Saturday, August 1, 2009

Reprint This! Flex Mentallo

Reprint This! is a periodic feature where I talk about some out-of-print comic book gems that are not available in collected form for readers to enjoy. This is hoping to let rights owners know that, yes, readers are out here, and we'd like to buy the things we can't get at this time!

Despite such an enormous variety of books available these days, and genuine efforts to present the material in reasonably-priced, archival volumes, there are still countless fabulous series from the US, Britain and Japan which are overdue for new editions. I've selected several titles which should be on bookshelves, but at this time are not.

One missing gem is FLEX MENTALLO by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. Of course, this is another case where the rights owners know all too well that there is demand, from readers and creators, for a collected edition, but they're a little reluctant to try putting this back into print because of what happened once before...

Flex Mentallo was a supporting player who first appeared in a storyline that Grant Morrison concocted while he was writing the amazing Doom Patrol for DC in the early 1990s. The character was a pastiche of the old Charles Atlas ads, used as a parody of childhood fantasies built around comic books. In 1996, he appeared again in a four-issue series that Morrison and Frank Quitely created for DC's Vertigo imprint. The story is a complete gem, one which really cemented Morrison's reputation as one of comics' finest oddballs.

The miniseries is an overlapping story about a guy named Wally Sage, whose childhood superhero creations have escaped into the "real world," and Flex Mentallo, a circus strongman with a great attitude and an even better physique, who's tracking down evidence that his former colleague "The Fact" is operating in his town. Along the way, he learns that the superheroes who used to inhabit Sage's world never really went away. And Sage, he's dying from a deliberate drug overdose, and wants to spend his final moments on the phone with a suicide hotline talking about comic books.

But of course, it's not really "about" that at all...

The comic is really an extended musing on childhood fantasies and wish-fulfillment, while at the same time looking at the evolution of superhero comics. While telling one story, each issue takes a slightly different viewpoint, looking at the narrative from the eyes of comics' Golden Age, then the Silver Age of the 1960s, the unpleasant "grim-n-gritty" world of the eighties, and finally the bright new dawn that Morrison envisioned for the 21st Century, which has seen the triumphs of his All-Star Superman, New X Men, Seaguy and Seven Soldiers, among others. If you enjoyed any of these later titles, then Flex Mentallo is really required reading. That's assuming you can track down copies of the four funnybooks from your local dealer's back issue bin.

At this point, it's customary to explain to people what the holdup is, already. Well, the Charles Atlas Company was made aware of the comic by a well-meaning fan who wanted a copy of the "insult that made a man out of Mac" pamphlet and told them about the comic, and they promptly sued DC for infringing on their trademark. In Charles Atlas, Ltd. v. DC Comics, Inc, they asked a judge for a summary judgement against DC, and so the judge asked each party for all their statements.

DC included, in their statements, a note that the four issues were out of print, that they had no intention to use the character again, and no plans to reprint the comics. The judge ruled against Atlas, agreeing that this was clearly a protected parody, but it is thought that DC's statement that they would not reprint it might open them up for new litigation should they do so. Acting in bad faith and all that.

Until DC and Atlas sit down and work something out, Flex Mentallo will be a lost property. That's a real shame; Morrison's wild ideas and multi-layered narrative makes for a wonderful, immersive reading experience, and of course Quitely's art is gorgeous. It's a comic that everybody should have the chance to see.

If you would like to read more about Flex Mentallo, Gregory Dickens wrote a fine, detailed review of the series over at PopImage. You might also enjoy Chris Mautner's column at Collect This Now!. Mautner says pretty much everything I had to say about it, prompting me to delay cobbling together this short feature (originally scheduled for April) for a few months.

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