Wednesday, 19 December 2012

90 the new X-Men

Just finished the semester and also Grant Morrison's amazing run on the X-men.  The massive omnibus was over a 1000 pages of pure fun.  The comic read like a soap opera, the characters were interesting and sincere.  The comic dealt a lot with the students at Xavier's School for Mutants, and you really started to care for a useless mutant called Beak, with no power other than looking like an ugly bird.  He couldn't really fly either, I guess not all mutants are powerful is the message here, some are just wierd looking.  Now I have about 3 weeks to explore books I didn't have a chance to look through the last 4 months.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

My First Seminar Paper

 This is the first completed seminar paper in my grad study.  I am calling it complete Dec 9, 2012.  i hope I get a good grade on this.

Metafiction in Flex Mentallo: Creation of a Shared Reality between Artifact and Audience.

            Beginning in the early 80s, comics shifted towards a darker and morally ambiguous representation of superheroes.  Superheroes began to exhibit anti-social behaviors, became more violent, and were considered to be more realistic.  The once optimistic tone that defined the comics of earlier ages had turned towards a more pessimistic nature.  The year 1986 saw the arrival of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s The Watchmen.  These two comics became the standard bearers for gritty realism and pessimism within the superhero genre.  Miller and Moore deconstructed the superhero and in the process removed from them the characteristics that made them admirable in the first place.  Miller’s Batman was at times sadistic, secretive, paranoid, obsessive, fascistic, masochistic, and violent.  While Miller’s graphic novel did not receive universal praise at the time, it is now considered one of the finest works in the superhero medium.  Moore’s Watchmen was dark in tone and at times graphically violent.  The narrator of the work was the misanthropic vigilante Rorschach.  Unlike Batman, Rorschach had no qualms with killing people.  His far right wing conservatism and his ultraviolent attitude towards crime made him a unique and more realistic character than was in contemporary comics at the time.  Miller and Moore began an industry wide trend that was picked up by artists and writers.  Superheroes began to develop darker personalities and were losing the virtuous sheen of previous decades.  It is during this period that Grant Morrison felt he had to bring the superhero to a time before the Dark Age of comics in his Flex Mentallo (1996).
The character of Flex Mentallo has gone through a half dozen iterations that have bounced from reality to fiction to reality in a dizzying history.  The character really begins as Charles Atlas, the bodybuilder whose advertisements in Golden Age comics in the 50s were directed at insecure men and weaklings.  His ads were in the form of a comic where Atlas appears as a hypermasculine image trying to encourage men to become strong and masculine.  These ads were part of the reading experience for many comic book readers, and reflected the superhero material within the comics the ads appeared.  Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely parodied the image and ideas behind the ads and applied them to great metafictional use in Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery.  By reinventing an iconic ad as fiction, Morrison is able to explore the meanings of comics, the reading experience, and give a commentary on current representations of superheroes.  His hope is to create fiction that has a positive power in the reality of the reader.
Flex Mentallo is at times autobiographical which shows the reader how to understand and react to comics by using Morrison’s own experience as a model.  Autobiography adds a personal importance to the chronology and commentary on the major historical ages of comics: Golden, Silver, and Dark[1].  The reader is not meant to see himself as the narrator, but he is meant to learn the same message along with the narrator.  The graphic novel serves a history lesson for the narrator and the reader, with both learning together through recalled memories of older comics and the intervention of Flex.  The book does occasionally address the reader in several key moments in the person of Flex.
            Morrison and Quitely have three strains of metafiction running parallel throughout the novel: Flex, the Narrator, and the visual design.  The use of metafiction draws the reader’s attention to the object of the comic.  This gives Morrison the opportunity to criticize current trends in comics and talk of the potential hidden within the meanings of the archetypal superhero.  Morrison sees comics in a similar way that Joseph Campbell viewed myths, “as a primary way of understanding the world” (Karen Armstrong qtd. in Garrett x).  Superheroes contain many of the potent Jungian archetypes of classical myths, and this is where their true power resides.  Morrison is seeking a return to the life affirming archetype that isn’t ambiguous or dark.

Influences on the Reader

The ads by Charles Atlas usually involved similar plots of a weak boy named Mac being insulted by a stronger masculine man.  Mac’s girlfriend usually echoes the insult, thereby shaming him further.  Rather than address the rudeness of the bully and dismiss the girl as shallow and unsympathetic, the boy instead resolves to “gamble a stamp” on an Atlas book and become strong.  This usually changes the boy into a strong man that then resolves the plot by going up to the bully and punching him squarely in the face.  The story usually ends with the boy walking away with his girlfriend, who now admires him for fighting and holding a grudge.  The values implied in the ads were ones usually mirrored in the Golden Age comics where superheroes resolved conflict with violence.  The themes of overcoming greater odds and standing up for yourself were fairly common.
The ads reflected the chisel physiques of the heroes with Altas’s body, creating a “homoerotic fantasy” (Landon 200) for the reader.  Atlas was using the medium of comics as a way for the reader to participate and be influenced in ways that Fredric Wertham had described a decade later in his seminal book, Seduction of the Innocent (1954).  Wertham argued that children reading these comic books would in turn act out the violence on the page.  Morrison takes the ideas of Wertham and critiques them by creating a superhero that uses Muscle Mystery to fight crime, which involves Flex flexing certain muscles.  When a muscle contracts Flex can cause the Pentagon to turn into a circle, a piece of ground to shake, or his glowing insignia “Hero of the Beach” appears above his head.  Flex does not use violence, is always kind, and has no romantic attachments.  There is not one punch thrown in the real part of the narrative where Flex exists.  He is a hero that resolves any issue with dialogue.  Morrison’s Flex Mentallo defies the Wertham interpretation by undercutting it with a pacifist hero taken from the very comics that Wertham condemned in the Senate hearings in 1954.  The narrator of Flex Mentallo, who calls himself Wallace Sage, at one point insists that, “Fredric Wertham was fucking right!” (iss. 3)[2].  The narrator would counteract this statement when he later finds awareness.  The issue becomes not that comics are reflected in the reader, but that the reader reflects the comics onto his world.  This becomes a subtle change that allows the narrator to achieve happiness.
The idea of comics influencing the active reality of the reader is hinted at throughout the book.  Flex as a character situates himself in a position opposed to Wertham and comics seduction of the innocent.  Wallace Sage admits that comics do have a power, though the totality of that power proves to be of a different species.  Wertham proposed that the delinquency of the youth had its source in comic’s presentation of malevolent themes, but Sage explores his reality as being perverted through his fetishizing comics.  Throughout the book Sage begins to question the reality of his own existence while talking on a suicide hotline.  The utopian perfection of comics has hyperstimulated Sage to a point that his life has become dull in comparison.  He confesses that: “When it all comes down to it.  How could you love anybody the way you loved Thundergirl? / You try and it’s like heaven. / But it’s only like heaven. / It’s not heaven is it” (iss. 3)?  The problem for Sage is not that he acts out the comics, but he fetishizes the world the comics represent.  Nothing in his life can ever reach the glossy finish of a Thundergirl.  This is a problem that Morrison is trying to resolve, and the implications go beyond the pages of Flex Mentallo.  It is all the more urgent, as Sage is in part a representation of Morrison.
Returning then to the Atlas ads and what they mean for the book.  The ads are a male fantasy for something that seems attainable.  The idea of being “The world’s most perfectly developed man” is presented as something attainable; what is neglected here is that no matter how much a person tries, Atlas has a unique body.  Not everyone can achieve that level of physical perfection.  The ads, as a fantasy, offer a hope that cannot reasonably be achieved, and this is the problem that Sage expresses.  Bodies are never as perfect as they are in the comics, or love is never as clean and beautiful as it is in fiction.  Representations have consequences.  Morrison and Quitely depict an idealized superhero that is drawn in a manner that is not realistic and not traditional.  They are able to shift the message of the ads to a more palatable image for the reader by making a superhero that is the essence of hyperbole.  This shifting message is an abstraction of Charles Atlas to a fictional character beyond the ads.  Atlas had the body the reader wants, but Flex does not.  His body is grotesquely cartoonish as to be undesirable, allowing the reader to want him to succeed without wanting to be him.  Morrison is trying to recreate the Golden Age of comics using iconic ads with a superhero that is far too peaceful as to defy placement in any age.

“Brace yourselves.  Prepare to become fictional.”
-Flex iss. 3

            Grant Morrison has a tendency of placing himself into his writing.  He literally placed himself into Animal Man as the writer of the character of Buddy Baker (Animal Man).  The character of King Mob and Morrison were mirrors of each other throughout his run on The Invisibles.  In many of his writings, Morrison admits to using personal details.  For him, writing comics is a personal experience that invites him to use moments from his own life and beliefs.  His history of comics Supergods (2011) is more of a personal history of comics.  Morrison explores the four ages of comics and his relation to them.  Flex Mentallo can be seen as an early forerunner to his autobiographical/history book Supergods[3].  It is no wonder that throughout the book Morrison constantly references Flex Mentallo.  Supergods, which arrived 15 years after Flex, makes it clear that his graphic novel was a personal musing on the power and purpose of comics.  The use of metafiction creates a link between the author and the fiction.  By looking inwards at the world of the comic, Morrison also invites the readers to share in his contemplation.  He says of his graphic novel: “In Flex Mentallo I wanted to answer the question that writers are always asked: ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ …Flex was an attempt to lay out that process on the page” (Supergods 267). 
            The connection between Morrison and his fictive world is in the role of the narrator, Wallace Sage.  On the question of autobiography, Morrison writes: “The book was part biography, real and imagined” (Supergods 270).  Morrison is sometimes clear which aspects of Sage are part of his life, and at other times it is vague.  There are definite similarities between the author and Sage that should be considered more than coincidental.  Morrison used the analogy of Sage representing the Grant Morrison of Earth-2 (Supergods 270).  This is a reference to the Earth-2 in the DC Multiverse where everything is slightly different, but reasonably similar.  Interpreting the narrator as strictly autobiographical would create conflicts, but enough is there to see it as a semi-autobiographical character.  By situating the character as an inhabitant of Earth-2 Morrison is creating another level of interpreted reality.  There are 52 universes in the DC Multiverse, and it is possible for the fiction in one universe to be the reality of another.  Sage could be fiction on our Earth, known as Earth Prime, but may be a reality on Earth-2. 
            The preface of Flex Mentallo contains a pseudo-history of the character known as Flex Mentallo throughout the first three ages of comics.  Each age shows the maturation of Flex as a character, as well as being characterized by that age.  Flex becomes a reflection of the era that he is written.  Drugs, colors, and themes represent each age.  It isn’t until the Silver Age that the writer Wallace Sage becomes the definitive writer for Flex until his untimely death in 1982.  The narrator, whose story frames the graphic novel, assumes the name of Wallace Sage while talking with the suicide operator, “You can call me Wallace Sage” (iss. 1).  He then immediately throws some doubt on his identity, “Course it’s not real…it’s, um, it’s my secret identity” (iss. 1).  Morrison never reveals the true name of the narrator, leaving that open to interpretation.  The narrator assumes the name of the writer of Flex in the Silver Age of comics.  His identity is one of confusion as he frequently asks who he is.  In one particular LSD fueled outburst he says, “I’m Flex Mentallo…No, no, he’s a superhero.  I made him up when I was a kid” (iss. 3).  Though the identity of the narrator is one of mystery, his role as a creator is probable.  As creator he becomes subject to his own text, and the world of the comic ripples with Sage’s confusion and loss of meaning.
            Meaning is difficult for Sage to ascertain throughout the novel.  He makes his entrance in the novel by looking for his phone amidst the detritus of youth.  Sprawled across his coffee table is drug paraphernalia, and covering his apartment floor are childhood comics he drew of Flex.  These comics from his childhood show the present day Flex talking with the Lieutenant, which is happening at the same time.  The narrator is reading the action of the now, though the drawing is what you would expect from a child: crude.  Having read through some of his own comics, the narrator lays down on his kitchen floor and contemplates his suicide and says, “Nothing left to do” (iss. 1).  The narrator is abandoning meaning.  Throughout the novel he cannot fathom reality and finds it easier to give it up than to live it.  This in essence is the moral message of Flex, to choose to live with meaning.  Instead the meaning given in the stories of the day include pessimistic realism and ambiguous characters.  Sage is a reflection of the Dark Age of comics.  The character of the narrator is a representation of Morrison, and of Morrison’s belief that “we tend to live our stories” (Supergods 414).  Nowhere is this more evident than in his series, The Invisibles.  While writing the character of King Mob, he gave this character a face disease.  This disease then manifested on Morrison’s face (Meaney 12).  The stories Morrison wrote became a reality for him.  This feeds into his belief in chaos magic, which tries to manipulate reality in a plausible way through thought processes.  This also explains his negative viewpoints of Dark Age comics.  If fiction has a power to become real, then the dark comics are creating negative realities and this is a problem.
            Wallace Sage narrates his own struggle with meaning.  The first frame of Flex shows a bomb, and then that bomb exploding.  Throughout the comic random cartoon bombs appear and destroy reality.  These bombs are probably symptoms of Sage destroying himself through a suicidal dose of drugs.  As he falls further into stages of overdose, reality becomes a sketchy concept.  One blog estimated that there were up to seven “diegetic spaces” (Craft).  I would add an eighth level of reality, that of the world of the reader.  These spaces begin to merge creating just one reality at the end.  This merging becomes confusing at times as the reader is unclear which reality is being represented and how it works in relation to the other realities. By the end of the novel, Sage is shown to be the bad guy in his own story.  His failure to embrace life has made him a hateful whiney adolescent who destroys that which he cannot love.  His journey for meaning is paralleled by Flex’s search for truth.

Flex and Atlas

            Morrison uses the character of Flex Mentallo as a method to include the reader in the creation of meaning.  The Atlas ads used a character called Mac, which is an obvious stereotype of the average comic reader.  The ads targeted “insecure youths” (Landon 200) in a direct way.  The ads addressed the reader: “Let me PROVE I can make you a man” (Charles).  The comic was reaching out to the consumer.  Morrison also addresses the reader through the medium of his covers.  The cover of issue one has Flex jumping towards the reader with the exclamation: “YOU! Buy this comic NOW or the earth is DOOMED!!” (iss. 1).  Both Atlas and Flex are reaching out to the reader with similar goals, but with different results.  Atlas targets the insecurity of the reader by portraying some similar “weakling” (Charles), while Flex is asking the reader for help in saving the earth.  The act of asking for help creates for the reader some power and control.  Flex is asking the reader to improve the world while Atlas wants the reader to improve his own body.  This again ties in with Morrison’s belief that comics have a power to improve reality beyond the page.  Morrison is obviously mimicking the ads through an outlandish claim that by buying a comic the reader will save the world.  Purchased comics assure Morrison job security.  The claim is also a theme running throughout the novel that the world is falling apart because life becomes meaningless.  The earth of the comic is doomed if Sage dies and gives up, and Flex needs the narrator to live and allow the comic world to continue. 
            Flex is not meant to be a stand in for the reader; he was not built for that.  He was created to represent the purest form of the superhero.  Flex fights crime with a smile, is kind, gracious, and desires to help other people in the best possible way.  He lacks all of the mental drawbacks and dark characteristics that were popular in the late 80s and early 90s.  The realism in Miller and Moore troubled Morrison: “Realism had become confused with a particularly adolescent kind of pessimism and angry sexuality that I was beginning to find confining” (Supergods 233).  Flex is a counter argument to Miller’s revisioning of Batman and Moore’s ambiguous Rorschach.  Flex would not reflect the dark realism and pessimism prevalent in the early 90s; instead his character would be cheerful and kind throughout.  He represents the best that comics can offer while the narrator portrays the worst.  By the end of the comic it is the narrator that changes and accepts comic book superheroes like Flex and creates more in a similar strain.  Nowhere is Flex brought down or influenced by the grime of the world around him.  This is as it should be for Morrison’s message to mean something.  This is a consistent theme of Morrison in all of his comics.  The world around may be grimy, dark, and violent, but his protagonists maintain their integrity and values.
            Flex is a typical superhero with powers beyond the mortal man.  He accepts his responsibility and does not go about harming and terrorizing people.  He is dragged into mystery in the first few pages when he sees “the Fact” drop a bomb in the food court of a mall.  The rest of the graphic novel is Flex searching for “the Fact” and trying to understand why he is throwing bombs.  He is constantly walking the streets that Sage is also on, though the two never cross paths.  Flex is searching for truth in the form of “the Fact”, while Sage is narrating his personal history of comics.  Flex follows the trail to the space headquarters of the Legion of Legions to confront Sage.  The confrontation between the two protagonists is an attempt by Morrison to reconcile Mac with Atlas, and the reader with comics.

Chaos Magic

            Flex and Sage are related to each other just as Charles Atlas is to Mac.  Flex and Sage are the comic abstractions of the earlier advertisements.  Morrison uses this relationship as a foil for his main characters, and ultimately as the symbolic apparatus to resolve the conflict.  Morrison is a practitioner of Chaos Magic, and one of his tenants is as follows, “Anything you can imagine, anything you can symbolize, can be made to produce magical changes in your environment” (“Pop” 16).  His explanation is no different than his use of it in Flex Mentallo.  When Sage is defeated and given advice on how to live better, then the world becomes better for him.  He is spiritually saved by Flex and has gained a new existential awareness that allows him to live happily, and for fiction to become real.  Morrison does not mean that Superman will fly off the page, but rather the reader can share the values of superheroes.  Morrison has a pragmatic use of magic that requires a positive outlook.
Sage is the bad guy in the comic, and as a bad guy he wears a half moon face.  In the interpretational realm of magic, the half moon card has associations with confusion, dreaming, and imagination (“The Moon”).   These are characteristics that Sage exhibits throughout the novel as the creator and subject of the comic.  His evil persona is as a confused deity that is willing the end of the world through thought.  But Morrison says the opposite can happen, that by using chaos magic a person can influence the world around him in a positive way.  He uses Flex as an Atlas stand-in to reach the character of Sage.  What Flex is selling is a way of life that is more interior than what Atlas was advertising.
The final confrontation involves dialogue and not superheroics.  In the process Sage reveals his identity by taking his moon mask off.  The reader is shown the petulant face of Sage while he screams, “There!  So now you know my secret identity!  So What?  It doesn’t matter!  It’s all shit! / Pathetic fucking power fantasies for lonely wankers who’ve had so much sand kicked in their faces” (iss. 4).  This is an obvious allusion to the Atlas ads with the mention of sand being kicked in their faces.  Here Sage is becoming Mac, and now Flex must become Atlas to achieve some connection with the relationship these two have.  Two panels later Flex quotes the ads, “Gamble a stamp. / I can show you how to be a real man” (iss. 4).  This panel is drawn from the perspective of Sage, which allows the message to be directed at Sage and the reader simultaneously.  Flex breaks through the panel as he reaches towards the reader.  Flex is not offering a physical change here, but one of personality.  He does not want the reader to have a body like his, but a disposition like his.  Flex gets a chance to help a troubled person realize his potential.  On the level of reality, this is the comic helping the reader understand the potential of comics.  Sage laments that, “The world’s going to end. / I made the world to end” (iss. 4).  Sage must accept life by finding his meaning in it.  When he finds meaning he can then will the world to continue. Flex offers his advice to the struggling Sage, “Being clever’s a fine thing, but sometimes a boy needs to get out of the house and meet some girls” (iss. 4).  This is also directed at writers like Miller and Moore who need to realize that comics do not have to be so gritty and realistic, they can also be fun escapist superhero stories.
The message given, Sage almost immediately understands the problem: “Why should I want to commit suicide? I’ve got a brilliant life.  It was him.  It was me aged 16.  He’d have killed me if it wasn’t for Flex” (iss. 4).  The change in Sage has been made.  In the first chapter Sage takes a lethal amount of drugs to commit suicide.  By chapter three, reality begins to become questionable and he starts to wonder if the drugs were M+Ms instead, but is still unsure.  After talking with Flex he states plainly, “It was M+Ms” (iss. 4).  This statement is an uplifting one of choosing life over death.  It is also imposing on his created reality something favorable.  Sage wants the drugs to be M+Ms and so they are.  This may not be the reality, but it is now his accepted reality.  The world of reality shifts again to Sage as narrator and shows the ending of the phone conversation, “Do you believe in superheroes?  Imagine it real” (iss. 4).  Here is where he lives up to his namesake.  He talks a little longer and then the phone batteries die.  His story ends with a bright yellow light exploding from his chest and then hundreds of superheroes flying across a full page.  This is the genesis of superheroes in his world.  They become real for Sage.  Rather than mock them as he mocked Flex, he has embraced the virtues and qualities that superhero stories convey.  The superhero has been redeemed from Miller and Moore.
Form as Metafiction

            The two protagonists each have their own goals.  Flex is searching for “the Fact” and Sage is looking for meaning.  Their stories overlap and confront one another in the medium of the graphic novel.  The pictures and allusions that escape the notice of the two main characters are there for the reader to see.  Morrison displays the history of comics and deconstructs the form as another way to lend meaning to the main story.  But this meaning is lost if the reader does not know what to look for.  Patricia Waugh says that, “To be successfully decoded, then, experimental fiction of any variety requires an audience which is self-conscious about its linguistic practices” (64).  The audience for this comic is of course somewhat selective, with only the more knowledgeable readers grasping some of the more subtle references.  It does not exclude meaning for the beginning reader, but the meaning becomes less relevant.  For example, in The Dark knight Returns there are several iconic images, one of which is Batman jumping from a rooftop with searing lightning in the background.  This marked the dramatic return of Batman after ten years of seclusion.  A similar image appears in Flex, but instead of Batman a plane flies through a panel.  Rather than be iconic and important, the absence of anything of worth creates a new meaning.  The absence of Batman, or any other superhero flying across the panel reveals the loss of superheroes.  The picture is drab and lacks purpose.  Quitely parodies Miller here showing that after Miller the superhero is absent.  Miller killed the best part of the superhero.  A couple of scenes later, thugs that look like the Mutants, villains from The Dark Knight Returns, attack a female pedestrian while the narrator on the phone watches dispassionately.  Batman does not rescue the woman; no one seems to help her at all.  Later Sage wonders what happened to her.  At this point in comics no one seems to care enough about the victim to want to help.  The pleasure comes from the violence itself.  The references to contemporary works highlight the problems that Sage is going through: the absence of social values in comics or in people.  Sage could have tried to help her, or at least offer her some advice before walking down a dark alley.  His passive role betrays his inability to take any virtues from the comics he is talking about.  Without knowledge of the comics Morrison is arguing against, half of the debate is missing, and the beginning reader is left guessing.
            Morrison and Quitely reference and parody styles from the three ages of comics.  By deconstructing the history of comics through comics, Morrison and Quitely are making the reader aware of comics as artifacts.  The form provides a “critique of their own methods of construction …[and] they also explore the possible fictionality of the world outside the literary fictional text” (Waugh 2).  The fictionality of the graphic novel keeps the reader from enjoying the work as though it was just another superhero yarn.  The novel requires readers to focus on the artifact so that the message can be applied to the reader.  Those empty spaces begin to get filled as the story nears it end.  Superheroes can be seen walking in the background, and start to force themselves into the life of Sage.  They emerge from his subconscious and forgotten memories.  By the end, the novel starts to plot like a more traditional comic.  The construction of the fourth chapter has a typical superhero story that involves good overcoming evil.  This is a far cry from the ambiguity of the story from the first three chapters in the novel.  The form of the graphic novel has emerged by the end to coincide with the meeting of Flex and Sage. 

Fiction as Remembered

            Morrison and Quitely are not creating a new form of comic divorced from the past, but one that lives because of the past.  The characters must retain what it was that made them special in the first place.  There is little to find comforting in Moore’s violent Rorschach or Miller’s sadistic Batman.  This apparent loss of praiseworthy values is depicted in Flex as a forgotten past that the narrator is trying to uncover.  The narrator slowly recalls his past, which involved superheroes and a forgotten magical word.  In the fourth issue Sage picks up an incomplete crossword that Flex had dropped earlier.  This is the word God spoke to bring the universe into being and the narrator has to remember it.  The crossword has most of the word completed: S-H-A-__-A-__ except for two letters.  The forgotten word is reproduced as a puzzle that invites the reader to complete it.  But the clue to solve the crossword is concealed from the reader.  The reader has no starting point for completing the crossword, and is forced to make an educated guess based on the various allusions to Captain Marvel that preceded the presentation of the crossword.  Morrison purposefully left those two spaces empty causing the reader to imagine the word to be “SHAZAM”.  This is the transformative word that turned Billy Batson into Captain Marvel, a superhero rivaled only by Superman.  But this word is only limited to the transformation of Batson, and does not affect the world.  This transformation recalls the relationship between Charles Atlas and Mac.  This magical word is then too limiting for Morrison to use, and he must seek a different word that transforms both the speaker and the world beyond the speaker.
            The magical word will not be revealed until Sage and the reader are prepared to know it.  Its revelation must be when Sage is prepared to utter it based on his awareness of the power of fiction.  If given too early Sage will discard the meaning and not use it because he has no belief.  When Sage gains belief he remembers that the word is SHAMAN and is able to finish the puzzle.  When the word is spoken, the magic of fiction becomes real.  He is able to interact with the spiritual world and altered realities in order to shape his current reality.  This is made possible through the intervention of Nanoman and his wife.  The two shrink down to the size of quanta and exist at the quantum level.  And like quanta, they behave like sub atomic particles by simultaneously existing in all places and all times.  They await the initial belief from Sage before they make fiction into reality.  This process is described even more in All Star Superman (2008), another graphic novel by Morrison, by having Lex Luthor physically look at the quantum level and realize, ““The fundamental forces are all yoked by thought alone” (All Star 287).  The energy that binds the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics together is thought itself.  In Flex, thought is replaced with Nanoman. 
The potential of fiction, according to Morrison’s hopeful reasoning, can physically transform the world through the reader’s thought power alone.  The incantations are used with differing levels of success.  SHAZAM transforms the speaker; SHAMAN transforms the world around the speaker.  The expectations of the reader when they first see the incomplete word are of changing yourself only, but by the end the reader is hopefully prepared to accept the full extent of the message.  The incomplete rendering of the word is a reflection of the incomplete understanding.  Morrison has to inform the reader before they too can know the word.  The novel becomes a learning experience by playing with inferred expectations.  Sage, as creator and reader, is the shaman.  This is a shared role between the writer and reader.  The writer acts as the shaman to give an opportunity for the reader to enact the transformation of fiction into something real.
            The three strains of metafiction in Flex Mentallo work together to construct a new form of comics for the reader to follow.  Each strain is a criticism through parody of what Morrison feels does not suit the nature of comics.  Flex critiques the ads of Atlas and the interpretations of Wertham, while symbolizing the pure superhero.  Wallace Sage is a criticism of writers of realism like Miller and Moore.  And the artifact of Flex portrays the various techniques and styles used in mainstream comics.  Morrison wants to break away from the current Dark Age and start, what he called it in Supergods, the Renaissance Age in comics.  To achieve this he has to move on from the past and embrace a future with archetypal superheroes.  The journey of Sage from suicidal to aware is just such a move.  The reader must leave behind the deconstructed superhero of Miller and embrace the superhero as someone greater than man, which Sage has done.  Morrison has given the reader all of the keys to do this through his graphic novel; it remains for the readers to accept Morrison’s interpretation and beliefs. 

Works Cited

Charles Atlas.  Advertisement.  13 November 2012.  Web.

Craft, Jason.  The Annotated Flex Mentallo: A Reading Guide.  Web.  20 Nov. 2012. 

Garrett, Greg.  Holy Superheroes!: Exploring the Sacred in Comics, Graphic Novels, and Film. 
Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.  Print.

Landon, Richard.  “A Half-Naked Muscleman in Trunks: Charles Atlas, Superheroes, and
Comic Book Masculinity.  Journal of the Fantastic 18.2 (2007): 200-16.  Print.

McCloud, Scott.  Understanding Comics.  New York: Harper Collins, 1993.  Print.

Morrison, Grant.  Quitely, Frank.  Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery.  New York: DC
Comics, 2012.  Print.

Morrison, Grant.  Supergods.  New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2012.  Print.

Morrison, Grant.  “Pop Magic!”.  Book of Lies: The Disinformation Guide to Magick and the
Occult.  New York: Disinormation, 2003.  Print.

Waugh, Patricia.  Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction.  London:
Methuen, 1984.  Print.

[1] I am using Morrison’s terminology and definitions. 
[2] The collected edition of Flex Mentallo, released in 2012, used has no page numbers.  I have opted to use issue numbers for reference instead.
[3]Flex Mentallo, Man of Muscle Mystery can be seen as a template for Supergods” (Supergods 268).

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Justice is done.

This is another beautiful graphic novel pencilled and painted (watercolor) by Alex Ross.  This is an epic story where Lex Luthor and Brainiac team up to defeat the JLA.  They almost do.  There are moments where the heroes talk about having to lose sometime.  But no one dies, well except millions of human.  I guess they don't count.  No one of import in the comic world dies.  Luthor goes to prison, Brainiac flies off into deep space, and Aquaman grows his brain back.  That's right, Aquaman can regrow the portion of brain that Brainiac cut out.  I guess we can add that power to his already accomplished resume.  The story was engaging enough, but I bought it to see Ross' beautiful artwork.  If only Ross would work with some of the industry's best writers that would be something really beautiful.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Alex Ross portfolio

The main reason to buy a comic with Alex Ross involved is because of the amazing art work involved.  The plot can be terrible, but the artwork never will be.  Thankfully this comic had a decent plot, but it is Ross that makes this book really work.  Ross works from still photos of his friends and family and paints them in beautiful watercolors for each panel.  he captures emotion better than any comic book artist I have seen.  The characters of Superman and Batman achieve a new level of depth under the brush of Ross.  We can truly see a disingenuous Bruce Wayne smile that betrays the words coming from his mouth.  Or a wearied and humbled Superman.  Ross brings a level of artistry and understanding to his characters that goes beyond the words given him.  He is one of the few artists I will read a comic for, the rest of the time I am reading writers.


I am on a Morrison kick right now.  Having read the majority of his graphic novels I gave his history of comics a chance.  And expecting a dry account of what comics are about, this book is an autobiography disguised as history.  In a way it kind of felt like the history teacher from Waterland giving an autobiography as history.  This is more accurately a history of Morrison's relation to the varying stages of comics.  He might start a chapter on Frank Miller and end the chapter talking about his father.  I would estimate that nearly half of the stuff in this book is about Morrison, or Morrison's comics.  I liked it, but the title is misleading if you are expecting a history with an absent author.  Morrison is all over the place here, popping up wherever his stream of conscious leads him.  I like his style of writing and his amazing understanding of the medium he works in.  he is one of the top writers in the industry for the simple reason that he knows his comics and literary theory.  And at 425 pages, there is a lot of history here.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

#86 Teaching Writing

I guess this is my first official theory book assigned in school to make my blog.  All the other ones we only read sections and I doubt I will finish any of them on my own.  This book basically goes through the process of teaching a college freshman composition class in America.  Extremely helpful, and also seems like it would have been helpful when I was in Korea.  Some good ideas here, I wish I had taught my classes in Korea as though my students were more mature.  Maybe emphasize collaborative projects at the beginning and portfolios as well.  I'll just have to keep this in mind for my next time round in Korea, which I find I miss deeply (Probably won't happen until I am finished with school here).

Monday, 5 November 2012

Allstar Shut-Up-Man and the Boy Brat (Snot)

All Star Batman and the Boy Wonder

Oh Frank Miller, how have you fallen.  It is a bad sign when your graphic novel's most famous line is ridiculed and mocked.  "Are you retarded?  I'm the goddamn Batman."  I understand what Miller was trying to accomplish by making Batman a psychopath.  This is an extreme interpretation of Bruce Wayne and his imbalances.  But what doesn't jive is that Miller still retained Wayne as an amazing detective and extremely intelligent, but he talks like a street thug.  I lost count of how many times he tells people to shut up.  His inner monologues are simplistic in diction, and veering towards the crazy most of he time.  I love re-imaginings of characters, it keeps the medium alive, but this was a misfire.  The characters do not work as psychos, street thugs, geniuses, compassionate, vigilante, and wise.  This cannot be contained in one character!  You can't have it all Miller.  It doesn't help that the story arc was left unfinished, probably because Miller realized his own misdirection here.  Maybe if it was completed the appearance of Black Canary, the Joker, and Batgirl would be better explained rather than as name dropping.  Well, in the case of Black Canary, it seems her only purpose was to look sexy all over the place.  This is one of those depressingly bad books that make you sad because of the lost potential.  having said this, a failure by Frank Miller is far more interesting than a success by a lesser writer.  All that is wrong with this book, and there is a lot wrong, leaves the reader wondering at the miscues.  This wondering forces the reader to deconstruct the idea of Batman and the character of Bruce Wayne.  Lemonade here folks.

Monday, 29 October 2012

#84 JLA

Haven't been able to finish a book lately.  Mostly reading selections of theory and essays.  Got to say I am really not enjoying Derrida.  What is the deal with that guy?

The latest book I have been able to complete in my spare time, which is sparse these days, is the complete JLA run by Grant Morrison.  He came in and reinvigorated the Justice League of America with his frenetic impending disaster narrative style.  The book was exhausting with each page bringing in another element of armageddon and it wouldn't relent.  I have rarely read such a sustained effort to overwhelm a reader than this book.  These were not simple capers, but evil designed and placed throughout time and dimensional universes which sometimes threatened spacetime itself.  Few books set out at such a fast pace and maintain that speed for 41 issues.  There was never time between world saving exploits for friendly banter or rest.  Right on the heels came another global threat.  I must say the experience was something that I am glad to have gone  through, but I could not sustain myself on comics like these, I think I like a slower pace these days.

Morrison's JLA: Earth 2 is the slower pace I enjoy.  Here the characters are more important and dialogue is not occurring amidst a galactic battle.  The drawings are by Frank Quitely, and absolutely beautiful.  This is the storytelling I can love, and a pace that doesn't overwhelm.  These are characters that deserve sympathy because they emote a sense of the real.  I wonder if Morrison wrote this as a contrast.  If his JLA was a statement of what he felt comics have become by exaggerating it in a sort of parody.  The pace is unlike anything he has done before, perhaps he was making a point.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Getting busy

This is more of a list than anything.  Finding time to make entries is getting difficult these days between teaching class, going to class, reading for class, making presentations, and writing papers.  I thought this was going to be a vacation...well not really.

81- Understanding Comics by Scott Macloud.  Great theoretical graphic novel trying to show how the reader interprets the images and words on the comic page.  Some really abstract information in here.  Was really pleased with what I was able to take away from this.

82- Wild Life by Molly Gloss.  A Northwest writer writing a feminist novel about a woman at the turn of the 20th century in Washington.  This is one of those books that crosses many genres.

83- Elements of Style by Strunk and White.  I should have read this tiny volume years ago, it definitely is a great little book despite being 80 years old.  I will be teaching from this next semester.

Friday, 28 September 2012

#80 All Star Superawesome Morrison

Thank you Morrison for making a Superman story-arc that made him interesting for me again.  This is one of those re-imaginings that fall out of the DC continuity, so Morrison has complete control on what he does here.  And it is beautiful. The art by Frank Quitely is understated and calm.  Just look at the cover of the first issue.  Superman is relaxing on a cloud without any eccentuated superhero pose.  This is a superman we haven't seen, just in his posture.  This is the art for the whole book, and it is refreshing to see a different approach to the man of steel.
Even better is Morrison's re-definition of Superman as a sort of sun god.  This is a theme throughout the book where superman is a beneficent diety here to protect the world.  The ending, spoiler alert, has Superman return to the heart of the sun and fix it so that earth can continue to live.  Brilliant!  You actually can relate to Superman in many ways here as he seems more human and more god at the same time.  Well done Morrison and Quitely!

Crisis on Infinite Earths

Remember that time in the 80s when Supergirl died?  Yeah that was this book, when DC figured that it's multiverse was too complicated for new readers.  People couldn't keep track of all the parallel earths and continuities so they decided to reboot the whole universe which affected all of the characters of DC and Vertigo. In the process they killed Supergirl and the current Flash.  Did I mention that this comic was basically one cosmic battle after another that it eventually drains on the reader who has to read 400+ pages of superhero battles.  There is such thing as attrition.  Every time I turned the page I thought to myself, "Oh no, not another battle."  Maybe I have been reading too much Grant Morrison because he knows how to pace his stories so they don't turn into some giant battle at the slightest instigation.  This is also a vey wordy graphic novel, I guess while punching the anti-matter Monitor in the face Superman has a lot to say.  Usually the words are didactic in origin, which felt like a unwanted reference to the Silver Age of comics.  Basically I did not like this comic.  It was long and boring because of too much action. Characterization was limited and ideas were to few and scarce.  Maybe I read this in a piss poor mood, and I may end up reading this again in the next couple of years as I work on my dissertation on comics.