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Flex Mentallo and the Morrison Problem

The experience of reading about Grant Morrison’s comics is frequently more stimulating than actually suffering through the work itself. In undertakings like The Invisibles or 7 Soldiers, Morrison slaps together elaborate sagas that span volumes, centuries, and dimensions, ganglial constructs that weave themselves around grand themes like time, language, identity, and heroism. The elegance with which some brave souls like Douglas Wolk and Marc Singer have untangled and explicated this mess can situate readers at an appealing remove, surveying Morrison’s story-worlds from the kind of extra-temporal, fifth-dimensional vantage point one might expect to find elsewhere in the author’s sub-Dickian oeuvre. But this critical distance too often simply amplifies the spiralling, vertiginous feelings of idea-rich complexity that Morrison is everywhere at pains to induce, and ignores the hollowness that resounds at the work’s core.

The perfect picture of this kind of strenuous vapidity occurs in Doom Patrol, in an issue where a character flexes his biceps so hard that he turns the Pentagon into a circle: certainly this is a feat comparable to revivifying a moribund superteam franchise (JLAX-Men), or crowbarring a slew of not-ready-for-primetimers into their own ramshackle epic (7 Soldiers). But what the hell is the point? Morrison, like his character Flex Mentallo in that earlier comic, may succeed for a moment in changing the shape of the system, but the rules by which that system operates, the things it stands for, remain forever unaltered. Flex’s new Pentagon, like Morrison’s new conception of the superhero, ends up circling a big empty nothing—though there sure is a lot of impressive-looking flexing involved.

Flex’s own series marks an opportune point from which to examine the Morrison method in greater detail, not least because the author himself argues for the pivotal role it plays in his career. “Flex Mentallo made me think about new ways of writing American superhero stories,” he says, at the same time that it “hinted at the age beyond the Dark period.” Its recent republication, too, cannot help but invite new comparisons with the fifteen years of Morrison comics that follow in its wake. And Flex Mentallo does resemble other Morrison comics in its precarious architecture, so that it may indeed sound intriguing once mapped out. But permit me not to do the book a disservice and ignore the clumsiness with which its author bulls through his thematic concerns: if here there be marvels, they are flimsy and fleeting, without exception.

First published in serial form in 1996, and only now collected after years of litigious handwringing, the book has its origins in a send-up of the famous Charles Atlas bodybuilding ads—surely the least of the many parodies that ur-text has inspired. Where Chris Ware satirizes the ad’s ugly power fantasies, and Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers mines it for its sexuality, Morrison simply makes a man out of Mac by turning him into a superhero. The newly rechristened Flex Mentallo—whose superpower is basically that he has muscles, which almost qualifies as a clever conceit—lends a hand to the Doom Patrol in a couple escapades like that Pentagon outing, but here in his own title Flex is no longer a character who has adventures, so much as he is a locus for all things superheroic, and Morrison’s meditations on the same.

Flex Mentallo is essentially metafiction, full of the pervasive and winking reflexivity of other Morrison series like Animal Man—which used a Wile E. Coyote pastiche to reprise Duck Amuck‘s notion of cartoonist-as-god, much like Flex‘s take on the archetypal comic book ad spins off into investigations of the comics reading experience. Here, as Flex searches for a group of mysterious terrorists called Faculty X, as well as an old comrade in arms, the narrative dizzyingly shifts register between Flex’s flatfooting and several other levels of reality and perception. In one, Flex exists only in the childhood scribbles of Wally Sage; in others, Sage may or may not be an angsty rockstar, an angsty adolescent, an alien abductee, a powerful psychic, a 1960s Greenwich Village scenester, or Flex himself. Sage may also be hallucinating the entire story as he dies in an alleyway—or maybe he’s on his kitchen floor, who knows. Wally Sage’s suicide and Flex Mentallo’s quest, however, soon begin to converge as it becomes apparent that in both endeavors the fate of the entire universe is at stake. As the storylines flit back and forth—now in a fishbowl, now in quantum subspace; here in a council flat, there in a nuclear flash-fire—Morrison attempts to tie all these elements together in a grand unified theory of comics, if not of existence. Nothing if not ambitious, the series opens with a big bang, and plunges forward toward a looming apocalypse, with each of its four issues loosely aligned with one of the “ages” of comics fandom (Golden, Silver, “Dark”…), as well as the stages of young Wally’s life.

So far, so good, right? Scope, complexity, ambition—all the hallmarks of a potentially expansive SF experience. But despite the abstract appeal of Morrison’s ideas and approach, there is very little enjoyment to be had in their execution, not least because he assails his readers with verbiage at once high-flown and ham-fisted. The Morrison touch—deployed everywhere, endlessly—is to crowd one high concept after another, reverently leaving each alone, never to return to any one idea again. The technique works well enough when trying to gesture toward a vast back catalogue of adventures for Flex, so that a panel featuring an exploit with “Origami, the Folding Man,” leads into other enjoyably spurious antics with “the Lucky Number Gang” or “the Baffling Box,” in one of the comic’s few successful homages to superhero nonsense. But too often Morrison tries to convey a sense of unearned wonder by spilling out vagaries in overheated prose, adopting an awestruck tone and asking his readers to “imagine” half-baked fantasies that seem rescued from Burroughs or Ballard’s litter bins. “Candy-striped skies!” the TV says at one point to a pensive Flex. “Can you imagine? And a child smiling, weightless—each floating strand of hair with a tiny eye at its tip. A swaying mass of blinking lights.” Elsewhere, we’re invited to admire a superhero utopia of bullshit portmanteaux—“Dreamatrons and boom shoes, paraspace-suits and omniscopes”—or to marvel at the experience of “Breathing the narcotic vapors of spectral avengers, inhaling ghost girls[…].”

These visionary moments are too often hypothetical, too seldom committed to and drawn out. But what’s worse, they’re derivative, too: one character, confronted with the cosmos, actually gives voice to the sentiment that we’re all “like ants… just ants.” Morrison’s mouthpieces in the story, though, contend that such cliché revelations are on the contrary dangerous and revolutionary. The book begins with a police lieutenant transparently explaining for us just how crazy and subversive Morrison’s ideas really are. The terrorists that Flex is searching for, he says, leave cartoon bombs in crowded public places to “show us how fragile the whole system is,” to “damage the foundations of the establishment.” Morrison seems to think that, like the characters he’s created, he too is leaving these cartoon bombs in the middle of a system that could use some shaking up—the very funnybook you hold in your hand will change the course of comics forever! Like the useless plastic bombs of his characters, however, Morrison’s, too, are duds.

Where Morrison’s efforts fail to fulfil the potential of their design, the same can’t quite be said of Flex‘s artist, Frank Quitely. One of Flex Mentallo‘s other attractions is its status as the first major collaboration of Quitely and Morrison, a team who would go on to make extremely entertaining popcorn comics, especially with the slick and quick We3. Quitely in particular would distinguish himself in those later works, perfecting a brand of freeze-frame action-adventure that tips the scales away from Morrisonian fustian and towards the purely visual. Surely the strongest sequences in the Morrison/Quitely canon are those where Morrison writes the least: the potted origin story that leads off their Superman, the silent psychodrama that takes up an entire issue of New X-Men, the video screens and savage attacks of We3. (Indeed, We3 offers convincing evidence that Morrison may work best when he limits himself to penning lines like “Gud dog.”)

As we might expect, though, Flex‘s Quitely is not yet as restrained as he is in those later works, not as classical, not as much himself. When his figures here aren’t squishy and unbelievable, they’re over-proportioned instead—Flex looks less like a barrel-chested musclehead than he does a parade balloon about to pop. The artist hasn’t yet discovered his own clean and clear style, or learned to resist all the sturm und drang that beset modern mainstream comics—reckless camera angles abound in Flex, as do panels that bleed pointlessly to the book’s edge, millions of wispy details, and characters who mug and pose rather than live their lives on the page. That said, the art is one of the only things to recommend the comic. The character design is sometimes inspired—the drippy, tacky Waxworker is a sight—while Quitely’s vaunted ability to depict trumpery, fabric, and flesh as tactile objects does manifest itself on occasion. As Flex, for example, descends into a superhero orgy, in one of the book’s most ill-considered developments, the artist abstracts the scene into a closely cropped image of faceless limbs and skin impossibly entwined, a panel that is suggestive and unexpected in its reticence. Too bad that the script, characteristically, robs the art of its accomplishment and poetry, pasting over it a humdrum evocation of superhero fetishism: “Imagine vampire amazons in wetlook thongs… a shy secretary stripping down to her black vinyl costume… gunsmoke and spent caps and Multiboy in his new fucking costume!”

I’d really rather not imagine all that, thanks. Such notions were infused with more scandal and panache when the Tijuana Bibles first trotted them out a lifetime ago. But the scripting problems aren’t limited to the bankruptcy of the ideas dropped here and there like so many rabbit pellets—even the overarching structure, so impressive from a distance, is fundamentally corrupt. Consider the book’s principle of organization once more, where Morrison increasingly equates the proliferation of bad superhero comics with the end of God’s green earth. So the first issue corresponds to the big bang, Wally Sage’s childhood, and the Golden Age of comics, and each subsequent chapter marches forward until we reach armageddon, Sage’s eradication, and “the first ultra-post-futurist comic” wherein “characters are allowed full synchrointeraction with readers.” Comics are life, in Flex Mentallo; the two are coterminous—a sentiment with which I can find great sympathy, given how lousy with comics my own life is. The crucial problem with Flex Mentallo is that Morrison’s idea of what comics are, and what life should be, are both irremediably, impossibly benighted.

Comics, for Morrison, mean superheroes, and life seems to mean something equally cartoonish. Wally Sage, the lieutenant, and Flex himself all constantly hold forth on the state of the world in general, and the superhero in particular—why they do so is anyone’s guess, since their ruminations never seem provoked by anything other than a whim of the script. Sage especially indulges in tiresome laments for the “good old days” of comics, the prelapsarian golden age of “when you’re a kid,” when superheroes “loved us,” when we could “look up to” them, when there was no use wondering “who always saves the world?” because the answer is always, and reassuringly, “Superheroes, that’s who.” Flex Mentallo, and Wally Sage, seem traumatized by Crisis and Doomsday, Liefeld and Shadowhawk, so I suppose it’s possible to forgive Flex‘s often elegiac tone, its rosy-eyed nostalgia. Let’s even grant that in such a context, proclamations like “[superheroes] abandoned us, left us to die” may not sound risible, or it might not be asinine to say that “all the heroes are in therapy and there’s no one left to care about us.” There’s still no excuse for a hunched over, defeated-looking Sage to mewl, “Why didn’t the superheroes save us from the fucking bomb? … Why didn’t they stop my mum and dad fighting?”

Even if we’re charitable enough to write off such prattle as the mawkish dying words of a suicide—Wally Sage spends the book medicating himself to death, after all—we would have to contend with the comic’s concluding, and by all indications heartfelt, sentiments. “We can be them,” says Sage, after the superheroes reveal the secret of the universe to him. Soon after, Flex echoes that huckstery Atlas ad copy: “I can show you how to be a real man,” says the superhero, hand outstretched manfully to scrawny Wally Sage. Superheroes as moral exemplars, as platonic ideals, as fiction bombs left latent in our universe and which will one day explode in blinding blazes of inspiration and mass perfection: does Morrison actually believe this cack?

Its seems, regrettably, so. Nowhere, in Flex or elsewhere, is there a world beyond the superhero for Morrison—there’s only Our Benevolent and Perfect Role Models, or there’s some ineffable beyond. In Flex, our reality has been constructed (and botched) by Nanoman and Minimiss, just as in All-Star Superman, there’s only Superman’s world, or the world he deigns to create for us, where our lives are no more than little experiments. If such a comic-book reality is unacceptable, though, we can escape it, don’t worry: but the only escape is oblivion. So characters in Flex experience their moments of cheesy, drug-induced cosmic awareness as blanched-out obliteration, just as The Invisibles will later dissolve into panel-less whiteness. Not much imagination goes into what life, or comics, might be like outside of the gleaming standards superheroes have erected for us. The closest we get to reality, in Flex Mentallo, is a morose rockstar, strumming on his acoustic; the comic’s idea of real life is a relationship in which your girlfriend, clad perpetually in a clinging tube dress, nags you so much that you forget how much you love her, man.

Even shorter shrift is given to “adult” comics (by which I can only guess Morrison means to indicate undergrounds—the book provides scant details). These are apparently even more morally corrupt and baneful than the plague of dark superheroes. Not only do they fail to deliver young Wally Sage any kind of moral compass—in their pages, “Nowhere was safe. There was no one you could trust”—but they also fail to inspire any kind of ennobling activity, other than a quick wank. Says Morrison through Wally, his proxy, “I knew I shouldn’t have read those ‘adult’ comics.” So much for the source of every major aesthetic achievement in comics over the last half century.

Given how grievous are the rest of these sins, to complain about the book’s repackaging may seem like mere pettishness. But the comic’s fundamental faults are carried out even here. Besides some superfluous sketches and original art pages from Quitely, the “deluxe”ness of this edition consists mainly in some updated hues. The new color job turns a Silver Age villain, motley-colored in the original, into dead, dull gray; it takes those moments of oblivion and transcendence and stains their pure fields of whiteness with urine-yellow gradients; it leeches any trace of four-color revivalism out of the original, leaving the “deluxe” version looking grimy, befouled, and drab. As distasteful as that sounds, this is actually a more truthful rendering of what Morrison and Flex Mentallo actually do: purporting to bemoan the darkening of superhero stories, to embody a new standard for inspirational comics, they in fact indulge in all the grim unpleasantries at which they tsk so self-righteously.

So, yes, the principles voiced everywhere in Flex Mentallo would have us disapprove when superheroes shrug off genocide with a joke (New X-Men), when Kirby characters get murdered just so the plot has a MacGuffin (Final Crisis), when porn sites pop up devoted to teenage girl heroes (7 Soldiers), or when a villain tortures his victims before performing invasive surgery on their faces (Batman and Robin). Flex and Sage would shake their heads in dismay—and Morrison would follow through with it all anyway. Perhaps, then, the new tones in this edition of Flex can likewise re-color our understanding of Morrison’s past decade-plus. We can see now that Flex Mentallo, like Morrison’s comics in general, trades in the same ersatz grown-uppedness that it protests in other comics. Morrison’s comics have never been ben-day bright; in the end, like Flex Mentallo, they’ve always borne that undercoat of ugly Vertigo gray. That’s what lies at their center—and that, at last, is all there is.

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87 Responses to Flex Mentallo and the Morrison Problem

  1. You’re one of the first people I’ve heard actually take issue with Flex Mentallo, and while I don’t agree with your opinion, I certainly thought this was a well thought-out and interesting read.

    That said, I think you are wrong about the “adult” comics Morrison is referring to. I would need to read Flex again to be sure, but that entire section felt like critique of the at the time growing (now fairly dominant) tendency to market toward an adult audience with mature themes. There’s probably even a few essays on this site about creators taking the wrong message from Watchmen or DKR to better market toward adults.

    I took Wally referring to them as “adult” because they’re the kind of thing a parent would say is “not for kids.”

  2. Your Mom says:

    Ugh… obliterating credibility at the very beginning and then snowballing from there.

    Lots of very strong opinions and assertions, without really anything much to say except “It’s bad cuz I don’t like it.” He came closest to making a reasoned point at the end when bringing up the re-coloring, but that’s about it.

    The whole thing ends up sounding like a guy who writes for TCJ getting his panties in a bunch because Morrison prefers shallow superheroes to the super-deep underground/alterna-comix which have SO OBVIOUSLY been “the source of every major aesthetic achievement in comics over the last half century.” (Because that’s, y’know, totally true AND provable).

    If we’ve gotten to the point where you can’t appreciate something as brilliant as Flex Mentallo, it might be time to change the name from “The Comics Journal” to something else. I hear that “pseudo-intellectualaxe-grinders.com” is available. Or maybe try “bloviatingopinionatedasshatsmisreadingeverything.net” as well.

  3. Sean M says:

    An elegantly constructed yet mean-spirited hipper-than-thou hatchet job. The point of which, other than page views for what amounts to professional trolling, escapes me.

  4. Geez….what is this? Take the piss outta Grant Morrison week? Is it because he has his own Convention? Between this article and a recent post by Matt Seneca, It seems that the critical waters are getting a bit rough…

    As a great man once said, “That wasn’t very sociable, sailor!”

  5. Chris Jones says:

    I feel like Grant Morrison made a bunch of dumb statements last year and now a bunch of people are so mad that they’re trying to discredit his entire body of work. It’s a weird thing to watch, seeing someone’s feet held to the fire for the things he was actually doing RIGHT this entire time.

  6. Christopher M says:

    I agree with most of this, I have to say – there’s an atmosphere of overbearing nostalgia, almost to the point of a kind of myopic backwardsness, hanging over much of Flex Mentallo – a point where longing for the commercial entertainments of one’s childhood has curdled into something toxic. That Morrison has all of this hinge on the world-historical importance of superhero comics is just bizarre and jarring.

    Re: the line about “adult” comics, I never thought Morrison was referring to underground comics there, simply because I don’t think Morrison has ever read any of the old underground comics. Morrison has always seemed to hold a kind of perverse pride in not knowing or caring much about any comics or literature beyond his own narrow genre interests – I remember more than a few interviews in which he’d be asked if this or that book was an influence on something he’d written, and he’d gleefully respond that he doesn’t bother reading books, with the same tone with which someone else might casually reply that they don’t own a television.

  7. Jon says:

    Thank you for this well-written takedown of the name-brand Morrison.
    I’ve always seen the banality at the heart of this writer, throughout his whole career: first, cynical nihilism; then, wide-eyed vapidity; now, remorseless capitalization and childish insistence of his own celebrity.

    “Morrison’s mouthpieces in the story, though, contend that such cliché revelations are on the contrary dangerous and revolutionary.”

    Spot on.

  8. This isn’t really a new thing here. I remember sometime in the last year, after Morrison talked shit about them in Rolling Stone, that they said they did say good things about him sometimes.

    I promptly went to the search bar at the top of the page, because I couldn’t remember this ever happening. The closest thing I found were the Invisibles and Hauntology articles, with everything else railing on him.

    TCJ were hating on Morrison before it was cool.

  9. Tucker Stone says:

    I think they were referring to Morrison’s reviews in the print magazine. Positive reviews of Morrison there go back all the way to the two guys at the magazine who had British comics access praising Zenith. On the website alone, there might be an argument to be made, but when you throw in the 30 odd years the Journal has been around, it gets really difficult for Morrison’s posture of martyrdom to hold water.

  10. Christopher M says:

    There’ve been plenty of positive coverage of Morrison comics in the Comics Journal – off the top of my head, I remember TCJ’s great piece on the post-Morrison X-Men, and Marvel’s panicked, conservative turn after he left the book, which included a pretty favorable view of Morrison’s run.

    That said, if you expect nothing but fawning reviews of a guy whose output has been as prolific and as spotty and as cape-centric as Morrison’s has been over the past couple decades, you’re probably looking at the wrong publication.

  11. George Bush (not that one) says:

    Well I guess Grant wrote Flex for me and not you.

  12. Some of the first articles they published at the new incarnation of TCJ were mediations on and analysis of Morrison’s Invisibles work which are very positive I believe:

    http://www.tcj.com/bomb-light-in-faraway-windows-the-invisibles-and-hauntology/

    and

    http://www.tcj.com/hauntology-and-the-invisibles-part-ii/

  13. Strangefate says:

    Who can resist taking jabs at Morrison? He is a writer who has never in his entire career said anything truly important or truthful yet does so with such great self-importance and style. The later of which, I fully admit, makes him more interesting than the majority of mainstream comic writing dullards, but no matter how much he protests otherwise, he will never be an Alan Moore. It is the difference between a vain flippant egoist on the one hand and a thinking man on the other. Morrison will always show threadbare in the end no matter how elaborately baroque his narratives.

    That all said, Flex Mentallo may well contain the single funniest panel in his entire oeuvre. “Who needs girls when you’ve got comic books!” He can be pretty entertaining, enough so that I do read most of his work with the exception of his latest overly reverent stint as caretaker of Batman/Superman franchises. But reading him is ultimately a hollow experience as he has very little to say and much of what he does say strikes me as pretty muddle-headed.

    As to why I brought up Moore…well, it’s interesting to me how Moore’s comics tend to always be invective against the whole idea of heroes as poisonous to society, while Morrison insists that superheroes are grander, more important than mere mortals, including the very people who created them…and until such time as we ourselves can become a Superman (which to say never if we’re honest) we will remain beneath interest and, the greatest crime of all, boring. I think this is why for all his spastic optimism Morrison’s work always comes off as colder and less humane than the incorrigible cynic Moore. Moore writes about human beings; Morrison doesn’t even seem to know what a human being is, nor care. Which may actually be why he’s such a perfect writer for modern superhero fandom’s antisocial audience; he doesn’t even pretend to care about anything real. He is one hundred percent artifice and what are superhero comics really but exercises of style over substance?

  14. michael L says:

    Yeah, this was a terrific piece, and it really gave voice to all the uneasiness I’ve had with Morrison’s work. Next time someone asks why I don’t care for the fellow, I’d like to just have them read this.

    Especially that bit about his crowding! The crowding of ideas, of prose, of highfalutin terminology. I couldn’t agree more. It’s distracting, it’s exhausting, and it sinks every salient concept he has under an ocean of white noise.

    thanks

  15. Sean M says:

    An ugly, spiteful hatchet job whose reason for existence, save professional trolling and a spike in page views, escapes me. If you don’t like Morrison’s writing I have a complex solution; don’t buy and read his work. I hear that there are retail outlets known as ‘comic shops’ where one may purchase a wide variety of reading material.

  16. Djm says:

    Nothing to see here.

  17. Chris Jones says:

    Okay, I didn’t like the article either, but “if you don’t like it don’t read it” isn’t a valid response to any kind of criticism.

    I will note that nobody seems to remember either The Filth or Morrison’s run on Hellblazer, no matter whether they’re lauding him or trying to tear him down. I don’t think they’re parts of his bibliography that should be overlooked when discussing his merits (or in this case, his lack thereof).

  18. Aviv says:

    So what you’re saying is… critics should only write about what they like? Reading about something the reviewer just looooved sounds boring, at best. More likely that will make me throw up violently. No thanks.

    I agree with the basic notion in this review, that Frank Quietly rocks and Morrison is exhausting and shallow. Otherwise, this was a decent comic.

  19. Nick says:

    While I’ve no problem with people complaining about things they don’t care for – one of those indulgences that makes life bearable – I agree with your first sentence. This is an unpleasant review and I wouldn’t like to think of it being anyone’s introduction to TCJ, regardless of the interesting arguments and observations embedded in the spite – because if I found a new comics blog and this was the first thing I saw, I wouldn’t be back.

  20. Brian Krakow says:

    Now if someone would please just write an article deconstructing Sebastian O my life would be complete.

  21. Derek L says:

    This reads like an SAT essay. No extra points for “vertiginous,” Mr. Rogers!

  22. Kit says:

    Two issues isn’t exactly a “run,” tbf.

  23. Paul Frank says:

    Only it IS true and provable. You should spend more time perusing the TCJ Archives and other related journalistic offerings to see it’s true. Being a fanboy will never help critical thinking.

    Also, I don’t agree with the author on most of what he argues, but your generalization regarding the Journal’s preference for “super-deep underground/alterna comix” is not only crass, but an even bigger offense than any if the smug asides Sean Rogers is responsible of in this piece.

  24. Jason Pilley says:

    “…whose superpower is basically that he has muscles…”

    No, he has MUSCLE MYSTERY!!!!!!

  25. Patrick says:

    This here article kinda sums up my thoughts about Morrison’s work as of late (although, I prefer Flex to a lot of his other tales). After reading Moore’s Promethea and Morrison’s The Invisibles, Moore’s dismissal of Morrison finally makes sense to me. Moore’s work is filled with thought provoking content and is well plotted. Lately I’ve been feeling that Morrison seems to sacrifice these things in his stories for a sort of “Hey look over here guys! This is cool, I’m cool!” approach. Both Promethea and The Invisibles are works about the apocalypse. Moore’s is also a lecture on his view of reality, whereas Morrison’s kinda turns into a sprawling mess.

  26. Chris Jones says:

    I do feel like that’s a legitimate point to make, though. Like, if you can’t see that there’s a difference between being a guy with a lot of muscles and the “Man of Muscle Mystery” then fucking of course you’re not going to see the appeal of Morrison’s work.

  27. Jack Feerick says:

    …which is kinda what I imagine the real apocalypse would be like.

    I get what you’re saying, and it’s a tempting comparison, but really I think the two books were pursuing such different agendas that the comparison is practically meaningless. Promethea had an explicitly pedagogical feel to it that’s not found in The Invisibles — it read like a textbook, and its characters as schemas; Alan Moore’s Grand Message to the World. The Invisibles was personal, reflective, inward-directed. Different means, different ends.

  28. Allen Smith says:

    Jon, take away the nihilism and the higher quality of Morrison’s prose, and you’ve got Stan Lee.

  29. Briany Najar says:

    Morrison’s eschatology is a kind of pot-pourri made primarily from extracts of Robert Anton Wilson, Michael Moorcock and Philip K Dick.
    In The Invisibles, being a bit of a 90s rave-culture-goes-pop sort of thing, Illuminatus! is the most obvious single influence. The two main differences between those two works are: a) Illuminatus! has a plot compelling enough to bear the reader through all its intertextual & metafictional showboating and is actually quite entertaining; b) Wilson and Shea are generous enough to acknowledge their sources, opening the readers’ eyes to a sprawling “tradition” of inspiring cultural moments.
    Moore is very much of a kind with writers like Wilson: synthesising without too much obfuscation; actually taking delight in the idea that, through his work, readers might discover for themselves the antecessors of its founding. In comparison, Morrison seems more of a gift-of-the-gab endowed mountebank bedazzler, a snake-oil merchant. Placebo effect notwithstanding.

    Having said that, I do rate The Filth and Seaguy and look forward to him growing a pair of his own, instead of swinging from DC’s in the cringe-inducing, infantile, supplicative manner that has possessed him these last few years.
    He’s got real potential.

  30. Christopher M says:

    I do really love the “muscle mystery” thing – the inversion of the Charles Atlas ad, basically, in that Flex’s powers come not through simple bodybuilding but through a goony unity of mind and body. It’s the kind of quick, clever thing that Morrison is really good at throwing out there – the frustration comes, I think, from the fact that all too often that cleverness is deployed in the service of something fairly shallow (retracing the metahistory of his favorite comics, for instance).

    I’m far more interested in Morrison when he actually has something to say about the real world – We3, The Filth, and Seaguy work to that end, to various extents, I think, and even the last act of Animal Man I find far more affecting for its portrayal of a character overwhelmed by forces he can’t control than for any of the metafictional stuff. I could identify with Buddy Baker’s fear, anguish and despair over losing his loved ones, his confusion at being confronted with a seemingly cold and uncaring universe, he rage and helplessness and alienation – and if that happened to be expressed in the language of comics continuity with some metafictional touches, then whatever. Taken straight, though, as a kind of ponderous meditation on the relationship between comic book writers and characters, and the pre- and post-Crisis DC universe, the whole thing leaves me cold, and I just can’t be bothered.

  31. o0o says:

    i feel i understand Flex Mentallo, but i didn’t understand any of the objections of this review, other than the recoloring. “does Morrison actually believe this cack?” sure, and why not!

    Wally, i usually like and agree with your reviews and essays, but it’s hard to read this and not think you’re forgetting about your Greenest Adventure. of course, this assumes you have grown up and related to comics in the same way as me, which may not be the case. but for me, in a really personal way, Flex is a ridiculously effective work.

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  33. William Oddie says:

    “b) Wilson and Shea are generous enough to acknowledge their sources, opening the readers’ eyes to a sprawling “tradition” of inspiring cultural moments”

    I seem to remember Morrison including a reading list in the letters pages of the invisibles.

    Morrison was the one who introduced me to RAW so your argument kind of falls over with it’s piss-stained knickers round its ankles.

  34. George Bush (not that one) says:

    But what’s worse, they’re derivative, too: one character, confronted with the cosmos, actually gives voice to the sentiment that we’re all “like ants… just ants.”…….. Derivative ? In a meta fictional comic? See, here I see a love of the Galactus trilogy ,not a problem. I would be interested in a list of 10 ‘better’ comics from Sean, because I think his review boils down to a personal preference against and distaste of Morrison the man .

  35. Jesse Post says:

    @Jack, yeah, Invisibles is as much a personal history and worldview as anything by Burroughs or Kerouac, and you can definitely say they lacked the precision traditional narrative ability of your more typical novelists.

    One of the beautiful things about the Invisibles is that Morrison didn’t know the entire story when he started, and not in a writerly “I let the characters tell me what’s next way” but in a “Holy crap I just chaos magicked my girlfriend out of the comic and myself into it! How do I process that now?” way. It’s a really pure expression of the monthly serial comic in that way.

    Very different from Promethea, which if I remember it, is more of a grand unified theory of Story.

  36. Iestyn says:

    I think that you’re sort of complaining about the nature of the thing by saying it is bad because it revels in what it is and what it loves rather than critiquing them. Yes its shallow and yes its obvious, but it is a celebration of superhero comics that were aimed at kids and is talking about how they inspired juvenile imigination and relieved boredom.

    I’m reminded of Moorcock’s ideas frequently when reading Morrison’s comics (which i haven’t done since Flex Mentallo in reality) and how he throws out ideas to hit with those in the know or to not clog up the flow of narrative if you don’t.

    I’m very much struck by the link between Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius novels and this series.

    I think that a lot of expectation now is that we have moved passed Post modernism and into ideas that deconstruct forms and ideas. I think Morrison was always about post modernism and wanted to show how he could assimilate ideas and collage them together in witty ways. Think story collage, like Poalozzi taking an Atlas ad and putting it ut there in a different context.

  37. There’s an interview with Alan Moore when he expresses his distaste for The Killing Joke, primarily because it isn’t about anything but Batman and the Joker. It doesn’t tell us anything about anything but superheroes. Someone else said it first, but that entire criticism could easily be applied to almost all of Morrison’s output post-The Filth.

    Throughout my entire read of Flex, I kept being struck by how autobiographical it seemed, and how depressing it was that Grant really seemed to believe that 4 color optimism and superheroes would make his father love him and pay more attention to him, rather than focus so hard on his activism. But they can’t. They never could, not even back in the “good old days.” They can be a wonderful distraction from the terrible real world, and they can present you with a million wonderful bright ideas that seem so cool and great and optimistic. But when you think about what Morrison wants his comics to do, all I can think about is Ennis’ Hughie complaining about Swingwing in “The Boys” (issue 8):

    “An’ then later on the kid gets queerbashed, right? An’ Swingwing goes after the guys and knocks the fuck outta them… I mean, in what weird fuckin’ parallel universe has anything like this ever happened to anyone, would you tell me? … I just think this is really stupid. I mean gay fellas do get beaten up, there are these fuckers going around doing it – an’ here’s this shite sayin’ not to worry, there’s a superhero on the way…”

    For as accomplished a chaos magician as he is, Morrison seems to forget sometimes that every ritual should be closed with a banishing and a cleansing of the self, lest one become too tainted or contaminated and can no longer function outside of a magical consciousness. He can be a very good writer, but all he seems to want to do these days is write about superheroes who don’t exist, and can’t solve our problems for us, no matter how hard we wish. They can be personal ideals to strive towards, but they aren’t coming to save us.

  38. Sean M says:

    I agree the suggestion to read something else is a weak argument. However, when the opening sentence refers to “suffering through the work itself”, it does make me wonder why somebody would continue to endure a writer he clearly dislikes.

  39. Nick says:

    Morrison (and Peter Milligan) kick-started my teenage literature adventures in the late 80s, and more besides – I’d read a Morrison interview and come away with a new list of authors, novels, non-fiction, music and films to check out. He’s in no way reluctant to acknowledge his sources, and it’s easy to see that this is still the case by reading Supergods (or many of the interviews he’s given about his Batman / Superman work).

    This is a frustrating accusation to read because I’m very, very grateful for the cultural pointers I was given by Morrison and co. twenty-odd years ago, when we didn’t have the internet to rely on.

  40. Been trying not to comment because I don’t want to catch the wounded tone of some of these discussions – Morrison is the (anti) dad of the comics internet, apparently, so all exchanges about his standing must come pre-coated in blood and barbed wire.

    Still, while this review moves forcefully onwards from its premise, I still just can’t get with that premise, and I think the reason I can’t do this has a lot to do with what Flex Mentallo is actually all about – or at least, what it’s all about for this particular EngLit fuckhead!

    Sean Rogers sees the bit in Doom Patrol where Flex flexes the pentagon into a new shape as a symbol of all that’s empty in Morrison’s work; I see it as a pleasingly goofy joke in a comic that had plenty to say about the real world (“the real fucking world?”) when it wanted to. Morrison has definitely been guilty of writing stories that are about nothing more than the uses and abuses of superhero comics – that tedious smudge of a second story arc in Batman & Robin comes to mind – but I don’t believe that this is all he is capable of, or that this is all that’s going on in the Morrison/Quitely comic in question.

    And so Sean looks at Flex Mentallo and sees a silly little story about how crappy comics can show us all how to live – I’ve read that book, it was called Supergods and it wasn’t very good – while I look at it and see a story about someone struggling to make sense of the outside world without reference to the trash culture items they’ve grown up with. And so where Sean sees a prescriptive rant about how comics were better in the good old days, I see a story about how our perceptions bend under the weight of time, and about someone trying to find a gold cross in the muck – in this case, that tackiest of all totems, a happy ending. Where Rogers finds overheated prose, I see words that are far more evocative than anything in this review (or indeed, in my comment!) while also being gleefully aware of their own gleaming ridiculousness. And so on.

    But really, it’s the sense of absurdity that makes Flex Mentallo work for me. Like the Doom Patrol sequence mentioned at the start of Sean’s takedown, Flex Mentallo is built on a knowingly ridiculous premise; unlike that other four colour fuck around, Flex Mentallo is acutely aware of how much this stupid shite can mean to people, of how even a fistful of tatty comics can seem like pennies from heaven under the right circumstances.

    Which is to say: our varying reactions to the different “types” of the substance known as “Mentallium” depend almost as much on “the” psychological makeup of the “subject” as they do on the Mentallium itself. Which isn’t to say “That’s just, like, your opinion maaaaaan!!!”, but rather that the damage I’ve taken from superhero comics is slightly different from what either Sean or indeed Grant Morrison seem to have sustained, and that Flex is all about this sort of damage, for good or for ill.

    This idea of “superhero damage” is pretty goofy in itself, of course, but I don’t think the comic ever loses sight of this either – how could it when Frank Quitely’s skittish everymen and bulging superfolk fill every page?

    Anyway, a couple of other thoughts, just in case anyone wasn’t sick of hearing from me yet:

    (1) Given that I don’t find it interesting when Morrison writes or talks about what superheroes should or shouldn’t do, I don’t think there’s much point in going through his work and interviews looking for signs of hypocrisy in his position on this nut-numbingly pointless debate.

    (2) While I agree with the bit about how Morrison’s habit of gesturing at good ideas can make for an unsatisfying read, I’d pay ten shiny pennies to see him drown his current Action Comics run in this sort of unresolved nonsense. Turns out that the sort of minimally written, “Action” orientated Grant Morrison comics that Sean praises in his review are far less compelling when they’re not particularly well drawn. Who knew?!

    (3) The bit about sleazy adult comix didn’t really strike me as pointed critique of Bob Pekar and Jimmy Spieglemaus – I thought it was just another, minor exploration of the idea that Sage experiences a slightly woozy sort of mise en abyme anytime he reads a comic. This particular illusion just happened to be full of sexual longing and neurosis, and while that might sound like a good time to you or I, it’s maybe not the sort of sight that everyone wants to finish the day off with.

    (4) While Grant Morrison the interview subject might hold that superheroes represent a design for life, or that Dan Clowes is a bilious waste of flesh, we don’t necessarily need to bear those comments in mind while reading his comics. No one could be blamed for bringing that stuff in with them, of course, but Morrison’s post-match analysis doesn’t necessarily have to dictate the way we remember the game.

    (5) Frank Quitely never disappoints.

    (6) Flex Mentallo is good, but if we’re talking about the Dennis Potter wing of his work then Morrison’s collaboration with Chris Weston on The Filth was even better, because: funnier, less idealistic, more aware of the corrosive nature of fantasy and the almost limitless possibilities for failure in the flesh.

  41. Briany Najar says:

    Sure, I just like it better when heavily intertextual work goes a decent way towards acknowledging the debts within the work itself. I’m not saying GM can’t make interesting conversation etc, I’m talking about the way he writes comics.
    You #1 fans really don’t need to be taking offense, nobody’s taking anything away from you. Unanimity is not necessary to the enjoyment of the new mythology, we are all individuals.
    Yes, we are all individuals. (chant)

  42. Roshan Abraham says:

    Yeah, I was about to say the same thing. Morrison said that part of the project of the Invisibles was to introduce people to these different cultural figures, music, books, which is why the names of writers and influences are name-dropped so much in the actual text/dialogue. (In ADDITION to the reading list) There are explicit references in the dialogue to Philip K. Dick, Terence Mckenna, & Ken Wilbur I don’t remember if RAW was mentioned in-story but I wouldn’t be surprised. I can’t think of another comic that is as overly reverential or explicitly acknowledges its source material as much as The Invisibles.

    Also, Briany, it’s not necessary to suggest that anyone defending Morrison here is a “#1 fan” or that we’re being overly defensive. I’m not sure that Morrison is in my top 5 comics writers, but your comment above is demonstrably inaccurate.

  43. Briany Najar says:

    Roshan, have you read Illuminatus!? As in the comparison:

    In The Invisibles, being a bit of a 90s rave-culture-goes-pop sort of thing, Illuminatus! is the most obvious single influence. The two main differences between those two works are: a) Illuminatus! has a plot compelling enough to bear the reader through all its intertextual & metafictional showboating and is actually quite entertaining; b) Wilson and Shea are generous enough to acknowledge their sources, opening the readers’ eyes to a sprawling “tradition” of inspiring cultural moments.

    If you have read it, wouldn’t you agree that its hyertextuality is far more effective, both in breadth and depth? Doesn’t The Invisibles seem like a pseudo-Illuminatus! in so many ways except that one? Morrison’s references (the explicit ones) were already widely current hipster celebrities, some of them even major pop-culture buzz-words. Illuminatus! sends the reader on a far wider goose-chase, across a much lengthier span of cultural time, into far less gaudily lit-up areas of thought – as, to a slighter extent, does Promethea, (see context of my first comment). Morrison’s more of a zeitgeist-surfer, if you didn’t hear about it via him, you’d have heard about it from someone else (maybe someone who read Mondo 2000 or hung out in chill-out rooms) soon enough. It’s all very well giving shouts to Dick (did Moorcock get a mention? He was certainly owed a big one) but I heard about PKD when I saw Bladerunner, it’s nothing compared to the prolific, thoroughgoing openness of the other two works under comparison (in this particular offshoot of the conversation here, which, as far as I can tell, is about The Invisibles, Promethea and the end of the world).

    (The 1 fan jibe wasn’t aimed at all of Morrison’s apologists, btw, just the overly protective ones. As I said, I do enjoy some of his comics myself.)

  44. Nick says:

    @ Briany – you may have a preferred vision of how intertextual works ‘acknowledge their debts’, but it clearly wouldn’t work in every instance. At any rate – and without particularly wishing to rise to the ‘#1 fan’ bait – Morrison has regularly delivered in this respect. Doom Patrol and Arkham Asylum, for example, are crammed with intertextual nods and direct pointers, and Animal Man isn’t far behind. As Roshan has pointed out, The Invisibles contains plenty of references.

    I don’t believe Moorcock is acknowledged within The Invisibles, and it wouldn’t really work with the story – but Morrison’s debt to Moorcock is quite clear. I think the problem there is perhaps that Morrison has assumed readers will pick up on it without an explicit explanation, which has led to some vitriolic comments from Moorcock himself (whose tendency to praise Alan Moore whenever bashing Morrison is fairly amusing – there’s a clear partisan affiliation there).

    There’s seemingly no easy way to debate Morrison’s work, and I think this is largely down to his late 80s / early 90s enfant terrible phase (which he addresses briefly in Supergods). If he’d acted a little more charitably back then, things may well have turned out very differently…

  45. Briany Najar says:

    Nick:

    I don’t believe Moorcock is acknowledged within The Invisibles, and it wouldn’t really work with the story […]

    No, it would be a bit like one of the characters in Forbidden Planet (the film) talking about their favourite scenes in The Tempest, maybe.

    There’s seemingly no easy way to debate Morrison’s work, […]

    Nor any pressing need.
    He’s a very popular writer, some people praise him as a real turn on, some others think he’s up himself, and when one of those groups express those opinions the other sometimes gets tribal (actually that only tends to happen one way round).
    I dunno, I’d like to think that if someone expressed misgivings about one of my favourite writers I might respond with something positive or explorative – something about their redeeming qualities perhaps, or something tangential to the points raised – because aiming headlong for a negation of the other person’s opinion just seems a bit pointless, boring even, unless “debate” really is the only kind of discourse that interests you. Doesn’t seem like a very Morrisonian approach though.

    P.S. I think Moorcock objection was that he didn’t mind people using Jerry Cornelius, as long as they kept the name intact – thus giving the character life beyond his creator’s own imaginings as well as bearing the one sign that traces him through his various incarnations – but Morrison changed the name, which, of course, doesn’t surprise me one bit: give a man a fish and he’ll eat a meal, but give a man a name-branded fish and he’ll know who to pay tribute.

  46. Nick says:

    I don’t disagree with you re: debate – a poor choice of words on my part – but this thread span off the attribution and acknowledgement angle. I could quite easily drone on about what I like about Flex Mentallo and Morrison’s other work, but that wasn’t my goal. I would hope I haven’t been guilty of headlong negation, at any rate. I’d like to think people can discuss comics positively – certainly more positively than the review we’re all replying to. A critical review of FM is likely to be more interesting to me than a gushing endorsement, but I’d prefer it delivered without the sneers.

    My point with the Moorcock / Moore comment was that playground-style Morrison ‘controversy ‘ isn’t limited to fans and bloggers. There’s no doubt Morrison himself is an architect of this, but a lot of the umbrage people have taken does seem to date back at least two decades. And the Moore / Morrison spat – which does seem to have influenced Moorcock and certainly fuels a lot of heated internet debate (more carefully chosen this time) – has to be considered in the context of all the other spats and vendettas Alan has on the boil. Morrison does touch on this quite reasonably in Supergods, and in Moore’s defence people do enjoy poking his sore spots for a quotable response…

  47. Scratchie says:

    Glad to see I’m not the only one who finds Morrison a grossly-overrated hack. I came into his work as a complete newbie when he started writing Batman during “One Year Later” (remember that?) and I literally couldn’t believe the awful cliches that were being presented as world-shattering profundity. I’ve dipped my toes into a couple of his works since then and have seen little to change my mind.

    This part of the review rung especially true: “The Morrison touch—deployed everywhere, endlessly—is to crowd one high concept after another, reverently leaving each alone, never to return to any one idea again.” Morrison seems like the comic-book equivalent of one of those movies or TV shows where the creators simply refer to other works without giving the references any meaning or resonance beyond “Hey, remember this?”

  48. Martin Wisse says:

    Sean, I wonder if you read this series when it first came out or whether the new collection was the first time you read it? Because this: ” The Morrison touch—deployed everywhere, endlessly—is to crowd one high concept after another, reverently leaving each alone, never to return to any one idea again.” is a fair point to make about his approach, but it was a hell of a lot fresher in 1996, before he became the King of DC and every other hack writer had ripped off this trick, than it is now.

    I don’t think this was “a story about someone struggling to make sense of the outside world without reference to the trash culture items they’ve grown up with” as the previous commenter had it, this was about the glories of superhero comics and how they can save the world, as told through a story that on the surface seems to drip with cynicism but is utterly sincere at the heart of it. If you don’t buy into superheroes as a concept of redemption in the first place, it will fall flat.

  49. “…this was about the glories of superhero comics and how they can save the world, as told through a story that on the surface seems to drip with cynicism but is utterly sincere at the heart of it. If you don’t buy into superheroes as a concept of redemption in the first place, it will fall flat.”

    Nah, I don’t and it doesn’t.

  50. Nick says:

    At the risk of becoming – oh, sod it, why worry? Morrison’s Batman work started just after One Year Later, the Batman parts of which were written by James Robinson. Definitely the same time period, so I’m not suggesting you weren’t reading the Morrison books – I just think it’s worth clarifying this point as it’s not really fair to let people think the man wrote something he didn’t (I’ve no idea what the Robinson work was like).

  51. Pingback: Mindless Ones » Blog Archive » Flex Mentallo: “The New Adventures of the Mentallium Man” & other stories

  52. mark says:

    Well, okay, it’s not just about superheroes though, is it? It’s also about the redemptive power of the imagination and just plain growing up.

  53. Peter says:

    What’s wrong with superhero comics? True, they are not the only kind of comics worth reading, but some of them are not just good but important. Flex is one of them.

  54. Briany Najar says:

    Important…
    Really?

    How?

  55. John Cage says:

    Why would he want to follow any of your suggestions when you began the second sentence with a dismissive ad hominem attack?

    Have a good day.
    John Cage

  56. danielbalyeat@yahoo.com says:

    I think that the first problem with this review is that it dismisses the concept of superheroes… when “superheroes” are exactly what most theoretical scientists are predicting as the future of the human race. When you have atheist/materialist scientists like Ray Kurzweil predicting that we will be able to download human consciousness into computers within the next hundred years, you know why Grant Morrison takes these “out there” concepts so seriously. When mainstream figures like Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins endorse the notion of “quantum immortality” (where humans live forever in a series of exponentially increasing parallel universes) you understand why Grant Morrison gravitated to the world of superheroes where these issues have been addressed for decades.
    In my opinion, Morrison is a serious existential writer, maybe the Ingmar Bergman of comics. He addresses the big picture issues (the future of humanity, design or lack of design in the universe, the significance of human life) while the indie comix scene (which the reviewer seems to champion) continues to focus on embarrassingly trivial topics (generally speaking… of course there are some brilliant indie creators but a good majority of them are still doing Clowes-lite, whining about “girl problems” and perceived social injustices)
    Flex Mentallo isn’t Morrison’s best comic but it is MUCH better than this review makes it sound.

  57. Peter says:

    Well, I can honestly say that Flex Mentallo challenged my philosophy of art in general — so it is definitely important to me. You mileage may, of course, vary.

    Other important superhero comics: Lee/Ditko/Romita’s Spider-Man, Lee/Kirby’s Fantastic Four, O’Neil/Adam’s Green Lantern/Green Arrow. These comics were important because they inspired the creators of today’s alt-comix that you probably really like. It’s shocking, I know, but I’ve read that Dan Clowes, Alison Bechdel, and Chris Ware have serious affection for these stories.

    Gerber/Skrenes/Mooney’s Omega the Unknown, Moore/Davis/Totleben’s Marvelman – these comics are important because they tried new things and showed comics’ potential to create true art. These comics are important in the same way that novels like Robinson Crusoe, Moby-Dick, or Ulysses are important – they tried new things and they were really, really good. Again, your mileage may vary, but that’s what I think (I do not mean to suggest, though, that Omega the Unknown or Marvel/Miracleman are on the same level as Ulysses – merely that the basic reasons for their importance are the same).

  58. Tobe Cooper says:

    The biggest problem of the review is author’s complete ignorance of the work he is discussing. The comments about Morrison are well-written and understandable from a position of someone who does not like him. But the text tells us relatively little about Flex Mentallo itself. None of the widely-known auto-biographical aspects are brought up, and neither is there a word about the hope that this comics radiates.

    And the author’s hate for the superhero ideal is completely mind-numbing to me. Flex Mentallo is about growing up, as many commenters mentioned. Why shouldn’t kids want to become superheroes? Why shouldn’t superheroes be an inspiration?

    This text hurts so much, because it treats something so hopeful, humane and beautiful as Flex with so much cynicism and hate. I can understand that Sean Rogers found nothing in this comic, but it is not empty for many of us. A message to look out the window, and see the world full of wonder. Why see gray, when you can see and imagine the color?

    Stay sad, I’m going out to get a beer.

  59. Joe C says:

    I’d love to see these interviews sourced. From everything I’ve read of Morrison, he’s a voracious reader. In fact, thanks to references in his interviews, and Easter eggs in his comics, he’s directly responsible for exposing me to the works of David Bohm, Stanislav Grof, Julian Jaynes, Robert Anton Wilson, and New Scientist, for which I’m indebted.

  60. danibalyeat@yahoo.com says:

    I decided to to leaf through Flex Mentallo after reading this review…and I think you might be right about the reviewer not understanding the the ultimate message of FM. For one thing, yes there is criticism of adult/ underground comics. But there is just as much, if not more, criticism of superhero comics, including a scene where the central character dismisses the superhero genre as “power-porn for retards”. The reviewer seems to miss the fact that much of the third chapter is an attack on superheroes and the people who read superhero comics. But that is still only a set up the final fourth of the book where Morrison attempts to prove that there is still something worthwhile about superheroes that survives postmodernism and deconstruction. But it’s not even about superheroes… it almost seems like an exercise to see if something that was inspirational to Morrison as a child, could survive textual criticism. Morrison knows that we can make a joke out of ANYTHING that humanity values, but with FM he is using superheroes as a symbol of nobility, pitting the totally sincere and unironic Flex against 21st century postmodernism (a concept that Morrison returns to frequently)
    And of course, Grant seems to think Flex does survive deconstruction…Maybe the reviewer does not. I tend to agree with Morrison. The last few pages are extremely effective in my opinion. In fact after rereading it I think its a little better than I had remembered (better than All Star Superman…almost as good as the Filth IMO)

  61. Christopher M says:

    Specifically, Morrison has bragged multiple times that he doesn’t read non-genre fiction. Obviously, stuff like The Invisibles wouldn’t exist if Morrison hadn’t read a bunch of Michael Moorcock and Robert Anton Wilson, but there have been interviews in which people have asked him, “This thing of yours reminds me of Kafka” to which he gleefully responds that he doesn’t read any of that shit ’cause it doesn’t have spacemen in it.

  62. Christopher M says:

    “‘superheroes’ are exactly what most theoretical scientists are predicting as the future of the human race”

    Uhhhh… I don’t know what “theoretical scientists” you’ve been talking to, but plenty of scientists – climate scientists, for instance – are not talking about the future of the human race in terms of superheroes, but rather in terms of… uh… there not being one.

  63. Kit says:

    He’d love to see these interviews sourced.

  64. danibalyeat@yahoo.com says:

    Respected scientists and researchers like Douglas Hofstadter, Ray Kurzweil, Marvin Minsky, Aubrey de Grey, Christof Koch, Giulio Tononi, Rodolfo Llinas and many many others have endorsed the notion that human consciousness is capable of being precisely mapped and simulated. Of course this doesn’t mean superheroes like we see in the average comic book. It’s actually much more impressive than that. Here are some links on the topic provided by Ray Kurzweil’s website– http://www.kurzweilai.net/mind-uploading-featured-in-academic-journal-for-first-time
    A few respected scientists like Roger Penrose have expressed suspicions about mind transfer because they are not strict materialists (Penrose for example believes that the human mind has a quantum component)
    But if you believe that the human brain is a physical object that is actually encoding information then it stands to reason that many scientists (who tend to be atheist/ materialists) concede that we will be able to transfer and/or store human consciousness (since in this view, the human brain is simply a naturally occuring wet computer to begin with)

  65. daniel says:

    He might not like Kafka in particular. He criticizes him in this clip as well http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RG6ai1YTfqM

  66. Christopher M says:

    Hahaha, Ray Kurzweil! Ray Kurzweil is a “respected scientist” like I’m a magic pony, and The Singularity is the rapture for nerds.

  67. John Farwell says:

    hi.

    IMHO…

    ‘strict materialists’ dismiss much unknown. i don’t know about ‘quantum’ components, but there are ‘components’ that defy labels en toto, that defy categorization on even the simplest and broadest level, that defy this human naming thing that we otherwise do as step #1, much less quantification of same. everything is connected, and delineating seams within is a nominally handy human invention of convenience which has limits -that we constantly redefine or rerefine and expand… we not only don’t know what we don’t know, we don’t fully know what knowing itself is -and then try to anyway despite even starting from that as a given. it’s phenomenally conundrumical and that’s no bottom line. ‘This is a lie.’ and so on.

    the notion that there are ‘Others’ itself is an extension of these self-defeating conveniences, but still a necessary convenience if to be discussed. material reality likewise. quantum components notwithstanding. there will always be that within reach but out of grasp, and discussion of the whole enchilada really needs undiscussable components to not be dismissed. for us that is experience. we wish to codify codification itself & well why not. it’s productive in a narrowly viewed way, as much as grasping ever is. we are the only thing i know of that bullshits and largely we feel it necessary to stop, and if we can’t, why? why why why -have we no capacity for Others as well to ask? (any god without questions is a finite god, imho, but that’s what we want.) Others? as code? code as data set? why not. everything’s relative to us.

    “The truth is not only stranger than we suppose but stranger than we can suppose.” -J. B. S. Haldane

    consider consciousness as a closed loop, mostly. talking to itself constantly, feeding on itself in some way. sensory input is actually a minority of all what we process. and who all are ‘we’ in full, anyway? not beyond materiality at all? i say the inorganic beings totally ‘suck’, but we will likely never get to the point of saying fuck ‘em for all the hosting of them we inexorably do -and would be then doing still. hacking all is a uroborus, self-predatory in nature ultimately. for us, the inorganic beings may totally suck, but that may only be a ‘bad’ thing to us. at our best we are absent within ourselves and there they are, gracing. let us always err on the side of love and hold tight to our generosity of spirit, i would wish, save for our innate rebellion.

    outside of the box is always another.

    consider the possibility that spores did ride in on asteroids millions of years ago, and that they did hold code looking for hosts with nervous systems, we may not be encoding as much as decoding as well and simply executing en masse…

    http://zuma.vip.warped.com/#tibts

    …’danibalyeat’ is a lovely addy, btw…

  68. Jessie says:

    I read Flex recently because friends said it was great etc etc. Well, I did not care for it. This article covers some of the reasons. Flex is a tad dull and, at times, confused. Some great ideas but not an enjoyable read.

  69. bencher says:

    One particular scene from The Invisibles comes to mind upon reading this article, coming in at the end of volume one. In the concluding arc of the House of Fun the King Archon is faced with an enlightened Dane McGowan, and, finding out that it is not able to defeat the enemy, rotates out of our present dimension to engage the Invisible cell elsewhere, where our heroes are supposedly more vulnerable. It returns at the end of the world, the first issue of volume three, to a decimated laboratory, only to find King Mob waiting for it, and all too ready.

    Same here, Rogers has brought his lens on one of the earliest milestones of Morrison’s work, only to find out that -if it isn’t already apparent by now- Flex Mentallo is unassailable.

    It is hard to fully comprehend Roger’s intentions, especially when he brings a secular view (“…all the hallmarks of a potentially expansive SF experience…”) to what is essentially a non-secular piece of work, wondering what the point of it all is, and balking (“…Superheroes as moral exemplars…”) when Morrison actually comes out and gives him one. Flex stands out among all of Morrison’s later work in that the author does in fact make a statement, instead of leaving it for the reader to figure out: only the answer is not what the reader would expect. Rogers contends that Morrison doesn’t provide a clear answer of “what life, or comics, might be like outside of the gleaming standards superheroes have erected for us” when really, isn’t that the point of it all? The superhero figure is meant to be a doorway, pointing the direction to wonder and imagination; for it is wonder and imagination that is lacking in Wally Sage’s life that night as he argues with his girlfriend and overdoses on paracetamols/M&Ms. The flip side of a the rockstar figure bouncing on stage only serves as context for Wally Sage; for the rest of us it’s Superhero Lore: “Help us,” he said, Help us rebuild in your world the shining towers of Neutropolis, the gloomy canyons of Satellite City, the little orphanage in Farvale, the plazas and monorails of Archway City.” Perhaps third world depth relief was what Rogers had in mind?

    One wonders then if Rogers is dismissing Flex’s real superpower out of hand, especially when Flex really doesn’t do all that much in the comic because he’s actually a symbol for the superhero. That last panel in issue, where he’s reaching out to the reader and saying that he can show you how to be a man – that’s his superpower, that right there. He’s a doorway to what can come next, not what is. Because to put a name on imagination is to contain something that cannot be contained; had Morrison given us any other answer it would have been contrived, and certainly not worth the attention sixteen years later after its publication. No, it wasn’t mean to change the world, or comics, for that matter; it is the readership and the reader that Morrison is talking to here. If comics have always been associated with escapism then Flex represents the doorway to escapism, and in the case of Wally Sage, salvation.

    There are other points that, really, makes one think of the phrase “hatchet job” for even being included in this article, like Rogers’s take on “adult” comics, when the only reason why Sage would call it that is because he was clearly a kid when he read it. And it’s hard for prose to stop from overheating when it’s being narrated by a guy who has just overdosed on drugs(or in this case, has believed himself to).

    The Morrison problem, therefore -which really only gets a paragraph or so- just seems to boil down to one of gimmicks. Like the King Archon taking slight at the way the Invisibles are dressed it makes for a poor argument, if not a trivial one; especially when there are so many better candidates in Morrison’s back catalogue. I’m thinking Last Crisis, or something by that title.

    Volume three of the Invisibles, incidentally, in one of its endings, sees the King Archon being taken off the board when King Mob demonstrates the problem to be one relating to dimensions, rather than what can only be seen on the surface. Maybe the same point is applicable here.

  70. Zig Zag Zig says:

    I’m not really sure what the difficulty here is. Mr. Rogers chief criticisms of Flex Mentallo, aside from complaints of overheated verbiage and unprompted, out-loud character ruminations, are 1) that the book portrays itself as revolutionary but then fails to revolutionize anything; and 2) that the work equates comics with superheroes, seemingly denigrating non-genre specific works.

    While Mr. Rogers is probably off-based with the second criticism, causing him to miss the point of FLEX, as Illogical Volume interprets it, his first criticism nevertheless seems to me apt. I adore Morrison’s superhero writing. I love when he fills the page with idea upon idea, and overlays the whole mess with high adventure. That shit is off the hook. But at the end of the day Morrison has written a superhero story about superheroes. Nothing about the concept is changed; nothing about the world is changed. The Pentagon, despite its changed appearance, still functions as the Pentagon.

    I will say that Bencher’s suggestion that FLEX is a religious text is probably on point. FLEX suddenly reminds me of the theology of Mormonism, which claims that man is of the same flesh as angels and God. And that all that separates man from the divine is ‘exaltation’. It seems to me that there is a comparison to be made between Morrison’s superhero-centric spirituality and that of the Evangelical Christianity of the Second Great Awakening. And that perhaps it is the paradoxical fact that such spirituality is deeply conservative yet also highly transgressive that has contributed to some of Mr. Rogers distaste for Morrison’s work.

    I don’t know Mr. Rogers; it’s just an idea that I’m throwing out there. Hopefully it doesn’t offend.

  71. Don Druid says:

    To me, it’s that Morrison can’t seem to wrap up his stories. I’m sure that reads like a modernist and tired critique, but I don’t receive the knowing acceptance of the unreality of stories from Morrison’s comics that I do from, say, Murakami’s novels.

    Morrison often writes like a conventional mystery writer, until it’s time to give away the game. Then, he turns it over to the reader to accept that the dead-weight coincidences and reappearing motifs in his stories have value in and of themselves. (Interested as to why Ragged Robin in the origami-folded time machine sort of, kind of resembles the King-Of-All-Tears? Or why the King chooses the moment he does to reappear? Too bad, reader!)

    I loved Animal Man in part because Morrison confronted this problem head on, and made it not just his problem, but the problem of corporate comics in general: you can’t wrap up the story, because the character isn’t “yours” to control, whether you’re a reader or a writer. In that field, you might as well be the character, the puppet, for all the false control you have over the story, because you can’t write its conclusion. In some ways that allows the reader to relate to fictional characters as though they were real – even the pulpiest, goofiest, blue-eyed, blonde-haired B-list superheroes. We can make choices, but we don’t run our lives, and we don’t choose the world in which we live, which has few satisfactory endings.

    The problem for me is that Morrison doesn’t have this angle to exploit with stuff like The Invisibles and Flex Mentallo (and I enjoy most of the former quite a bit). If he’s going to pursue a modern narrative structure, he needs an ending, even if it is hard to write and maybe not as good as it could be. No ending, no excuse. The Invisibles seemed like it had any number of possible endings to choose from, and tried to include them all.

    In that vein, I value Seven Soldiers, which braves a straightforward climax and conclusion about the Fates working just so from the very beginning of life on Earth. It’s an ending, even if it isn’t exactly the Iliad.

  72. Don Druid says:

    But if you believe that the human brain is a physical object that is actually encoding information then it stands to reason that many scientists (who tend to be atheist/ materialists) concede that we will be able to transfer and/or store human consciousness (since in this view, the human brain is simply a naturally occuring wet computer to begin with)

    Capturing the state of the brain in a way that preserves consciousness? That’s nowhere in the foreseeable future. We don’t know nearly as much as you assume here. We don’t know what that would mean, or how to do it, or if it’s possible.

    Scientists don’t “concede” anything like what you’re claiming.

    The singularitarian error is to make the jump from rejecting mind-body dualism to the claim that “we will be able to transfer and/or store human consciousness”. It’s possible that we might be able to do this, assuming a lot of other things about ourselves and the universe that haven’t been discovered or proven.

    Here’s a good primer on exactly how far away neuroscience is from such fantasies about the Singularity:

    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2012/08/22/whos-conscious/

  73. Don Druid says:

    Here’s another easy-to-read explanation of how far real science is from Singularity fantasy:

    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2012/07/14/and-everyone-gets-a-robot-pony/

    The gist of this one is that Singularitarians aren’t very well-read on the science. To claim that humans will eventually preserve a brain state, rather than merely a brain, you have to assume a bunch of technology that does not exist and may be impossible:

    I’ve worked with tiny little zebrafish brains, things a few hundred microns long on one axis, and I’ve done lots of EM work on them. You can’t fix them into a state resembling life very accurately: even with chemical perfusion with strong aldehyedes of small tissue specimens that takes hundreds of milliseconds, you get degenerative changes. There’s a technique where you slam the specimen into a block cooled to liquid helium temperatures — even there you get variation in preservation, it still takes 0.1ms to cryofix the tissue, and what they’re interested in preserving is cell states in a single cell layer, not whole multi-layered tissues. With the most elaborate and careful procedures, they report excellent fixation within 5 microns of the surface, and disruption of the tissue by ice crystal formation within 20 microns. So even with the best techniques available now, we could possibly preserve the thinnest, outermost, single cell layer of your brain…but all the fine axons and dendrites that penetrate deeper? Forget those.

  74. Owen says:

    First off – a hatchet job can be fun to read, but when the author doesn’t seem to offer any alternative for artistic intent I think it ultimately demonstrates a complete lack of conviction on his or her part. Yeah, you think Morrison’s overrated. Great. But where amongst his apparently thousands of wrong turns could he have made better choices? Taking pot shots at artists is a very easy thing to do. But aside from the brief mention of a couple other creators I see absolutely no reason to enter into the head space of an author who expressed very little enthusiasm for much of anything in this article.

    Secondly, the claims of hubris present in Morrison’s work are off base. Morrison writes comic books for a living – just because he drops “big ideas” in there once and a while doesn’t mean he thinks he’s giving the sermon on the mount. This is a comic book about a guy in leopard print underwear for god’s sake! Have a sense of humor! So much of this book (and most of Morrison’s writing) is intended to make the reader laugh. I think that’s just peachy.

    I think the author’s issues with Morrison is out of an expectation of work that Morrison just isn’t going to create, by virtue not only of his character but also of his process. The ‘crowding’ of concepts and goofy dialog may not appeal to the Alan Moore aficionado (as one example), who wants all their metaphors and contextual references set out like so many dominoes – but I would argue that it is an intrinsic part of how Morrison creates a comic book.

    Think about all the references in his work to Dada, Surrealism, dreams and rituals. These practices often functioned to draw out the subconscious (in the case of automatism or trance states) in order to create new meaning. They also, through the use of collage and automatic writing, endeavored to show the relationship of materials and ideas by compressing them together in a shared space. Grant Morrison has demonstrated his awareness and enthusiasm for these ideas so often that I think it would be foolish to think that they do not inform his practice. Artists working in these modes fully expected the initial impression of the work to be offensive, silly, or apparently idiotic. But these were qualities they were willing to live with in order to bring about something new and dynamic, that might get people to think about the subject in a new way.

    By embracing the goofy, ham-fisted, overblown, uninhibited rush of ideas, and by playing certain elements of a pastiche completely straight, I think he’s been able to realize a method that has produced an expansive and enjoyable body of work. As a result, I like Grant Morrison. Even the work of his that I don’t fully enjoy I don’t consider a ‘failure’ or as having a ‘hollow core’ (which is a stupid charge to level against someone so dedicated to their medium – what is he, a robot?) considering that it feels true to his process even in its shortcomings.

  75. Andrew says:

    I believe this article is an awful reflection of the worst I’ve seen of TCJ. The man’s work is admittedly very flawed, but without a doubt, it contains more heart and soul and belief than this work of cynicism.

  76. Matt Kennedy says:

    TCJ grew away from superhero coverage while it was still magazine sized, and considering the amount of space it dedicates to everything else one unfamiliar with comics might get the incorrect impression after reading a recent issue that the bulk of sales in the sequential medium are humorous or depressing biographies from writers and artists grounded in banality due to a lack of actual life experience (if not imagination). Luckily, readers of this stuff tend to be just as limited and therefore the work speaks directly to them. Such coverage is overtly lopsided, and the focus appears to be on non-commercial work respected by people who hate commercial success, annexing the most popular publications.

    Reviews like this show how out of touch the TCJ writers are with the mainstream–apparently so much so that they don’t even understand it anymore. It will always be in fashion to sacrifice sacred cows, and occasionally they get it right, but that’s not what bothers me; it’s the contrarian nature of this and most of the articles about superhero comics and the inability to enjoy them on seemingly any level.

    The zeal of fundamentalism abounds in statements like the one quoted in the original “Your Mom” post. Opinions are routinely paraded as facts and because they are delivered in a pseudo-academic coating they tend to be accepted by a readership that considers themsleves intellectuals. Hating Superman doesn’t make you smart it makes you a sourpuss. And calling someone a “fanboy” is about as crafty as dismissing someone as being a “hater,” which is ironic in this specific case.

    But none of this is new.

    Rolling Stone magazine went from being an informed music mag with insight and love for overlooked bands and songwriters to trashing icons like Led Zeppelin in their heyday. By then the writers that made the publication relevant were gone, and sermons on the genius of latter day Lou Reed albums abounded. When the general public abandoned the newsstand they pulled a 180 and gave covers to such groundbreaking, cover-worthy acts as (ahem) post-Toxic Britney Spears. So it would seem that the writing staff had an accuracy window of a few years before they were either too young or too old and the culture had either devolved or moved on. And such is the case of TCJ, which embraced the small press with such vigor that a return to the genre that launched the publication became impossible.

    Now even the name “The Comics Journal” seems inappropriate, as the articles do not in any way reflect the greater comics publishing world in much the same way that Modern Painters rarely (if ever) features a painting or painter on the cover. In fact someone who would buy TCJ to gain insight into the top selling or even most acclaimed comics would be better served buying The Onion to learn about root vegetables.

    Reviews like this one aren’t about the comics at all, but about the axe the writer has to grind with the particular comic or writer referenced in the title of the article. It might help the author to be reminded that being obtuse isn’t a virtue, but then who would read this? Because really, what need is there to read a 2,700 word article about a 128 page graphic novel if not to disagree and write back (guilty!)?

    In that function TCJ could be pigeon-holed as little more than shock journalism.

    Obviously not many people take the articles to heart because the sales of most of the “super deep /alterna” titles reviewed aren’t shipping in the hundreds of thousands like the top 20 comics in the direct market. Heck, I doubt they’re shipping in the tens of thousands. And often the reviews of the sub-indie self-referential “humor” books are meant to make a name for the reviewer, not the comic, as though the earlier one discovers something the more valuable they are as journalists. Getting there first should not be as important as getting it right, and the frequency with which TCJ gets it right these days is slim.

    I miss the days of Michael Fleischer and Harlan Ellison slugging it out via Gary Groth’s editorial reporting. I miss all the great Jim Shooter bashing. The behind-the-scenes at the dream factory reporting in the 80s made me love comic books even more than I already did. Now when I read TCJ I’m filled with anger or aggravation at how the fringe has been presented as the mainstream–and arrogantly.

    I, for one, love the escapism of the superheroes. I, too, go through phases of withdrawal when the tie-ins and company-wide story arcs seem more motivated by sales than storytelling, but I’m not so cynical as to deny the existence of the whole genre. I also read more non-superhero fare than superhero fare, but I’m not so far removed from them that the basic mechanics have become alien to me. As a fan I can possibly be more critical of a job poorly done than the writers at the Journal, but in my critique is a basic love and understanding of what makes the genre great. It’s easy to trash something when you don’t understand it. I honestly think that this writer just doesn’t get it, and more succinctly, doesn’t want to get it.

    Pretension is the great enemy of fair criticism, and there is certainly no shortage of that at TCJ, but maybe there never was. Maybe it’s always been this way and I never noticed. Luckily I can pick and choose what I take away from it, and when I do access TCJ it’s generally to read an interview, not a review, because I should know better by now.

    Opinions ARE like assholes, and more often than not they’re from them as well.

  77. Robert says:

    To follow up on Christopher M’s secular science as religion metaphor. If “The Singularity is the rapture for nerds” then isn’t global warming hysteria “Armageddon for nerds”?
    No less than two posts ago you said that the entire human race would be exstinguished by climate change. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in climate change, but that is an absurd overstatement of the problem. You may as well be marching down main street with an “End Is Near” sign.

  78. robert says:

    “Deeply conservative yet also highly transgressive” is a good way to describe Flex Mentallo. Much of Morrison’s work comes from the Left Wing (Animal Man and Action Comics definitely) but Flex definitely comes from the Right. The entire book is an attack on sex and violence and “adult comics”. It’s penultimate scene involves a drug using counterculture/ artist type seeing the error of his ways and deciding to embrace the stereotypically heterosexual alpha male super cop as his role model. Morrison literally spells it out with Flex Mentallo extending his hand to the drug addled artist (presumable based on Morrison himself) and urges him to become ” a real man”. When you look past the highly experimental window dressing this book is actually an attack on counterculture that would have made William F. Buckley proud.

  79. Grant says:

    Matt,
    A very thoughtful comment. However, while your comments about Rolling Stone are accurate, the fact is that when it came to Led Zeppelin, they missed the boat. Some RS reporters like Cameron Crowe were fans of the band. The fact was that Rolling Stone in its “heyday,” also extolled icon bands like The Rolling Stones and The Who, acts known to court the magazine whereas Zeppelin didn’t bother. I always believed that the band’s independence from Rolling Stone really pissed them off since Zeppelin didn’t need them. A minor point but one I feel I needed to make.
    I agree with you on everything else. I too love independent comics, but I also enjoy the escapism of superhero comics as well. TCJ would do well to keep in mind that there is room for both and to extol one over the other isn’t wise.

  80. Keith says:

    My only complaint about Flex Mentallo is…where the heck did the Hoaxer go off to? He just wanders off and we never see him again? Sloppy!

  81. David says:

    “The experience of reading about Grant Morrison’s comics is frequently more stimulating than actually suffering through the work itself.”

    That’s not the case here, however.

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  83. Nolan Moehle says:

    This is the most unimaginative comic book review ever written. Please read Flex Mentallo again, and let go of what YOU think it should be like. It’s art, ingest it.

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  85. Joe M says:

    Thanks, Sean. I thought maybe it was just me.

  86. Brian T says:

    If Flex Mentallo was just about the history of comics, I’d tend to agree with the reviewer. However, it isn’t just about, or even primarily about, the history of comics. It’s about the human condition. A theme that seems to run through at least some of Morrison’s work is the exploration of what superheroes mean for the real world, how they impact it.

    Is Morrison suggesting that superheroes somehow actually exist? No, I don’t think so. What he seems to be getting at in Flex Mentallo is the idea of superheroes as inspiration. They only exist in our heads, but given what we are, that’s a powerful place to be. This is made explicit later in his career, in All-Star Superman, when he mentions Pico della Mirandola and his work “Oration on the Dignity of Man,” in which Mirandola expressed the idea that since we are fundamentally imitative creatures who have tremendous capabilities, what we imitate really matters. We essentially have the choice between committing suicide as a species through warfare, neglect, environmental waste and ignorance, or striving for bigger and better things, and what we choose to be inspired by can impact that decision immensely.

    To me, Flex Mentallo argues that choosing to be inspired by Silver-Age superheroes, trying to emulate their sense of wonder and morality, is not a bad way to go.

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