If one is adapting the world of Doom Patrol comics into another medium, you pretty much have to introduce Flex Mentallo. He embodies much of what Grant Morrison’s run on the comic was about. So much so, that his and Frank Quitely’s spin off mini-series “Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery” is one of Morrison’s clearest statements about what superheroes mean in our culture. We knew that Flex was coming to Doom Patrol TV, and while his visual embodiment is spot on, I think the show’s creators either don’t really understand Flex, or never found a way to fully utilize him in their story.
Flex was introduced into the show a couple episodes ago as a clue provided by Danny the Street: an old comic book, with an advertisement for breakfast cereal that was missing its muscular mascot. Rita recognizes that the blank space on the page should contain a picture of Flex, but it looks like he “just stepped off the page.” The team makes the assumption that the man represented by this missing drawing must know something about The Chief. Not the most well supported deduction, but you work with what you have.
At this point, Flex’s backstory was sounding much like his comic book origin, except for one major difference. In the source material comic, Flex is not a mascot for a breakfast cereal, but to all intent and purposes, the boy who is bullied by having sand kicked in his face in the old Charles Atlas body building ads. As I mentioned last time, comic books used to have advertisements, and Charles Atlas ads were ubiquitous. But how many viewers of the show, today, would get that reference? Even in 1991 when Doom Patrol #42 came out, it was a nostalgic call back to an earlier era of comics. So I can understand a decision to simplify and not bring in those references, even while feeling sad as bits of what Flex is meant to be all about are beginning to be chipped away.
In this episode Rita mentions the additional fact that the illustration was drawn by an artist named Wallace Sage. That holds out hope that the show, perhaps next season, will go a little further. Because Flex was not just drawn by Sage, he was created by him. As a boy Wally drew his own comic books (with a green ink pen) and through his unrealized psychic power, made those stories real. Flex literally did just step off the page. Flex is the power of a superhero inspired imagination brought to life. In my last post I described how in the comics the forces of Normalcy had mastered the power of all the cheap toys and magic tricks that were, like Atlas’s bodybuilding, advertised is comic books. Flex and the Ant Farm are thus natural enemies, the conflicting poles of what the power of imagination can achieve.
So while it is fun to see Flex on the screen, it is a letdown to not really see Flex, just as it is for the Ant Farm to be (mostly) a generic mean and sadistic faction of the military, something that was reinforced in this episode. Revealing the Bureau’s main tactics as physical torture and threatening people’s loved one showed a real paucity of imagination. In the comic an army of undead supersoldiers was being built through the power of creepy fairy tales and they were harnessing the occult energy of the very first words spoken into a telephone. The unfiltered sight of the Ant Farm in its true light was what broke Flex’s spirit.
Getting to the events of this episode, after a lot of action, it’s reasonable to go for a slow beats to give both the characters and the audience a chance to rest and get ready for an upcoming climax. I just don’t think this episode did it well. It was the first time in the series that an episode felt padded – which was a surprise given how much content they had to work with. The screen time could be put to better use, especially as, in terms of advancing the story from one event to another, the plot has been getting increasingly clunky.
The sequences with Cliff, Jane, Flex, and Dolores dragged out was covered in a couple pages of the comic. Dolores’s fate in the book was a mixture of what we see here, and in the earlier episode where Cyborg was kidnapped. It was a sad scene, but was interrupted by an attack of the Men from N.O.W.H.E.R E. (which were the supersoldiers mentioned above, traumatized into existence by Lucy Clifford’s fairy tales). The show overdid the tragedy, to my taste, particularly since it was an example of the “fridging” troupe, where the female partner of a male character is killed off to motivate him to take action.
It was good to see Cliff and Jane doing something together, even if they continued to argue. Quite an important moment when Cliff stood fast against Jane’s anger in order to apologize, understanding, as we see as well, how much of her anger is a defense, keeping her from any close connection with people. The actual friendship between them is finally forming.
The scenes with Larry and Flex as prisoners of the Ant Farm also didn’t really add anything we didn’t know already. Did we need more coats of guilt and responsibility on Larry’s backstory? And as mentioned above, the way the menace of the Bureau was presented made them seem just conventional and boring. One thing that did catch my attention was Flex’s ability to communicate with the Negative Spirit, which was one of the show’s occasional references to Gerald Way’s current run of the Doom Patrol comic.
We finally got the last pieces of Rita’s backstory, though her monologue confession did start to stretch on and on a bit… That was redeemed somewhat by it being the disguised Mr. Nobody that was drawing it out of her for the exact reason of tying up that loose end so he could put his endgame into motion.
Mr. Nobody stalking about his realm festooned with Doom Patrol merchandise was a new level of “meta” for the show. We also see his understanding of how stories work in play again, as all his warnings to not come looking for The Chief were intended to entice them to do exactly that. It is very common for supervillains to draw attention to themselves with threats and brags, when staying out of sight would be far more effective! Mr. Nobody understands that reverse psychology and clearly wants the team to track him down for a big season climax. While fourth wall breaking is common these days in comics and elsewhere, it’s been a stable of Grant Morrison writing as far back as his run on Animal Man in the 1980’s.
Morrison takes it ever farther in books such as “The Multiversity” where the text addresses not an abstracted “audience” but the individual reader themselves who is hearing Morrsion’s words in their head that exact moment. Mr. Nobody, even while standing in front of a poster for the show he is appearing in, is speaking “us,” but not to “me.” That’s a power that only comics can utilize. What a TV or film can do better than comics is show the thoughts and emotions, the reactions and realizations of characters in a performed scene. Which is the very type of character based drama that Mr. Nobody is deriding this show for being.