"An Age of Gold, a Golden Age"
|(reproduced from Flex Mentallo
#2, July 1996)
Part One: "An Age of Gold, a Golden Age..."
The Man of Muscle Mystery is back! After a gap of more than thirty years, Flex Mentallo has returned to the pages of his own magazine, where a whole new generation of readers can thrill to the exploits of one of comicdom's most unusual and enduring heroes.
Flex Mentallo, Man of Muscle Mystery, made his debut in the pages of Manly Comics' Rasslin' Men in February 1941 and was an overnight success. Sales of Rasslin' Men quadrupled in as many months and Flex Mentallo #1, which followed in April '42, went on to become one of the most sought-after first issues in comics history (one milk-soiled copy recently sold for $50,000 at a comic book "auction").
"Dubois said Manly needed its own Superman," remembers veteran artist Chuck "The Chief" Fiasco. "That's how it all started. He told me to come up with something and I must admit I was kinda stumped. I went home to think about it and while I was driving down the highway, two men got in beside me. I don't know how they did that while I was moving. I had to drive a long way. It was day and night a couple of times, I remember. The desert was kind of silver and the sky was way too blue and there was a big neon sign right there saying 'FLEX MENTALLO,' 'FLEX MENTALLO,' over and over again. I woke up in the woods about half a mile from home and I had my super-hero! It was around four in the morning but I drank some black coffee, threw back a fistful of crank pills and just drew and drew. I invented many marvelous gadgets and mysterious pieces that night, I can tell you, but perhaps the strangest of all was Flex Mentallo, Man of Muscle Mystery."
Chuck knew he had something on his hands, and he couldn't wait to show the designs to his boss.
Ashley DuBois was the flamboyant publisher and editor-in-chief of Manly Comics, a vanity press venture which had taken on a life of its own. Manly specialized in lurid retellings of the exploits of legendary strongmen and athletes such as Samson, Atlas, Hercules, and Caligula.
"Ashley was what we used to call a colorful character," recalls Fiasco. "He was the son of a wealthy Southern landowner and when the old man died, Ashley got everything. He always said he knew he would be the last of the family line and so he'd just decided to squander his inheritance. That was how Manly came about and I was approached to do some fairly dubious stuff which I...I really didn't know...I'm talking about some of the content...I was very naive..."
Manly Comics began as an outlet for DuBois's own writing; his tales of Greek love and hand-to-hand combat among the gods and demigods were intended for his own pleasure and that of a small circle of enthusiasts. Much to his surprise, however, the self-published comics proved immensely popular with children and with servicemen, who failed to discern the obvious subtext (a typical cover depicts a grinning Hercules thrashing Atlas's near-naked buttocks with a cruel barbed-wire flail), and thrilled instead to the depictions of mythical worlds and mighty supermen. When Flex Mentallo appeared in Rasslin' Men #35, sales went through the rood and the new hero soon became Superman's chief rival.
The Golden Age Flex was a simple character; his foes were mainly metal ants and so on, and it was not until the introduction of his enemy--the unforgettable Lars Lotus--that Flex really developed the edge that set him apart from the growing pantheon of indistinguishable costumed mystery men. Tales such as "Sphinx-Men of Atomic Island" and "Doom from the Dog Star!" must surely rate highly in the "top ten comics" chart of any self-respecting fan.
The war years proved to be a boom time for Manly Comics, and the line was expanded to include a number of newly-created patriotic heroes--who can forget Lady Liberty, Jap-Smasher, Yankee Poodle Andy, the Fightin' Skull, and the many others who kept the fire of hatred burning throughout those dark days?
"Frankly, I used to wish the war would never end," grins Chuck Fiasco. "I was young, I was making more money than I'd ever seen before, I was drunk and stoned every night, enmeshed in a world of high-class prostitutes, gambling, the black market. You wanna talk about the Golden Age? I used to get down on my knees every night and pray that Hitler would live forever!"
Sadly World War Two ended in 1945, taking with it the raison d'etre for much of Manly's output. And there was more trouble looming--trouble with a capital "TREASON"!
"We didn't expect it to go so wrong," Fiasco recalls. "What happened was that, towards the end, Ashley became convinced that the Nazis were going to win the war and he panicked a little. I remember one month he came in, completely hysterical, and had us rewrite and redraw all of our comics. Of course, by the time they hit the stands it was too late; Hitler was dead in the bunker, the Allies had won, and we were up to our necks in steaming crud."
That month, September 1945, was the beginning of the end for the Manly empire--Jap-Smasher's comic featured a story in which the patriotic crimebuster is first brutally tortured by his Axis captors and then gleefuly renounces his U.S. citizenship in order to assume the new costumed identity of "Super-Hiro." Shocking as "Jap-Smasher Joins a Winning Team!" was, it was soon to be eclipsed in infamy by Flex Mentallo #41 with its "feature-length action extravaganza," "Hans Hitler--President of Earth!" Based on a cover sketch for a nightmarish "imaginary story," the original idea had been turned on its head and the comic that reached the newsstands was little more than a 22-page hymn to evil and bigotry.
"We misjudged the mood of the readership at the time," admits Chuck Fiasco. "And suddenly we were in court, fighting for our very lives. If they hadn't bought that "satire" bullshit we fooled 'em with, we'd all have died in the chair."
Ashley DuBois, however, was not to escape the skeletal touch of the Grim Reaper; his health collapsed under the strain of endless legal wrangling and cross-examination. Never a strong man to begin with, this gentle, fragile Southern bloom was to be trampled underfoot by an uncaring judicial process.
"I saw him near the end, after they'd torn out his soul," says Chuck Fiasco. "They'd broken him. He'd given everything until there was nothing left to give and it was terrible what they did to him. He looked to me like...like a peg. Like some kinda cheap wooden peg. All I can say is that at least they couldn't take his self-respect. At least he died with dignity."
Ashley DuBois's body was found contorted over a vaulting horse in a sleazy motel room. Partially dressed in a filthy Roman-style toga, his face smeared with rouge and lipstick, he had clearly drowned in his own vomit and urine. A pair of women's silk stockings was stuffed in his mouth along with several hundred sleeping tablets. A note, written in violet ink on lavender-scented note-paper, said simply, "The dogs have all got masks. And may the Lord have mercy on our souls."
The perfect Southern gentleman had found peace at last.