Morrison’s muscle mystery Versus everyday reality… and other parallel worlds!

3: Superhero Poetry

It was always fascinating to me that Superman was so much older than me and yet I could come along and write adventures with Superman in them and add to his life story. Then I could die and Superman would keep going, with other people writing stories to keep him alive. He’s more real than I am because he has a longer lifespan and more influence, so this notion of the ‘real’ 2-dimensional world of the comics and what it had to say to the ‘real’ 3-dimesional world of non-fictional people.

— Grant Morrison (Epstein 2005). 

How would I explain these questions of continuity to the superman in front of me? He’d know, by now, that this wasn’t taking place in his regular continuity. I’m an unlikely new arch-villain. So I’d just keep staring. It’s amazing he still looks so good out here, especially considering that in our world, real people look pretty absurd in those skintight costumes. There have been some hugely successful superhero blockbusters lately, but we have to build our actors muscles out of rubber and strap them in tight. It’s the final reminder that even the most human of superheroes aren’t really human at all. No man or woman or CGI hybrid can live up to the ink on the page.

Cliff Steele wonders whether he’s technically human or not any more. He begins Morrison’s run as a brain trapped in a robot body, and by the end of it, he isn’t even that. His consciousness is stored on disk, with nothing organic remaining – just the leftover sensations of not just a phantom limb, but of his whole ‘phantom’ body. “There’s less and less of me all the time,” he says (Doom Patrol #60, 1992).

I felt it, too. Deep down I knew that the science of our world and the amazing fantasy of comic books would never really interact. That ‘phantom body’ exists as a dotted outline around the gawky adolescent form of the superhero fan. I ask you: where was my radioactive spider? Where were my cosmic rays? When did I finally get to transform? As a teenager, I rebelled. I decided I didn’t want a body at all, and would prefer to be just a brain in a jar. Maybe some psychic powers, sure, but something subtle and sexy. It was pure coincidence that, all these years later, I discovered the Doom Patrol regularly fought a villain who was just a brain in a jar, and I felt strangely justified.

Looking at this hypothetical superman would make me feel like that brain in a jar all over again. He wouldn’t have to use his x-ray vision to see that my body doesn’t hold any secrets. I don’t think I’ve ever managed to catch a ball, and a whole nest of radioactive spiders probably wouldn’t change that fact. The real world is no place to find an origin story. There’s something terribly and inescapably poignant for our lost childhoods in Alan Moore’s statement about ‘imaginary stories.’ This superman doesn’t just fail to be real out here, but also in there, on his own page. His powers, his muscles, the heroic glint in his eye… should I face, finally, that they’ve never been anything more than ink on paper?

Let’s face it: in terms of real-world bodybuilding, super-muscles are untrustworthy at best. I mean, regular human weight-lifters have more muscle mass than Superman, but they can’t pull a moon out of orbit! When Animal Man absorbs the power of flight from a passing bird… how come he doesn’t have to flap his arms to fly? (9). Obviously, the body works differently on the comic book page. Among all the blasts and shocks and unstable molecules contained inside them, there might also be hidden their best defence against parallel worlds and antimatter twins.

The Justice League of America aren’t the Doom Patrol, and they didn’t fight men with clocks for heads and nursery rhyme monsters… but the surreal logic of superheroes still questioned the validity of the body as a way to resolve conflict. Entire issues take place in dreams, with bodies left, inert, waiting impotently for minds to return (JLA #8, 1997). Or in other worlds where the heroes are flattened into two dimensions, the same way we see them on the page (JLA #31, 1999). In one memorable scene, an enormous superbody is actually the host to an entire, miniature world, whose population has to die out of natural causes before he can be rescued (JLA #30, 1999). 

Morrison once had the Flash remembering that “…with powers like ours, you have to learn to fight like a science fiction writer writes.” (Flash #130, 1997). It might also mean rethinking conventional morality. Morrison writes Superman a new reason for refusing to kill beyond the fact that it’s wrong. He berates some rookie heroes who were happy to kill their enemies, saying: “These ‘no-nonsense’ solutions of yours just don’t hold water in a complex world of jet-powered apes and time travel.” (JLA Classified #3, 2005). And you know? He’s absolutely right.

Perhaps it’s not that the overmuscled superbody is now obsolete… it’s that it must be stronger, faster, and harder than ever before to stand up against these forces of postmodern angst. How does the Flash move smoothly between parallel dimensions? He simply runs really, really, really fast. In a moment of genius by Morrison, a Superman ancestor, visiting from the future, attempted to return home by virtue of his superhuman strength alone. He actually punched his way through time (DC 1,000,000 #4, 1998). This pushed the boundaries of the superhuman body, and the credulity of comic fans. When asked to explain it, Morrison said: “It’s superhero poetry.” That readers should “bask in the audacious, absurd beauty of a man literally battering his way through the time barrier…” (Lien-Cooper 2002).

That’s how Animal Man flies like a bird, but without wings. That’s how Superman’s biceps can lift an oil-tanker and still be smaller than his head. Their bodies are superhero poetry. It’s the wonder of Muscle Mystery.

Which brings us neatly back to Flex Mentallo, Hero of the Beach. He’s too much of a man to question how his muscles function; it’s enough that they do. And it’s a good thing he’s not bothered by these same existential questions, because his origin is more confusing than most. He was born as an imaginary friend of a young psychic boy, then brought forward into DC ‘reality.’ His story provides multiple points of origin: he’s the childhood creation of psychic Wallace Sage; the brainchild of Morrison himself; he’s the wimp from the faded Charles Atlas commercials from my childhood half-memories (10). Does Flex whine about his reality, like Buddy Baker? Does he spout angst about whether or not he’s human, like Cliff Steele? No. “I’m a superhero,” he says, and that’s everything he needs to know (Flex Mentallo #4, 1996). In Morrison’s work, it’s the characters that are clearly labelled as ‘imaginary’ that can most easily withstand the shock of parallel worlds. 

Similarly, the possibility of parallel worlds colours everything in his miniseries. Any number of dimensions are presented and explanations are given throughout the four issues: is it all a writer’s delusional drug-trip? An elaborate supervillain hoax? The terrifying effects of ‘Black Mentallium’? A pocket universe of paper where the world’s ‘real’ heroes have been hiding? And so on. It’s all about leaving possibilities open, rather than shutting them down, and not destroying parallel worlds, but keeping them alive. Morrison writes Flex Mentallo as a love letter to the spectacular, ridiculous, forgotten possibilities of comics, and is much more interested in the ‘infinite earths’ than in the ‘crisis’.

Flex Mentallo is pulled apart, put back together, and his very existence questioned again and again… but he never doubts himself. It’s what he calls his “Muscle Mystery,” you see. He’s so strong that when he strikes a pose, the words “Hero of the Beach” actually appear above his head, like they did in the old Charles Atlas advertisement. He’s so strong that his biceps have conceptual powers of their own. Flex narrates:

So I summoned up the power of Muscle Mystery – activating the occult of each musclecord, each tendon. Above my head, my famous ‘hero halo’ shimmered into view. And I flexed, reaching out to probe the interior of the bomb with my bodymind. (Flex Mentallo #1, 1996).

His ‘bodymind’ suggests that his muscles and his heroic subjectivity are indivisible. Flex’s invulnerability isn’t a brittle costumed shell that might crack, allowing the disruptive energy to escape or dissipate – he’s all man, through and through. By leaving his skin and muscles on display, his boy-scout morality remains absolute. When an admiring woman says to him “Boy, I just adore all-male he-men!”, he humbly answers: “And you’re a fine, hardworking woman.” Even when the series’ villain is unmasked, Flex doesn’t want revenge. He offers him the same chance we all had, reading the advertisements in those old comics, and tells the villain: “Gamble a stamp! I can show you how to be a real man!” (Flex Mentallo #4, 1996).