Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery, by writer Grant Morrison and artist Frank Quitely, turns 20 this year. Flex Mentallo is pulled straight from the Charles Atlas advertisement, “The Insult That Made a Man Out of Mac,” wherein a scrawny dweeb gets sand kicked in his face by a burly bully, emasculating poor Mac in front of a date. Frustrated, Mac gets even by sending away for Atlas’ patented workout regimen. In no time flat, the former weakling bulks up, seeks out his tormentor and, in classic fashion, lays the bully out with a firm right hook, earning his girlfriend’s respect and the moniker “Hero of the Beach.”
Flex Mentallo’s origins assume that same arc, but the regimen enables the character to deliver more than a punch. Charles Atlas’ techniques grant him amazing powers including super strength, but also the ability to cloud men’s minds, see into the future, turn the Pentagon into a circle and peer into other dimensions—all by flexing his muscles at the proper frequency.
Charles Atlas Advertisement
Morrison literalizes the comic-within-a-comic that is “The Insult That Made a Man Out of Mac,” spreading a layer of metafiction over the ad: a superhero is created by seeing an ad that was in a superhero comic in our reality. In a further twist, the storyline reveals that Flex Mentallo is also a comic book creation by Wally Sage, a fictional analogue for Morrison who shares ample autobiographical similarities.
The rabbit hole can always go deeper.
Though this description may sound playfully metafictional, Flex Mentallo is a serious comic that’s in need of reading today. It juggles a number of bowling pins, mixing heavy elements of Morrison’s own autobiography along with the writer’s long-running commentary on storytelling. It also serves as a critique of the superhero scene in 1996, featuring an overabundance of grim and gritty vigilantes who coincided with the crash of the comic market that drove Marvel into bankruptcy, all packaged with Quitely’s expressive, dynamic art.
However, Flex Mentallo is just as relevant 20 years later and speaks volumes about our current superhero-obsessed culture. Costumed brawlers are more popular than they’ve ever been; in eight years, Marvel’s Cinematic Universe has grossed over $10 billion worldwide and Sony, Fox and Warner Bros. have also saturated cinema with the genre. Whether animated or live action, comic characters also appear on CBS, The CW, ABC, Disney XD and Cartoon Network, not to mention Netflix. Superheroes über alles.
Flex Mentallo #1 Cover Art by Frank Quitely
These figures have penetrated culture in ways unforeseeable back when Flex Mentallo was first published. Yet, this glut of representations in film, television and animation has drastically outgrown its source material. Consider the sales of actual superheroes comics. DC Universe Rebirth #1 shipped roughly 235,000 copies, a standout contemporary success centered on a big event. This is but a fraction of what once sold. A solidly selling superhero comic from around the time Flex Mentallo appeared would move far more copies. The original home of characters currently dominating culture has been sadly ignored.
The narrative (and there are several set on different planes of existence) starring the titular hero matters less. The four issues represent different eras of superhero comics as defined by academics and collectors, coinciding with the key plotline: the aforementioned Morrison analogue, Wally Sage, contemplating suicide. The graphic novel diagrams the various stages in Sage’s life that correspond to developments in superhero storytelling.
The first issue focuses on Sage’s childhood, paralleling the Golden Age of the ‘30s and ‘40s when superheroes were fresh, new and mostly innocent, lacking depth but excelling in simplicity and purity. Similarly, the second issue tackles the Silver Age, featuring an adolescent Sage and the wackier, science-based heroes of exploration corresponding with Sage’s oncoming puberty. Issue three continues into the Bronze Age as a teenage Sage experiences a sexual awakening that mirrors the growing interiority and complexity of two-dimensional characters. Finally, the last issue dissects the Modern Age (or “Dark” Age), where Sage turns his back on superheroes, labeling them as homoerotic fantasies for children and illiterates, before being saved by his creation.
Flex Mentallo #3 Cover Art by Frank Quitely
Flex Mentallo is a mélange of autobiography and metafiction. What might get buried is that it’s also a critique; lengthy stretches take potshots at the prevailing ethos of 1996, including bad imitations of Frank Miller and Alan Moore, where realism and maturity are conflated with hopelessness, cynicism and nihilism. The cover to issue three is a jibe at Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and the rainy, dismal streets, complete with a doomsday preacher—a snide poke at Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen.
But despite Flex Mentallo’s cross-cultural criticism, it ultimately offers a message of transcendence, about growing up and moving on with one’s life. Sage spends most of the series on the cusp of ending his life through a cocktail of booze and pills, stemming from the numbness and vapidity popular in certain comics of the time. He also recounts his memories of superheroes to a crisis counselor over the phone. In a way, Sage’s path to enlightenment comes about because he remembers something he once loved but forgot, an optimism behind superheroism drained by the era.
Flex Mentallo Interior Art by Frank Quitely
The final page concludes with dozens of formerly fictional superheroes entering the fallen, bleak “real” world. Sage has disappeared after discovering his secret word, “shaman,” which allows him to usher in a new era of comics. That secret word is telling, both for its mystical connotations that fit into Morrison’s history as a chaos magician, but also the inclusion of the word “man.” This suffix is the oldest and most recognizable in superhero comics; think Superman, Batman, Spider-Man. The magic word plugs Flex Mentallo into the very grammar of superheroes, making the book part of this history and a critique of it.
Flex Mentallo argues that greater respect be paid towards the superheroes that delighted us so much as children while also acknowledging that they are not simply commodities. It does not advocate for a reversion into terminal adolescence. This matters because the market crash of the 90s that still taints the superhero genre came about from overexploiting these characters. Multiple sales gimmicks, flashy variant covers, collectible holograms—all of these fueled a bubble that started when people realized how valuable some old paper printed in the ‘30s and ‘40s could be. Of course, the true values of cape comics have little to do with dollar signs. What matters is the content and the connection formed between reader and character. Given the glut of superheroes, hopefully the lessons of Flex Mentallo can be absorbed. If these fictional characters can earn so much money, they can also help guide and shape us.