It’s been out of print for 15 years, but Flex Mentallo, Man of Muscle Mystery is back in print. Grant Morrison’s weird trawl through comics history first appeared as a standalone spinoff to his run on Doom Patrol and disappeared thanks to a lawsuit from the Charles Atlas company. Flex Mentallo crams all of Grant Morrison’s usual preoccupations – the nature of reality and fiction, magic, superheroes and so on – into one tightly-condensed story.
Flex is a Golden Age superhero – a clean-cut muscleman in boots and trucks, a look borrowed from 40’s strongmen, and Charles Atlas in particular. He’s doughty and dependable, morally pure, always cheery – he’s Superman as imagined by a kid.
Having developed mastery of ‘Muscle Mystery’, a ludicrous self-improvement programme that has combined his mind and body into one superstrong mass that can also channel psychic energy, Flex has set himself up as a superhero – or more to the point, he just is one, as though there’s nothing else he could ever be. He even has the comic book ‘Hero of the Beach’ ad caption appearing as the ‘Hero halo’ of celtic myth – if anything is a blunt reflection of Morrison’s treatment of superheroes as modern mythmaking, it’s this. But ludicrous and heaped with ponderous meaning as this all is, Flex Mentallo is also breathless fun.
The story is partially narrated by an unnamed rockstar, who, having probably overdosed, is relating his life and comic book recollections to a Samaritan over the phone. As it slowly dawns that the superhero characters are his teenage creations, his reality and that of the characters start to crash together. It’s as though Flex Mentallo is Grant Morrison’s own self-improvement guide – when an obsession with the bomb and his other teenage skepticism start to make way in place of the untrammeled optimism and self-belief of his / the narrator’s characters,
Frank Quitely’s artwork is as strong as ever. The lines are clean and bold, reflecting the Golden Age superheroics that underpin the whole story. Flex Mentallo was his first big American comic, yet his style is as fully-formed and coherent as in anything he’s done since.
A few caveats. If you’ve read Morrison’s Joe the Barbarian, Flex Mentallo will seem very familiar – Joe essentially being a kid-friendly version of the same plot. Also, this rerelease has been recoloured – if you’re after an authentic experience, you’ll still need to trawl eBay for the original issues. For most people though, it shouldn’t matter, and Flex Mentallo is such a good read that you should probably get it anyway, even if the notion of recolouring it bunches your underwear.