Doom Patrol (vol.2) #42 (March, 1991)
“Musclebound: The Secret Origin of Flex Mentallo”
Writer – Grant Morrison
Guest Pencils – Mike Dringenberg
Guest Inks – Doug Hazlerwood
Letters – Joliet Jake Workman
Colors – Daniel Vozzo
Edits – Art Young
Special Thanks – Stevie Bamford & James Hamilton
Cover Price: $1.50
Ya know, I try to shy away from “current events” here at the site and on the air… First: It’s really important to me to keep this space as worry-free and “safe” from the real-world as possible, Second: Anytime I see a content-creator shoehorning their work to make it tangentially “real life” relevant, I can’t help but to think… they’re cheating.
I know, I’m a weird dude.
Anyhoo, in light of recent events (which, time-travelers who discover this article years in the future will hopefully feel like an insignificant “blip”), my mind has turned toward the concept of “comfort food”.
Comfort food comes in all shapes and sizes… and can be just about anything. A place, a feeling, a person, a memory, a dumb little comics-review blog (wink, wink), actual food… it’s a potentially infinitely broad concept. We’ve all got ’em… however, since this is a comics-themed site, we’re going to focus on’a da funnybooks.
I’ve said it before (and I’m saying it now… and I’m sure I’ll say it again soon!), when you task yourself with writing and talking about comics on a daily-basis, you run into a situation where your “for fun” reading wanes. It’s a simple cause and effect… the hobby transitions from reading to reporting (even though nobody ever asked you to do the latter!). There just isn’t enough time in the day for everything. Also, the way you read comics sort of changes… it becomes more about nyoinking out salient facts from what you read to focus on later, than actually allowing yourself to “experience” the story.
Back in the days before I wrote about comics everyday, and talked about comics on the air often multiple times a week… I had time to actually read for fun. Often before bed, I’d have several stacks on my nightstand… and while over the years, those stacks would change with my mood, and what I was “hungry” for… there were only two constants.
If you know me, you’re probably assuming that those “constants” were New Teen Titans and Uncanny X-Men. And, while those were fairly prolific in their appearances in my “comfort food” stacks… it’s not them! No, the two constants… that, anytime of year you would find on my nightstand, were: Peter David’s run on Incredible Hulk, and…….. the Grant Morrison Doom Patrol.
Which, brings us to why we’re here today. Feeding myself a big ol’ dollop of “comfort food”, and also refreshing myself on the controversial character of Flex Mentallo! Now, a word of caution before he hurdle over the dashes… my Doom Patrol is pretty rusty… it is, after all, at least a half-decade since I read any of this, but I will do my best to tell the tale!
What are some of your “comfort food” runs? I feel like, at present, this concept is very important. I’d love to hear what books give you the “warm fuzzies”!
We open with Sarah Furness walking the Doom Patrol (well, part of the Doom Patrol anyway), into an apartment on Danny the Street. She guides them through a darkened living room into the kitchen so she can check in on Danny’s mood. If you’re not familiar with Danny the Street… well, it’s a tough one to really explain, but the quick n dirty of it is, Danny’s exactly what his name implies, a sentient street. We find out, via some notes, that Danny’s doin’ just fine.
The Chief ponders if it might be okay for them to have a look around… to which, Danny “replies” that he’d be more than happy to let them wander to their hearts content. He just adores visitors. This method of communication for Danny is a real hoot. So simple, but also so trippy.
It’s now we start getting into the meat and potatoes of the issue… the introduction of a man, a man named Flex. Sarah starts asking him some questions, and he thinks to himself how he and the rest used to share their “secret origins” back in the long ago. This is sorta “meta”, but also really neat. Gotta remember, this was 1991… before writers over-relied on “meta” concepts to prove their cleverness.
And so, Flex shares his Secret Origin… and it’s likely to be a familiar one to fans of old comics. It’s the “Insult that Made a Man out of ‘Mac’.”, which is to say… it’s the old Charles Atlas ad.
Ya know, this one:
Heck, “li’l Mac” even does that cute little kick of frustration!
Ya know, like this:
Anyhoo, “Mac” spent his time feeling sorry for himself… until, one night he came across a strange trenchcoated individual leaving a bathroom wearing television-parts on his head. He makes our man a promise, that he can be the biggest, strongest, bestest… he could be the EST of ol’ DC.
And so, the kid “gambles a stamp”, and some time later is delivered a strange vibrating package (minds out of the gutter, folks). It’s a book called Muscle Mystery and You.
We pop back to the present, where current-day Flex is buying a carton of milk from a vending machine. Sarah guides he and the Doom Patrol (well, the Chief and Josh Clay) into a police station on Danny the Street. All of the officers are making “Mee Maw Mee Maw” sounds. I’m going to assume they’re mimicking the sounds of a police siren, and not calling for their grandmothers.
Anyhoo, we hop back into flashback land, where Flex has learned all about Muscle Mystery… and so, he returns to the beach, and kayos the clod! When he stops to flex his guns, his “hero halo” appears above his head. Naturally, it reads “Hero of the Beach”, just like in the Atlas ad. When his would-be girlfriend rushes over to admire his bod, he shoves her away, calling her a “tramp”. Ice cold, Flex!
Back on Danny, Sarah goes to introduce the fellas to a Doctor… but, there’s something very strange indeed going on inside the office. Something, I honestly don’t remember… for all I know this is a one-off gag… or, if might be the entire premise of an upcoming storyline! Whatever the case, Sarah slams the door in embarrassment.
Back to Flex’s story. Back in 1956, he officially changed his name from Mac to Flex Mentallo… and devoted himself to fighting crime. He’d even form an association with a weirdo “league” of sorts… who, I’m honestly shocked nobody’s ever tried to bring back. Maybe they have, and I’ve just forgotten?
Speaking of forgotten… Flex doesn’t seem to remember all that much about the particulars of his super-heroing career. Only that, it was fun… and all of his adventures with that Weirdo League, had to do with the color green. He suggests that all of his associates got themselves “proper jobs” around 1958. We do see Flex signing an autograph for a kid named Wally Sage though… who would be very important to his story later on. We also learn that Flex took a wife… err, a steady girlfriend: Dolores!
Everything was hunky-dory until this one fella showed up. This is Norman Grindstone, a reporter who was working on a missing person story. A ghost-hunter named Harry Christmas went missing… and ol’ Norm thought this concerned multiple accounts of people gone missing. Flex agrees to help him out.
Three days would pass before Flex heard from Norman again… and this time, the tone was quite different. No longer the cool and calm reporter, Norm is going rather frantic over a discovery he’d made. Flex heads out for a visit to look over Norman’s evidence… and it shocked him to the core. Unfortunately, other than the fact that it had to do with The Pentagon, he can’t remember a bit of what he learned that day! Also, that was the last time anyone had seen (or even heard of) Norman Grindstone! He was “disappeared” right after.
And so, over the course of the next several months, Flex tried his damnedest to try and recall what he’d learned that night. He does so by constantly flexing… and, I mean constantly. Day, night, always… this puts a big rift between he and Dolores… and eventually destroys their relationship.
Still unsuccessful in his “flexing”, all our man knows is that this has to do with the very shape of The Pentagon building. He associates it with the “Geometry of Anguish”… and tries his damnedest to change the building’s shape from five-sided… to completely round. Ya still with me? Try as he may… he continues to come up short… all he’s actually able to affect is the libidos of some people (and their pets) in the nearby apartments!
Since he couldn’t do it from afar, Flex decided it best to actually visit The Pentagon. After bypassing security with a modest flex, he heads down some “endless” corridors. He finally reaches a pair of swinging doors… and he discovers the root of all his problems. Only one problem… he can’t remember none’a this either! There are some key terms he can recall, including “ant farm”, but that’s it!
No sooner did he make his discovery, than the Men from N.O.W.H.E.R.E. arrive to steal it all away. These are the only foes for which Flex’s powers of Muscle Mystery were futile.
When Flex awoke, he found himself in the tearoom of despair… which looks like one heckuva place to find oneself. He escaped, but again, doesn’t remember how.
He made his way like a nomadic Alan Moore for a bit, before finally happening across the hoppin’ place known as… Danny the Street!
Sarah Furness recalls first meeting Flex as a child… and how he would “make friends” by challenging everyone he met to an arm-wrestling contest. She even referred to him as Mr. Elbows-on-the-Table! Time would pass, and it wasn’t until the Doom Patrol arrived to battle the Men From N.O.W.H.E.R.E., that Flex’s memories of who he used to be started to stir.
He laments the fact that he no longer has the power of Muscle Mystery… but knows he’s still gotta take care of bidness at The Pentagon… ya know, geometry of anguish and all’at. Josh Clay suggests the Doomies can help… once the rest of ’em return from space. Flex says it’ll be too late. Ya see, this is a caper 32 years in the making… and, uh 3+2=5… and, well, The Pentagon has five-sides… so, it’s now or never! Still with me?
Josh turns to the Chief for direction, but ol’ Niles is just giddy with the thought that, on Danny the Street, the Doom Patrol have finally found themselves a new headquarters.
We wrap up at a train station, where… what looks like Flex’s old flame, Dolores is being coached for a weird confrontation.
Looooooove this. Love it lots!
Before getting into it, let’s talk a bit about the “Man of the Hour”, Flex Mentallo.
I learned about Flex… and his weird controversial origin, probably sometime around the turn of the century. At that point, I’m pretty sure I’d only ever read the first few issues of the Morrison run, in the original Crawling from the Wreckage trade collection. The 90’s were still in the very recent rear-view, and so I never thought I’d be able to actually afford back-issues (remember, those used to be quite pricey!), and so, i would have to rely on whatever trade paperbacks DC decided to fork over.
I would, then as now, spend a lot of time reading newsgroups and fan-sites… and, I wanna say the first time I’d heard of Flex was on USENET… or whatever USENET approximation you could get access from AOL. What I learned first was, that the Flex Mentallo miniseries (from Vertigo) would never be reprinted, due to a cease and desist from the Charles Atlas folks. It was said that an overzealous Doom Patrol fan reached out to the Atlas Company to excitedly inform them about the nod to their classic ads in Flex’s origin. Well… they didn’t quite react the way this fan intended, and instead, slapped DC with a suit.
From here, I’d visit the old Grant Morrison discussion board, Barbelith… which, in all honesty, isn’t a site I’ve thought about in probably fifteen years now! There, I’d learn quite a bit more… and read through annotations of both this era of Doom Patrol and the Flex Mentallo miniseries… and, I tell ya what, I really wanted to read this stuff myself! I was scared that, since Flex appeared in these issues of Doom Patrol, that they’d suffer the same fate as the mini… and never be collected. I don’t think I was alone in that fear…
Anyhoo… the interesting thing about this… and, this is definitely a “Chris thing”, but I attributed such importance to this… that I blew it up into being like the biggest thing ever in comics. I tend to do that a lot… just check out my Miracleman discussion and hours of podcasts. It was both infuriating and sorta-validating that none of my local shops gave half a damn about Doom Patrol nor Flex Mentallo! So, when I visited the shop and asked for ’em (likely with a fevered look in my eye)… they looked at me like I had three-heads. I managed to find issues #2 and #4 of Flex Mentallo, for a buck or two each… unfortunately, these aren’t really the best issues to read in a vacuum.
Fast-forward about a decade, and DC-Vertigo was finally able to collect the thing in a hardcover… and I nabbed it just as quickly as it hit. I was beyond broke at the time… and was not spending any sort of money (mostly because I didn’t have any)… but, this was a case where I (literally) “cashed in my coins”, and bought something I really didn’t need… but wanted so much… and for so long. There are (probably?) plenty of places online where you can hear the particulars on the Flex/Atlas suit if you’re interested… I ain’t a lawyer, I’m just an idiot with a boring personal story I wanted to share.
Anyhoo, into the issue. Again, I looooooved it. Just so weird… but, at the same time, oddly comfortable. Can’t really explain it. Maybe I’m just a weirder guy than I thought.
First, I find the Flex origin to be… hmm, I don’t wanna say “genius” or “brilliant” because the internet/social media has rendered both of those words meaningless… I’ll just say, I found it to be pretty damn great! Clever, even! Such a simple idea… evoking an instantly recognizable old advertisement that comics enthusiasts have seen hundreds of times before. I loved this back in the long ago, and still love it now. I’m sure, upon seeing this for the first time, plenty of writers kicked themselves for not thinking of it themselves! I mean, it’s been right under our noses this whole time!
The walk through Danny the Street was a great way of facilitating both the “secret origin” and in introducing us to the trippy psychedelic aesthetic of the place. Just a heckuva lot of fun here… and while Dringenberg isn’t the name I automatically connect to this era of Doom Patrol, he and Hazlewood knocked this one out of the park!
Overall… I definitely recommend, not only this issue… but the entirety of this classic run. I wish I had the time to revisit this whole run again! Well, if I ever do go missing from this blogging-space, you can probably safely assume that I’ve been taken by the Men from N.O.W.H.E.R.E., and I’m finally indulging in a heaping helping of comics comfort food.