Posts Tagged optimism
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?
I swear, more and more, whenever I visit the cinema something goes wrong with the projection. Bad print, wrong ratio, whatever. I don’t know if it’s getting worse, or if it just seems that way now everyone has big TVs, 5.1 sound, and crisp digital copies waiting at home.
Even ignoring the soft focus and muddy sound of well-watched VHS, I can remember when anything seen outside of a cinema was inevitably cropped. Panned and scanned for 4:3 TVs. It meant faces of less important actors on the sides of the frame were split down the middle. Climactic Leone shootouts were butchered, turning wide shots of two men in the corners of the screen into one man, standing alone, staring at nothing while ominous music played.
I was working at a video store when the first trickle of widescreen VHS copies arrived – for ‘collectors’, of course. I was constantly explaining to customers that they weren’t missing anything under those black bars now at the top and bottom of the screen. In fact, widescreen meant they’d actually be seeing extra footage on the left and right! At least half the time they couldn’t be convinced. They didn’t want to ‘waste’ any of their TV.
And in Australia, watching TV was even worse. We’d get shows months after the rest of the world. One channel stopped playing Buffy the Vampire Slayer halfway through season two, a voiceover announcing that it was the season finale. (Did I say announcing? I meant lying. Lying!) Our networks would ignore the usual TV act breaks to stuff in commercials wherever they liked. When we got shows at all, they were played completely unpredictably: I remember scrabbling for tapes to capture the last two-thirds of shows like Homicide: Life on the Street as they bounced around in ever-changing late night summer slots.
Writing in The Guardian, Peter Preston said that time-shifting has ruined the ‘water-cooler moments’ of collective TV watching. “It sounds somehow empowering as the habit grows,” he says, “but it also leaves you feeling alone…” In the UK and US? Maybe. In the rest of the world, downloading means we can finally be a part of popular culture almost as it happens, and join in the subsequent conversations online.
There are always articles pointing out cinema’s quality is rapidly declining. Mark Harris, in his celebrated GQ piece ‘The Day the Movies Died’, said: “…put simply, things have never been worse.”
Let’s say he’s right. (He’s not, I don’t think, but let’s say he is.) With correct aspect ratios, and multizone DVD players, and cheap imports of foreign films, and TV full-season box sets, and tiny, downloadable subtitles… isn’t this still the best time in history to be a movie fan?
Has there ever been an industry that treated its founding fathers as badly as comic books? And what would their superheroic creations think of these injustices?
This month, my Bookslut column looks at some of the grand ironies of corporate-owned superheroes. It barely scratches the surface, and there were a dozen other half-formed ideas and outrages that didn’t make it into the finished version.
The letter that inspired me – Joanne Siegel’s angry response to the chairman of Time Warner – can be read in full here. And in his book Our Hero: Superman on Earth, Tom DeHaven describes how Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel’s fury with DC Comics had begun decades earlier:
In October 1975 he sat down at his old typewriter and composed a screed of malice and grief, a cry for recognition and justice, and a thundering imprecation: “I, Jerry Siegel,” it began, “the co-originator of SUPERMAN, put a curse on the SUPERMAN movie! I hope it super-bombs. I hope loyal SUPERMAN fans stay away from it in droves. I hope the whole world, becoming aware of the stench that surrounds SUPERMAN, will avoid the movie like a plague.
Want more? The long history of court cases involving comic creators is summarised in this massively depressing article by Paul Slade.
(There’s an intriguing theory towards the end, too, wondering why we’re seeing more and more comics of Superman in black-and-white variations of his costume. Warner won a legal victory over an early monotone ad showing a preview of the famous cover of Action Comics #1 – so is DC now “already preparing for a world where it may wish to minimise any aspect of Superman it doesn’t fully own”?)
The Comics Reporter added some welcome comments to my piece:
Mainstream comics publishers such as DC and their communities have ascribed a real-world moral authority to these fictional characters for years now. Why shouldn’t that extend to broader ethical issues involved in their creation, publication and distribution? If Superman, Batman and Spider-Man are presented at times as moral agents capable of instructing and inspiring their readership, why wouldn’t the expectations they engender apply to a situation where the press of ownership concerns has taken precedence over the greater morality represented by treating people with compassion and gratitude?
And for some ideas of how public domain superheroes have always existed in the Marvel and DC universes, check out this piece on IO9, inspired by the release of Marvel’s new movie Thor. Of course, Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s smash hit The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen forged a Justice League-style supergroup from famous fictional characters from around the turn of last century: Stoker’s Mina Harker, Wells’ Invisible Man, and so on. I wonder if we’d ever see something similar combining characters from Marvel, DC, and whoever-the-hell-else in a hundred years.
For my money, Moore’s best work on Superman wasn’t when he was writing the official version for DC Comics. It was when he was working with an obvious knock-off – still Superman, just with the colours changed and logo filed off – in Supreme. Imagine if he’d been able to tell these stories with the real thing. Wouldn’t they have meant more?
Writing this piece, I found it painfully difficult to reconcile this history with the unbridled optimism that powers the best superhero stories; with my childlike love of these characters and their worlds. I kept thinking of the court case over Flex Mentallo, Grant Morrison’s “Hero of the Beach!” from the pages of Doom Patrol. In the court’s ruling over the character’s copyright, it highlighted a particular line from the background material provided by DC Comics. It said that Flex “…represents Morrison’s argument for a space beyond critique”.
A space beyond critique: pure optimism, pure altruism, pure imagination.