Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery: The Deluxe EditionA comic review article by: David Fairbanks
2012 has been a pretty good year for me, comics-wise. Two of my favorites conquered the behemoth that is the US legal system and came out victorious. We didn't have to wait too long for King City to be collected, but it took 15 years between Flex Mentallo's serialization and its collection this month.
It was certainly worth the wait, though.
Flex Mentallo is Grant Morrison's semi-autobiographical journey through the dizzying highs of Silver Age superhero optimism and the grittiest lows of post-Watchmen pessimism. It's a story about why all these capes and tights matter and just how important superheroes are to mankind.
Flex was birthed in Morrison's tenure on Doom Patrol in the early '90s, inspired by the old Charles Atlas-style ads in the backs of comic books offering to make a man out of you, dear reader.
But you don't need to know any of that, really. Flex is the best parts of you or me. Flex is your father, Flex is Morrison's father, he's the Platonic ideal of what a father figure should be. He's the one man you believe that, no matter what, will always come through for you.
There's just one catch: Flex, the character, is a comic book superhero. Sure, he is as "alive" as Wally Sage, the kid whose drawings of Flex miraculously sprang to life, but he's still a comic book character, a superhero. More importantly, Flex knows he's a superhero.
What this does is allow Morrison to heap everything positive about superheroes onto the character of Flex and then send him through the darkest, weirdest corners of 70 years' worth of the genre.
Flex Mentallo is important because Flex knows exactly what he is and is completely unashamed of it. That's not the only reason though; Morrison treads over similar, though less metafictional, ground over a decade later in All-Star Superman and Final Crisis, which are quite different beasts from what we have here. The strength of Flex Mentallo comes not just from this distillation of the superhero ideal, but from the painfully familiar Wally Sage.
I'm sure there are some of you who didn't read comics much until you were an adult, so your experience may be a bit different, but Wally follows the same path that quite a few comics fans do. It starts with an almost unwavering, inexplicable love for superheroes. Then, usually around adolescence, you've convinced yourself that you've grown up and thatYoungblood is more "mature," Watchmen more "realistic" than Superman or Batman. Hopefully by this point, you've realized that there's a maturity beyond simply containing mature themes.
Morrison shows us glimpses into Wally's past as he's attempting suicide and we see that he's mostly made it through the first two steps and perhaps abandoned the third when he abandoned comics. By looking back with nostalgia at the comics of his childhood, Wally realizes that the superheroic ideal isn't really that childish of an idea. He knows superheroes aren't perfect and that they can't solve everything.
But they don't really need to be solving everything either, they just need to be there when you need them.
I'm not about to spoil the ending for you, as despite Flex Mentallo's age, there are probably quite a few folks who haven't read it, but it really shouldn't surprise you, when you're finished, just exactly why this is one of the best criticisms of the superhero genre, fans, creators, and characters alike.
If that's not reason enough, Flex Mentallo is easily the closest thing to a distillation of Morrison's philosophies that have been present in much of his work.
Now, for the elephant in the room, there's one thing I really don't know how to feel about with the Flex reprint: Peter Doherty's coloring. My first thought after reading it was that it was mostly unnoticeable. Some tones were a bit more muted and it carried more of a "mature readers" feel to it, but I wouldn't really say that that's such a bad thing. If you want an example, the two panels toward the top, where Flex asks you to gamble a stamp, that's the old coloring.
It had been a while since I saw the old printing of the Flex, though. The recoloring hurts in a way that most people, who may very well be reading Flex for the first time, probably won't notice. The bright, Day-Glo colors of some of the original panels have been dialed down quite a bit. Where there was a really surreal quality to the original printing, it feels as if Doherty decided that we needed to know that comics were serious business (which is just the kind of thing Flex seems to be against).
Okay, so it maybe takes itself a little more seriously now, it looks a bit more realistic; that's not that big of a deal. The re-coloring is probably just a matter of taste.
Then I saw the Mindless Ones' postscript about whitewashing minor characters and I flipped through it a third time. I'm kind of lost at this one; there's not an excuse I can think of that justifies recoloring a book and turning previously black characters white.
The only logic I could see Doherty having for this is that he was handed the line art and colored it without even glancing at the original, except that the five colors of Mentallium atop Mentallium Man's shoulders seemed to match the old printing almost perfectly. I don't think there's any agenda there, but even so, it doesn't really have anything good to say about a culture of institutionalized racism in our media.
That this happens in a Grant Morrison book is also particularly disappointing. It's seems like Morrison has tried to go out of his way to have an ethnically diverse cast in his more recent work (which gets embarrassingly tainted by a colorist who accidentally makes Mister Miracle white… or after fixing that, makes Sonny Sumo dark skinned).
In the end, I really wish they'd left the colors alone. I understand artistic intent and could even understand Quitely not being happy with the original colors, but I feel like they really lent something to the series. For those of you who haven't read it, you probably won't notice it at all, but you'd be doing yourself a disservice if you didn't seek out the older printings, just for a peek.
David Fairbanks doesn't get many things right the first time. He studied physics in college, loves science, music, comics, poetry, movies, books, and education pertaining to all of the above. He will talk your ear off about Grant Morrison and Ben Folds, has an indie bookshelf larger than his Marvel, DC and Vertigo ones combined and if he ever actually grows up, more than anything else, he wants to still be happy as an “adult,” whatever that is.