Posts Tagged grant morrison
It’s taken sixteen years, but DC Comics have finally released a collected edition of Grant Morrison and Frank Quietly’s Flex Mentallo. It is, without doubt, one of my favourite superhero stories of all time. Flex is part love letter, part history lesson, part heartfelt autobiography. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve read it.
It was also the subject of my first published academic chapter – bearing the unwieldy title ‘Morrison’s Muscle Mystery Versus Everyday Reality… and Other Parallel Worlds!’ – in Routledge’s 2008 anthology The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero. My chapter was also an odd mix of analysis, autobiography and flat-out fiction, and I’m still amazed that they saw fit to publish it.
With Flex Mentallo now back in print, I thought I’d put up some excerpts of my chapter over the next few days. (The analysis, not the autobiography. I’ll spare you that much.) I began by asking what Morrison’s offbeat stories in Animal Man, Doom Patrol, and even Justice League of America meant for superheroes used to solving every crisis through action. A blast of heat vision, or ice breath, or an uncomplicated left hook…
Super-muscles are untrustworthy at best. Regular human weightlifters have more muscle mass than Superman but they can’t pull a moon out of orbit. And when Animal Man absorbs the power of flight from a passing bird, how come he doesn’t have to flap his arms to fly? This jaw-droppingly obvious fact was finally pointed out to the hero during writer Tom Veitch’s post-Morrison run on Animal Man. “What’s this so-called ‘bird power’ you talk about? The birds don’t have it! The poor creatures have to flap their wings!” The response? “Uh… you’ve got a point there.” (Animal Man #35, 1991).
Morrison’s Justice League of America aren’t his Doom Patrol, and they didn’t fight men with clocks for heads and nursery rhyme monsters – but the surreal logic of superheroes still questioned the validity of the body as a way to resolve conflict. Entire issues take place in dreams with bodies left, inert, waiting impotently for minds to return (JLA #8, 1997). Or in other worlds where the heroes are flattened into two dimensions, the same way we see them on the page (JLA #31, 1999). In one memorable scene, an enormous superbody is the host to an entire miniature world with a population that must die out of natural causes before he can be rescued (JLA #30, 1999).
Morrison once had the Flash remembering that “…with powers like ours, you have to learn to fight like a science fiction writer writes.” (Flash #130, 1997). It means rethinking conventional morality, too. Superman now has a reason for refusing to kill beyond the fact that it’s wrong. Superman berates rookie heroes who were happy to kill their enemies, saying: “These ‘no-nonsense’ solutions of yours just don’t hold water in a complex world of jet-powered apes and time travel.” (JLA Classified #3, 2005). And you know? He’s absolutely right.
Perhaps it’s not that the overmuscled superbody is obsolete against the ontological threats of parallel universes and antimatter twins. It’s just that it must be stronger, faster, and harder than ever before to fight these forces of postmodern angst. I mean, how does the Flash move smoothly between parallel dimensions? He just moves really, really, really fast.
In a moment of genius by Morrison, a Superman ancestor visiting from the future attempted to return home by virtue of his superhuman strength alone. He actually punched his way through time (DC 1,000,000 #4, 1998). This pushed the boundaries of the superhuman body, and the credulity of comic fans. When asked to explain it, Morrison said: “It’s superhero poetry.” Readers should “bask in the audacious, absurd beauty of a man literally battering his way through the time barrier…”
That’s how Animal Man flies like a bird but without wings. That’s how Superman’s biceps can lift an oil-tanker and still be smaller than his head. Their bodies are superhero poetry. It’s Muscle Mystery.
Enter Flex Mentallo, Hero of the Beach. He’s too much of a man to question how his muscles function; it’s enough that they do. And it’s a good thing he’s not bothered by these same existential questions as his origin is more confusing than most. He was born as an imaginary friend of a young psychic boy, then brought forward into DC Comics ‘reality.’ His story provides multiple points of origin: he’s the childhood creation of psychic Wallace Sage; he’s the fictional brainchild of Morrison himself; he’s the wimp from the faded Charles Atlas commercials from my childhood half-memories. Will Brooker, in a discussion of the ambiguous signs of Flex’s sexuality, points out that these multiple origins themselves also suggest a ‘queerness’ present in the narrative structure itself.
Does Flex whine about his unreality, like Animal Man’s Buddy Baker? Does he wail about whether or not he’s even human, like The Doom Patrol’s Cliff Steele? No. “I’m a superhero,” he says, and that’s everything he needs to know (Flex Mentallo #4, 1996). In Morrison’s work, it’s the characters that are clearly labelled as ‘imaginary’ that can most easily withstand the shock of parallel worlds.
The possibility of parallel worlds colours everything in Flex Mentallo. Is it all a writer’s delusional drug trip? An elaborate supervillain hoax? The terrifying effects of Black Mentallium? A pocket universe of paper where the world’s ‘real’ heroes have been hiding? It’s all about leaving these possibilities open rather than shutting them down; not destroying parallel worlds but instead keeping them alive. Morrison is much more interested in the infinite earths than in the crisis.
Flex is pulled apart, put back together, and his very existence questioned again and again – but he never doubts himself. His Muscle Mystery holds him together. He’s so strong that when he strikes a pose, the words ‘Hero of the Beach’ actually appear above his head like in the old Charles Atlas advertisement. His biceps have conceptual powers all their own. Flex narrates:
“So I summoned up the power of Muscle Mystery – activating the occult of each musclecord, each tendon. Above my head, my famous ‘hero halo’ shimmered into view. And I flexed, reaching out to probe the interior of the bomb with my bodymind.” (Flex Mentallo #1, 1996).
His ‘bodymind’ suggests that his muscles and his heroic subjectivity are indivisible. Flex’s invulnerability isn’t a brittle costumed shell that could crack, allowing disruptive energy to escape or dissipate. He’s all man, through and through, and his boy scout morality remains absolute. When an admiring woman says to him “Boy, I just adore all-male he-men!”, he humbly answers: “And you’re a fine, hardworking woman.” Even when the story’s villain is unmasked, Flex doesn’t want revenge. He offers him the same chance we all had, reading the advertisements in those old comics, and tells the villain:
“Gamble a stamp! I can show you how to be a real man!” (Flex Mentallo #4, 1996).
Next: Flex gets dragged into the ‘real world’ of our legal system! Can even he prevail?
One of the things you have to admire about superhero comics is their ability to turn almost anything into fresh meat for their never-ending adventures.
The fact that the Hulk went from grey to green in his earliest issues due to colouring difficulties? Decades later, it’s the rationale for two different Hulk personas warring inside Bruce Banner. Inconsistent Supermen and Batmen confusing your readers? Fix it with an apocalyptic storyline about the multiverse collapsing into a coherent whole! And then, later still, fix that first fix with another story bringing the multiverse back!
Lately, I’ve been writing about superheroes, their corporate owners, and the public domain. Comics work these issues into the fabric of their ongoing stories, too – mostly by framing them in the most ironic and heartbreaking ways. But in Batman Inc., writer Grant Morrison takes these issues and feeds them into Batman’s war on crime.
“Bruce is obviously a corporate CEO, billionaire and playboy superman,” says Morrison, “so what would Batman look like when that guy applied everything that he normally applies to Waynetech to Batman’s mission and way of life?”
Batman, Inc. features billionaire Bruce Wayne publicly admitting to funding Batman’s expensive gear and gadgets; all while, as Batman, travelling the globe and bestowing the rights to “wear the bat” to heroes of his choosing. Morrison’s inspiration was the hype around Tim Burton’s first Batman movie in 1989. In the academic anthology The Many Lives Of The Batman, William Uricchio and Roberta E. Pearson describe Bat-Mania like this:
During the summer of 1989, this bat-logo permeated American culture, appearing on candy, boxer shorts, leather medallions, earrings, baseball caps, night lights, sterling silver coins – in short, on any item capable of bearing the trade-marked image (or unlicensed likenesses thereof). The bat-logo’s omnipresence diffused its meaning, reducing the wearing of a black bat in a yellow oval to a mere gesture of participation in a particular cultural moment.
Batman’s symbol is everywhere in Gotham, too. Batman’s obsessed with it. He’s made it into his weapons, his vehicles, and everything else imaginable. In Gotham After Midnight, we see that he’s rigged Wayne Manor to spray the symbol across every single surface. Sometimes it feels like he’s terrified his memory is slipping away, a la Memento, and he’s designed his entire life to remind him that he’s Batman. Every thrown Batarang whispers as it returns to him: “You’re Batman. You’re Batman. You’re Batman.”
In our world, anyone can wear the Bat-symbol – so long as they’re willing to pay for the merchandise. But within his own universe, Batman is incredibly protective of his brand. Many times over the years he’s angrily told someone not to wear the symbol. In Batman Inc. #4, Morrison retells a moment from way back in 1956’s Detective Comics #233, as Batman calls out after Batwoman: “Wait! You can’t just… no one can wear a Batman costume in Gotham but me!” She says: “Ridiculous! No man, maybe!”
Batwoman quickly proves that she’s worthy of wearing his symbol, but others aren’t so lucky. Morrison’s current run is filled with ‘fake’ Batmen; his very first issue has a cop dressed as Batman shooting the Joker in the forehead. Other impostors attack him throughout, all driven mad by becoming Batman. And later, Batman’s memories are stolen and implanted into fresh bodies in an attempt to create an army of perfect bat-soldiers.
“They’re stealing your DNA. Your memories. To imprint unstoppable soldiers. Driven by your trauma.”
“Then tell them they can have it. You can have it, too. If you can bear it all at once.”
It turns out no one can handle the superhuman levels of pain and misery fuelling Batman. Impostors that borrow his story, mission, and iconography without permission will be destroyed by them. Only the ‘real thing’ can survive.
Morrison is no stranger to taking the external demands on his stories and narrativising them. My favourite example is the second volume of his epic The Invisibles; it took the need for action and accessibility required to boost sales and turned it into a growing anxiety about what this (seemingly glamorous) violence was doing to heroes’ psyches. And the idea of Bruce Wayne applying corporate logic to Batman’s mission makes perfect sense – but can the men and women who take on his heroic identity survive? Is the fact that they are ‘official’ Batmen enough to shield them from the horror built deep into the brand’s DNA?
I ended my last Bookslut column by wondering if we should apply the moral code of these fictional superheroes to their corporate status, too. I can happily imagine Superman wishing himself into the public domain. Batman, though, would be horrified at every bat-shirt, every bat-lunchbox, and every homemade bat-costume. They’d never be “mere gestures of participation” to him. They’d be signs of tragedy to come.