There are few gifted artists that have taken their chosen medium to its ultimate heights—Mozart, Kubrick, Hemingway. For comic-books, Grant Morrison is such an artist. Throughout a prolific 30-year career, Morrison has re-defined and re-imagined what a comic-book can be. Now, after a 15 year wait, one of Morrison’s greatest masterpieces Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery, has finally been released in a single volume.
Unless you are an avid comic-book reader, you may not have heard of Grant Morrison. He has eluded the mainstream Hollywood treatment that many of his peers have received. Recent successful adaptations— Kick-Ass (Mark Millar), RED (Warren Ellis), and Coraline (Neil Gaiman)—have brought comic writers into the limelight. Alan Moore is a household name in North America (V for Vendetta, Watchmen, From Hell). But Morrison’s enigmatic and surreal works, though even more innovative than Moore’s, have not attracted Hollywood’s attention—much to his chagrin, I’m guessing. His work is so weird, wild, and innovative that it is essentially untranslatable. Comics can be cinematic and yet are not cinema—like how I used to try to explain to people that lyrics are not poetry.
Born from the pages of his Doom Patrol run, Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle transcends its origins, becoming a concise 4 part thesis of Morrison’s entire ethos. Coincidentally, Flex arrives hot on the heels of Morrison’s extended auto-biographical, superhero thesis Supergods. Having recently read Supergods,I immediately recognized many of the themes and ideas within Flex as an early aesthetic precursor and companion piece to Morrison’s Supergods.
As a self-proclaimed chaos magician, Morrison often integrates himself within his work in an attempt to use his fictional world as a hyper-sigil that magically tansforms his physical world. Flex is pointedly auto-biographical, following a protagonist, clearly Morrison himself, as he overdoses on every concievable drug. He then phones a help-line to keep him company while he dies in a rainy back-alley. A staple of Morrison’s work is a fluid and disorienting shift in perspective, time, and dimensional planes of reality. He explores this to great effect by recreating, in a direct and sensual experience, the way drugs take hold of the human brain. Panels shift in and out of reality as three different narratives unfold, brilliantly illustrated with the viruosity of frequent collaborator Frank Quitely. On the one hand, we have the protagonist who is, not so slowly, spiralling into a drug induced psychotropic state of insanity; on the other hand, the comic cuts to memories of his childhood, making direct references to Morrison’s own upbringing. Finally, there is the narrative of Flex Mentallo,who operates within the mind of the protagonist but on some autonomous plane of the imagination. Furthermore, as the four issues of the story develop, the four main ages of comics—the Golden Age, Silver Age, Dark Ages, and Renaissance— are developed stylistically and aesthetically along with each subsequent issue.
I recently read an interview with Nicolas Cage where he talked about choosing roles that allowed him to explore roles of “abstract expression…by finding characters that are flawed in some way that will provide a context where that expression still works,” like the character of Terence McDonagh’s drug addiction in Bad Lieutenant.In many ways, Morrison’s stories are quite similar, using different narrative strategies to explore his aesthetic interests in surrealism—whether it is alien abduction (The Invisibles), hypoglycemia (Joe the Barbarian), or psychotropic drugs (Flex Mentallo). It is this very interest in surrealism which makes Morrison’s work so enigmatic and dense and yet also so rewarding.
I remember something my university professor said once. He talked about how the first time he read James Joyce’s Ulysses he loved it because he didn’t understand it and the last time he read it he loved it because he had begun to understand it. That is what I find magical about Morrison’s writing. He is able to endow you with a child-like sense of wonder precisely because you are dumb-struck with confusion. Then he rewards you with each re-reading as you become more familiar with the puzzle laid out before you.
Would I recommend Flex Mentallo? It seems like handing a budding, young cinephile a copy of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey as their introduction to film. I whole heartedly encourage you to dive into the wild, wonderful mind of Grant Morrison. Like Kubrick, I imagine that Morrison’s work will be seen in the decades to come as a high water mark for the medium that will never quite be reached again.
Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle, by Grant Morisson, Vertigo Press
Devon Gallant is a Concordia University grad (English and Classical Civilizations). In 2006, he founded Cactus Press, dedicated to publishing poetry chapbooks. He currently has five poetry chapbooks published of his own work and has been published in a variety of Canadian literary magazines including Carousel and Misunderstandings Magazine.