December 17, 2014
by Andy Waterfield

On Wednesdays We Wear Ink is a weekly column on comics and comics culture. For past columns, click here.

As a kid growing up in early ‘00s Leicestershire, I was absolutely fascinated by things I’d read about the Georgetown punks in early ‘80s Washington, DC. Their interpretation of punk, which would become a key building block in the burgeoning hardcore movement, had a focus on self-respect and self-discipline (often expressed through a sober/straightedge lifestyle), a lot of shaved heads, and the motto ‘Flex Your Head.’ Whether intended or not, to me, as a kid reading about them 20 years later, ‘Flex Your Head’ struck me as a call to treat the mind as a space for self-affirmation and transformation, and a space for imagining a better way of living, a better culture, and a better future. At the same time, I was getting back into comics in a big way, and was obsessed with the work of one man: Grant Morrison.

Grant Morrison is a writer, musician, playwright, fetish enthusiast, and working class bloke from Glasgow. He’s got a shaved head, and while his comics writing occasionally explores more cynical territory, as a body of work, it’s astonishingly hopeful, imaginative, and continually returns to themes of self-affirmation and transformation. Flex your head, indeed.

Today, we’re going to be exploring Morrison’s 1996 collaboration with Frank Quitely, Flex Mentallo. Flex is especially noteworthy as being the first instance of the Morrison/Quitely partnership, which, to my mind, is the finest and most consistent partnership in contemporary comics (with all due respect to Gillen/McKelvie and Remender/Moore).

In many respects, the book is a microcosm of Morrison’s broader body of work, examining as it does, themes he would return to again and again over the following 18 years, including transformation, metafiction, and his own relationship with reality.

Flex Mentallo is the story of it’s titular character, a golden age superhero archetype adrift in a grim and cynical world. In many ways, it is a response to the ‘Dark Age’ of superhero comics of which Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns were the oft-imitated vanguard. Where, in those works, the heroes are as violent and flawed as the grim environs they find themselves within, Flex is a tale of a hero whose sunny disposition and simple sense of justice illuminates his surroundings; a man who strides through a vicious and sickly cityscape wearing only leopard-print briefs, a trenchcoat, and a reassuring smile. It’s about a hero who changes the world for the better, against the odds; a struggle which forms the essential core of the classical superhero archetype.

But then, there’s another layer to the thing; the story of Wally Sage, a rock star whose life is coming apart at the seems, who has elected to commit suicide, and is rambling about his childhood, and comics in particular to a suicide help line volunteer, while lying in a dingy back alley in Glasgow city centre, waiting to die.

‘The book was part biography, real and imagined – the story of a life I might have led if the Mixers has been successful. I saw it as the memoir of an “Earth 2 Grant Morrison,” so I gave him my own childhood, and he inhabited a rough fascimile of my West End terraced town house. He was me with my cat and visiting girlfriend, my comic books, aliens, and white-hot blitzkrieg visionary nights.’ – Grant Morrison – Supergods: our world in the age of the superhero

In this way, Flex Mentallo is both about superheroes as a concept, but also reading superheroes as an experience. Of its four parts, two can be read as explorations of the four ages of American superhero comics.

Each of the four issues took its thematic cue from a different age of comics, so the first, entitled ‘Flowery Atomic Heart’, dealt with the golden age of childhood memories and lost Edens. The second was the silver age of transformation and young adulthood, ‘My Beautiful Head’. The dark age and late adolescence were represented by issue no. 3’s bleak ‘Dig the Vacuum’, while ‘We Are All UFOs’, the final installment, anticipated that coming, as yet unnamed, age, which almost twenty years later we’re calling the Renaissance.’ – Grant Morrison – Supergods: our world in the age of the superhero

As the above passage suggests, Morrison sees many parallels between the development of superhero comics and the typical developmental path of a human being. This is particular pertinent in the third part of Flex Mentallo, ‘Dig The Vacuum,’ where our hero descends into a superhero sex club. Morrison uses this passage to examine the psycho-sexual undertones of the genre (populated, as it is, by so much skintight rubber, Freudian symbolism, and Jungian archetype), but also gives us room to digest and incorporate those ideas into a broader understanding of the genre. Morrison shows us that the ‘Dark Age’ drive to show how grown up and ‘adult’ comics were, usually through the insertion of more sex, and graphic violence, actually resulted in supremely adolescent work. In short, the industry, so desperate to be seen as mature, highlighted its own immaturity like a sixth former boasting loudly about a girl he’d fingered, while on holiday with his parents.

This is an important point, as the work, while broadly positive about superhero comics as a whole, doesn’t shy away from the bad points, but even then, there’s a great deal of love there. When Morrison criticises the faux-maturity of the ‘Dark Age,’ it’s through an exploration of his own adolescence, spent hiding in his bedroom masturbating to his own drawings of superheroes in the nude. There is criticism here, but not judgement. The work comes from a place of lived experience, and of empathy.

In a world where so much of the narrative around comics is about apologising for the medium (for evidence, look to the ever-present hordes who insist they don’t read comics, but ‘graphic novels’), Flex Mentallo offers something of a love letter to the form, and superhero comics in particular. Frequently written off as simplistic, adolescent power fantasies, superhero comics are the perennial scapegoat of commentators who wish to espouse the virtues of their own favoured works by slating comics’ most popular genre (in the Anglophone world, anyway).

Now, there are a great many things to criticise in superhero comics (and there will be columns about those things in the not-too-distant future), but what the fuck is wrong with power fantasies? It doesn’t take more than a cursory glance at a newspaper to appreciate the fact that the vast majority of people on this planet have an incredibly small amount of influence over their lives. Sure, (if we’re very lucky) we can choose which jobs to apply for, who we can sell ourselves to for a wage, and what to consume with that money after the basic necessities of life are accounted for, but most people are not all that powerful. Superhero comics were pioneered predominantly by young Jewish artists and writers who couldn’t get work elsewhere due to the astonishing antisemitism of the 1930s and beyond. These are power fantasies, sure, but they were created by young men who had very little power, and who saw a world that needed to be made better, so they set about writing stories about heroes who could make that happen.

That’s a huge part of Flex Mentallo’s enduring appeal, in that it’s more than a story, more than a biography, and more than a look at the history of superhero comics through the eyes of an imagined golden-age protagonist. Flex reminds us to hope, and suggests that we can move beyond childhood without throwing out everything that made that time special. More than anything, it shows us that superheroes, although not perfect, can still be a powerful and versatile symbol of humanity’s finer impulses. Because, ultimately, these stories aren’t about the feats of imagined heroes, but the kind of heroes we all might be, if we have the courage to look up.