Flex Mentallo and Final Crisis: Erasing the Lines Between You and the DCU
DC Comics recently announced that the long-awaited Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely Vertigo series Flex Mentallo would be returning to print, to the cheers of Morrison fans everywhere. If you never managed to get a hold of the single issues, you're not only missing out on a seminal work by a great comics writer, you're missing out on a series that foreshadowed a great deal of what Morrison would later do in the DC Universe. Flex Mentallo has especially strong connections to the themes of Final Crisis, including its ideas about the apocalypse, the power of imagination, and the porous barriers that exist between the world of superheroes and that of our own. Spoilers for Flex Mentallo follow.
The end of the world, from a variety of perspectives, temporal points, and realities, is at the core of the stories in both Flex Mentallo and Final Crisis, two comic books that on some level are about superheroes battling to save their universes -- each with their own multiple dimensions -- in the face of an ultimate apocalypse. In Flex Mentallo, this culminates in a scene where a superhero group called the Legion of Legions faces down "The Absolute," a force that is about to consume all of the realities in their "polyverse." Or as they say, "the end of everything."
There is a speedster hero -- a Flash analogue -- on hand when the end begins, who says, "Look at it. 'The Absolute.' Rising like the dawn. Nothingness eating the universe. Eating everything. It's finally happening and we can't do anything to stop it. I could run at light-speed but there's nowhere left to go..."
If that sounds familiar, consider the end of Final Crisis, a DC mega-crossover written by Morrison seventeen years later, where the collected superheroes of the DC Universe face down a force that is about to consume all of the realities in their multiverse, while two versions of the Flash sprint faster than they ever have before to try and outrun the avatar of death.
The force threatening the apocalypse in the DC Universe is the Anti-Life Equation, a legendary formula from Kirby's Fourth World which mathematically proves the futility of life, a realization so powerful that it essentially enslaves all who witness it, robbing them of free will. It's also a concept that echoes a darker, subconscious impulse that Morrison once talked about in an earlier interview with Arthur magazine:
"I was kind of forced into a position where the dualistic simplicity of what I'd believed in before wasn't holding up to actual scrutiny and to the reality of the life I was living. I found myself in a place where I felt I had to confront all the negative aspects of a lot of stuff I believed. I realized that as much as I believed in freedom, in saving the world from tyranny, something in me was also against that drive. A death impulse. The dark impulse. ... The idea that everything I ever thought, everything I ever believed, had its negative, and the negative could just as easily be justified by all the right words. It's a destructive, corrosive state of consciousness."
The Anti-Life Equation is a string of symbols that represents that darker impulse, symbols that brings it to life inside other people. That idea that the "right words" have the power to transform both human beings and the world is central not only to Anti-Life, but also to the fundamental concept of writing. And of course to magic, which is a practice that Morrison engages in a very real way in his own life. When circulation dipped on his run on the comic The Invisibles in the mid-'90s, he created a symbol called a sigil that he imbued with a request for sales to increase, and asked his readers to help charge it with their energy by masturbating to it collectively on Thanksgiving evening. They did, and circulation went up.
The entire series of The Invisibles was also supposed to serve as a even larger sigil, one that Morrison says took "the form of an occult adventure story which consumed and recreated my life during the period of its composition and execution. The hypersigil is an immensely powerful and sometimes dangerous method for actually altering reality in accordance with intent. Results can be remarkable and shocking."
The through line for all of this is Morrison's idea that we have the power to make the things we imagine into reality, a notion which sounds radical on a practical level, but one that is commonplace from the perspective of a writer looking down on the comics page, like a god with limitless power. On his Final Crisis annotations blog, critic Douglas Wolk notes a last minute rewrite in DC Universe #0 that hints at something larger that Morrison was trying to bring to life in the DC Universe: the DC Universe.
"On the version included in the 2008 New York Comic-Con program, the caption was "I am... everything." Note also that the captions start with a black background, and that the red creeps in from the right as the story progresses. The idea of an entity that can be everything (and articulate it!) relates to the concept Morrison has mentioned a few times of trying to make the DC universe sentient."
Stories about heroes facing down the end of the world have become fairly common in comics, but the idea of the apocalypse gets particularly interesting in the context of a sentient universe. If the world is alive in an individual way, then its end can represent a much more personal one as well. From a personal perspective, after all, losing yourself is the end of the world. The line between the personal and the universal touch, in Morrison's stories, blur, and sometimes disappear.
The "I am everything" theme runs strongly through Flex Mentallo, as does "I am anything." Identity is fluid and interchangeable in Flex, as is reality. Characters shift in and out different scenes and different worlds of until it hard to know which is "real," an idea that expands until even the lines between the comic book world and our reality are treated as indistinct. In this midst of a (potential?) suicide attempt after taking a bottle of pills, a man named Sage shifts between two different scenarios while talking to someone on a helpline. "On one parallel Earth my pill bottle had Paracetamol in it, on the other it had M&Ms," says Sage. "All I've got to do is decide which one I'm on."
In Final Crisis, former Monitor Nix Uotan wakes up after his banishment from the cosmic society in another life, as human working in food service with only lingering dreams of his former existence. Like Sage, he is searching for "the magic word that'll take me home," perhaps the same "magic word" Sage ultimately says to unleash superheroes into his world. This is the inverse of the Anti-Life Equation: words that create and liberate rather than enslave and destroy.
Ultimately, the Legion of Legions and their world are saved from the apocalypse in Flex Mentallo by "open[ing] a defect envelope into 'The Absolute' and mail[ing] [them]selves into a new kind of reality." That reality, it turns out, is the fiction of our world, where the heroes remain concealed, expressing themselves as subconscious manifestations of comic book creators. "It's not death. It's something new," says Limbo. "Prepare to become fictional." The heroes of that world survive their apocalypse by becoming the heroic impulses within people in our world, sublimating themselves inside our collective unconscious and willing us to make them real. And Morrison does.
In Final Crisis, the multiverse is saved through the use of the Miracle Machine, a device that allows the user to turn thought into reality, which allows Superman to defeat Darkseid simply by thinking of a universe without him. Morrison essentially elevates Superman to the role of comic book writer, which is to say god, and allows him to rewrite his own world just by imagining it a different way.
In Final Crisis: Superman Beyond, Superman visits the world of the Monitors, characters that are themselves a sort of writer-god, the intermediaries between the world of the Overvoid -- how Morrison conceived of the blank page that becomes a comic -- and the worlds and lives that are written on it. The comic literally becomes three-dimensional -- it comes with its own 3D glasses -- and at one point, near the edge of existence, Superman faces the readers head on, reaching out towards us into the third dimension, as says, "there's a presence."
Returning to the very start of Final Crisis, there's a key scene set in the primeval world where the god-like Metron plays Prometheus and offers fire (and knowledge) to Anthro, the first boy. In Flex, there's something very similar about the way the character Limbo reaches out to both the astronaut in issue #2 and the child Sage at the end of issue #3, gifting him with the power of "Where-you-get-your-ideas," a more creative spin on the Prometheus analogy. Morrison, who has talked often of his personal practice of magic, has also said that he personally summoned Metron through chaos magic in our reality, something that echoes the relationship between Sage and the superheroes, and the "Word" that Sage ultimately uses to summon them. And the words Morrison uses to summon all of them onto the page.
In the same interview with Arthur magazine, Morrison said:
"I figured even within 50 years we'll probably have quite a few superhumans on the planet. There's something about the superman idea that's pushing itself closer and closer to reality, to the real-life material workaday world that we can touch. The supercharacters began in the pulps and then worked their way through comics, and they keep moving to more and more extensive mass media. Now it's everywhere, and it's become the common currency of culture. I said, way back, almost joking, that I thought the super-people were really trying very hard to make their way off the skin of the second dimension to get in here. They want to be in here with us. They're colonizing people's minds, and they're now colonizing movies, so the next stage is to clamber off the screen into the street."
There's also the matter of the belief. In Final Crisis #1 Libra pleads to to "Believe in him, that's all he asks," echoing the larger idea that faith is what gives the words the power create reality, both on the comics page and outside it. In Flex #4, Limbo explains that Nanoman and Minimiss (Atom-esque miniaturizing heroes) ultimately saved their world by shrinking down "to quark size and build[ing] an entire universe from the ground up. They're everywhere and everywhen simultaneously. We're made of them." Unfortunately, the strain of being everything sent them into a coma, where "they weren't alive and weren't dead and neither was the universe. The Legion of Legions couldn't come back until... until we decided one way or the other. They want us to believe the universe into life."
And isn't that what we've all done with the DC Universe, collectively? And by writing his comics, is Morrison creating a new world through the power of imagination, or is he recreating the heroes sublimated in his subconscious by another reality, as he implies in Flex Mentallo, and believing them back to life? Do we summon them or do they summon us?
If there's anything to take away from Morrison's larger themes, it's the lines between people, characters, worlds, fiction, and reality mean less than we think they do. In comics, these connections already function on the level of metaphor, where superheroes and their stories are used to represent human emotions and conflicts. In books like Final Crisis and Flex Mentallo, the veil of metaphor begins to lift, and expands to include universes, including the DC Universe itself.
As frustrating as the convoluted stories of the DCU can it can be from a continuity perspective, for example, one could argue that the constant shaking of the fabric of reality actually resonates on some level with real life. For a lot of people, the world we know ends many times within our individual lives, and we are forced to change and forget and remember and somehow try to make it all make sense. And much like comic book continuity, it often doesn't, but we have to find a way to put it back together anyway, either by turning backwards to our most essential notions of who we are, or by pushing ourselves forward to be things we didn't know we could be.
"Somewhere, I'm not a singer," says Sage in Flex Mentallo. "I'm an office executive, or the father of a little girl or a comic artist, drawing this story. I can see myself in all times and places."
That's the idea behind Flex Mentallo, I think, and so much of Morrison's work. We create worlds, with our words, and we create ourselves too; we are whatever we believe we are. And all of it is us, all of it could be, because we're all just making it up.