Thursday, 14 June 2012

Books: Flex Mentallo


Flex Mentallo
Written by Grant Morrison
Art by Frank Quitely

Available now from Islington Libraries
You can reserve this item for free here:

Anyone remember when Clockwork Orange (the film) was banned? Of course I realise that for some of you this may be a little bit before your time: but there was a point back way back when it was first released that due to the insinuation of "copycat" crimes and that whole outrage from the tabloids kinda stuff that Stanley Kurbick decided to have to the film withdrawn from British distribution [1] and it was only after his death in 1999 that people were allowed to buy it legally on VHS (remember that?) and DVD.

The reason that I mention this is because for those 27 years that A Clockwork Orange had this sorta mystique surrounding it (no - not the blue X-man woman) which only comes from things that are off-limits and hard to get. I was lucky enough to have a crazy Spanish film student living next door (hi Alex!) who was well into crazy films and was prone to showing my slightly-more-innocent younger version of me crazy stuff like Kenneth Anger films (whose Filmography consists of such titles as (no - I'm not making these up): Lucifer Rising, Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, Senators in Bondage and Don't Smoke That Cigarette!) and - most memorably - a 10 minute short film that consisted on nothing but a cow chewing on a piece of cud. He somehow managed to score a copy of Clockwork Orange on VHS (hey - this was the early 90s) and seeing how I was the type of precocious teenager who - when asked - would have said that his favourite film was 2001: A Space Odyssey and was all like - yeah man. Of course nowadays you can probably just torrent it, stream it or find the whole thing up on youtube: but then that's the future and every day brings us one step closer to living with Spider Jerusalem.

All of this is my roundabout introduction to Flex Mentallo which - for those to didn't know - was famous as Grant Morrison's "lost" work [2] - a book that your average fan had no way of getting to read - unless:

a) They had brought a copy when it first came out (back in 1996)

b) They were willing to spend big bucks on buying the back issues (current asking price on amazon: £115 for all 4 issues)

Or c) they wanted to illegally download it for read it on their computer [3]

The reason for this is not because of any copycat crimes (altho I'd like to image what a Flex Mentallo crime would involve) and due to any tabloid outrage - so don't get too overheated. Rather (as hard as this may be to believe): it was all down to the Charles Atlas Company (yep - that's the strongman in the leopard print leotard who was famous way back in the early 20th Century) getting upset over the fact that the entire Flex Mentallo concept is kinda a micky-take out of this old-timey advertisment ("Let me PROVE I can make YOU A NEW MAN") which lead to somesort of a lawsuit and kerfuffle and blahblahblah which basically all equalled to = no comic.   
That is: until now. 

And so now it's here - what have we got?

Well - it's Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely - described on the back cover by someone (sorry I didn't think to write it down) as the "Lennon and McCartney" of comics [4]. Which means that together they've created some of the best comics of the late 20th and early 21st Century including: JLA: Earth Two, (bits of) The New X-Men, (bits of) Batman and Robin, (the end of) The Invisibles, We3, All Star Superman [5] and this - where (and someone correct me if I'm wrong) their comic-book love-making first began.  

So what the hell is a "Flex Mentallo."? Well - first off you should realise that - regardless of how it sounds - it's one of the advanced positions from the Kama Sutra. Nope - he's a dude in a leopard print leotard who's cool, calm and collected in that same "no sweat - I can save the world" kinda way as Superman. He first appeared in the pages during Grant Morrison's run of the Doom Patrol - but don't worry - you don't have to have it that in order to make sense of this. (A poor choice of words maybe seeing how there will be a few of you who are going to struggling very hard in order to try and make sense of both of those without realising that neither of those books are open to "being made sense of" in the usual kind of way).

In some respects there's an argument to be made that Flex Mentallo is Grant Morrison's spin on Watchmen [6] although instead of following Watchmen's direction of taking the idea of superheroes and making them fit into "real life" - Flex (you don't mind if I call you "Flex" do you?) skews the opposite way and attempts to levitate real life into the marvelous and fantastical realm of the superheros: constantly asking - no wait - imploring - the reader: What if? What If? And then combines that with the doomsday clock countdown - but instead of having it stand for the whole world - it focuses it on one man - sitting in the gutter with a phone next to his ear. And - rather than being stuck in just one particular period - the 4 issues that combine to make the entirely of Flex Mentallo spans across the four main stages of comics history (check those covers!). The other Alan Moore connection for me is - strange as it may sound From Hell. There's a panel in that where one character tells the other that: "The one place in which gods and demons inarguably exist is in the human mind, where they are real in all their grandeur and monstrosity." Flex Mentallo is like that - but with "gods and demons" replaced with "superheros."

I've said something like this before but: my oh-so-delicate tastes have never been able to quite digest Morrison when he's given too much room to run around in - yeah there's bits of The Invisibles and Doom Patrol and his Batman run that I really like - but I any time I recommend them I always have to include my own reservations and a few disclaimers about how bits of it can seem like a bit of a mess (which is because it is). Which is why it's always a good idea - no wait - a great idea - to keep him reined in and bound within a single book (see: The Filth, We3, Joe the Barbarian): Flex Mentallo is one of the best examples because while things do get quite wild especially - and this will surprise no one who's been paying attention - towards the end. But the onslaught of ideas and the (relatively) linear narrative means that it feels more like lift-off than a car-crash. 

And it's nice also in the fact that altho it first came out in 1996 - it still feels fresh today: because depending on how you look at it (either he's gone corporate or he's working the machine from the inside) there's a certain degree of respectability that hangs over the Grant Morrison of today that can leave his output feeling somewhat calculated. And if nowadays his output is mainly a whole lot of sound and fury focused on the ins-and-outs of Batman and Batman and Batman - it's good to meet him at a point where you can at least pretend he's not just talking about superheroes for their own sake (and indulging in endless fan-wank continuity speculation - and I say that as a fan [7]) but maybe just using them as a stand-in for something else (the limitless power of human imagination maybe?) If you wanted to look at it in a Morrison-type-fashion it's almost as if his past version has left this book floating in the time stream as a distress beacon or a warning saying - I dunno - something strange and cool. And it's a blast seeing how certain motifs seem to pop up again and again and again (crosswords [8] (see: Seven Soldiers of Victory), miniaturisations (see: The Filth) and doomed pets (see: Animal Man, We3 and The Filth (again))) - as if his entire career is just the writing on one big hyper-comic - with every book connecting and combining like Power Rangers to form somesort of ultra-Morrison-whole [9].

There's so much that I want this book leaves me wanting to say - I really wanted to be able to read it a few more times through in order to properly assimilate everything it spits out. There's lots of little shout outs to Superman, Batman and Captain Marvel that kinda sneak in from the sides - there's this kinda epic dream-like feeling that floats over all of it (with the aliens and the childhood memories and especially that panel of the giant floating ship with the clouds reflected on it's underside which tickles my subconscious in a way I can't quite put my finger on) and there's that famous and fervent Morrison belief that - yes - one day the superheroes will save us all.

And - not to slip into my usual mistake of just talking about the writer, writer, writer - Frank Quitely is totally amazing. I mean - I know that one of the Comic Forum regulars (hi Will!) describes him as drawing "potato people" - but there's so many amazing panels in this book which all manage to choose just the right persepective and frame the action is just such a lovely and succinct way (and should I mention that establishing shot of Flex on page 3 that seems very - ahem - anatomically correct?) that it just makes reading the whole thing feel like such a fun exciting blast that you probably won't notice until you get to the end how insane the whole thing was (and god - just thinking of a Flex Mentallo drawn by a rubbish artist and thinking how awful it would be makes me realise just how much Quitely is needed - he is the glue that keeps the whole book hanging together and making even the most surreal and crazy scene seem - against the odds - grounded and believable: and if there's one thing that you need to do when you read this book it's this: you need to believe).

[1] Although not before gifting the rest of us with this killer quote: "To try and fasten any responsibility on art as the cause of life seems to me to put the case the wrong way around. Art consists of reshaping life but it does not create life, nor cause life. Furthermore, to attribute powerful suggestive qualities to a film is at odds with the scientifically accepted view that, even after deep hypnosis, in a posthypnotic state, people cannot be made to do things which are at odds with their natures." So there.

[2] Along with Zenith - which he did for 2000AD which is based around the concept: "What it Morrissey was a superhero?" But that's another story.

[3] I hope it goes without saying - but I would never do something like this. Although I do have a friend who did.

[4] Which I'm sure is a description Grant Morrison would love seeing as he's the type of person who likes to claim stuff like: he was given a song by the spirit of John Lennon.

[5] And seeing how's it rare for any writer to work with another artist for more than one book you should realise that even if it doesn't look like much that's - like - a lot of books. Especially especially as Frank Quitely has a reputation for not being the speediest artist in the business (which is probably why - no duh - his artwork always looks so amazing and so detailed).

[6] Which just makes this interview extract even more spot on: QUESTION: "Is he a character that you would ever return to? Do you have other Flex Mentallo stories you want or need to tell?" MORRISON: "I am hoping DC does "Before Flex Mentallo." [Laughs] I suddenly realized that Flex is one of the characters that I really wanted to own but I didn't. And because he appeared in "Doom Patrol" first, which was a DC book, he kind of became a DC character even though every single character in the miniseries was basically created. It's kind of like a creator-owned book but it isn't. He could show up anywhere. Geoff [Johns] could put him in the Justice League. I have this strange fear that he is going to appear somewhere someday." (SEE? NO ONE IS SAFE!)

[7] Am I allowed to include an relevant Alan Moore quote here? "But at the end of the day, Watchmen was something to do with power, V for Vendetta was about fascism and anarchy, The Killing Joke was just about Batman and the Joker – and Batman and the Joker are not really symbols of anything that are real, in the real world, they’re just two comic book characters.”

[8] And I don't really know how to say this - as the idea is only half formed in my head - but toGrant Morrison is a crossword-kinda-writer. It's all about working out the cryptic clues, filling in the blanks and enjoying the way he lays different thing one on top of the other. In comparison: Warren Ellis is computer games, Mark Millar is soggy biscuit and Alan Moore is chess (wow - worst. metaphors. ever.).

[9] Not that I'm the first one to think of this.

Links: Comic Book Resources Interview with Grant Morrison, Comic Booked Interview with Frank QuitelyMindless Ones Article: Candyfloss Horizons Forever!Mindless Ones Article: Whatever Happened to the Mentallium Man of Tomorrow?, Comics Alliance Article: Flex Mentallo and Final Crisis: Erasing the Lines Between You and the DCUiFanboy Review, The Comics Journal Review.

Further reading: Doom Patrol, The Filth, The Bulletproof Coffin, Supreme, We3, The Invisibles, All Star Superman, Watchmen, Seven Soldiers of Victory, Joe the BarbarianSeaguyThe Umbrella Academy, X-Men: New X-MenBatman: Batman Incorporated.

Profiles: Grant MorrisonFrank Quitely.

All comments welcome.

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