To repeat my criteria from POMO AND PLURALISM, I’m judging works as “modernist” or “post-modernist” based on the author’s attitude toward the nature of the universe on which the work is modeled. A modernist work starts with the proposition that the fictional world depicted is modeled on a single “realistic” world that can be largely explained by science and rationality. A post-modern work states or implies the possibility of a multiplicity of worlds in the story, which may imply a similar statement about the reader’s real world, if only in metaphorical terms. Alan Moore’s MIRACLEMAN stands as an example of the first type, reading various superhero tropes, mostly from franchises like “Superman” and the Golden Age “Captain Marvel,”as pointless escapes from a unitary, mundane realty.
Though the Internet is rife with various descriptions of a personal feud between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, there’s no reason to assume that Morrison’s commentary on superhero tropes, either in FLEX MENTALLO or elsewhere, is necessarily a response to Moore’s treatment of them. That said, MENTALLO also gives a great deal of emphasis to tropes associated with Superman and Captain Marvel, as well as those of The Question, Steve Ditko’s most philosophically representative creation, whom Alan Moore parodied in WATCHMEN as “Rorshach.”
The character Flex Mentallo first appeared as a fully formed concept in issue #42 of Morrison’s DOOM PATROL. This was also an endorsement of the relativity of reality, in that Flex was a character created in an amateur comic book by a kid named Wally Sage. Sage’s latent psychic powers brought Flex to life in the “real world”—or at least, as real as the Earth of DC Comics could get.
Flex was also “unreal” in that he was modeled on the once prevalent ‘Charles Atlas” bodybuilding ads that appeared in commercial comics for many decades. Yet instead of depending on physical strength as did the character in the ads, Flex’s power was to project waves of energy from his unified “bodymind.” Nowhere in the DOOM PATROL or in this mini-series does Flex actually hit anyone in the old-fashioned way. Morrison didn't even stress any continuity between the miniseries and Flex’s previous appearances. Flex seems to exist in a world that barely has any superheroes left, which means that it can’t be DC-Earth. He does seem to share the same world as his now-adult creator Wally Sage. The two of them never meet, though they both encounter some of the same supporting characters.
The plot of FLEX MENTALLO isn’t intended to be especially coherent, so I won’t spend time summarizing it. The story more or less begins with the musclebound protagonist looking for one of his long-vanished crime-fighter colleagues, the Fact (who is in part Morrison’s take on The Question). Flex wanders through his unnamed city, having mystifying encounters with the remnants of the native superhero world, or with super-people who seem to be emigrants of some disintegrating cosmos.
Counterpointing Flex Mentallo’s peripatetic quest are the largely verbal divagations of Wally Sage. He spends most of the mini-series talking on the phone with an unseen volunteer for a crisis hotline—said crisis being that the reality-hating Wally has taken pills in an attempt to commit suicide. True, Wally is so addled that he’s not sure whether he took barbiturates or M&Ms. In many respects he seems to be the epitome of the escapist superhero fan with his head up his ass, for all he can talk about is his juvenile love of superheroes:
“…when you think about it, they’re like archetypal… they come right up from the depths, those things—how can they that stuff’s stupid?”
The imputation that superheroes are juvenile escapism is the place where most elitist critiques of the genre both start and stop. But even though Wally’s pretty messed up, Morrison implies that the character's desire for visionary experience allows him to tap into a deeper level of reality. Wally has suppressed memories that initially seem to be recollections of sexual abuse, but turn out to be a childhood encounter with “the Legion of Legions,” who are some of those emigrant superheroes mentioned earlier, trying to manifest in a nearly superhero-less world.
There’s also one more subplot: Flex has an ally on the police force, name of Harry, and for some reason Harry enlists the help of an imprisoned super-villain to investigate the threat of world destruction. The villain’s name, The Hoaxer, is a patent reference to The Riddler, making him the only major reference to DC’s Bat-mythology.
Although Morrison’s main project is to demonstrate the reality of the superhero world, if only in archetypal terms, he doesn’t neglect to picture the limitations of ordinary reality. He devotes several pages to an unnamed junkie/ male prostitute who desires transcendence so badly that he takes a drug designed to make him feel like a superhero, but he dies in the attempt. Flex tries to save him by resorting to a magic word written on a piece of paper, but finds that he’s lost the paper.
This absurdist subversion of a standard “life-saving” trope is also another standard trope of elitist critiques. Nevertheless, Wally survives while the “last boy on Earth” (as the junkie calls himself) perishes, even though Wally clearly knows his way around a pharmacy as well. It's possibly meaningful that Wally's insights go beyond his own personal welfare, as when he conceives that the emigrant superheroes “live in a factory where ideas are made.” Further, Wally’s visions are oriented not only on himself but upon humanity as a whole, saying of superheroes, “We can be them.”
To be sure, Morrison’s vision of what superheroes mean doesn’t resemble that of most critics, even though at one point Wally declares, “Frederic Wertham was fucking right!” Clearly Morrison isn’t thinking about sexual superheroes in the same way Wertham did: as seductive power-fantasies devised to seduce innocent children. Sexual realization is part of Morrison’s program of visionary fulfillment.
Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the author’s validation of the Silver Age of Comics, which is, as many fans know, the comics-age Morrison experienced as a young fan. Wally observes that the Golden Age of superheroes was “pretty simple,” boiling down to the “Charles Atlas hard body homoerotic wish-fulfillment.” (I disagree, but this one interpretation doesn’t undermine the general strength of Morrison’s theme.) Wally then observes that the Silver Age changed the paradigm. “Strange transformations, multiple realities, dreams, hoaxes… it was like the hard body began to turn soft...” I could carp that this description mostly applies to the line of Superman comics supervised by Mort Weisinger, with a little Julie Schwartz on the side, but it’s still a stimulating reading.
The miniseries concludes on the implication that the emigrant superheroes will indeed break through to Wally’s fallen reality. I’m not quite prepared to term this a Jungian katabasis, given that I think Morrison is at best a dilettante Jungian. Nevertheless, when he has Wally speak of a “synchro-interaction with readers” of this “ultra-post-futurist comic,” I’d like to think that he, as much as Jung, is trying to show the favorable aspects of understanding more worlds than just the one in front of one’s nose every day.