Flex Mentallo: Hero of Comics

In honor of "Um, I Don’t Really Like Watchmen Week," I’ve decided to take a close look at Flex Mentallo. It’s kind of a meta-comic and in some ways responds to the Watchmen’s status as comics’ shining beacon. Legal issues with the estate of Charles Atlas has made DC reluctant to publish it in trade. This obviously has Flex Mentallo flying under most peoples radar. Don’t let this fool you though, it’s one of the best comics out there.

“All we can do is hope.”
-Flex Mentallo
Flex Mentallo has two major story lines running through it: Flex’s mystery and Wally Sage’s suicide. It seems that Flex’s world is the world inside of Wally’s imagination, but they both overlap. They weave through each other and interconnect, each commenting on the other world. Wally Sage is a musician who grew up reading comics. In his storyline, he is committing suicide, and while he waits to die, he wants to talk about comics. Wally’s storyline towards the end becomes a quest for him to become a functioning adult and human being.

One of the things Morrison does well with Wally is give the scatterbrained feeling of someone who is about to commit suicide. The fragmented plot line and jumping around makes sense because Wally is someone who is in crisis and his brain has entered red alert mode. What starts to come across, especially in issue #4, is that this is Wally’s “to be or not to be.” It becomes more and more apparent that he has control over his own final outcome. This struggle is played out by Flex and others inside Wally’s head.
On the side of life are Flex and his supporting cast. Fighting against them is a world that is increasingly falling to pieces, which turns out to be represented by the final villain, the Man in the Moon a.k.a. adolescent Wally Sage. To get to him, Flex has to go through a series of tests and trials.

Flex is introduced to us from the very beginning as the embodiment of hope in Wally’s psyche. He’s very similar to Superman in Morrison’s All Star incarnation. He knows exactly who he is and won’t stop fighting until his goals are accomplished. Flex was created by Wally Sage as a child to one day save Wally from the suicide he now contmeplates. At one point, Flex mentions that Wally died in his arms. This is probably the childhood version of Wally that we see throughout the story. There is a theme of growing in stages as even Flex says that his Golden Age version disappeared. We see Wally in all stages of life in the story. It’s ultimately his adolescent version that is the villain and what he needs to overcome.
Then there is the Hoaxer, the Lieutenant, and the Fact. These three characters all play important roles within the story but aren’t quite as obvious as Flex’s. They are vaguely reminiscent of an Id, Ego, and Super Ego.

The Fact starts the book by throwing one of his bombs birthing the universe we are about to read. Throughout the story he acts behind the scenes guiding Flex. He’s very mysterious and Flex describes him looking like a Big Foot or UFO photo. At the end you see that he’s been the one listening to Wally’s phone conversation. He seems to function as a white blood cell for Wally’s consciousness. The Fact's most interesting page is when he sets the stage up the background for Flex's final fight. This gives the feeling that we are watching a play and brings attention to what these characters represent.

The Lieutenant is kind of a representative of a normal blue collar side to Wally’s personality. He has a wife he loves and a job he works hard at. He gets the Hoaxer out of prison and they join forces to find Flex and fight adolescent Wally Sage. He intellectually triumphs over adolescent Wally when he says, “I loved my wife, you fuck! What do you love?” He’s the most real of the three with no super powers, using a gun as a weapon.

The Hoax is the most confusing. He can flash a light in your face and make you think you are anywhere. It’s ultimately the Hoax who defeats adolescent Wally Sage by giving him the illusion of control. His one final act appears on the very last page. He’s shining his light directly at us and repeats the first lines of the book. In the world of the comic, he is in Wally’s apartment, which is now clean, and his girlfriend is there. It’s not a coincidence that the question marks on him form a heart. The Hoax pulls the wool over our eyes and Morrison may be arguing this is a good thing. It gives the story a heart and allows us to see the good in life.

"Only a bitter little adolescent boy could confuse realism with pessimism."
-The Hoaxer

Under all the story, there is the subtext of comics as art and the value of super heroes within comics. There’s been a couple good breakdowns on the web of Flex Mentallo and its relationship to comics history so look there for a more in depth analysis. The basic idea is that each issue corresponds to an era in comics history. Issue #1 corresponds with the Golden Age, issue #2 with the Silver Age, issue #3 with comics “Dark Age”, and the final issue with the future of comics. Of course it isn’t that simple. Even in the first issue Flex sits down watching TV and notices the world around him seems to be falling apart.

The final battle between Flex and adolescent Wally is a battle for the future of comics. This is where the Watchmen comes in. Wally Sage committing suicide is how Morrison sees comics at the time. It's a little less meaningful these days with all the good super hero titles that have sort of been following Morrison's formula, but it's still strange that Watchmen is increasingly embedded in the comics canon. Celebrating Watchmen is celebrating an era in comics that had lost its heart and it’s a shame that Watchmen is regarded as the representative of a medium that embodies heart and soul. I don't hate Watchmen but I don't like that it's been put on such a high pedestal. It tears down super heroes without ever really explaining why.
Morrison is giving us a defense for the super hero comic through the Legion of Legions and Flex. The Legion of Legions is a super group similar to the Justice League. In order to save their world, which seems to strongly overlap with Flex’s, they become fictional in Wally’s world. They represent a archetypal version of the world. They are the unknowable in the universe that science can't explain. They are everything that is good inside of us. The leader of the Legion explains to Wally that the heroes are inside everyone waiting for us to believe them to life. They give us an ideal to strive for and the hope that we can achieve it. Wally attains a sort of epiphany at the end. The final panel is his girlfriend looking up out of the panel at us in Wally's position shining down. Of course, we are the ones with the true potential.

Download Flex here.


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your commentary, it made me want to dig out my old copies. I've heard that there are copyright problems preventing a reprint - what's the full story on that?
(PS I downloaded the files but what software do I need to open them?)

Jesse Reese said...

Thanks for the kind words and comment! I'm seriously jealous you have the issues. I had to read mine from these files.

If you have a PC you can download CDiplay to read them...
and a MAC Comic Book Lover...

Anonymous said...

Well, I've got them somewhere! I'll have to start digging - didn't realise they where so rare. (And thanks for the info)

Raymond Cummings said...

it blows my mine that Flex has taken on so much of a life beyond that one old, old Doom Patrol run.

i really need to get caught up on comics. been outta the game since, like 2001!

WMH said...

Any way you could re-up that rapidshare download?

Jesse Reese said...

Download link fixed!

Viagra said...

This parallel world kind of comics are always good. They play with your mind a little bit and create what i like to call a very well organized mess. I'll read this one out and see how much of a mess the two worlds can be.