this is part two of a series. part one is here, and not quite necessary to read. The equally irrelevant part zero is here, and the momentously significant negative one is all the way over here. Negative One’s prelude is right here, and a serially unrelated, although similarly anxious over what altruism actually constitutes, rests here.

“Facts are no more real than pearls are”, Ursula K LeGuin wrote, and she could have been describing the missing comrade Flex Mentallo seeks in the comics as well as describing the ability of speech to capture reality. 

In this way, death doesn’t become a means of leaving the world: just of becoming a fictional character spoken about by your friends.

This is the superhero comic Grant Morrison wrote right before he stepped on to write JLA, and subsequently save the DC Universe’s flagship title, helping to pull the distinguished competition out of the mid nineties bankruptcy that was turning Marvel desperate while DC’s tenth reprinting of Watchmen remained the best selling comic book of almost every year until the decade turned, and again when rumors of the movie began circulating again. Sandman wasn’t doing too badly, either.

Marvel would need to troll around for six or seven years creating some of the grimiest, zaniest superhero comics they would ever make (like this one I’ve already talked about, or Kevin Smith writing Daredevil comics, which I would love to write about later, or Mike Allred drawing a corporately manufactured superhero team who all die in the first issue and are almost all replaced in the second) under Joe Quesada and Bill Jemas until the latter left and the former discovered the short term gain of event storytelling.

Whereas both stood, Marvel slipping into poverty while exhausting its characters with events, and DC leaving things pretty fallow, following the bookstore market’s dollars with their fantasies draped in darkness. Marvel would emerge as the hoodlum from the shadows, but, for the sake of this comic and my discussion thereof, one only needs to know that while Morrison was scrawling these psychological infrastructures promoting altruism the rest of the comic reading world wanted its superheroes violent, bloody, and certainly not “smart”. If some intelligent captions surround the elaborate (and excitingly profane) renderings of superheroes in Vertigo’s corner, well then, all porn comes with disclaimers, right?

And so it is easy to read Flex Mentallo as another piece of excessive, formerly taboo images of superheroes that a mature reader’s label can display:

and while it does take advantage of that, it really only collapses into some desperate gratification when the gratification is really good. When imagination is not an indulgent path in which one becomes lost, but is instead a means as accessing the fantastic. Other short moments take simple delight in the joy of creation, throwing imagined superheroes at the reader because the script calls for nondescript superheroes. Take the “Legion of Legions”, for example, who wait forever in the wings, waiting to tackle the cosmic threat we watch them fly off to tackle at the final page, above. And who discuss their course of action below:

More than anything else, this is a comic book that attempts to show how superheroes can become real, not in the sense of having lives that resemble humanity more, but by making them real as imagined ideals that humans can aspire to when our minds are focused right.

As previously mentioned, our contact with superheroes outside of Flex Mentallo, who really is a normal human being given superpowers and unaffiliated with the legion of legions, remains that of an observer. They show up in our reality on pamphlets on the newsstands, conjured by unknown authors. They go off to save us from unimaginable threats while leaving us blissfully unaware of our fragility. At least, that is how they appear in this comic.

It is not an easy road to get there, however. As much as the idea of the superhero stems from the initial idea of what it means to do good in a society, we have begun to confuse the ideals of the superheroic with the transportation of a wish’s fantasy. Superheroes can easily confuse the two, because with their greater power their imagination becomes more dangerous, too. They have more abilities, so they can become more different types of people. Nowhere is this multiplicity of roles producing a more complex person more apparent than in perhaps the most elusive character in the four issue epic, Wally Sage.

Yeah, good luck finding his name in the actual text. Essentially the demiurge of Flex Mentallo back from Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol run (#42), Wally Sage was a young, seven year old boy with psychic superpowers. While reading a comic with the Charles Atlas ad in it, he drew and created the superhero Flex Mentallo. While he grew up, he became a nihilistic pop star who tried lots of drugs and wondered some deep questions.

The boy had the ability to create a superhero with his imagination, and now he must create his self with his powerful imagination. The fact that he sometimes does this on the phone with an unidentified friend eager to hear his hallucinations tickles me most exquisitely: he reluctantly keeps talking, spitting utopian visions and verses, often in statements that explicitly echo exact captions from Mark Millar’s Swamp Thing. Him on the phone happens often through the story, published concurrent to Swamp Thing 167-170.

Spoiler alert! (although for me, I was kind of excited to find out that this is what actually happens in the comic):
Wally dies. He has too many visions of his own power, and only leaves his sole creation, Flex Mentallo, around to tend the world in his absence.

Grant Morrison was on the way out, as well. Currently in between The Invisibles volume one and two when these comics came out, his first issue of Justice League of America was published three short months after the fleet of the Legion of Legions flew off into the horizon. Taking away the extraneous heroes, and focusing on the icons with saturated cultural presence and “enchantment”, in his own words, he wanted to make stories about the heroes and their powers, not about an author and his ideas. The Invisibles would careen divergently, becoming a comic of an author and his ideas grabbing superheroic motifs (as well as many other genres) to express them, and so Grant Morrison could continue his magic on this spectrum.

Before Wally’s death, and the world’s inheritance of its first real world (instead of fictional!) superhero, we do get a glimpse of Wally’s mid twenties recollection of creating Flex:

After searching long and wide for his creator, thinking that he would know the answers, Flex finds that his creator is just as confused as he is, and in worse condition. In consideration of the comic’s legal troubles, the character’s later memory that doesn’t involve the Atlas ad becomes even more hilarious: Morrison wished to de-emphasize the character’s history (although, admittedly, plenty of moments underscore the character’s connection to the ads).

And it’s not like Morrison is the only auteur on display here. As you can tell from all of the pages above, the artist, Frank Quitely, has no shortage of courage in illustrating Grant Morrison’s hallucinated scripts. What you may not realize from all of these images is how much control Quitely retains over his style. When drawing an image from the golden age of superheroes, when they were colored with four color dots that were mixed together to produce different colors, Quitely employs pointilism to make a man of muscle mystery sitting on a couch rendered with a casual vigilance:

His background as a technical illustrator for a furniture magazine really shows in these scenes when he spends lots of lines and effort building backgrounds. Although he would later start ditching backgrounds during All-Star Superman, this four issue mini-series sees him obsessively designing every millimeter of every page. Check out the bushiness of Flex’s chest hair!

As transparent and disorienting as Morrison’s narrative can become (which, really, it took me a couple reads and some research to fully comprehend the concrete actions in the plot), Quitely lends it a deceptive completeness and simplicity, which makes its wild wishes about power, that we use it to take care of problems that others could not, more easily understood. This is a superhero comic, but one unafraid to sketch the possible and render the real.

Indeed, it is a hallucination intended to make you more altruistic. According to Grant Morrison, that’s what all superhero comics should aspire to be. It’s just a matter of time before we all really start to change our world with our ideas as well as our realities.

Use your fantasies like you use your money: Let it get you something in return.