Sunday, 27 October 2013

Flex Mentallo

Flex Mentallo first appeared during Grant Morrison’s time writing Doom Patrol. He was a throwaway addition designed to act as a parody of a Charles Atlas advertising character as well as golden age comic tropes in general. His power of flexing muscles, which sorted out seemingly any problem, seemed designed to draw attention to how simple, which is to say wholesome and free of worry as opposed to foolish or stupid, comic books of the past were.

The character was well-suited to a minor appearance in a book like Doom Patrol. It was a title that thrived on being quirky and strange and Mentallo’s oddball power and eccentric look (he wears a pair of leopard print strongman trunks and a gabardine mac) were a natural fit. That was never going to be enough for Grant Morrison. He had to pluck this one dimensional character from relative obscurity and award him his own four issue series.

In principle that’s a decision that could have worked. Had Morrison used the title as a tool to frame his feelings and thoughts on the golden age of comics it could have been an interesting read. Mentallo would have been the perfect creation for such a comic, being a modern creation designed to ape the standards of a previous era he would have had a different relationship to the source material than other characters. What’s more this is a comic I can imagine Morrison having an interest in writing. He’s penned an entire book on the history of superheroes and comic books in general. Imaging that he’d like to write something in the golden age style is an easy leap to make.

But that’s not we’ve got. Part of the book’s trouble is that it’s very difficult to say what we have instead.

It starts out well enough. We’re introduced to Mentallo at an airport, where he stumbles across a case that needs to be solved and, well, sets about solving it. His investigations quickly reveal that the man he’s looking for is an old accomplice of his, The Fact, who Mentallo believes to be a fictional creation. It’s at this point that we learn Mentallo is aware that he used to be fictional too, but was drawn out of pages he was scribbled on by his creator, Wally Sage.

It’s an intriguing premise that Morrison mostly ignores, instead deciding that what his four issue miniseries needs is more ideas. He revisits the idea of comic book characters being real at the end of the book and we again get a glimpse of how good a concept it is. It’s revealed that the world the book’s set in used to have thousands of superheroes in it, loving and protecting the peoples of the world, but they ran into some bother and only managed to save themselves by turning themselves into pure ideas that survived in reality as comic book characters.

These revelations come out over just a few pages in the fourth issue, rendering an idea stuffed with potential for greatness wasted. It’s the standard problem with Morrison’s work: he tends to have pretty good ideas but crams too many into a title, leaving them all frustratingly underdeveloped.

Even by his kaleidoscope standards Morrison seems unfocused with Flex Mentallo. He makes a big deal about how much raw creativity goes into the comics kids draw for themselves but never really pays the thread off or fully explains what his point is. He mentions parallel universes and timelines continuously but they never feature in any meaningful sense. He creates an incredible number of superheroes and –villains, with many of them ironically seemingly inspired by the silver age of comics, that feel wasted.

Reading the series it feels as though Morrison is desperate for it to be about something. But he’s so desperate to achieve this that he tosses in too much and the half-formed and unfocused results end up nothing but a disappointment. It’s possible that someone could drag some sense out of Flex Mentallo with some rereading but that person’s not me.

It’s ironic that a book with a central character based on the most simplistic age of comic books is such a tangled, convoluted mess. It’s also a shame. Frank Quitely does his usual job of transforming Morrison’s script into something that is visually engaging, inventive and fun and the book always feels as though it’s on the cusp of becoming really good. But it never does. As nice as it looks, and perhaps sounds, this is not something I can recommend.

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