Critical Approaches – Queer Mentallo: Queer theory and superheroes

 

[The latest in my extended posts based on my Uni journals – this one looking at Queer theory and superheroes through the lens of Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery.]

Queer theory and Flex Mentallo

052307a Credit: Frank Quitely (artist), Tom McCraw (colorist) and Rian Hughes (designer)

Grant Morrison’s Flex Mentallo1 is a work of subversive metafiction that effectively queers the superhero narrative while acting as a critique of masculinity in the genre. If queer theory “loves destabilising popular cultural narratives” it is easy to devise a queer reading of a book in which the protagonist is a hyper-muscled variation on the superhero character.2

The main character in Flex Mentallo is a parody of the Charles Atlas bodybuilding ads that appeared in many popular comic books from the 1940s onwards. The typical ad involved a skinny young man being bullied at the beach and having sand kicked in his face, humiliated in front of his girlfriend. Returning home, he decides to follow Atlas’ exercise regime, whereupon he builds muscle and returns to wreck his revenge on the bully by beating him up.

For many comic book readers, Atlas became the “the lantern-bearer in trunks who can show [them] how to become a “new man.””3 In other words, Atlas was tapping into the wish-fulfilment already in place in the superhero comics, promising the readers that they too could have the physique of a superman.

atlas

Erotic performance

For gay readers, superhero books offered both the wish-fulfilment of becoming a “new man” and the erotically-charged thrill of reading the adventures of muscled protagonists that led double lives. Flex recognises this, with its “homoerotic subtext, transvestite characters, and displays of male heterosexual insecurity.”3 Looking at queer theory and superheroes together can give us an answer as to why that’s the case.

Flex himself is a parody of this representation of masculinity. He has the power of “Muscle Mystery”, where he can affect reality simply by flexing his muscles – the power of matter over mind, in effect. Morrison uses Flex to parody the idea of the musclebound superhero, and in doing so, uses the Charles Atlas ads which are themselves a representative of a fully performative masculinity.

“Roaming tribes of boy side-kicks” recall William Burroughs “Wild Boys”, their “chrome-trimmed suits [and] devil-may-care grins”1 comparable in their description to the “culmination of the continual fantasy of boys in rainbow-colored jockstraps.”4 These sidekicks have been abandoned by their superhero wards, and now prowl the streets, devoid of purpose; with no one to look up to, they have “no hope”.

flexmentallosidekicks

Credit: Quitely, Pete Doherty (colorist) and Ellie de Ville (letterer)

Queer Theory AND SUPERHEROES

Queer theory is a field of post-structuralist critical theory that emerged in the early 1990s out of the fields of gender studies and women’s studies. Queer theory includes both queer readings of texts and the theorisation of ‘queerness’ itself.

It challenges the notion that gender is part of the essential self and examines the idea of socially constructed nature of sexual acts and identities. “Queer” encompasses any kind of sexual activity or gender identity and is impossible to tie down to one definition. It’s not just about gay and lesbian studies. It’s not just about looking at the binary relationship between homo and heterosexual – many identities are included, including non-binary and transgender, asexuality, intersexuality and more. More than that, it also looks at the relationship with race, class, religion and other factors.  

In his essay A Half-Naked Muscleman in Trunks: Charles Atlas, Superheroes, and Comic Book Masculinity, Richard Landon talks about how superheroes have long been dismissed as male power fantasies. He goes on to say though that superheroes also represent role models for bodybuilders.3 This brings in the notion of performative masculinity – the idea that gender is something that isn’t inherent but is inherited from society, and is “performed” by various actions depending on the gender. Performative masculinity includes notions of physical strength, power etc, and we can link queer theory and superheroes in just this way.

ffm

Flex is an exaggerated portrayal of the strongman, and so acts as a critique of this performance – it’s later revealed that he is an aspect of Wally Sage, a thin, long-haired man who can’t keep a girlfriend and used to masturbate over comics – created to save him from himself and the world. But Wally’s realisation at the end isn’t that he should be stronger – it’s that if superheroes were real, they would bring us wondrous technology, hope and the power to overcome our innermost fears.

Metafiction and ‘camp’

Metafiction of the kind in Flex Mentallo not only subverts and critiques by being aware of itself as fiction, but also uses irony and sly, winking gestures to the reader to notify itself – such nods to the sublime nonsense of the Silver Age of superheroes includes villains called the Lucky Number Gang who wear pool balls as heads, Origami the Folding Man – literally, a flat man, who can fold between bricks in walls to escape, of the Baffling Box.

Susan Sontag calls Camp the love of the artifice and exaggeration – something we are equally drawn to and offended by for reasons of taste. There’s also something of the celebration of the marginal – a work of art that is considered important could never be camp. Sontag talks about camp as a taste in persons, saying one way that this manifests is “a relish for the exaggeration of sexual characteristics and personality mannerisms – exaggerated he-man-ness.” 

Mentallo is a balloon made of muscles, a completely camp exaggeration of the superhero, and as Morrison reaches the end of the story, we realise why. It’s not superheroes’ “maleness” that’s important, or how many muscles they have; it’s their qualities, their ability to overcome all odds, their sense of duty and honour, their valour. That’s why Wally Sage is so despondent – the real world isn’t camp, or queer, most of the time. It’s dirty and depressing and we all get our hearts broken. We need the idea of the superhero to give us something to escape from, and when the superhero books come down into the dirt with us, like the Dark Age books he critiques, we lose that.

The sense of a secret lying in wait, the muscle-fantasy of Flex himself, the scene in which rent-boys trade in Krystal, a drug so powerful it “makes you feel like Superman but then you die” – shades of chem sex and the secrets of the closet, cruising in underground lavs.

Wally has weird memories of going into a shed as a child – he doesn’t know if it’s a repressed memory of abuse, a weird initiation or an alien abduction – though finally it’s revealed that lying in wait a superhero he left there to give him hope, in the place called “Where-You-Get-Your-Ideas”. But the sense of something hidden in the past, in the closet, so to speak, rings true for many queer readers in the same way that secret identities can relate in complicated ways to the idea of being out, or of passing.

[bctt tweet=”The sense of something hidden in the past, in the closet, rings true for many queer readers” username=”garrymacl”]

mentallo-shazam

Credit: Frank Quitely (artist), Tom McCraw (colorist) and Rian Hughes (designer)

Flex’ interacts with Tiff, a transgender woman who is thrilled when he calls her “Miss” and warns her to “take care up there. There are a few rough-looking types who may not take kindly to your individual style of dress”. For all his muscles, Flex is a gentleman, a boy scout, and his concern extends to all kinds of people, just as a superhero should.

At all points, Flex Mentallo queers the typical superhero narrative, bending it and subverting it to create a story that at once critiques the genre and also offers a nod and a wink to those readers for whom the deeper subtexts are important in its “refusal either of an unambiguously straight or gay reading.”5

Morrison has talked about the fact that he occasionally dresses up as a woman and goes out in an attempt to play with his own notions of gender identity, so this is something of a concern for him. In The Invisibles, King Mob pointedly says “It’s a man’s life in the Invisible Army”, while behind him stand a woman called Boy and a transgender shaman.

While his concern with queerness might have been passing – he’s not actually queer, and refuted a rumour that he’d had a bisexual relationship with Peter Milligan6 – and may not be deliberately looking at queer theory and superheroes together, Flex Mentallo can definitely be read as a queer narrative, not only in its presentation of the characters and the deconstruction of performative gender norms but also in its metafiction and love of artifice.

I mean, the logo background has leopard skin print in shocking pink.

It effectively queers, or subverts, the superhero narrative to both critique the genre, and offer Morrison’s own take on the true nature of the superhero.

wemadethecomics

Credit: Frank Quitely (artist), Tom McCraw (colorist) and Rian Hughes (designer)

1              Grant Morrison, Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery – the Deluxe Edition (New York: DC Comics, 2012).

2              Schmoop Editorial Team, ‘Queer Theory’, Shmoop University, Inc., (2008) <www.shmoop.com/queer-theory/>.

3              Richard Landon, ‘A Half-Naked Muscleman in Trunks: Charles Atlas, Superheroes and Comic Book Masculinity’, Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, 18 (2008).

4              Alfred Kazin, ‘The Wild Boys’, The New York Times 1971.

5              Will Brooker, ‘Hero of the Beach: Flex Mentallo at the End of the Worlds’, Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics 2 (2011), 25-37.

6              Gary Lactus, ‘Grant Morrison Supergods Interview Transcript’, 2016 (2016) http://mindlessones.com/2011/06/30/grant-morrison-supergods-interview-transcript/.

 

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Garry Mac

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