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Justifying My Comics: Episode #1 – Flex Mentallo

There’s a nest needs feathering.

My wife and I live in a one bedroom apartment and we’ve got our first kid — codenamed “Sprout” — on the way. We live in a one bedroom apartment where the “living room” is actually our dining room, living room, her office, my studio and our library. So finding room for a nursery has meant some serious purging. As a result, I’ve had to take a hard, cruel view of my comics. If they stay, they need to stay for a reason. If there isn’t a reason, they go out the door with the trousers I can’t fit in anymore and those shoes I’m not sure why I ever bought…

So that brings me to a new, on-going aspect of the blog “Justifying my Library.” In this, the inaugural issue, I’m going to have a look at the newest addition to the ol’ picture book collection: the recent hard cover trade edition of Frank Quitely and Grant Morrison’s “Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery.”

I’d first heard about this narrative gordian knot from a closer to home Scottish artist and writer duo, PaperCavemen Andy Pearson and Tom Eglington. They both said, “It’s mental, it’s amazing, you need to read it.”

Well, I have. It is mental, it is amazing, and my head is still spinning. At one point in the introduction, a fictional account of the rise through comics history of the most famous character you’ve never heard of, “Flex Mentallo”, his “creator” Chuck Fiasco says of the later Mentallo stories “Who can understand this stuff? This modern stuff? You’d have to be Einstein or a Stephen Hawking to understand what’s the hell’s going on in these comics.” And for part of the journey, this shoe seems to fit. More on that later.

So what is it? Well, it was originally a 4 part mini-series now collected in a gorgeous hard cover edition. It recounts to story of Flex Mentallo, a Superhero whose costume of choice is a leopard print set of skin-tight bathing trunks and calf-height wrestling boots. Occasionally, he sports a trench coat when he needs to head out about town. But this somehow makes it even worse.

Got that? Sound ridiculous? Sound like the fevered imaginings of a 10 year old boy who’s seen too many black and white Tarzan serials right after Mr Olympia Muscle-Offs on a mysterious 3 digit cable channel that came with your ESPN and Home Shopping Network? Well it is. And he is.

In fact, Flex is a character once imagined and drawn by a now adult, and presently dying-of-a-drug-overdose rock star. Through much of the comic, said rock star has a one sided conversation with an unseen “Samaritan” who listens quietly as he babbles on in what is meant to be his final drug addled binge before his intended overdose. By the way, his phone is a replica Stingray race car. And all he wants to talk about at the end are the comics and characters of his youth.

Combine that with several references to a Legion of Legions in a world-destroying battle with a nihilistic, all-powerful, moon-faced force called the Absolute, sprinkle in a couple of snarky visual references to Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, throw in a subplot about where ideas come from and you find yourself in plot that crinkles brows more quickly and effectively than a man in leopard skin swimming trunks and boots.

The space between images in comics has long been called the gutter. Scott McCloud, in his Understanding Comics, talks about the sophistication of the comics reading process as one where the reader needs to bridge the gap between panels, to find “closure” in order to connect them.
Grant Morrison, in leaping to ever greater and more absurd narrative heights, stretches the distance between narrative touch points in panels and pages that you frequently finding yourself flipping back and forth between pages trying to understand what’s happened. A scratched forehead and a muttered, “WTF?” are not uncommon.

But rather than it devolving into a chaotic mess, you instead find a core story about a love of comics, a love of story telling and a love of the sheer power of piling it on to tell a tale. At one point, the rock star character looks at pages of comics that his adolescent self drew ages ago and says: “When you’re a kid, you just DO it. You don’t even think about it. It’s pure. It’s totally pure.” And that is exactly what Morrison is doing: Flex Mentallo is about “doing it” in a way that’s “totally pure.” Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman is trying to do in his films (Being John Malkovich; Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; Synecdoche, New York) only without leopard print swimming trunks.

Frank Quitely’s art: well all I can say is I wish I could draw like that guy. He does with pen and ink precision what lazy illustrators do with photoshop and copy and paste. It’s gorgeous. mind boggling and draws you even more tightly into Morrison’s insane narrative.

Does it survive the baby purge? Hell yeah, I’m going to read this stuff to Sprout… when she’s 30 and actually old enough to get it… and I’m old enough to explain it to her. But this definitely stays in the library.

Until next time, my library quavers in fear…

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