Hero of the Beach!

Flex Mentallo, Man of Muscle Mystery: written by Grant Morrison; illustrated by Frank Quitely (1996; collected 2012): Near the beginning of Grant Morrison’s comic-writing career at DC, he created a character named Flex Mentallo in Doom Patrol. Mentallo’s origin was basically a parody of the old Charles Atlas body-building print ad. A scrawny kid gets bullied and works out; eventually he becomes Hero of the Beach.

Flex turned out to be the comic-book creation of a kid named Wally Sage. He’d escaped into the real world. His powers stemmed from his total control of his muscles: flexing them could alter reality! And above Flex Mentallo’s head would appear his Hero Halo, the giant glowing words ‘Hero of the Beach!’

A few years later, Morrison and soon-to-be-superhot artist Frank Quitely did a Flex Mentallo miniseries set on another Earth. Then the lawyers for Charles Atlas threw a fit, and DC agreed not to reprint the miniseries for some undetermined length of time that, finally, has ended. Flex Mentallo is back! Just in time! The Dark Age is over!

This oversized hardback reprint collection has one major flaw: it doesn’t reprint the two or three Flex Mentallo issues of Doom Patrol. I have a feeling another edition of Flex Mentallo will rectify this in a few years. DC is really good at endlessly repackaging material, as anyone who’s tracked their shuffling and reshuffling of Alan Moore’s DC Universe work well knows.

But other than that omission, this is an awesome piece of metafictional, optimistic, hopeful superhero work. Quitely’s art is gorgeous — the depraved and the heroic and the mundane are all beautifully, sharply rendered; the layout is innovative and non-traditional when it suits the story and straightforward when it suits the story.

And confined to about 100 pages, Morrison distills many of his obsessions in relation to superhero comic books down to an almost pure form. He’d explored these obsessions earlier in his career in Animal Man and Doom Patrol. He’d explore them later in everything from The Filth to Sea Guy to JLA. But here and now, we get the pure dope — hope that you can cope.

On an Earth without superheroes, a musician in his early 20’s talks on the phone to a suicide hotline. He’s taken an overdose and he’s waiting to die. While he waits to die, he wants to talk about comic books and superheroes.

On an Earth with one superhero — Flex Mentallo, escaped from fictionality! — doomsday looms for everything and everyone. Can the Man of Muscle Mystery follow the clues, unravel the mystery, find the other superheroes, and save the world?

How do these stories relate? Read the comic book. Order the workout package. Learn the secrets of muscle mystery! Because sometimes a guy just has to get out of his room and meet some girls! Highly recommended.

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