The PopCult Bookshelf
Kept out of print for years because of a frivolous lawsuit from Charles Atlas, Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery is an early work by the team of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely (All Star Superman, We3), and it’s ultimately a confounding and bizarre meditation on the nature of the super hero in the post-Alan Moore and Frank Miller world.
Flex Mentallo himself looks like a cross between Bruno Sammartino and Sean Connery as “Zardoz.” He is unabashedly swiped from the bully in the old Charles Atlas comic strips.
This series is an uber-meta parody of comics history, particularly the infamous “Insult that made a man out of Mac” comic strip that was used to advertise Charles Atlas fitness routines. This series, while brilliant on many levels, may hold little appeal for anyone who isn’t immersed in the history and vocabulary of comics. When your main character is a parody of an ad that hasn’t run in comic books for thirty years, you’re in pretty esoteric territory. A lot of effort goes into building in-jokes that hardly any casual comics reader will get.
Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery collects the 1996 mini-series starring Flex Mentallo, who first turned up five years earlier as a supporting player during Morrison’s run writing The Doom Patrol. This mini-series has a complex structure that cuts back-and-forth between the suicide of a rock musician who’s recalling the comics of his childhood over the phone while he’s dying with the exploits of Flex, who is one of those heroes, who’s trying to save the world from a reality-bending menace.
Morrison had handled this sort of meta comics autobiography stuff before, and in a more coherent manner, in Animal Man for DC, but he seems to be trying to do it on a grander scale here.
With the situations and hallucinogenic tone, Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery has a lot in common with Roger Waters’ The Wall, only with cheesy parodies of comics replacing the trappings of rock stardom. Narratively, it shares some of the same problems in terms of following the story.
Which is not to say that Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery is a bust. The story is great if you have an encyclopedic knowledge of comics. Quitely’s art is, as always, absolutely fantastic. The book is worth owning for Quitely’s art on its own.
Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery sports a fictional introduction which purports to be the history of the Flex Mentallo comic book, dating from the Golden Age of comics through the Silver Age and on to the modern revival, and it is hysterical.
The introduction attributes the original creation of the character in 1941 to Ashley Dubois, who is portrayed as a cross between Stan Lee and Tennessee Williams. The introduction is wickedly funny and succeeds as a parody much more efficiently than the comic does.
And that’s part of the problem. It’s hard to tell if Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery is meant to be a parody, a tribute or just Morrison working out his psychotherapy issues on the page. This is a comic book that simply could not exist before Alan Moore’s Watchmen was published. At times it just seems like a reactionary bit of mental masturbation. In the end, this book tries way to hard to be “deep.” Morrison has done much better work.
This edition includes a bonus section of sketches and preliminary artwork by Quitely. There is a more expensive hardcover collection with the same content.