Hidden Panels: Flex Mentallo Issue 1

We’re gonna try something new this week, gang. I’m going to highlight a character that’s piqued my interest as of late, coupled with an issue that I just read rather than a collection or a complete arc. Fair warning though, I’ve picked a wacky one: Flex Mentallo, Muscle Man of Mystery. Do not adjust your monitors — that is, in fact, his real name, and his origins are as delightfully zany as you’d hope. After receiving a book titled “Muscle Mystery for You,” a young man known as “Mac” learns a secret path to a mysterious power known as “Muscle Mystery.” Flex is armed with his legendary physique, a pair of leopard print tights and a “hero halo” proclaiming to all that he is the undisputed “Hero of the Beach.”

The character is a clear parody of the now archaic “Charles Atlas” bodybuilding ads that ran in comics to prey upon weaklings. However, in this instance, it isn’t the hero’s physical prowess — instead, his powers are described as a “body mind” in the first issue of his self-titled 1996 series by Grant Morrison.

I’m getting ahead of myself, though. The story begins in appropriately surreal fashion: A cloaked figure throws a cartoonish bomb directly into the panel’s center, which promptly explodes into a galaxy pattern, then zooms out to reveal the figure on an egg being cooked for Flex’s breakfast.

I warned you this was gonna be a weird one.

Anyhow, Flex is immediately likeable, rebutting a compliment from a friendly waitress with “You’re a fine, hardworking woman.” As he’s about to dig into his meal, he remarks, “Boy! I’ve been waiting for this! Nothing like the protein and goodness in … ” but is cut off by the bomb discovered just outside of the restaurant. He immediately leaps into action, keeping the sort of classic, comic book-heroics that he seems to be drawing from, demonstrating a well-chiseled moral code to go with his chiseled physique.

The rest of the issue, though, has little to do with Flex as a character and everything to do with Flex as an idea. Just as Flex is a parody of the classic body-builder comic concept of the Charles Atlas ads, the rest of the comic plays out like a mad parody of the thought process behind such kooky characters. For the rest of the issue, we flash back between Flex and the suicidal “Wally Sage,” the man who created Flex and some of his fellow crime-fighters.

Flex Mentallo, at least in this first issue, is a fascinating exercise in self-parody, a character who can literally make the United States Pentagon into a circle with his biceps but is still limited by the fact that he’s self-aware that he is a character on page. This fact doesn’t seem to get him down. On the contrary, he seems well-adjusted and quite content with himself. If you’re looking for some crazy exploration of the comic medium, let Flex be your guide and prepare to get (meta)physical.


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