Psychic UFO Pilots (Book Three, Part 38: Danny the Street, Flex Mentallo)
Previously in The Last War in Albion: Doom Patrol marked an ethical low in Morrison’s career as they drew excessively from the life and trauma of a real life woman, Truddi Chase, to create the character of Crazy Jane.
“I remember some nutter once told me about the government training psychic UFO pilots to beam advertising directly into our brains.” – Grant Morrison, The Invisibles
Although the overt plagiarism of Truddi Chase’s life is by far the moment of Morrison’s Doom Patrol that most clearly goes too far, it is of a piece with a larger aesthetic of “more is more” throughout the work. And this aesthetic had other risks that, while less harmful than Morrison’s treatment of Chase, were nevertheless familiar from the failures of Arkham Asylum. When Doom Patrol worked it was a heady concoction that offered the implicit promise of new ideas. But it could just as easily end up as a pile of arbitrary strangeness that doesn’t really provide a satisfying whole. Morrison complains often in interviews about the way in which their work is dismissed as “incomprehensible,” and their irritation at this is entirely understandable, but the truth is that their stories can trend into, if not incomprehensibility, at least a kind of lazy sense of being weird for the sake of it, without any larger point to it.
This flaw made its first major appearance in Doom Patrol in three-issue arc beginning with issue #31. This arc contained a number of broadly interesting ideas. Most obvious is Willoughby Kipling, a hard-drinking and chainsmoking occult detective who serves as a cheeky parody of John Constantine. (The book was apparently denied permission to use Constantine himself—an impressive slight given that Morrison had done a fill-in arc on Hellblazer just two months prior, although one potentially explained by the fact that Doom Patrol would not join Hellblazer in having the “Suggested for Mature Readers” tag for six more months.) Kipling—an ex Knight Templar—draws the Doom Patrol into battle against the many-faceted Cult of the Unwritten Book, which seeks to summon the Decreator to unmake the universe. The Cult consists of various subgroups such as the Pale Police, who speak exclusively in anagrams, the Mystery Kites, which are kites made from the skins of murder victims, and the Never-Never Boys, three gas-masked boys on tricycles, and rooted in the mysterious city of Nurnheim, which can be entered through a wound on people’s bodies and which, in the denouement, turns out to be inside a snow globe.
This isn’t all completely arbitrary and unconnected—you can draw connections between the focus on wounds, for instance, and the larger Christian esoteric tradition that included the Knights Templar. But very much unlike the Brotherhood of Dada story, which was endlessly inventive but kept itself focused on riffs on art history and the avant garde, there’s not a clear reason why all of these elements go together in one story. Many of the ideas are clever, even outright good, but they fail to cohere as a story. Perhaps inevitably, Morrison explains that “This idea actually came from a dream I had. I just woke up one night and wrote it all down.” Morrison is, admittedly, one of the more interesting people you could have narrate their dreams to you, but this remains a “least bad” situation, and the arc remains a set of interesting ideas that nobody has bothered to do the work of pulling together.
The next maior storyline evinces similar problems. Beginning when Rhea, a member of Kupperberg’s team who’d been lingering in a coma since the handover, woke up in a new form calling herself the Pupa, the story involves a vast cosmic war between the Geomancers and the Insect Mesh over the Judge Rock, which turned out to be a fragment of an angel that stole a cutting of the Tree of Knowledge to try to build its own planet. As with the Willoughby Kipling arc there’s plenty of good ideas here, but as assembled they don’t actually add up to anything. The result is something that feels self-absorbed and pointless. It’s not incomprehensible by any measure, but the sheer weight of exposition involved requires an attentive and thorough reading that the comic is simply incapable of rewarding.
In some ways this is nothing that Blake hadn’t done centuries before. Didn’t he create a similarly vast, inscrutable, and often quite hard to follow mythology in which to tell his stories? Didn’t he craft vast and cosmic stories that existed purely to map the contours of his own mind? But the comparison is illuminating. Blake’s work is hard, yes—far moreso than anything in Doom Patrol. And yet there is a unity of vision to it—a clear sense of perspective and investment in what the vast and strange mythos he wove together was for and what he wanted to seek from it. Blake had, in short, a vision, strange and singular as it was, and he held to it relentlessly. Morrison clearly had one as well, but their dedication to it was inconsistent. Sometimes it shone with a clarity that none could surpass: in St. Swithin’s Day, in the final issue of Animal Man, and even in moments in Doom Patrol, especially those around Crazy Jane. But these middle and middling arcs of Doom Patrol lacked that vision, seeming to have nothing to say but “aren’t I clever?” The answer, clearly, was yes, but nothing followed from that, and it was not in and of itself interesting.
It is not that this stretch of Doom Patrol is simply bad. In between the two arcs is an utterly charming one-shot in which Monsieur Mallah and the Brain of the old Brotherhood of Evil launch a daring attack on the Doom Patrol that has the misfortune of coinciding with Cliff Steele’s body developing an independent consciousness while being repaired and decides that it’s going to kill his brain (currently sitting in a vat of nutrients) because it values its independence and wants to refute mind/body dualism, culminating in an absurd and literally explosive farce. It’s a great and hilarious issue, sharp and on point in all the ways the longer arcs around it aren’t, making it clear (as if their work on Animal Man and elsewhere didn’t already) that Morrison was still entirely capable of turning in fantastic and clever comics even as their tendency to lapse into tedious self-indulgence became increasingly evident.
The space between these arcs was also used to introduce two further characters to the cast, both of whom would have significant roles to play in the arc following the jaunt to space. The first and more ongoing of these was Danny the Street, a sentient street with the powers of teleportation that is, furthermore, a drag queen. Perhaps more than anything else this idea (contributed in part by Brendan McCarthy) highlights how delicate the balance between satisfyingly inventive weirdness and unsatisfying hot mess can be. The concept is broadly bound together by the name, a riff on noted drag performer Danny La Rue, but even if one does not adequately know their 1960s and 70s British light entertainment drag queens the concept works. A sentient street is an entirely coherent idea—a compelling riff on the underlying ideas of psychogeography. Once you come up with that concept the idea of making it a teleporting street is entirely sensible—places that pass in and out of existence are a recurring trope. The only incongruous element is making the resultant street a drag queen, which is firmly within the range of entertaining incongruity as opposed to confusing mess.
Joining Danny, meanwhile, was a long-haired and bearded man who looked at first glance like an Alan Moore parody, but who was revealed in the denouement to be Flex Mentallo, the legendary Man of Muscle Mystery. This was setup for the arc that followed the space arc, which focused on Flex Mentallo’s discovery of the Pentagon Horror—a nightmarish conspiracy about the nature of the Pentagon and the dark secrets buried beneath it. This turns out to be a massive machine called the Ant Farm run by a twisted avatar of the telephone system seeking to impose absolute order on the world.
This arc certainly threatens to tip into the same problems that dogged the two before it, not least because Flex Mentallo introduces a second elaborate concept to the setup. He serves as an elaborate parody of the body building ads that used to run in comics. The archetypal version—and the one directly parodied by Flex Mentallo—was from Charles Atlas, and featured iterations of a story in which a young boy (typically specified as a “97 pound weakling”) is bullied and humiliated, orders Charles Atlas’s bodybuilding book, bulks up, and returns to beat the shit out of his bully and win the admiration of all of his friends and family. These were a staple of comics for decades—a knockoff from the American Bodybuilding Club appears in the fourth appearance of the Doom Patrol back in 1963.
In Morrison’s reworking of the concept the boy sends away not for a bodybuilding guide but for a guide to “muscle mystery” that gives him the power to alter reality by flexing his muscles. But all of this is presented through a spot-on parody of the old Charles Atlas ads, poking mostly loving fun at the dunderheaded masculinity of the original ads. This has no real conceptual ties to vast conspiracies about the Pentagon, and so returns to the by this point all too familiar problem of having two not entirely compatible sets of symbols and ideas crashing messily into each other to no particular avail.
Instead, however, Morrison manages to navigate the tensions running through these premises and create something relatively coherent. Ultimately the Flex Mentallo concept and the Pentagon Horror are of a type—instances of masculine excess being used to reshape reality. Where the Ant Farm seeks to impose a Urizenic single vision, however, Flex offers something more innocent and imaginative—the climax of the arc sees him fatally weaken the Avatar by flexing hard enough to turn the Pentagon into a circle, a cheery reworking of the great Hippie dream of levitating the building. Ultimately, Flex is revealed to be the childhood creation of the psychic Wally Sage, who can manifest his dreams as reality. The Ant Farm has kept him chained up for years to create weapons, but before they captured him his childhood creation of Flex Mentallo (drawn in green pen in a comic cheekily titled My Greenest Adventure) came to life with a variation of his own powers. And ultimately the arc’s resolution is a balance of these forces, with Dorothy destroying the Avatar after contacting a strange creature in her head with a candelabra for a head and agreeing to its offer to make a wish at the expense of giving it strength. All of this serves to bind the arc together under a clear theme of imagination reshaping reality, imagining both negative and positive systems in which this can be done.
Aiding Morrison in making all of this work was the fact that, in exploring the notion of a dark reality-shaping conspiracy lurking underneath the Pentagon, they were tapping into a much larger body of symbolism that served to hold their work aloft. The key tell is the repeated question throughout the arc: why is the Pentagon the shape it is? The historical answer is simple: the building was originally set to be built on the roughly pentagonal site of Arlington Farms, and though it was eventually moved elsewhere the distinctive design was retained. Morrison, however, alludes to a different answer when they have Flex anguishedly point out that he’s been waiting for “thirty-two years. Three and two make five and that’s their number. The number of death and the night of time.” Nowhere in the comic is it explained why the number five should have this power, but the choice of numbers pointing towards five gives the game away, mirroring as it does the delightedly perverse logics of the Discordians, who play similar games with the number five, albeit more traditionally working from the number 23.
Like the Doom Patrol, Discordianism has its origins in 1963 when Malaclypse the Younger and Omar Khayyam Ravenhurst published the first edition of the Principia Discordia in a limited edition of five copies, printing them on the photocopier of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, still obviously some years out from his famous engagement with the Kennedy assassination. Two further limited editions were released in 1969 before, in 1970, a fourth edition subtitled How I Found Goddess And What I Did To Her When I Found Her: The Magnum Opiate of Malaclypse the Younger, Wherein is Explained Absolutely Everything Worth Knowing About Absolutely Anything became the more or less definitive version of the text. [continued]
February 11, 2022 @ 7:51 am
You’re absolutely right: these issues are, taken together, less than the sum of their parts. The first three story arcs — Scissormen, Red Jack, Brotherhood — advanced the plot and developed the characters; these stories are more of a sophomore slump. Grant was… well, the verb “to flex” hadn’t come into general use yet in 1991, but flexing is what he was doing: look how /weird/ I can be! The plots are weak, the characters don’t much advance, the weirdness doesn’t generally connect to either plot or characters, and overall it’s a bit of a muddle.
That said, there are things to like about these issues!
— More more more queerness! The Brain and Monsieur Mallah kissing! (Probably the first male-male kiss in mainstream comics?) (Yes, very broadly defined, which is why Grant could get away with it.) Cliff muttering “I hate this body” (and the Chief promising ominously that he “hasn’t forgotten” Cliff’s “predicament” — “leave it to me”). The heteronormative sitcom world of Mr. Jones, a thin glaze of normality over torture and abuse. “I mean, I’m as tolerant as the next guy, but what can I say, fellas.” The gay-coding of Flex Mentallo — he gets his powers from a guy in a men’s room, and then the first thing he does is ditch the girl.
— in the insect cage “mobilization” sequence, we see Grant’s first (I think) use of the “monologue narrator” technique. It’s a journeyman effort; in The Invisibles, he’ll be much better at it.
— Obvious foreshadowing-in-retrospect of a lot of The Invisibles here, from the silencing of the conspiracy investigator to the whole Flight 19 thing.
— The fate of the unfortunate Dolores Watson seriously creeped me out at the time, and it still carries a charge today. “I was afraid you were dead!” “Again.” Mike Dringenberg’s spare style fit this perfectly.
— The Teahouse of Despair was ridiculous but also pretty cool, as was Jane’s method of dealing with it.
— Willoughby Kipling’s DNA will continue to appear in various Morrison characters over the years, most recently in Manchester Black.
— there is one bit of ongoing character development: the self-centered mad scientist shittiness of the Chief is slowly being foregrounded here. This is, I think, Grant’s first use of this slow-burn technique; we’ll see it again in his New X-Men, with Xorn. It might be even more effective here, though, because he’s leveraging the reader’s assumption — this is a superhero comic, the Chief has been around forever. So we keep giving him the benefit of the doubt; he must be one of the good guys, even though his behavior is consistently bad and getting worse. (There’s probably a connection to be made here to #MeToo and every other attempt to reveal the shitty behavior of powerful white guys.) Anyway: eventually this will lead to the reveal about Cliff’s origin, which was then, and still remains today, one of the greatest retcons in superhero comics ever.
February 11, 2022 @ 9:40 am
Wait, the Principia Discordia was printed in Kevin Costner’s office?! It’s really never discussed enough in history classes how truly bizarre American history is (and presumably all history, though of course a lot of it just gets lost). It’s easy to read some of this shit and come away perfectly understanding where the Enantiomorph in TESLore comes from: The separate stories are all completely absurd and therefore joining them together makes a sort of anti-absurdity. Of course Neil Armstrong walked on the moon because of the work of a bunch of Nazis and Thelemites, and faced with that reality it only makes sense that people would flee from that deadly light into the peace and safety of a hotel in Colorado haunted by furries and mobsters.
It feels like I just got an inch closer to understanding Cat’s Cradle than I ever have… hmm.
February 18, 2022 @ 8:18 pm
So delighted to see a glance at Discordianism here. It was a big aspect of my life – based a lot of my band’s efforts on it, and our final performances pre pandemic were a Discordian rock opera adapting the Orpheus myth from Eurydice’s POV, with a dose of Promethea blended in. Was not expecting to see it referenced here.