Book of the Month

Book of the Month – Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery – The Deluxe Edition

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Avg Rating: 4.8
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Flex Mentallo_Man of Muscle Mystery_The Deluxe Edition_HC
Story by Grant Morrison
Art & Cover by Frank Quitely

Size: 112 pages
Price: 22.99

I’m not going to explain to you what Flex Mentallo is. I’m not entirely sure I could. It’s not what you think it is, that’s for sure. But it is undeniably the work of Grant Morrison. He’s definitely got an oeuvre. He most notably explored his thoughts about comics within comics in Animal Man. About a decade after that, he did the same in Flex Mentallo, and he was doing it again in his recent Batman run, as well as in his novel, Supergods. The themes about what comic books were and what they are and what they will be are present in almost all of his comic book work. This is the guy for whom the over and often misused term “meta” was minted. Grant Morrison is not Alan Moore, and he’s definitely not Frank Miller. In a comic book market where we’ve seen comics copy themselves over and over since 1986, and we’re feeling the generation loss in the loss of thousands of readers, Grant Morrison can safely be said to be one of the few people in comics who is almost completely original. Original, except for the fact that so much of his work is post-modern, in that it’s very often commenting on the form of the art, rather than a wholly original thought. There are very few comic book writers who can get away with this, and Morrison is one of the chosen. He’s exploring what the comic book is, both to him, and to the world in general, and he’s been doing it for well over two decades.

Flex Mentallo stands as the missing link of sorts between the original, raw form of Grant Morrison, and the confident, mature version we have today. It was missing because DC Comics saw fit to keep it out of print for fear of some ridiculous lawsuit from the Charles Atlas people (which would have been completely unfounded, it must be said). The four issues collected in this volume take us through the history of comics in broad strokes. The first issue comments on the Golden Age, the second the silver age, the third is the post-1986 “dark” times, and the fourth is ostensibly modern comics. But that version of modern comics is really more about what Morrison thought comic were going to be after this book was released the first time. And comics were that thing, at least comics written by Grant Morrison, and at least for a while. These are the comics of the “Hypertime” era Morrison, where he bends the idea of reality in superhero comics, and either impresses or pushes away readers in droves. It’s a binary thing with Morrison. You either love it or don’t want any part of it. All this is couched around the idea of one cleaner than clean hero, Flex Mentallo, who is searching for his friend, The Fact, both aware that they are fictional characters from a series of comics made up by a child. Flex Mentallo is very similar to Charles Atas, at one end of the comics spectrum, and The Fact is very reminiscent of Rorschach, or maybe The Question, at the other end. In the meantime, all sorts of factors are at play that preclude me from describing a narrative of any form to you. It’s an exploration of what comics were and what they are (at least when it was published), and it is frankly terrifying that what was the current state of comics in 1996 is basically exactly the same today. If that doesn’t sound like something you’re interested in reading, then stop right now, and move on to something else. Not everything is for everyone, and we’re all cool with that.

Morrison is only half of the equation here, and if there’s anyone the writer should be working with as often as possible, it’s Frank Quitely. Quitely is, I have decided, an acquired taste. Some do like him instantly, and some never want any part of him, but I truly believe that the longer you read comics books, not as a consumer, but as a student of the art form, Quitely gets better and better. That’s partially because his style is a combination of everything and nothing. It can represent this thing that is completely alien to what we see in mainstream comics, but at the same time, there are times when it looks like he’s just a slightly skewed version of golden and silver age artists, run through a bit more rendering, not unlike Morrison’s writing, come to think of it. Almost better than anyone working today, Quitely is able to lend gravity to surrealism, and plant the reader somewhere secure from which to observe the oddity. His craft is unmistakable. He’s doing things with storytelling that are as basic and solid as they get, but he’s doing it with these nightmares of thematic scripting, and he actually embodies so much of what made Jack Kirby the standard of comic book art. Except for the prolific output, that is. As I read through this, and I did not want to put it down, I may not have had much of an idea what was being said, but I knew where I was, and who I was looking at. Quitely functions as an incredible anchor to Morrison’s flights. I don’t ever want to see him do “normal” comics if I can help it. He needs to be here, working with challenging material, and because his work is so rare, it feels that much more special, and I’m completely happy with that.

Also, every cover of every issue of Flex Mentallo is better than every cover for every other book ever. Is it exaggeration? It might be.

There was some level of consternation about this new version of the book, which has been recolored from the original. I never got a chance to read the original issues, so I can’t tell you what it looked like. But I can tell you that I don’t see how anyone could possibly have a problem with the colors in this book. It looks great, and while it might not be the same as the original, that feels more like people being more against the idea of the change, than the actual product. I could be completely wrong, but on an objective level, it’s a well colored book.

One more thing came up when I was reading this book that I just have to mention. The lettering brought me right back in time. We’re very used to a house style of lettering in comics today. It’s all digital, and around the time this came out was nearing the end of “letters on the board,” as a way of making comics. At this point, the letters were likely printed out, cut and pasted (literally) to the art, and that was how you finished a page. The originals, should you ever be so lucky to see one, would have the letters right there. It’s almost indescribable, but it certainly adds something to the finished product that I miss. There was a certain style to the lettering in Vertigo books in the 90s that’s in this book, and I absolutely love. Maybe it’s just because it reminds me of so many books I loved from the time period, and what Vertigo brought to the table in that decade (Thank God for them), but I’ll be damned if it didn’t make me just a little bit happier.

If metatextual examinations of the history of superhero comics done through the language of pop art and form doesn’t sound like your thing, this isn’t a book for you. If you don’t like thinking about what it is about superhero comics that keep them coming back over the generations, then this might not be your best choice. If you’re not interested in exploring the thoughts of one of the foremost comic book writers of the last two decades, as he works in an ongoing discussion with himself and his readers, then Flex Mentallo is not the way to go. But then, I wasn’t sure if that was my thing either, and here I am, talking about how I couldn’t put it down. But if you are interested in any of those things, or if you’re a Morrison/Quitely fan of any stripe, this is a required text, and it’s a heck of a nice looking package to boot.

Josh Flanagan
The ultimate pathetic truth in pathetic existence.
josh@ifanboy.com

Comments

  1. Great pick Josh. It’s easily one of the most important of Morrison’s works and as you point out it’s definitely a transitional phase for him. That’s what makes it so strong and interesting for me – it has the enthusiasm of early Morrison joined with the more accomplished writer that he has become. The best of both worlds!

    In terms of the colouring, I think the recolour has made the overall feel much more grounded and “real-life” than the original colouring. I don’t think it suits the tone as well as the original but it’s still pretty great, and would probably sell it better to a reader coming in completely new to it.

  2. Hornhead Hornhead says:

    Pretty damn excited to see this finally in print! I definitely agree that a reader’s appreciation of Quitely’s work grows alongside the reader’s understanding of the medium; this is something I experienced first hand (I couldn’t fathom the appeal his art the first time I laid eyes on his work). Great pick and great review!

  3. This review upped my excitement for the book, which is currently in my neighborhood about to be put on my porch.

  4. Jeff Reid Jeff Reid (@JeffRReid) says:

    Once again, a well written review by you, Josh, has changed my entire reading schedule around. Sure, I could be reading certain titles in preparation for future DC Histories, but this is almost certainly what I’ll pull out once I get home.

  5. Neb Neb says:

    Great review. I’m still on the fence about this one, but Morrison is definitely a writer I flip flop on. Sometimes he’s brilliant and sometimes he loses me. I don’t want to drop the cash on something that may lose me. The more I read about it, though, the more I want to give it a try, if only to say that I have read it. I don’t know. We’ll see. Maybe I’ll pick it up this month since Instocktrades has it for 45% off.

    • halik halik says:

      @Neb This is the first he’s lost me. The art was absolutely amazing, but I felt this was too self indulgent of Morrison and it lost me. I still thought there was of course great ideas, but a lot of ideas not really explored. Plus I’m just sick of hearing from him how sexually deviant superheroes are.

    • Josh Flanagan Josh Flanagan (@jaflanagan) says:

      In context, this is the first time he said anything about the sexual deviance of the characters, and it’s only a small section of the book as a whole.

    • Ollywood Ollywood says:

      One of the things I love about Grant Morrison is that he can be hit and miss. To me it says that he isn’t playing it safe. I would rather support work by someone that could either be absolutely consciousness-alteringly amazing or unintelligible crap than someone who basically writes the same story every time with different characters.

      Obviously, I know that not everyone feels the same, hence Morrison’s polarising effect but I honestly think the industry (or any creative industry for that matter) would be in a much better shape, creatively at least, if there were more risks being taken and less retcons, reboots and calls back to the whatever age.

    • Neb Neb says:

      @Ollywood~ I agree that it’s great to know he doesn’t play it safe. I think that is one of the best things about his writing. I just always have an internal argument with his comics because I only budget a certain amount of money, so I have to be selective with my purchases.

  6. Conor Kilpatrick Conor Kilpatrick (@cskilpatrick) says:

    This is one of the best, and most complete, books that Morrison has ever done.

    • Kmanifesto says:

      I agree and I would add, for me personally, that Flex Mentallo is the only Morrison story that I have truly enjoyed while reading it and after a bit of reflection of the story.

  7. Ollywood Ollywood says:

    I loved everything about this book. I’d read it once before by downloading it (illegally, it wasn’t available anywhere legally) but it was so much nicer to read it in this format. Love the new colours and really loved the “Brief History” foreword. A beautiful package all-round really with great re-readability due to all the Quitely details.

  8. sitara119 sitara119 says:

    huge morrison fan and i have yet to read this book. or his JLA run.
    i must be taking the same crazy pills as morrison over here.
    definitely picking this up from In stocktrades thanks to @neb’s thoughts.

  9. Drewbacca Drewbacca says:

    I picked this up not knowing much about it, and was floored by the end. I will say, though, the narrative was kind of jarring (in a good way) and I felt somewhat alienated after the first issue. But I read the first issue again the second I finished it the first time, and it made everything clear. If the reader puts in the time, this book will pay off huge.

  10. Fantastic review.

    This is one of the few Morrison titles I haven’t read. But now that it IS available I want to get my hands all over it.

    I do like ‘young’ Quitely because you see the beauty yet the experimentation while he’s working on the pages. That one Batman story he did early on in life, where he is in Ireland, is really great. It’s nothing like ‘Batman and Robin’ great but it is still quite beautiful.

    • That was “Batman: The Scottish Connection” and was in Scotland, not Ireland. Really good story though. It’s included in the Batman: International tpb that come out last year. Written by Alan Grant too, who wrote my favourite Batman run ever. He was paired with Norm Breyfogle in the late 80′s/early 90′s if my memory serves.

    • If only we had a Grant/Quitely run….imagine the possibilities there!

      But I guess we were “stuck” with Breyfogle. :)

    • Splutter!?!?! Breyfogle is king! ;)

  11. Cedric Cedric says:

    Great pick Josh! It’s quite an experience reading this, Quitely’s beautifull art with Morrison’s headtrip make for a great journey. It’s a book that makes me smile, and I know I’m going to read it again and again, in contrast to so many other comics I have. To me, this is their best work, their watchmen if you will.

  12. koryrosh koryrosh says:

    Yes! Yes! A thousand times yes! I picked this up when I saw it displayed at my LCS and gobbled it all up. Wonderful book all around!

  13. JokersNuts JokersNuts says:

    Great review! This book is pretty much required reading for anyone who really loves comics, and not in the passive sense the reviewer mentioned.

    Make mine Morrison! (and Quitely for that matter)

  14. This was such a great read when it came out (collected edition), I missed the original four-issue run, but anything Morrison does is pure gold (in my opinion of course) & with his trusty pal Vincent Deighan as usual whose great art when seen is always a pleasure, shame his sciatica keeps coming back!

  15. Fantastic choice. The introduction alone is worth picking it up.

  16. Great review reading this right now and really enjoying it

  17. moodydoom moodydoom says:

    This book made me realize that the whole idea of Fill-in artists is something I wish would disappear.

    No matter how good the writer, to see a cohesive, fully realized body of work by both artist and writer is just so much more special. It takes a story from good to greatness.

  18. jerriblankstare jerriblankstare (@dbergene) says:

    I came back to comics with the New 52 and remembered loving the Doom Patrol back in the day. I started reading Action and thought that maybe Morrison wasn’t for me anymore. It took Flex Mentallo to reaffirm how amazing he is. I am now riding high on a Morrison blitzkrieg, making my way through Invisibles, his Batman work, back on board for Action and re-reading Doom Patrol.

  19. John42 John42 says:

    fantastic review of a comic difficult to summarize. and, trying to avoid spoilers but the ‘only an adolescent would confuse….’ line is the one of the best lines ever, not just about superhero comics’ dark age but about how we view life. morrison’s post-modernism is meaningful because, like whedon (still on avengers high), he uses reflexivity not just to comment on the art itself, like, say, kevin smith (that’s not entire fair), but to show what the art means to us in our real-life and how we can use it to help get out of bed in the morning.

  20. mickmac59 mickmac59 says:

    This review has convinced me to buy the book. Damn you, Flanagan! *shakes fist in impotent fury*

  21. jnbund jnbund says:

    I’m definitely picking this up. I’m mixed on Morrison. I liked Supergods and his recent Batman stuff, but I’m struggling with Action. I need to explore his past stuff a bit more. This seems like a good start.

  22. CaeuZokul CaeuZokul says:

    I’ve been reading SUPERGODS in bits on my lunch breaks. When I came to the chapters reflecting the time he was writing Flex Mentallo, I realized I had to take the bought-but-not-read-yet book off the shelf and read it right then and there. What a treat! I’m so glad I own this!

    An unexpected pleasure and footnote(!) to a remarkable treatise/autobiography on comics and a man who writes them. I would have never thought this would show up as BOTM, much less that it was already on my bookshelf. Thanks, Josh!

  23. Funcrusher Funcrusher says:

    Terrific review and pick. I actually read Doom Patrol in preparation for this, and although the parts of Doom Patrol with Mentallo were terrific it was in no way required.

  24. forestjwp forestjwp says:

    I was suprised at how much I liked this. Some his meta work leaves me less than satisfied. This book made me want to re read it as soon as I finished it. Such a great read!

  25. Rhymer Rhymer says:

    The art alone was enough of an enjoyment. Quitely is a god. The story itself wasn’t really understood by me. That’s not a criticism, though. I’ll reread the whole thing.

  26. A typically well-written, well-informed review. Great work, Josh. I’m now even more excited to read this one, and to hear the boys discuss it on a future show.

    Josh, you referred to [i]Supergods[/i] as a “novel.” Are you implying that Morrison’s memoir-slash-critical analysis of the superhero is in fact a work of [i]fiction?[/i]

    Damn. Now THAT’S meta.

  27. jonnyflash jonnyflash says:

    I read Supergods last year and was champing at the bit to read this afterwards. I read it today, and enjoyed it, enjoyed the hell out of the art, but if I hadn’t read Morrison basically explaining what it meant in Supergods I would have had no idea what was going on. Also, these annotations are helpful.

  28. Preacher2 Preacher2 says:

    Quitely is fantastic as usual but as a whole this isn’t a patch on Morrisons Zenith.

  29. jackietam jackietam says:

    I just read the collection, and I have to say, I do not like it at all. I tried to give it the benefit of the doubt that the first three issues are meant to be crazy and eventually the last issue will hopefully make sense of it all. But in the end, I still didn’t have a clue on what was the entire story was about.

    Maybe I haven’t read enough comics to understand the meta commentary being made by Morrison, but the whole thing was a major let down for me. On a positive note, Frank Quitely is absolutely fantastic in this. I thought his work on Batman and Robin was weird – especially in the way he drew faces – but in here, everything was perfect. The storyline telling, the character design, the awesome covers (DKR) etc.

    If I had to give it a iFanboy star rating. I’ll say 5 on the art, and a 1 on the story.

  30. Neb Neb says:

    After hearing the discussion on the podcast, I decided to give this a shot. I picked it up today with a couple other things that were releasing today. I’m looking forward to diving into it. Thanks to the iFanbase for all the great discussion on this one.

  31. IamSpartacus says:

    Thanks for the review. I got this from the local library and it has been a total trip. I love it.