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

4: “…But Aren’t They All?”

Animal Man: “Your world must be terrible. It seems so… grey and bleak. How can you possibly live in a world without superheroes?”

Grant Morrison: “We get by.”

Animal Man #26, 1991.

In Flex Mentallo, the comic book itself tells us it is ‘reading’ a hidden shamanic code locked in our DNA, and using it to free the world’s heroes from their fictional prison so they can be real again. In the final pages, we’re told to “look up!” and see that the sky is filled with these heroes, free, flying, incredible. I read this in my copy of Flex Mentallo #4. I looked out my window. In reality, there was nothing in my sky but stars.

When Morrison met Buddy in Animal Man #26, he explained all. “You can’t get into my world,” he said, “but I can get into yours. I can fake the real world here on the comic page.” We’d previously watched Morrison wander around Glasgow, illustrated in muddy browns and greys, wishing he had better ideas for that very comic (Animal Man #14, 1989). In Doom Patrol, our world was, simply, hell-on-earth. And in Morrison’s most recent adventure with the Justice League, we saw our real world, crammed into dark, tight panels against the spectacle of all the previous pages. In fact, this world (here called “The Infant Universe of Qwewq”) eventually reached adulthood, became sentient, and travelled back in time to threaten the JLA as a supervillain! (JLA Classified #3, 2005). Seriously. Is our world really so bad? 

I’d want to ask this hypothetical superman what he thinks. It’s kind of embarrassing he’s still just standing here, static and actionless, the air empty of word balloons around our heads. But is my imagination failing, or is he… wilting? Perhaps slightly less amazing, less hyperbolic, than when this chapter began? I think about Superman’s old villain Metallo, and his heart of Kryptonite. My body might hold a deadly, deconstructive secret after all. The risk of depicting heroes in our sordid reality might just be too great. Invulnerability only goes so far.

Flex’s own muscle-bound self-confidence was always unshakable, but the real world had more trouble with his interpretation. Was he pure of heart or brutish parody? The pinnacle of the masculine ideal, or cruel mockery of the same? His intersection with our world ensured these questions of ironic intent were posed in a court of law, as Flex’s fame finally spread to the Charles Atlas corporation. They sued DC Comics for copyright infringement. “There has to be a limit to how far you can let someone ridicule your trademark,” said Jeffrey C. Hogue, President of Charles Atlas Inc. “They took that character and made him into something that was not an Atlas man…” (First Amendment Center 2000) (11).

Ridicule? Flex doesn’t know the meaning of the word! The court reached a decision on April 29th 2000, with the judge failing to“…discern a substantive difference between ‘surrealism’ or ‘irony’ on one hand, and ‘parody’ on the other, much less do we find them to be mutually exclusive.” (Buchwald 2000). Charles Atlas’ lawsuit against DC was dismissed, but for Flex, it seemed a hollow victory. Perhaps because of potential future legal issues, the court case seemed to do what Black Mentallium never could. Flex disappeared from comics altogether.

Does our real world always have the final stamp of authority over these fictional heroes? After Morrison appeared in his own Animal Man comic, a very familiar character showed up in the pages of DC’s Suicide Squad. In an obscure comics in-joke, he was called “The Writer” and looked suspiciously like the comic-book Morrison. His power was to rewrite the universe as it happened – but since he wrote himself into his own comic, now he was fair game for other writers to use in their books. Later in the issue he got unexpected writer’s block and was, uh, eaten by a werewolf (Suicide Squad #58, 1991). Morrison changed his mind after Animal Man, saying that he wanted more than simply to have himself drawn onto the page, to ‘fake’ our world. Instead, he wanted to explore “…the two dimensional surface of the comic itself and at the point of interface where 2-D becomes 3-D and then touches 4-D” (Epstein 2005). But perhaps Morrison lied, like superhero physiques can lie – because he said this after I’d seen him eaten by that werewolf. 

The final issues of the original Doom Patrol series dealt with the power of the real world with refreshing honesty. The last page showed the artist and editor pleading at the reader, right out of the page:

“Then it is true! They are dead! The Doom Patrol will never fight again!”

“It would take a miracle to change that ending, Bruno! A tougher job than even the D.P. ever faced! And only you out there – the reader – could do it! You always wanted to be a super-hero, didn’t you?”

(Doom Patrol, Volume One #121, 1968)

I did. I did always want to be a superhero. I’m not sure their following request to buy more issues amounted to a power that would’ve gotten me into the Justice League, but there’s something charming about being so direct about these practical links between our worlds. Increase their sales. Save their lives. Sadly, it didn’t work. In time, there was another Doom Patrol title, and it, too, ended. Like all heroes, they continued to face deaths, disappearances, cancellations…

And worse. A new Doom Patrol series began in 2004 that ignored all previous mentions of the team in official continuity. This meant none of Morrison’s adventures ever ‘really’ happened, transformed with an editorial finger-snap into ‘imaginary stories.’ By extension, it dragged Flex Mentallo down with them. And sure, there was a new Doom Patrol, still with Cliff as leader. But they weren’t my Doom Patrol. This new model Robotman had never fought the Men from N.O.W.H.E.R.E. or the Beardhunter, had he? And so I failed to care. I couldn’t help but think how disappointed Cliff would be to find out he wasn’t real after all. But then I remembered the advice he was given by the Chief back in Doom Patrol #21 (1989):

Reality and unreality have no clear distinction in our present circumstances, Cliff. It might help to consider the Zen koan, ‘first there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.’

It does help. Now my hypothetical superhero might, hypothetically, have a distracted look in his eye. (Perhaps his teenage sidekick has activated a signal watch.) Suddenly there’d be so many things I’d want to explain to him: the term “Krypto-revisionism”, for instance. It’s when the comics audience simply and actively ignore certain plot twists, choosing to believe their own ‘official’ versions instead. And how, in a terrible and touching pun, the term is named after Superman’s own ridiculous, kitsch, often out-of-continuity super-dog (Evanier 2002, 1-3). And how the court’s ruling in the Flex Mentallo case highlighted a certain line from the background material provided: that Flex “…represents Morrison’s argument for a space beyond critique” (Buchwald 2000) (12). These distinctions – between fact and fiction, between official and imagined, between the page and the world that sits around it, above it – might not matter.

That’s no excuse for nihilism. Flex says: “Only a bitter little adolescent boy could confuse realism with pessimism.” (Flex Mentallo #4, 1996). Morality, again, is called into question in Flex Mentallo – someone tries to commit suicide, reassured that somewhere out there they have an antimatter twin who will live. This is countered, however, by Morrison refiguring parallel worlds into conscious choices. The narrator, the ex-psychic child who first created Flex, tells this story while dying of a drug overdose. At least, he might be. In one reality, the pills are killing him. In another, they’re M&Ms. The choice appears to be up to him. It’s not that nothing is real… it’s that everything might be.

Superheroes are here to save us. That’s the fundamental rule of the genre. Superman’s final solution to prevent our universe (depicted as ‘Qwewq’) becoming self-aware, travelling back in time, and destroying us all? After panel after panel of natural disasters, wife-beating, drugs and torture… he injects a group of rookie heroes into our reality. They say:

“A doomed micro-earth, in an infant universe.” 

“With no such thing as superheroes.” 

“This should be interesting…” (JLA Classified #3, 2005).

These superheroes haven’t appeared in our sky, but the explanation might be in Morrison’s final issue of the Justice League – the ‘antimatter twin’ of the climax of Flex Mentallo #4. Here, Animal Man guest stars to help give all of humanity a temporary “preview of evolution” so that everyone on earth has their own superpowers, and can take flight to rush to Superman’s rescue (JLA #41, 2000). Who wants to be a mild-mannered bystander or a damsel in distress? The sky is only empty because it’s waiting for us to fill it. Morrison’s mission isn’t to deconstruct the superhero, or to fake flat simulations of different realities, or to quibble over which world might be Earth-1, and which Earth-2. It’s to make our reality as interesting as theirs, as surreal, full of every potential and possibility.

Flex Mentallo wouldn’t be bothered by Moore’s statement that every story is an imaginary story. He knows perfectly well that his story isn’t real, but he wouldn’t see it as saying that all fiction is just fiction; he’d grin, knowing it meant that my story, out here, is imaginary too, and that the status quo is a little weaker for it. Appearing in each others’ stories means that I’ve become just another in a long, long line of ridiculous narrators who will disappear from continuity the moment the page is turned. I suppose I should watch out for werewolves. Radioactive spiders. Cosmic rays.

Anything can happen in an imaginary story.

My superman would step off the ground, hanging in front of me in the everyday air, and drift upwards as these last few sentences wipe him from further fiction; I’d look up, and think how I must look flat and two-dimensional from so far above. He’d unravel, disperse, spreading thin lines of ink and pencil and imagination through the sky, and I’d be reminded of a speech given to other ludicrous, lost characters in Morrison’s Animal Man. From outside their reality, perhaps, their world would just look like a comic book. “Like drawings on a page. And every time someone reads our stories, we live again.” (Animal Man #24, 1990).