Last year, Grant Morrison released a book called Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God From Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human. Part comic-book history and part memoir, it also served as a guide to Morrison's own ideas about comics and how they work.
That he needs to provide fans with an explanation of his ideas says a lot about Morrison. That his ideas about magic, reality, fiction, and superheroes prove to be kind of exhilarating but ultimately crackpot says a lot about the disappointing Supergods. The best guide to Morrison's work is the work itself, especially three core texts from the late 1980s and early '90s: Doom Patrol, his revamp of a DC D-list superhero team; the heady and ambitious philosophical conspiracy adventure The Invisibles, which is probably Morrison's greatest achievement; and the whiz-bang 1996 miniseries Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery, recently reprinted by DC imprint Vertigo after years in publishing purgatory.
Flex Mentallo first appeared in Doom Patrol as a riff on the old Charles Atlas ads about a skinny kid getting sand kicked in his face at the beach. Here, he shares the spotlight with Wally Sage, a stand-in for Morrison. The premise is simple: Flex, a Silver Age hero trapped in the so-called Dark Age of nihilistic urban violence that followed Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, tracks down his former crimefighting partner the Fact and a prankster/terrorist organization called Faculty X. At the same time, Wally, a depressed rock star struggling through a drugged-out emotional breakdown, remembers his childhood (through the filter of comics, of course) while he talks on the phone to someone at a suicide-prevention center. Through it all, subtle shifts in perspective hint at the complexity of Flex and Wally's relationship, and the relationship between the two realities they inhabit: Sage created Flex Mentallo when he was a child, and his imagination seems to have breathed real life, in an alternate universe, into his creation. There's a significant subplot about a Golden Age superhero team called the Legion of Legions that eventually folds into Flex and Wally's stories; the Legion, facing the extinction of its reality, must travel into an alternate reality where, in order to survive, they will become fictional. In short, these comic-book heroes find life inside comic books.
It's a brilliant, thrilling, dizzying story about imagination and fiction, in addition to being a rousing psychedelic adventure story that forecasts Morrison's bewildering and incomparable mainstream epic Final Crisis, from 2008. Flex Mentallo beats Morrison's prose commentary on the same themes, which tends to be leaden and straight-faced in its consideration and acceptance of magic- and drug-induced alternate realities. As a storyteller, Morrison is able to get deep into how stories work; as a commentator on the same subject, he's plain silly.
Flex Mentallo is significant for another reason: It's the first time Morrison and his fellow Scot Frank Quitely worked together. Quitely's work, marked by wide-eyed optimism, clean lines, and Silver Age classicism, is at odds with the increasingly cinematic and photorealistic style that dominates mainstream comics. He's an impeccable and meticulous draftsman, which, in Flex Mentallo, grounds Morrison's most far-out wanderings—when Flex wanders through an underground superhero sex party, all the weird superpowered fetishes and mutant kinks are on full display, lending the scene a perverse and otherworldly freakishness.
Quitely and Morrison have subsequently become an in-demand partnership, though Quitely's detailed work makes it difficult for him to maintain a monthly schedule. They've worked together on JLA, New X-Men, We3, All-Star Superman, and Batman and Robin—not coincidentally, some of Morrison's best-received and most acclaimed work of the 21st century. Morrison's comics are always, at a deep level, about comics, and few artists working at DC or Marvel today are as self-consciously inspired by classic comic books as Quitely. He's not cartoonish, exactly, though he has a bold, colorful style that recalls Captain Marvel co-creator C.C. Beck; but his work is suffused with comics traditions and references.
Ultimately, Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery feels like a trial run for All-Star Superman, the lovely, loving reimagining project that Morrison and Quitely delivered between 2005 and 2008. Both are big fun with big ideas, with shades of nostalgia and lost innocence but an even greater hope for the future—for comic books, and for all of us.