Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery is without a doubt one of the weirdest books I have ever read. That being said, Flex Mentallo is also one of the greatest books I have ever read. Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery was a four issue mini-series written by Grant Morrison with art by the incredible Frank Quitley, and was released in 1996. It is a mind bending, fourth wall breaking commentary on the darkness that comics had become in the ‘90s wrapped in a superhero mystery book. It was both brilliant and beautiful.
In the mid to late ‘90s, Grant Morrison was a writer of the weird. His books delved into areas other writers were unwilling or unable to reach and his mind spat forth larger than life concepts, which somehow worked in a comic book. One such example is Flex Mentallo, his Charles Atlas inspired superhero that sported pro wrestling boots, leopard-skin trunks and could alter reality by flexing his muscles. To make it even more bizarre “Hero of the Beach” appeared above his head in his hero halo whenever he used his powers. This was weird, but it was Morrison weird so it worked.
Morrison was also hopeful. Morrison’s books are trippy and high concept but they are also bright and beautiful. He rarely delved into darkness but when he did, there was still hope tied to it. His Batman run was the story of a man learning to love the son he didn’t know he had, and a son realizing that he wanted nothing more than his father’s respect. New X-Men was a pop culture bonanza that took mutants from being scared and feared to superstar school workers forging a new society. All Star Superman was a love letter to the silver age Man of Steel we lost after Crisis on Infinite Earths and have never really gotten back. WE3… well WE3 makes me cry every time I read it as well as wanting to go to every shelter in the area and rescue every animal I can. Morrison’s love of comics and the medium as a whole consistently shines through his work and Flex Menatallo was one of his best pieces of superhero fiction.
Flex Mentallo was introduced in the pages of Morrison’s Doom Patrol run and over time became a member of the team. Flex’s origin is a classic Golden Age story. Flex was granted his powers when he was tired of having sand kicked on him at the beach and was offered a coupon for a book titled “Muscle Mystery for You”. Upon reading the book Flex gained his abilities and became the Man of Muscle Mystery. His origin is expanded upon further when we find out a psychic child, Wally Sage, brought Flex and a few others to life with his magic pen from the comic books he created.
Flex jumped from the pages of Doom Patrol into his own mini-series in 1996. If you never read Morrison’s Doom Patrol you should, but you don’t need to in order to enjoy the mini. Flex Mentallo Man of Muscle Mystery is a trip. It’s complete Morrison of this time period. Anyone who knows Morrison knows he has a love and respect for silver age comics, specifically silver age superhero comics and Flex Mentallo is a commentary on how dark and depressing comics became. The book is also bright as Morrison’s love of the bright and flashy silver age comics with sci fi tropes and mind bending ideas shine here as well. Flex is a hero of this silver age, a hero who remembers when heroes would go to the end of the axis’ to save a child. A time when there was no question of who was going to save the day, superheroes saved the day. That was their job.
The mini-series follows Flex through the dark world of the ‘90s super hero as he attempts to stop Faculty X, whom are dropping bombs where the foundations of society could be destroyed. To stop Faculty X, Flex is convinced he has to find a lost hero known as the Fact. But the world Flex must travel is very dark. Heroes aren’t what they used to be. They are violent and not always altruistic. They are hyper sexualized and ultra destructive. Even sidekicks aren’t safe as they have been kicked out of sidekick school and become a feral pack of hooligans. This is the world Flex navigates in his search for the Fact and ending the terror of Faculty X.
This world was nothing like the Flex’s Golden Age origins, where he and his cohorts would solve a crime by issues end and then sat around their headquarters sharing a laugh. Nor was it the Silver Age, where things got weird as people were transformed into animals or alternate reality stories. No, in the ‘90s comics the heroes were violent and their motives were not always clear. Flex is a man out of time trying to find a way to save the world from itself, to save it from darkness.
Flex Mentallo is also the story of Wally Sage, a comic book writer who created Flex Mentallo and spends the bulk of the miniseries tripping on acid as he tries to commit suicide. Before he dies he wants to share his love of comics with someone on the phone. So Wally trips down his own comic history as he describes his beliefs of superheroes and their place in our society. He is lost in the darkness of this new hero culture and is on a quest to remember where his heroes came from as he has a Crisis of faith.
As the mini-series unfolds the reader has to question whether Flex’s journey is all a figment of Wally’s mind or if Flex is on a mission to save Wally and in doing so save the world? As Flex progresses toward the light, Wally continues to descend until the two meet in classic comic book fashion and we learn the truth, the truth of all superheroes. The ending is pure Morrison and the book as a whole is a love letter to Morrison’s youthful love of the Silver Age.
As you read the book it becomes clear that Wally is Morrison. It’s not the first nor the last time Morrison writes himself into his book. King Mob of the Invisibles portrays Morrison as the super spy he always wanted to be. Joe of Joe the Barbarian bears a strong resemblance to Morrison’s youth, when he would lose himself amongst his heroes and his love of sword and sorcery. I believe Morrison is at his best when he is writing personal stories. The books are love letters to Morrison’s youth and he invests so much into them, more so than his mainstream work.
Frank Quitley was the perfect choice for Flex Mentallo. He has a Jack Kirby vibe, but at the same time is unique in his penciling. Quitley and Morrison are long time collaborators and Quitley nailed Morrison’s vision for this book. Flex is larger then life, looking both ridiculous but peacefully at home in this world. The book is incredibly dark when needed, with never ending rain, slimy brick streets, and a chilly feeling of a wet, fall day. But when the book transitions to the past or the hopeful return of the Silver Age the book is bright and glowing. The pages are full of superheroes, many of them analogs of classic heroes. It is similar to what he is doing today on the fantastic Jupiter’s Legacy where he is obviously enjoying both designing and drawing hundreds of heroes, each with their own unique look. If you look closely you’ll see guest stars as well. Clark Kent makes an appearance, as do the Mutant gang from the Dark Knight Returns as well as others, but I’ll leave them for you to find for yourself.
Luckily Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery is available to read. For a long time the book was hung up in a lawsuit with the family of Charles Atlas over Flex’s origin and obvious nod to the legendary muscle man. For years DC could not print the book until the lawsuit was settled and the print editions became a valuable commodity. I treasured my floppies but couldn’t say no when I was offered $400 for the entire mini-series. Luckily it was available on Comixology and a couple of years ago the entire legal drama came to an end as a beautiful hardcover was released. Today Flex is back in the new Doom Patrol and I am both hopeful and hesitant to read the book but even if it isn’t my cup of tea I’m always able to go back and read the Man of Muscle Mystery and its love letter to the beautiful hope that was the silver age of comics.