April 10th, 2012
Or Flex Mentallo: A Moonrock Murder Mystery!!!!
Okay, as you [may or may not] know, Flex Mentallo is a very good comic by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, a four issue Dennis Potter style drama in which a young man who [may or may not] have taken an overdose of paracetamol looks back at this life through the lens of superhero comics.
As you [may or may not] know, Flex Mentallo hadn’t been reprinted until now because of various preposterous legal issues.
Now it’s finally been reprinted in a very handsome hardcover package, you [may or may not] be aware that it’s been the victim of a strange recolouring job, the sort of recolouring that transforms Flex Mentallo’s greatest foe The Mentallium Man from a Jolly Rancher nightmare…
…into the grayest daydream you never had:
Now, I’ll throw a couple of kind words in the direction new colourist Peter Doherty in a minute, but it has to be said that anyone who thinks that a character called the Mentallium Man, who is an exaggerated parody of an old-fashioned comic book villain, needs to look all clean and boring like that is just plain wrong.
Actually, thinking about it, I’d go so far as to say that anyone who prefers this new incarnation of the character needs blasted with all five types of Flex’s own Kryptonite-derivative “Mentallium” at once:
Sadly we never find out what the fifth type of Mentalium, “Lamb and Turkey”, does to The Hero of the Beach, but I think we can take a guess and that our guesses will all be equally delicious.
Thinking about this, I realise that what Peter Doherty – that fucking name! – has done here is to show us Flex Mentallo through the eyes of a reader who has been dosed with a previously undiscovered sixth form of Mentallium, “Grey Mentallium”, a lump of dull moon rock that shows you all of life’s possibilities as filtered through the PRISM OF ADULT DISAPPOINTMENT. And hey, maybe it’s only fitting that you find yourself feeling freshly disappointed while reading your favourite superhero comic about how your perception of superhero comics changes as you get older.
After my first read through the freshly recoloured Flex Mentallo, I went on That Twitter and suggested that this new look brought out the aforementioned Dennis Potter influence to the fore. It’s certainly possible that this is what Doherty (and whoever commissioned this recolouring) was aiming for here, and the colouring is definitely more nuanced than some of the “Vertigo Brown” jibes would seem to indicate:
If Peter Doherty was trying to provide an illusion of reality in Flex Mentallo’s world, then images like the one above suggest that he was able to make it a convincing illusion, full of detail and life. The problem is that even if the faded Hollywood realism of the new colouring does resonate with the themes of aging and disappointment that run through the work, it doesn’t do so in a very interesting way.
Now if I’m honest, I’ve never really raved about Tom McCraw’s colours while I’ve been raving about Flex Mentallo. The man’s no Jamie Grant, basically, and there’s a colourist who could have maintained the toxic brightness of the original colours while still providing the illusion of depth to these pages! That’s just how it goes though – sometimes you don’t notice how important simple artistic choices were until you’re confronted with the alternative.
Looking back over my single issues of Flex Mentallo now what strikes me is that even the scenes that are supposedly set in the real world benefit from the irradiated, post-Watchmen hues in which they’re depicted. The whole story takes place in in-between spaces, in the interzone streets of Wally Sage’s mind, and as such it’s only fitting that these streets are painted in these horrible tones, which seem to have been splashed on in anticipation of nuclear disaster:
Contrast with the treatment this same scene is given in the new edition, in which everything is coloured in the same moon rock gray:
Being the enthusiastic comic book readers you are, you [may or may not] have read Jog’s take on the latest issue of The Bulletproof Coffin: Disinterred over on The Comics Journal. Using the smart-but-clean head that’s always marked him out as the best comics reader in town, Jog take time to note that there’s something pointedly vicious about the depiction of a young boy playing with his superhero toys that runs through the comic:
The boy isn’t just there to go nyah, superheroes are for mean little kids!! He’s also an exhibit of how the very notion of ‘play’ — and the pop culture works that fuel it — are affected by the environment in which it takes place. There’s an obvious Commie-smashing theme running through Disinterred — the main Red Menace villain from this issue also shows up in #2 — so that the general ain’t-the-’50s-great decoration Kane lends his neo-beatniks and Silver Age designs become inseparable from the politics of their day of origin. Likewise, the boy is strongly influenced by his ‘cool’ uncle, a deranged ex-police detective-turned-vigilante from issue #1, whose all-action manner unmistakably affects the child’s games.
All of this is visible in the gorgeous flat colours of Kane’s art, which burn with the uncompromising clarity of an indoctrinated child, and a similar sort of tainted playtime is developed throughout Flex Mentallo. Despite Wally Sage’s description of how “pure” the comics he created as a boy were, it’s obvious that his understanding of comics has got mixed up with his understanding of the world to the point that they’re indistinguishable from each other. For Sage, and thus for the reader, comics are both frustrated sexual fantasy and pre-sexual fun, punitive adventure stories and glimpses of a better world, nothing and everything all wrapped up in a series of tiny package, printed on cheap paper and held together by a couple of staples and a little bit of exploitation.
They might even provide him with an alternative to all the CND nightmares he’s got on loan from the young Grant Morrison, if he’s lucky:
The drama in Flex Mentallo is all predicated on a question of perception that’s also a question of possibility. Wally Sage either has nothing more serious than a bellyful of M&Ms to contend with or he’s taken too many paracetamol and he’s going to die, and the difference between these two states is decided by what he ends up seeing in both comics and the world around him. And so you [may or may not] prefer Peter Doherty’s more detailed colours to the old ones, and you [may or may not] think that Tom McCraw’s colours reflect the acid-splashed inner space of Wally Sage’s mind more clearly, but you should know that the two different version of Flex are actually two different stories written around the same theme.
All I know is that for me, the mortally panicked and lysergically enhanced state of mind we find Wally Sage in demands something a little bit louder than these new colours are able to offer. After all, all he really wanted was to talk about something cheerful before he died…
…and really, who can blame the daft bastard?
Candyfloss Horizons all round then, eh? Just remember, if you don’t agree with me about this comic, MY REALITY DIES AT DAWN!!!
As you [may or may not] be aware, Peter Doherty also coloured the first volume of Grant Morrison and Cameron Stewart’s Seaguy. I bring this up because his work on that comic represents a far more successful attempt at balancing garish adventure with a sense of frazzled melancholy:
You could argue that I’m able to enjoy the colours in Seaguy more because they’re not replacing a set of choices I’ve become attached to, but I actually just think Doherty’s colours look a little more alive in that book . The colours in Seaguy are every bit as nuanced as the colours in the new version of Flex Mentallo, but the fairground attractions of New Venice just pop out at you here in a way that nothing in this Grey Mentallium world is capable of doing.
If you’re still struggling to decide whether to take the Grey Mentallium or the UV Mentallium, bear in mind that the Grey option is at least 10% whiter than the original UV trip:
This isn’t quite as obvious a travesty as the whitewashing of Mister Miracle in Final Crisis, but there are other examples (the All-New, All-White Mandoo the Mysterious being the most obvious one I’ve spotted) so it’s still a depressing part of a deeply depressing trend.
This shit really shouldn’t happen, but sadly it’s not surprising when it does. I mean, it’s not like I think comic book colourists jump out of bed in the morning and ask themselves “What I can do to make popular culture just that little bit whiter today?” or anything. I presume that this has come about because the new colouring was done with little reference to the original, but while you [may or may not] think this issue trumps all of the aesthetic concerns I’ve outlined above, if you don’t think it’s worth talking about then I really don’t know what to tell you…