#329 “Flex Mentallo” and related issues

Flex MentalloIs Flex Mentallo just a superhero story or is it something far more? Does it speak only to comic book fans or can it say something for everyone? Is it about childhood, adulthood, drugs, loss, hope, despair, the comic book marketplace, pain, healing, or all of these at the same time? And do you have to be on acid to understand Grant Morrison, or does it just help? Writer Troy Belford and indie cartoonist John Linton Roberson go on and on about all of this, and it’s a bit beyond the usual. Have a listen to this special mega-length episode…IF YOU DARE.

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2 thoughts on “#329 “Flex Mentallo” and related issues”

  1. This was a great episode and I really enjoyed it.

    That said, I wish you guys could have progressed further beyond the theme of “It’s okay for adults to like superheroes” and discussed more of the actual workings of the book. I’m thinking especially of how artfully Morrison weaves the story, managing and mixing the different levels of reality. Morrison has incredible skill in terms of pulling off narratives that, on paper, shouldn’t work or “make sense” but just DO once you give yourself over to the work on its own terms and pay attention to HOW Morrison tells the story rather than simply WHAT the story is supposed to be exactly, on a linear level. These reading skills are something that most kneejerk Morrison-haters lack. It’s obvious that you guys CAN read the work and get a lot out of it, and you discussed the narrative mechanics some, but it seemed like the last 2/3s of the podcast was taken up (doubly appropriately enough) with what I feel is the stunted and “mental short-circuiting” nature of Morrison: his endless and overblown fascination with superheroes.

    Lest the following might read like an anti-Morrison screed, I have to make it clear upfront that I love Morrison’s work overall. He’s one of my two or three favorite comics writers, and I would include him in my top ten writers of any medium. That said, I think his work, in its ultimate message, is often fundamentally flawed. I wouldn’t normally bang on so long about Morrison’s imperfections, but in the podcast you guys seemed to keep hovering around what you liked about Morrison’s ultimate message (i.e., “Don’t let anyone tell you that it’s bad to indulge endlessly in superheroes and childhood nostalgia”), and I have to disagree with certain things there. I see where you guys are coming from, and until three or four years ago, I would have been 100% right there with you, but further reading and life experience has caused me to see problems in what Morrison is implicitly saying.

    First of all, the most obvious shortcoming of Morrison’s philosophy is that his “do whatever quasi-magick/superhero-worship works for you” only WORKS FOR HIM because he’s relatively rich. Celebrities of all sorts are allowed (monetarily and culturally) to do whatever they want as long as it “works” in a sense for them. Keith Richards can have a lifestyle of heroin use because it works for him: because he’s Keith Richards and his talents lend themselves towards earning a lifestyle in which heroin use hasn’t been entirely debilitating and has in some ways been very inspiring. Similarly, Grant Morrison can spew any sort of wacky creed he wants, no matter how unrealistic, because he’s made it work for him: because he’s Grant Morrison and his talents lend themselves toward making very interesting and very profitable art off of his beliefs.

    I thought it was very apt when you guys mentioned Ayn Rand… but also very ironic. I’d had Ayn Rand in mind for most of the podcast. You mentioned her as a counterpoint to Morrison but I was thinking of her as a sort of unlikely parallel. For both of them, their writing is their reality and they use their fiction writing to promote their beliefs. Morrison definitely isn’t as strident as Rand, but personally I evaluate them much the same: They’re obviously very talented individuals, but in their fiction both of them imply ultimate messages that are simply not workable in reality (or at least, not on any significant scale). Obviously Rand’s failings are much clearer for most of us to see, simply because she seems mean. Morrison’s failings are less discernible because he seems like (and probably is) such a happy, welcoming, “anything goes” sort of guy. But just because he’s happy and open and optimistic doesn’t mean that Morrison can’t be wrong or that his message can’t mislead people.

    As is the case with Rand, I think a significant amount of Morrison’s work can indeed be explained as the author’s own coping strategy due to personal problems. I think it’s pretty obvious that he suffered some some sort of mental imbalance in the ’90s. I’ve dealt with clinically delusional people, and his elaborate alien abduction story — which he now, thankfully, says might not have been literally true — always seemed very much like he was lying to himself in order to exploit the creative “high” and sense of self-worth that it would give him (since “The aliens chose ME”).

    You guys actually touched on some of this stuff by saying how Morrison’s work is like “therapy”, but I think the point needs to be brought home that it’s a rather ineffective sort of therapy that never seems to end and which needs to be reapplied constantly. (Morrison tried to quit writing superhero comics with Final Crisis, but that didn’t stick. Now he’s saying that he’ll quit them in 2013. We’ll see. It almost seems like he’s clinically addicted to the copyrighted properties of DC Comics.) You also brought up the term “midlife crisis” in conjunction with Flex Mentallo. But I would say that most of Morrison’s career, with possibly the exception of the last year or so, can be understood as a midlife crisis that never ends.

    From Animal Man through Final Crisis there was always a definite sense that Morrison was locked into something resembling an Oedipal Complex against Alan Moore. (Note: No I am not a doctrinaire Freudian; don’t pin that on me.) Morrison’s continual attempts to overcome “grim’n’gritty” center on Moore specifically, far more than they do Frank Miller. Why else would Morrison continually posit the value of superheroes, specifically DC superheroes? Because it was Moore who made a big issue of rejecting superheroes, specifically DC’s, and basically told us all to grow up. Morrison’s targeting of Moore (really of Moore’s public image or perceived value in the comics canon) reads like a textbook case of the “anxiety of influence” that younger poets/writers/artists feel towards those forebears who inspired them. (It must be maddening for Morrison, who loves wordgames, to realize that his own name sounds a lot like “Moore’s son”.) I don’t think Morrison has ever sublimated his envy of Moore or ever overcome Moore’s influence on his work; Morrison struggles against Moore to no avail and has remained locked in an “Oedipal”-like conflict with Moore, compounded by a weird sort of ongoing midlife crisis of his own.

    Simply put, Morrison’s ultimate message could easily be interpreted as a justification for his own inability to grow up — something that many celebrities can get away with quite successfully, as long as they continue to produce good art and entertainment. Does Morrison’s message have some truth to it? Absolutely. He makes a lot of sense and raises a lot of good points. But, basically, I think Morrison goes too far and his message is an OVER-correction of the “grim’n’gritty” mindset.

    On the one hand, Morrison makes very good points when he criticizes the “grim’n’gritty” mentality and when his work reminds us to remember what was great about childhood. There are valuable ways of looking at the world that people tend to lose when they grow up and consequently (often) use their imaginations, sense of wonder, and ability to hope for a better tomorrow. Morrison also makes us take notice of the fact that superheroes and comics shouldn’t just be dismissed as we grow up — nor should they have to justify themselves via “speculation-boom” economics on the one hand or dark/”adult” themes on the other.

    But they shouldn’t be worshipped, either. And that’s Morrison’s great fault, the fact that he worships superheroes to an extent that is so literal and insistent. I don’t think most of his fans really take it to heart just how serious this is for Morrison. Superheroes really are “gods” for him: that isn’t just a jokey comparison, and it is such a colossal conflation of value that it should give people more pause than it does. Does any adult REALLY need to keep admiring superheroes to the extent that Morrison would urge us to? I read Batman comics every month — But do I really need to look up to Batman as if he were my father, or as if I were still five years old or something? No, not in any realistic way; doing so would not help me in life. There are other alternatives rather than just throwing our childhoods away. There can be successful sublimations and integrations of a person’s past — rather than just “informed regressions” to a childish mindset, which is basically what Morrison advocates and can afford to indulge in.

    Repeatedly Morrison has said that Superman the character is superior to real human beings. He really means this. But the flipside or “rub” of Morrison’s call for us to always “look up” at the wonderment of superheroes is that, in order to be “looking up”, we humans have to keep ourselves, in some sense, “below” them. And Morrison really believes this. I’m not saying he’s like the Nazis in that he worships “the superman”, but in a way his philosophy does denigrate real humans in a similar way.

    In classical terms, “growing up” was about putting your toys away. Morrison (amongst many others) have shown that there is still reason to remember our childhood toys, and indeed very interesting literature can be made from them. Morrison has been so adamantly “pro-superhero” that he has even annoyed many of his fans who wish he’d do more stuff like The Filth. In a recent interview, when asked about creators rights and why he was still writing to many DC superhero comics, he came up with the excuse that he “has to do whatever it takes to pay the bills”. But he’s Grant Morrison. He’s quite well-off. Even comics writers with a third the prestige are successfully making a good living off of indie/non-superhero comics. I have to think it’s somehow pathological with Morrison: he is psychically invested to a huge, inordinate extent with these characters. In other words, it’s because of Morrison’s own childhood nostalgia, which he couldn’t escape even if he wanted to, that he has to construct these elaborate theories about why we should care THIS MUCH about superheroes (especially DC superheroes) ALL THE TIME.

    I lost track of the number of times in the podcast when you guys referenced “feeling like a kid again”. Certainly, everyone who reads comics knows the feeling and loves when a great writer like Grant Morrison can resurrect that nostalgic glow in our hearts. There’s a point, though, where too much static revelry is just… not helpful.

    Looking at our culture, I wonder if the very notion of “growing up” is losing its meaning. Considering what you guys said on the podcast, it almost seems like Morrison’s message is that “Today ‘growing up’ means… never having to grow up.” What can “growing up” even be defined by if not the ability to face unhappy realities and not be TOTALLY obsessed with childhood toys anymore? It’s children whom we have to lie to, hide painful truths from, and make the world out to be happier than it often is, just so they can “enjoy childhood” a little while longer. I hate to say it, but it’s actually kind of pathetic when elaborate excuses and over-intellectualizations are needed to stave off “the end of childhood” for people who are in their 50s like Morrison is.

    I’m sure somewhere a brilliant writer could over-intellectualize playing with baby rattles — making very smart points about how rattles aren’t just for babies, and making mythological or sociological comparisons between a baby’s rattle and a king’s scepter or a judge’s gavel. You could have an audience full of 50-somethings who still play with baby’s rattles and who scream “Fascist! You’re as bad as Frank Miller!” to anyone who dares say that maybe adults shouldn’t play with baby rattles ALL the time, no matter how fascinating the literature behind them may be.

    You guys mentioned sports fans, a great counterpoint to us comics nerds. You also, early in the podcast, mentioned how difficult it is for people in their 20s-30s to “grow up” anymore in the expected ways, and said a lot of it had to do with tough economics. I wholeheartedly agree. But there are also, basically, “support groups” for any and every vaguely “childish” activity anyone could ever think of nowadays. The media doesn’t really tell us to grow up anymore. You have millions of adults who read books like Harry Potter and Twilight — which are books for kids and young adults — and yet it’s become perfectly acceptable. (Note: I’m not saying any of this is “bad”, just that this is the situation we’re in.)

    And within each hobby there are very good arguments as to WHY such-and-such a pursuit is no longer “childish” at all. Sports fans would say that the value of sports goes far beyond just watching kids and young people chase balls around: No, sports promotes health and teamwork; sports are a cultural institution that brings communities together and results in hometown spirit; and the sports industry also gives people jobs. Comics? Comics are not in any way childish: they are a legitimate form of entertainment, literature really, and our medium has a legitimate genius-level writer whose takeaway message is for all of us to worship Superman. Literally.

    There are pros and cons to all of this. What I would say, above everything else, is that as the years go on every single one of these hobbies seems more and more like a coping strategy. For the last few decades Western society has slowly been getting crazier — has been getting WORSE, in fits in starts, really — but rather than try to deal with problems that might be unsolvable anyway, we naturally retreat more and more often into childhood/entertainment/fun. Because it’s easier. Because we are overwhelmed. Something similar happened during the Great Depression through WWII: the entertainment industry in general always does well when times are hard and weird and unprecedented.

    “Oh no, you’re one of those doom’n’gloomers!” NO. There’re a lot of great things in life. I love life. But I don’t have to be like Woody Allen (another mentally damaged celebrity, who has literally been in psychotherapy for 40 years) and look to “Duck Soup” for an excuse to feel good about life. Nor, like Grant Morrison, do I need Superman to inspire me to do something positive. Reasons to feel good about your own life are all around you, if you can look at reality without being distracted by the news or by fiction all the time.

    The undiagnosed problem, here, I would conclude, is an addiction to media. People seem to need media, in this case fiction, to tell them whether the world is “grim’n’gritty” (as Frank Miller would have it) or bright happy and shiny (as Morrison would say, permagrin on his face). But people should realize that they don’t need media for these cues and conclusions. You don’t need writers like Morrison or Spare or R.A. Wilson (whom I have read and have gotten good information out of) to dictate your reality to you. Even if they’re dictating a fascinating, happy reality, you’re still letting them dictate to you. You don’t need to look up to a Superman if you can “become your own hero”.

    It’s easier on the one hand to just be a “doom’n’gloomer” and eat up the news media’s pessimism p0rn, ignoring the goodness that’s around all of us in the everyday people we know and meet. But it’s also easier on the other hand to let Grant Morrison or some other author/actor/director/musician just TOTALLY take you off into Lala Land, induct you into the society of the Lotus Eaters, and hide from reality that way too. It takes work, effort, and maturity to face the sometimes unpleasant truths of the world: you have to work to face down problems and you also have to work to ignore the media and look for the good things that are REALLY there right next to you.

    Lastly, I think it’s very telling that Morrison, for all his talk of the wonders of childhood, has never had children. And I think it’s GOOD he hasn’t had kids. I don’t say that because I think he’s a bad person — I think he’s a very good person. I think on some level he in fact REALIZES that he shouldn’t have kids, and it speaks to his goodness that he hasn’t had any. But still, it’s very telling: The 50-something guy who waxes nostalgic about childhood nostalgia and the wonders of superheroes has not produced any real offspring. Again: his way of life would not work if were applied on a societal level.

    I agree with a lot of what Morrison says. I can follow and agree with his philosophy further than I can Ayn Rand’s. But ultimately, like Ayn Rand’s, I think Morrison’s philosophy is totally unworkable on a cultural level. “Don’t ever make a negative conclusion!” isn’t a way to run a society. “Become obsessed with childhood nostalgia and NEVER let it go!” is horrible advice for anyone OTHER than those artists and entertainers who can continually turn their fixations into good, interesting work.

    Sorry for going on for so long. Hopefully someone who reads this will get something out of it. Maybe you guys totally disagree with what I wrote, but I had to write it out because I really did enjoy the podcast and because I feel like a few years ago I was right where you guys are now. I’m not saying that I’m “better” or “beyond” you guys, or “beyond” Morrison — I don’t have any kids myself and I’ll never write comics as great as his, even if I think there are blindspots toward the limits of his philosophy.

    Though I would have loved it if I read it in 2008, I thought Supergods was an embarrassingly silly, useless book. (The real important thing about JFK was that he had sex with Marilyn Monroe? That is the understanding of someone who can only read reality through the lens of pop culture.) It was at times interesting but also full of spin, historical revisionism, and immature conclusions about life that read like the thoughts of a still-semi-disturbed person lying to himself, projecting, and rationalizing to an absurd degree about “the way thing were”, what happened, and his place in all of it. Like R.A. Wilson, like conspiracy theories in general, and like most comics, it’s all very interesting… but only up to a point.

    It doesn’t work as religion, as Morrison says it should.

    It doesn’t work as “magick” either. The sigils might work (or seem to work) for Morrison personally. But how many times will he have to say “Okay, the bright happy shiny age of superheroes starts…NOW!” to realize that reality just doesn’t respond to his commands. Not even in a relatively small artistic medium in which he is one of the brightest guiding lights. He’s said or implied variations of this same “bright happy shiny” message at the end of Animal Man, in his JLA run, at the end of Flex Mentallo, at the end of Final Crisis, and in Supergods. And yet his mass-sigils always fail. (What came after Flex Mentallo? Dark comics like Preacher in its heyday, the Marvel Knights line, The Authority, The Ultimates. What came out in the wake of Final Crisis? Dark Reign and Blackest Night. What have been the biggest comics series since Supergods? The Johns/Lee Justice League and the Snyder/Capullo Batman, both of which are drenched in regressive ’90s tropes.) Looked at in terms of clinical psychology, his whole career is just repetition compulsion.

    Morrison may not be “promoting mental health” so much as prolonging his own extended coping strategy. But, really, that’s what more and more people in the Western world are finding themselves needing to do. For what it’s worth, I still have to say that Morrison’s “therapy” is very interesting and well worth reading, always.

  2. Well-thought out, and all reasonable points. I’d probably say all this is valid, and I don’t know this really conflicts with much of what Troy (who may disagree, or not–I don’t want to speak for him)or I said–more like another angle proceeding in a “that being said” way. In other words, I actually agree with much of what you say here.

    The thing is, the disagreement would come if I believed that superhero comics are the PRIMARY kind of comics. For my own part, I was simply exploring what I think is appropriate FOR that particular genre–because that’s what FLEX and Morrison, at least here, is concerned with. If we had been talking about the whole medium(and I do not think either Troy or I pretended we were), that’d be different. I did briefly bring up indie comics and my own work as an indie cartoonist(though I can’t recall whether that was cut or not), and I do disagree with, for instance, what Grant said in SUPERGODS dissing said comics. (I think for instance he said some unkind things about Chris Ware, who in some ways has explored the same territory as Morrison but more effectively in his stories involving “Super-Man,” who’s like God–as filtered through what we call the “Superman is a Dick” covers. His use of superheroes is far more a vehicle for commentary about life, but that would have been another hour going into THAT, and into rather Freudian territory. It was outside the scope of our discussion but might be grist for another talk, maybe considered alongside stuff like Clowes’ THE DEATH-RAY)

    But in any event, I just want to clarify: for my own part, I was only focusing on FLEX (and related Morrison work) and the superhero genre and its function. In no way do I think it’s the primary genre of comics, or my favorite one. But it is a PROMINENT genre with a lot of followers, so what I wanted was to explore that. I would however add that Morrison’s addiction to DC and your doubt he’s serious about being off them should be considered against the serious attack on DC as a corporate entity he somehow got into ACTION COMICS #9, a story I am, shocked made it into print under their current, rather authoritarian regime that has been driving creators, him and many others, away.

    Anyway, thanks for listening and for the very well-thought-out response.

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