Sunday, November 18, 2012

In Flex Mentallo and Batman Inc., Grant Morrison Takes Us on a Wild Ride

Grant Morrison has built a career of deeply examining the world of comics and spinning complex, often psychedelic, stories chock-full of "big ideas" and clever concepts. In Batman Inc. and Flex Mentallo he explores some of those ideas and has a lot of fun in the process.

Grant Morrison’s comic-writing career broke out at DC Comics with his brilliant run on Animal Man in the late 80s. Since then, he has become a star, with his own comic convention and a medal from the Queen as “Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.” The Scottish comics guru has flirted with Hollywood, dabbled with the occult, sworn off comics, and written obtuse novels, but his best ideas still shine brightest in the panels of the comics he writes – or rather, in the space between those panels. And Flex Mentallo is all about that space that separates the real from the fictional.

Morrison wrote the 4-issue Flex Mentallo mini-series, with art by Frank Quitely, in 1996. It has never been re-released (due to some copyright issues) until this year. Flex first appeared in Morrison’s run on Doom Patrol and is in part a parody of Charles Atlas' long-running bodybuilding advertisements seen in American comics from the past (hence the copyright issues). Flex’s superpower is to explode stuff mentally by flexing his muscles, and Quitely’s art makes even the most ludicrous (or inventive) plot set-up entirely believable.

The book is a meta-trip of a comic book about fictional superheroes invading the real world, and it contains dozens of references to Marvel and DC characters. Morrison had explored the idea of characters breaking through the 4th wall (where the reader is) during his Animal-Man run, but here he dives even deeper in the creative process and machinations of character creation. In his own words, “Flex Mentallo made me think about new ways of writing American superhero stories.”

A series he wrote last year has also been collected in graphic novel format. Batman Inc. finds Bruce Wayne deciding to make the Batman brand an international franchise and going around the world recruiting possible disciples to create a police force of foreign Batmen.

Morrison has been handling Batman for the past 3 years and has rebuilt the character from the ground up. Basically, he killed him, sent him back in time, made him find his way back to the present, gave him a son, and now a franchise. In contrasting with previous incarnations of the Dark Knight, Morrison’s Batman is sociable and surprisingly family-oriented. Gone is lone-wolf mentality: for this Batman, it’s 'the more the merrier!' Never has the Batcave been so busy.

The “big ideas” come flying fast and heavy: A Native-American Batman, Batman Incorporated anti-viral software, bat-robots, a digital Batgirl, plus stops in Japan, Argentina, France and a fictional country in Africa to meet various new “Batmen.” The stories are illustrated by different artists, which makes this trip around the world really exhilarating. Chris Burnham’s style is similar to Morrison’s long-time partner in crime Frank Quitely, and the digital art by Scott Clark and Dave Beaty had some great moments.

As he was doing 16 years ago in Flex, here Morrison also flexes his brain powers with smart and inventive concepts and some show-boating that we’ve come to expect as part of his unmistakable style. Curiously, the series ended after the 8th issue, when the DC Universe was rebooted. This year the series has started again, now existing in both continuities.


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