the comic itself.
However you answer the question, it’s inevitably going to branch into two paths: the narrator is either having a drug overdose and hallucinating during a near death experience or is being contacted by an outside intelligence in a way he’s confused with a drug overdose. It reminds me of Neon Genesis Evangelion in that way. My own personal position is that the final episode of the initial TV run of the series and The End of Evangelion are two perspectives on the same series of events: The End of Evangelion is the view from inside Shinji’s head and the TV episode is what you would see sat next him while he went through it.
I know that isn’t true; that the sequences of events between the two don’t line up, that no one involved intended for them to be seen that way, and that the minimal presentation of the final episode of the TV series was a function of its legendarily blown budget. I just don’t care to let those details affect the poetry of looking at them as complimentary works instead of the latter being a correction or apology for the presentation of the former.
In a similar spirit, asking what happened in the last issue of Flex Mentallo is simultaneously and unavoidably asking what happened to Grant Morrison in Kathmandu two years prior to its publication, where they reportedly underwent an alien abduction. Aliens don’t really enter into Flex Mentallo directly, but the composition of what the narrator goes through in his self described drug overdose mirrors how Morrison describes alien abductions both autobiographically and contemporaneously through encounters with Barbelith in The Invisibles.
Asking what happened in the last issue of Flex Mentallo is asking what happened to Morrison in Kathmandu and answering that question sets up a binary between rationality and credulity, teleos and mythos that has perniciously stalked Morrison’s career and comics in general since the 1980s. It’s a discourse that bled into comics through influence of the Skeptic movement on UK left wing politics and arrived in earnest on American shores through the New Atheism of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens.
It’s also worth pointing out that Flex Mentallo was written at a time when Morrison was deeply influenced by how Terry Gilliam was playing with unreliable narrators and ambiguous events in a cycle that would eventually include Brazil, The Fisher King, Twelve Monkeys, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Gilliam played the provocateur throughout, deliberately waggling his eyebrows at the audience from behind the camera to settle questions like whether or not Bruce Willis had really travelled back from the future in Twelve Monkeys amongst themselves. It’s easy to imagine that the deliberate ambiguity was in part a borrowing of Gilliam’s posture given that the other two comics that Morrison refers to as a thematic trilogy, The Invisibles and The Filth both feature direct homages to Brazil. (King Mob’s capture and torture by the Outer Church in the former and Ned Slade drowing a rogue agent in his own recycled urine in the latter.)
So to me, the idea of articulating a definitive perspective and series of events onto Flex Mentallo is ultimately an inappropriate imposition of rationality onto a comic that intentionally seeks to push the reader beyond the bounds of strict, ideologically driven notions of rationality to assert that the wonder and optimism associated with youth can be integrated into an adult view of the world.
Véronique Emma Houxbois is a trans woman cartoonist, drag queen, and youtuber based out of Vancouver, Canada. You can find her on Twitter here and Instagram under her drag name Judith Slays. She also makes comics on her Onlyfans which you can find here.
Flex Mentallo #4
Written by Grant Morrison
Pencilled by Frank Quitely
Coloured by Peter Doherty
Lettered by Ellie De Ville
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