Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Flexing It

This is a true story. It's probably not that interesting and goes on a bit, but isn't that just like real life?

When I was five years old, I was lying in bed late at night. I was woken up by the sound of two people walking down the street, past my bedroom window. They were talking quietly, but the sound of their boots tramping on the gravel of the footpath drowned out their hushed voices.

Standing up on my bed, I peeked out the bedroom window and saw Superman and Batman walking together, heading down the street with the weight of the world on their shoulders.

They didn't look entirely like real people, but they didn't look like they had been drawn with pen or ink, either. They were something in-between. (The only was I can describe it is that they looked a little like Homer in that Treehouse of Horror episode where he goes 3-D, and in the end winds up in our world, still looking like a cartoon character, while still something else, something not quite right.)

Eventually, the two super-heroes walked out of view and I lay down and went back to sleep, confident that all was right with the world and that the super-heroes were there to take care of me, just like they always would.

Obviously, all of this is totally impossible.

But I still remember it. The memory is as strong as anything else from that point of my life. (Although I should probably note that the one thing I remember above all else from that period is reading one of those '70s Joker comics while my Dad went off to work at six in the morning.)

The thing is, when I was five years old, the idea of seeing super-heroes going for a stroll along Tawa Street was perfectly natural. The idea that they were entirely fictional was not something I had fully wrapped my head around. Both Superman and Batman were on television fairly regularly, I could read about their exploits in the comics, and when you live on the arse end of the world, Metropolis and Gotham City feels just as real as New York City or London.

Eventually, inevitably, I grew up and put away those ideas. Super-heroes weren't real. They had never been real. Only a kid would think they are.

Cut to 18 years later. I'm 23 years old and completely fucking obsessed with Flex Mentallo. The mini series had been out for a good couple of years by then, but I've already read my copies so much the covers are falling off.

No girl, no car, no money. But at least I've got the comics and an unhealthy taste for the cheapest wines known to humanity.

A new Saturday ritual: Heading down the beach, knocking a bottle or two of red back and reading comics. Self-awareness go: I know I'm a sad piece of shit who probably scares little children and makes adults sneer, I just don't care. Not when I have these wonderful, crazy, comics.

And Flex is the best of them. There's always a couple of random Invisibles issues and a few other comics to keep me company on those eternal Saturday afternoons, but Flex Mentallo is the only constant. Everything about it just sings. It all clicks into place with my brain.

It's not the big fat honking metaphor for the comic industry and its ages that gets me so excited, and it's not the razor sharp dialogue and brilliant action scenes, (although they certainly help.) It's not even the multiple levels of reality, where secret code words open up whole new dimensions, or the way The Hoaxer fools everybody, or the fantastic Quietly art, his hyper-detail capturing the Most Accurate Depiction of a Messy Coffee Table ever to be represented in a comic book.

It's the little things, the digressions, the personal touches that reach me, cutting through the fog in my head, speaking to me as few comics ever had.

From the connection between comic books and sick kids forced away from home to spend a few nights in a big, scary hospital, to wandering the streets as a fucked-up adult, lost in the geographies of my head and the wider world, Flex sings to me. Right from the start, and the simple joys of an egg sandwich and sitting around an airport, watching folk come and go.

There is an argument here that Flex might represent the most auto-biographical work Morrison has ever produced, outside the obvious teenage angst diary entries that helped form St Swithin's Day. The odd thing is, the more personal Morrison seems to get, with his Wally Sage ruminating on his wasted life, the more I feel it myself. Resonances of my own past crop up again and again. Late night parties with parents and their friends, rocking with the cool old folks on a special occasion, enjoying cookies and coke and being allowed to stay up a little later than usual. Hooking two mirrors up to face each other and feeling convinced that the eternal reflections that result give a glimpse into other dimensions. And, most of all, the impossibility of certain memories – Sage can't figure out why there are a group of odd boys squatting in a corner and who is holding his hand, and hell, I'm still wondering what the fuck Superman and Batman were doing in Timaru in 1980.

And it was still happening, there on that beach. Digging the groove, digging the vacuum: I can't help looking at my own hand when Wally thinks his is melting, I can't stop myself from responding to The Hoaxer. When Morrison writes that this is not a comic, but a hyper-dimensional object experiment, I fucking believe him.

It's 10 years on since then, and I haven't studied Flex to that degree since the turn of the century. That obsession has become another part of my past, slotting in with all the other feelings and memories that helped create the man I am today. I've moved on, become someone different, just like we all do, just like we all should.

But I still sometimes hear the call of Muscle Mystery, promising me that the world is a lot stranger, and crazier, and more wonderful than I could ever imagine. That those memories I have of impossible things are just as valid as the memory I have of eating breakfast this morning.

And that super-heroes are real.

I also saw Captain Marvel once in a dark garage, but that's another story altogether....


Anonymous said...

What! No Maniac 5 love? You can't know Millar unless you know Maniac 5.

It is pure

Bob Temuka said...

I remember really disliking Maniac 5 when it first appeared as part of the Morrison/Millar summer offensive in 2000ad, even with a deep love for Steve Yeowell's art, but it soon grew on me.

Looking back on it now, you can see the themes Millar would come back to again and again in his career start to show up, but the thing that surprised me the most the last time I read it was how gloriously stupid it was. Once I got in the right frame of mind, I really enjoyed it.

It's still not as good as Really & Truly or that mental Slaughterbowl series from the mighty John Smith, but Maniac 5 ended up being a real treat in the comic over the next couple of years....

Bill Reed said...

Ahh, yes. Flex. Got, that comic changed my life. For, like, two weeks. But it made me believe in superheroes, and for that, I am grateful.

Bob Temuka said...

But I bet those were a good two weeks, Bill.