Gamble A Stamp 01: It’s Only Like Heaven

September 29th, 2010 by | Tags: , , ,

I think that if you are a fan of superhero comics, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s Flex Mentallo should be your holy book. It caused a seismic shift in my enjoyment and understanding of superheroes after I read it, simultaneously deepening my enjoyment of the good stuff and my willingness to ignore the terrible. It’s a story, it’s comics journalism, it’s a history lesson, it’s evergreen, and it is auto-critique in pamphlet form. It’s about comics, you see, and if you haven’t read it, you should. This is part of a series of posts relating to the book.

At one point in the book, Sage says, “Because listen! 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?” It’s one of those points that stuck with me after reading, kind of like “Sometimes her cigarette smoke smells like flowers” from Brandon Graham’s King City carved out a space in my skull.

A teen in the throes of puberty and wishing for a Mary Jane Watson of his very own isn’t wishing for a real girlfriend. He’s looking for someone who resembles the stories and beliefs that he has built up around Mary Jane. Maybe she likes his favorite kind of music, has a certain cup size, or will do all those nasty things in bed that he’s been curious about.

What can compare to that? The only possible end point of that is disappointment. No matter how much you love someone, no matter how heads over heels they are–they’ll never be Mary Jane Watson, tiger. You can’t build a lover out of ideas. And yes, on the very next page: “What’s like Heaven? Shit. Oh shit. They fuck you up, those comics. They really fuck you up…”

Just like romance movies, fairy tales, sitcoms, and every other thing that tells us how life is before we get to experience it ourselves, superheroes sell us a reality that only works with archetypes. Every romance is an atom bomb of passion or strife. Lovers embrace against all odds and damn the consequences. No one gets to settle for someone they didn’t want or to be content with somebody who is just okay. Love triangles aren’t a ball of stress and drama so much as an entertaining diversion. No one comes home, hugs their wife, and goes to bed early. Everything is larger than life. Superheroes go hard or go home. There is no in-between.

At the same time, this is the strength of superheroes. Superheroes exist as archetypes that have been drawn from the same collective unconscious that has been creating stories about heroes for thousands of years. They represent abstract or unquantifiable values–responsibility, vengeance, altruism, guilt–and work out our insecurities and fears on the comics page. Spider-Man insists on a world where people take responsibility according to their ability, no matter how marginal. Batman is about emerging from darkness, away from your baser instincts, and into the light. Superman is a father figure, there to protect us from all possible harm and guide us on our way.

One of the points of Flex Mentallo is that superheroes exist to save us from ourselves. They provide an example for us to follow and embody the best aspects of human nature. They represent the hole that’s present in reality, the thing that’s missing that resulted in the world being in the shape it’s in. They’re the memory of a better time.

Flex provides a reason for comics to traffic in the stories that they do. The superheroes exist outside of the comic books, having escaped from their doomed reality by becoming fictional in ours, and live in our imagination. The comics are an attempt by the superheroes to show us what things could be like, if only we tried a little harder.

Sage’s feeling about Thundergirl and love–it’s not just about love. It’s deeper than that. It’s about archetypes, period. Your father may make you angry and let you down. Your friends may betray you. But, when you get down to it, Spider-Man will fight to the death to save you. Superman will always be there with a kind word when you need it. His stories and his reasons for being don’t change.

This is the power of superheroes. They touch on something deep inside us, whether as adults or children, and show us something we need to see. This is one of several messages in Flex Mentallo, and it’s one that places superheroes on a direct level with every other story. They represent something bigger than themselves and better than us.

How could you trust anybody the way you trust Superman?

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20 comments to “Gamble A Stamp 01: It’s Only Like Heaven”

  1. you didn’t seem to be too big a fan of this, according to your twitter.

    I think that you’re basically writing about what makes comics amazing and why they’re so damn important. Or at least writing about something that writes about it (as that was surely Morrison’s intent in writing Flex Mentallo, I’d imagine).

    Can’t wait until we get more than Morrison’s vague SDCC tease about reprints of Mentallo.

  2. Meant to also add that you’re too hard on yourself, as this was quite good.

  3. Unfortunately, The Invisibles is my holy book. All it took was finishing the last two volumes during an actual feverish illness. And, like all holy books, I can’t actually justify myself on why.

  4. Clap your hands if you believe in Super-Heroes! Fantastic post David. I just want DC to stop teasing it and release the Hardcover that has been such a long time coming. Or hell Absolute it, if there is a comic that hasn’t already gotten that treatment that needs it it is the Man of Muscle Myth.

  5. This is one of your best articles, looking forward to reading the rest.

  6. You’re telepathic; I was just talking about how you always talking about this book yesterday, in fact.

    And it all fits in with my own Quitely fixation of the moment. I’ve never read anything of Flex Mentallo other than what you’ve posted here to 4th Letter, but you’d better believe I’m looking forward to the rumored collection.

  7. Excellent, excellent article David. The reprint can’t come soon enough!

  8. This article really made my day. Thanks for putting it up here.

  9. I have this on a CD (gasp!) but I’d much rather read it in my hands. C’mooooon trade paperback.

  10. damn, wish i could read this!!

  11. Just read this last month. It was amazing. And the “gamble a stamp” part is of course my very favorite part. I mean, Flex Mentallo’s basic premise as I read it is “What if the superheroes were MORE real than our world,” and that’s pretty mind-blowing.

  12. I own Flex Mentallo, but haven’t read it in a while. I remember loving it, but probably couldn’t articulate why if you’d asked me. You just reminded me of why. Great article.

    Amen on the idea of an ABSOLUTE EDITION of this book! Saw Grant Morrison on a panel at SDCC this year and the idea of a collected edition was teased by him and Editor Ian Sattler. Grant actually said that Quitely had done cover art and a few previously unpublished pieces specifically for the collected edition. I certainly hope those are on the way!

  13. I usually dislike Quitely’s art, but the panels you’ve included in this post are absolutely beautiful.

    I need a copy of this book so much.

  14. Hey, dumb question for the proprietors:

    Y’all still got that brilliant Photoshop kicking around that is just a cascade of repetitive anti-Batmen: Prometheus, Jason Todd, Hush, etc. pouring off the bottom of a page into the bleed? Don’t quite know how to search for it.

  15. I’ve always believed that if WWE wrestler Chris Masters started dressing in leopard trunks and gained the ability of telekinesis through flexing, he’d be more popular than Austin and Hogan combined.

  16. And the “gamble a stamp” part is of course my very favorite part.

    me too! i think Flex is an absolutely astounding book.

  17. I always pray to Superman because the response rate is the same as with the other deities.

    This is up with Miracleman and Big Numbers as a comic that needs to be available to all.

  18. This is what I’m talking about but I remember it having at least 33% more Batman knock-offs, much like Marvel Comics. Maybe I saw some other version of it on a forum or something?

  19. @Jbird: Yeah, it was in one of the Something Awful Ruin the Moment threads. It wasn’t mine, so I don’t know who did it.

  20. Flex Mentallo is my holy book.

    Our church group meets on Wednesdays.