Book of the Month
What did the
Art & Cover by Frank Quitely
Size: 112 pages
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.
The ultimate pathetic truth in pathetic existence.