"I got six chambers of semi-jacketed realism aimed right at your Sea of Tranquility. Drop the rock."
-The Lieutenant, Flex Mentallo #4
Flex's first appearance was in Doom Patrol #35, where he was a bearded and inarticulate resident of Danny the Street (a sentient transvestite teleporting roadway - no really, Grant Morrison at his finest here, folks). In #36 he aided the DP in battle against the Men from N.O.W.H.E.R.E., then he and his secret war with the Thing Under The Pentagon were ramped down to subplot status during the "War in Heaven" story arc (#37-#41). #42 was titled "Musclebound: The Secret Origin of Flex Mentallo" and included a brief flashback shot of Flex's former temmates, the Zipper, the Atomic Pile, Mr. 45, Romantic Rick, and the Fact. All of their adventures involved the color green, for some reason. Important dialogue snippet: "The 'Fact' was active for a while, but he vanished in '58, driven mad by a hatred of wasps. I heard that sometimes his 'fact' cards turn up in junk stores, scorched around the edges and stained with green juice." "Fact" cards, as depicted, are business cards with "The Fact Is:" printed on them and various things handwritten after the colon. Flex's origin is a simple variant on the infamous Charles Atlas ad (see sidebar). His powers are vast and ill-defined, but are invoked by flexing his muscles so that his "Hero Halo" appears. In #43 we first see him back in his costume, which consists of leopard-print trunks, wrist-bands, and high boots. That is also the issue in which we begin learning his true origin. DCU resident Wallace Sage, as a child, created his own comic book using nothing but a green pen. It was called "My Greenest Adventure", and starred Flex Mentallo. In later years, Sage's psi powers caused Flex to manifest in the DC Universe. As of #43, Sage was a prisoner of the Pentagon, and he died shortly after being rescued by Flex (#44). Flex went on to affirm his intention to become the World's Merriest Crimefighter (#45).
The Flex of the miniseries and his world is not entirely consistent with the Flex of the above-mentioned issues of Doom Patrol. Most notably, none of the various levels of reality in FM appear to be the DC Universe. Flex seems to be living in a world which had superheroes in it until very recently, but who left for parts unknown, leaving the Earth on the brink of destruction.
One of the best theories I've heard as to the "uber-structure" of the miniseries is that the issues address, in order, the Golden Age, the Silver Age, the Deconstructionist Age, and the Reconstructionist (Modern) Age. Such an interpretation seems to hold up pretty well, and I'm going to run with it.
Unlike my page on Animal Man, I'm going to do full-up annos on Flex, not just notes on Crisis-relevance.
1.Cover: Very colorful, n'est-ce pas? The logo in the upper-right corner is a "W" holding a barbell, and bears a resembance to the Time-Warner logo, that being the company that owns DC. The microscopic text under the creators' names reads "Reg. Scot. Pat. Off." and "Reg. Eng. Pat. Off."; "Reg. U.S. Pat. Off." is text you will find on (presumably) old comics indicating intellectual property rights (personally, I've only seen it on old cartoons). "Scot." and "Eng." indicate the creators' respective homelands. The lower-right corner has three eensy-weensy logos. The first says "5-Star 'Old Toy' Value *****", which is pretty meaningless to me. The second shows a person wearing a graduation cap reading a comic, and says "For Mature Readers PhD Preferred". The third depicts the British Isles and says "Brit Pack TM" or something like that. I can't quite make it out, even with a magnifying glass.
1.1: Oh, look, Crisis images right off the bat. Compare with the first page of Crisis #1.
1.1.1: The man in the hat is a member of Faculty X, whose members are all the Fact, displaced through time. His/their plan is to use the dummy-bombs to alert Flex and the authorities to the threat to the world.
1.1.3-1.2.6: The explosion creates the universe, symbolized as a galaxy, contained within the Fact's head (it was an idea before it was a universe), which is a blemish on an egg (symbol of all sorts of things, mostly involving birth and creation).
1.1.8: This quote is reprised in 4.24.3. "230" is 23 × two fives; 23 is an important number in faux conspiracy theory. "K-9" is an old pun on "canine" (see American cop-and-dog units, or the robot dog from Doctor Who). Meanwhile, the quote helps establish our location: we're in a restaurant at an airport.
1.2.5-7: Everyone knows this commerical, right? Old anti-drug ad, whole egg = brain, frying egg = brain on drugs? Brains, ideas, and hallucinations (drug-induced or otherwise) are a running theme.
1.3: Note Flex's notepad and pencil. He might look all-muscle, but he keeps notes like any good detective. Also note the crowd, deliberately drawn so you can wonder what they're thinking. This is the first layer of reality in this series, which I'll call the Flex-layer.
1.4.1: Cliched dialogue occuring here and throughout. Intentionally cliched, of course.
1.4.2: Enter the fly, another recurring motif. I'm not sure what it means, though.
1.4.5: "You can always count on life."
1.5.1: "Today was different." Today, one can't count on life. Note the Atlas-quotes.
1.6.1: Note various drug miscellany, the key in the lower left corner, British-type electrical outlets, the UFO tape, and the comics: Lord Limbo, Outerboy, and Golden Agent. "Golden Agent" is meant to evoke "Golden Age". The line indicating the motion of the fly connects to the line on the opposite page.
1.6.4: Papers and muck are his life, and they're in disarray. This is the Narrator, who may be Wallace Sage, and may be Grant Morrison. I'll call this level of reality the Narrator-layer.
1.6.5: The phone is in the shape of a car from an old British tv show.
1.7.1: "Faculty X" suggests "faculties", one's inherent powers and abilities.
1.7.5: Glowing rings = Green Lantern, star-scepters = Starman, yellow boots = Flash, x-ray goggles = various. I also see what might be one of Starro's hypnotic starfish in the drawer. "The debris of a thousand out-of-phase parallel earths"; Crisis fallout? The detritus of childhood?
1.7.6: The slogan is similar to the cliche, "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get you."
1.8.2: The plague may be AIDS... or it may not.
1.8.5: The presence of a Fact card is impossible, because (in the Flex-layer) the Fact is a fictional character. (The "Fact" is "fiction", get it? Recurring motif, folks.) Only Flex was "upgraded" from fictional to real by Wallace Sage's psi powers.
1.9.1-3: These panels are Flex's flashback, and take place in the fictional universe created by Sage, of which Flex used to be a part. I'll call this the Green-layer, since the stories were originally drawn all in green. We see the Fact in action against the wicked Waxworker.
1.9.4-5: We move up to the Narrator-layer, in which he is looking over his old drawings. This suggests that the Narrator-layer and the Flex-layer are the same, but see 1.10.5. Both universes may have a Sage in them, creating similar comics.
1.9.5: "It's totally pure." A comment on over-intellectualization of comics, perhaps?
1.10.2: Note Mandoo the Mysterious comic on table, guitar at bottom, and that the phone is right under his hand.
1.10.5: We slide down to the Flex-layer. The Lieutenant is quoting Yeats' "The Second Coming", the most popular bit of culture in comics.
1.11.3-4: It appears the Narrator is attempting to make an inter-layer phone call, but the Lieutenant doesn't pick up.
1.11.5: Always feed the cat before committing suicide.
1.12.1-3: Assorted flashbacks to Flex's earlier days, which are reminiscent of Silver Age cover blurbs.
1.12.4: Flex's home, apparently. Note the back wall is all doors. Nostalgia rants abound.
1.12.5: The blurred line between news and entertainment is another example of fact = fiction.
1.13.1-3: Superman's origin, with Jor-El as crazy old farmer.
1.13.4-6: The "alien teacher" seems very familiar (apart from being a failed Christ figure, even).
1.13.6: "Who's going to save the world?" is one of the big questions in this miniseries.
1.13.7: The hungry cat returns...
1.14.1-2: ...and segues up to the Narrator-layer, where he is flashing back to feeding the cat. He's currently, apparently, in an alley, where he's rambling into the phone.
1.14.4: "Time's totally fucked up..." A pithy summation of parts of the Crisis. Note that he's describing his personal past as a "story". He also gives what is probably his real name as if it were made up.
1.15.1: The bad part of town. The word balloon is coming from around the corner, which is really a different layer of reality. The dialogue is meant to resonate with the scene; where = whore, "I'm so hot." The soldier down front looks a bit like the Unknown Soldier. Some of the graffiti is interesting, but not particularly to the point.
1.15.2: The "net" is from the Archer Boy's net-arrow. The guy was beaten up by a roaming horde of teen sidekicks.
1.15.5: The B bird symbol evokes the original teen sidekick, Robin.
1.16.2: Flex is from a different world, in which "queer" still meant "unusual". He's attempting to do detective work by free-association. Since the Fact works with facts....
1.16.4-5: Flex answers the question, but there's a problem. The heroes are gone. So, Flex ends up looking for them.
1.16.6: Turning the world on its axis evokes the Reeve Superman movie, titanic galaxies feels very Kirby-ish.
1.17.1-2: A mixing of layers occurs, with Sage briefly able to see into Flex's universe (and into the future, arguably).
1.17.3: He thinks he's talking to one of those crisis hotlines (as it were), but we later find the phone has no batteries. That's another important question in the series: Who is he talking to?
1.17.5: I don't know how the British comics experience differs from the American... anyone got any insights for me? Mandoo sounds vaguely like a Doctor Strange type.
1.18.1: Note man-in-moon nightlight. It's probably a real memory from Morrison's childhood, and is tied up with his feelings towards comics. "Crisps" is British for "potato chips".
1.18.2: Lord Limbo appears here to be a Spectre-figure, in which case we should be thinking of him as the ultimate power in the comic-book universe he's reading - the Limbo-layer, let's call it. It may be the same as the Flex-layer.
1.18.5: See the origin of Mr. Nobody in Doom Patrol #26.
1.19.2-3: Note how they're both being illuminated by different doors.
1.19.3: The original "young ward" is, of course, Robin.
1.20.1: Teen sidekicks are, indeed, less common these days - maybe the old ones are roaming the streets....
1.20.3: "mightiest man" Captain Marvel is the world's "mightiest mortal", and the Image universe has a Captain Marvel homage called Mighty Man, so it's not unlikely this gentleman is intended to be an old Billy Batson. The origin is somewhat similar, and...
1.21.1: ...The magic word appears to be "SHA_A_", which could easily be "Shazam". We find out what it really is in #4.
1.21.2: Somewhat reminiscent of Doctor Manhattan's origin in Watchmen.
1.21.6: The "old timer" seems to know Flex's name and destination.
1.22.1: Flex is reading the Daily Planet.
1.22.3: Faculty X's dialogue is reversed, but phonetically, not letter-for-letter. He's saying, "Dreams have children."
1.23.1: More hallucination = reality talk.
1.23.4-5: Is Morrison expressing what he's doing with this miniseries? "I just wanted to talk about the comics"?
1.24.5: When Faculty X is slowed down and frozen by the camera, he's recognizable as the Fact.
1.24.6: We find out next issue the name of the bar is "The Ocean Bar", which doesn't seem significant by itself.
2.Cover: The comic the astronaut is reading says, "Size isn't everything!" and the title is Nanno, possibly in reference to the Limbo-layer character Nanoman. Some of the odd symbols from the first cover are back, and, in addition, there's a rocketship to the right of "Flex" that says, "Sci-Fi Boys of West Ealing Club Favourite Comic Award". There's also a tiny "Logo A Gogo" to the far right. The faux stamp over the M implies that the comic can be "exchanged" at your local used adult magazine centre.
2.1.1: The first word is "silver", and this is the issue that's all Silver Age-y.
2.2.2: The ceramic castle gets into a whole realm of symbology that I haven't really deciphered. Does the ceramic house in fishbowl imply a ceramic village? Would it be a nice place to visit?
2.2.3-4: Note that only one of the boys actually has his pants down - the one who's sweating. The shape of the shoes is, um, suggestive. I think the boys in the washhouse represent boys sitting around a campfire, telling stories in turn. More questions arise, boiling down to, "Whose hand am I holding?"
2.4.1: In the Silver Age, there was a Superman villain called the Kryptonite Man. The many weird varieties of kryptonite and their effects on Superman were a staple of the Silver Age, and one of the things Supes was rebooted to simplify. Note Technopolis, Rogues Gallery... various bits of superheroic lingo. For lamb & turkey M, see 1.14.2; it's a flavor of cat food.
2.4.2: I believe this is the only place the Golden Age Flex is mentioned, but they're emphasizing a transition: There was a GA Flex, but this is the SA Flex.
2.4.5: Flex doesn't seem to have realized that Faculty X is the Fact.
2.5.1: Note capitalization on "City". This is The City, the archetype.
2.5.2: Zero Hour - the second Crisis.
2.5.4: More layer mixing.
2.5.5: "Gnomes watching me undress...." It's possible the ceramic village is a reference to how, later, we find out the world is made up of Nanoman and Minimiss, constantly replicating at the subquantum level. If so, they're everywhere... watching you undress. Gnomes, of course, are very small people....
2.6.2-3: Black M cause coma and death, pink M raises gender issues, silver M destroys one's sense of humor (which is odd - the Silver Age did have a sense of humor), and UVM changes you into someone else, the ultimate red kryptonite. Note we don't find out what lamb & turkey M does.
2.6.3: "a woman reporter on a busy metropolitan newspaper" Cool; UVM could change Clark into Lois.
2.7.1: Isn't this fun? Maybe you're really Flex Mentallo, robbed of your memory by UVM. Squeezing things into diamonds is an old Superman trick.
2.7.2: Infinite Earths, my friend. see also the Larry Niven story "All the Myriad Ways", in which a rash of suicides start when infinite parallel worlds are discovered because, after all, one of your other selves will still live.
2.7.4: Compare with the end of Morrison's JLA #4.
2.8.3: See? They're everywhere.
2.8.5: The same sketch as 1.10.4.
2.9.2: Eggs and bombs, symbols of creation and destruction.
2.10.3: The ultimate drug gives you the ultimate imagination, makes you into the ultimate superhero.
2.10.4: "last boy on Earth" As in Kamandi, an old DC character.
2.11.1: The ultimate existential angst - all my friends are fictional.
2.11.2: Sometimes those cliches just get away from you.
2.11.3-4: He's so charmingly innocent sometimes, n'est-ce pas?
2.12.5ff: Note the twin holes burned in the t-shirt, the infinite earths, the Shazam-figure (old man on stone chair), and the very Kirby last panel where he gains Silver Surferish "cosmic awareness".
2.13.4: With his powers, he's become aware of the heroes' plans to return from fictionality, and he can also perceive Nanoman and Minimiss, woven through the substratum of the universe.
2.14: This is the effect learning the truth is having on his worldview.
2.15.3: I suspect the crossword ended up in Wallace Sage's trenchcoat.
2.16.2: Compare the discussion here with 2.1.1. We have Monkey Mentallo, Zebra Mentallo, Alien Mentallo, Parade Balloon Mentallo, and Backwards Bee Mentallo ("Zzzzub zzzzub!")
2.17.2-3: "I think I've been affected by radiation. I think I'm some kind of mutant." Two popular origins for Silver Age superheroes. Did you ever notice how 90% of Marvel's heroes got their powers from radiation in one form or another? The X-Men, the FF, Spider-Man, the Hulk, Daredevil....
2.18-19: Flex keeps stumbling from clue to clue.
2.18.2: Many of the background figures are odd-looking. Superhero-looking.
2.18.3: The barkeep may be discussing the bar, or he may be discussing comic book publishers.
2.18.4: In many a story, Flex's line of inquiry would work, but this is "realistic".
2.18.5: A Catwoman figure. Compare with 1.14.1.
2.20.2: Possibly Ken Mattingly, who was the only member of the crew to spacewalk on the next-to-last Apollo mission (16).
2.Essay: I'm not going to comment on it - just read it. Pure weirdness, folks.
2.22.1: No, they weren't. Those were primitive suits. However, it's a good metaphor for the creative process.
2.22.2-5: The guy in the blue suit is a white-haired Clark Kent, reading the Daily Planet. Just like the astronaut says.
2.22.5: The guy on the far right seems unusually clean-cut and colorful. The only hero I know with that blond brush-cut is Barry Allen, Flash II.
2.23.3: The Mystery Pilgrim is the Phantom Stranger, who has lost his way.
2.23.5: The Stranger is warning Flex of the dangers of next issue, the Deconstructionist issue.
2.24.2: Infinite Earths again.
2.24.5: Moving from the Silver Age to the blackness of the Deconstructionist Age.
2.24.6: "Next: Crisis on Earth Omega!"
3.Cover: If you don't recognize who they're parodying, I don't want to hear it. Welcome to the Deconstructionist Zone. Ooo, look, it's autographed!
3.1: Many of the cliches of "deko" comics are lampooned in this issue. To start, it's raining, it's dark, no one believes in superheroes, and the Lieutenant is talking to himself.
3.2.1: The heroes aren't only gone - they're buried, too.
3.5.3: The tombstones of Nanoman and Minimiss, who aren't really dead.
3.6.1: The Hoaxer, a Riddler/Joker/Lex Luthor figure.
3.6.4: If a prison implies escape, maybe fiction implies fact?
3.6.5: The Hoaxer's symbol is paired question marks, or a heart, or a light bulb (a symbol of inspiration). Are creative urges hoaxes? ("Aren't they all imaginary stories?")
3.7.1: "Your life is a hoax." I.e., it's all fiction.
3.7.3: Another one of the important questions: What's the Hoaxer's greatest hoax?
3.8.5: Compare the muggers with the mutants from Dark Knight.
3.10.1-2: Our narrator is now flashing back to puberty, and the attendant sin of Onan.
3.10.4: The Legion of Legion's orbital wing, dropping big blue eggs of bombs. A hodge-podge of ideas from the series.
3.11.1: Orgasm = nuclear blast.
3.11.5: A pretty explicit diatribe about deko comics.
3.12.2: "Strange how I found myself questioning my own sanity and trying to find rational explanations for past weird adventures." A major pastime for heroes - and authors - of the past 10 years.
3.13.2: "Never grow up."
3.13.5: Flex's reality has just been altered by the bombs.
3.13.6: "Rating" refers to Comics Code Approved vs. Suggested for Mature Readers. Note the, um, symbolism of the gateway.
3.15.1: Wouldn't it be nice if there was such a word? (Which is of course the point - comics are power fantasies or sex fantasies.)
3.15.5-3.16.1: The Narrator is in a fishbowl; he's being observed.
3.17.1: The Darrow-esque widget to the left is, [ahem] suggestive. Throughout the next few pages, well.... Have you seen the movie Mallrats? As Stan Lee puts it, "He seems to have an unhealthy obsession with superhero genitalia."
3.18.2: Frederic Wertham was the author of Seduction of the Innocent, the diatribe that nearly killed comics in the 50s.
3.19: The Query = The Question. Radiator 9 = Brainiac 5?
3.20.1: The Queer Cavalier = The Gay Ghost.
3.21.2: More Crisis.
3.21.3: Death drops blue bombs.
3.22.1: What's like heaven? Krypton? Metropolis? The ceramic village?
3.24: It's not a wash-house, it's "where you get your ideas". And the Narrator has a memory of a fictional character holding his hand.
4.Cover: A teleporter in action; also, a depiction of how a superhero's myth comes from many sources. No new logos.
4.1: Crisis with a capital Cry.
4.1.1: "Absolute" means, among other things, "perfect", "complete", "pure" (see 1.9.5), "unlimited", and "certain". Thus, one has to wonder if the Absolute is a bad thing. (Okay, I just failed to suppress a mental picture of multiple overlapping vodka bottles with the caption "ABSOLUT CRISIS". Somebody slap me.) "The end of all life everywhere." See my commentary on Crisis 12.38.14.
4.1.4: Starting with Limbo, we have Lord Limbo, the Blue Blonde, Radiator 9 (?), Gentleman Gorilla, the Golden Agent, Outerboy, Rex Ritz (see the F. Scott Fitzgerald story "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz"), the Flaming Flag, the Human Mind, and Mandoo the Mysterious.
4.2.1: Nanoman and Minimiss embark on their mission to "weave" a new reality.
4.2.5: G-Whiz, a Flash figure.
4.3.6: The man in the moon again. Bear with me for a second here. Morrison had a night-light in this shape. He read comics by it. For the Legion of Legions, this is the "key" that will release them into a new reality. I.e., Morrison's reading of comics makes the Legion live. The other key is the magic word (on which, more later).
4.4: Gods, I love this page. Powerful image.
4.5.2: "Mentallo's a Boy Scout." Given the bad rep Boy Scouts have these days, not the best choice of words, Hoaxer.
4.5.4-5: The Hoaxer is used to superhero-y weirdness, but the Lieutenant isn't.
4.7: Flex materializes, and Faculty X sets the stage with various hero paraphernalia.
4.8: The Narrator is starting to have serious trouble with reality-layers.
4.9.3: So who does live here? The heroes? The man in the moon? Ceramic town gnomes?
4.10.2: Dream becomes reality - or another dream.
4.10.4-5: If we can be imaginative like kids, we can be heroes.
4.12.1: The Dog Star is Sirius. Sirius = serious, get it? The heroes are trapped because of too much seriousness.
4.12.3: The ultimate villain - but who is he under the mask?
4.13.1: See 3.16.2.
4.13.2: Marvel Comics is often called "The House that Jack and Stan built."
4.13.3: Kryptonite, one of the core icons of superhero comics.
4.13.4: Commentary on "The Death of Superman", which everyone cared about, maybe?
4.14.4: "The Secret Origin of Everything". There's a story they should do....
4.16.1: Hoax-sense = spider-sense. Note Flex is turning black.
4.16.4: Forcing realism and unhappy endings on everyone.
4.17.2: "Only a bitter little adolescent boy could confuse realism with pessimism."
4.17.5: The Hoaxer races off... to do what?
4.17.6: The Ultimate Villain is the angst-ridden teenager in all authors.
4.18.2: Quotes from the Charles Atlas ads.
4.18.5: The Narrator created Flex as a hero who would prevent him, as an adult, from giving in to his teenage-self's suicidal impulses.
4.20.1: And no one is listening to him after all...
4.20.4: ...Or is someone?
4.21.1: Coal (black M) to diamond; an old Superman trick.
4.21.2: The "Fact" can be trusted; i.e., it's okay to live in the real world.
4.22.5: The magic word is "shaman", a mystic storyteller, not "Shazam" (who is also a mystic storyteller, now that I think of it).
4.23: And the superheroes enter our reality.
4.24.3: See 1.1. The Hoaxer's greatest hoax? Why, reality, of course.
4.25: Filmed in wedgie-vision!
|Jonathan Woodward, firstname.lastname@example.org||
All original content is copyright Jonathan Woodward. Legal minutiae here.