"Silver Like Our Anniversary, Silver Like the Threads in Your Hair"
(reproduced from Flex Mentallo #4, Sept. 1996)
Superhero comics went through a bad time in the '50s, forcing frantic publishers to experiment with new genres such as Romance, War, Crime and Horror. Titles like "Spurious Love Stories," "Our Violent Fathers," "Mr. Masked Armed Robber" and "Web of Misery" crowded out the colorful tales of the costumed adventurers, and it seemed that the Golden Age for "long-underwear characters" was long over.
In 1959, however, a new Flex Mentallo returned on the cover of Stellar Comics' "My Greenest Adventure" #159. This comic had survived for seven years on one gimmick--all the stories revolved around the color green in some way--but the novelty was beginning to wear thin.
"Somebody suggested that we bring back some of the old superheroes," Chuck Fiasco recollects. "Of course I laughed like a piggy on a stick at first, but soon I was laughing all the way to the piggy bank, Oink! Oink!"
"My Greenest Adventure" #159, with the return of Flex Mentallo featured on the cover, sold more than any comic ever, before or since. America's postwar generation of affluent baby-boomers went wild for the new, "way-out" heroes, while U.S. servicemen in Korea waged their own far-from-fictional, real-life War against Evil. This magical era was to be known as the Silver Age of Superheroes and will be remembered as a time of renaissance and creativity. New superheroes were being created almost at the speed of thought to keep up with the incredible demand and, like his contemporaries, the Silver Age Flex inhabited a Brave New World of science-fiction adventure. Drawn by Chuck Fiasco at the height of his powers, and written by the man now considered to be the definitive Flex Mentallo writer (Wallace Sage was an 18-year-old hipster from New York who had published two "science fiction" novels, "Sputnik Go Beatnik" and "The Pleasure Planet" before turning to comics), the new Flex faced bizarre and hi-tech menaces like the Mentallium Man, Uncle Sham, The Tree Men of Walzur, Mr. Quizmatiz, The Ism and a resurrected Lars Lotus. (Sage penned what must surely be the quintessential Lotus epic in the two-part "I, Lotus," in which the overweight Grim Guru of Crime finds love in the arms of the beautiful Kirby Kosmos only to discover that the light of his life is nothing other than Flex Mentallo transformed by Shocking Pink Mentallium into a glamorous actress. Heartbroken, Lotus builds his own robot universe and peoples it with very pretty mechanical ladies.)
It wasn't long before the Flex Mentallo title was relaunched, while in the pages of "My Greenest Adventure" the Man of Muscle Mystery was joined by a whole team of new superheroes--the Atomic Pile, Mr. 45, The Zipper and the "Fact"--as Sage's stories began to venture into increasingly more bizarre territory. "The Bride Wore Devil's Eyes," "36 Light-Years from Love," and "Dame Dream's Dream Dooms Three!" were all classics of their kind--swirling, paranoia-fraught gospel of some unattainable Ultimate Truth.
"I was baffled," says Chuck Fiasco. "I knew Wally was doing a lot of LSD at the time...in fact, I knew everything because basically we were all doing a lot of LSD at the time. It was still legal then, of course, and we'd usually start every day by dipping into the mason jar we'd got from the Sandoz company. Many's the time, believing I could fly or punch through walls or chew on broken glass, I've come to within an inch of my miserable life in one way or another. Acid, all day, every day, for four years...Think about it and then go read those comic books again."
Whatever the source of his inspiration, the years between 1960 and 1963 were to witness the full flowering of the imaginative talents of Wallace Sage. In his Village loft, surrounded by beatniks, flower children, nudists, Buddhists, Beatles and freaks of every kind, he penned classic after classic--"The 8th Deadly Sin," "My Powers for a Dollar!" "Hat-Man See! Hat-Man Do!" and the award-winning "Challenge of the Lice Olympics!"
It all came to an end in November 1963 when Flex Mentallo #127 featured a story called "Who Stole the President's Face?" This uncharacteristically unfunny farce dealt with Mr. Quizmatiz's efforts to embarrass the President of the United States by stealing his face and attaching it to various animals and pieces of furniture and walls and so on. The President himself, unable to see, talk or blow his nose, spent much of the time tripping over his dogs, his wife, his brothers and several world leaders, including the by-then-long-dead Gandhi.
"Unfortunately, the President at the time was Jack Kennedy," Chuck Fiasco recalls grimly. "How could we have known? We thought it was just a funny little story. The comic had already come back from the printers."
In questionable taste to begin with, Flex Mentallo #127, "Who Stole the President's Face?" was to hit headlines and achieve worldwide notoriety and condemnation when it was published one day after the shocking assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas.
"They wanted to hang us," says Chuck Fiasco. "They were burning us in effigy in thirty states. And yet somehow...we bounced right back."
The glory days were over, however. After a few lackluster attempts to create new characters--the forgettable Giggle-O and Pocketman--Wallace Sage dropped out of comics, becoming an almost mythical figure in the process. He never wrote again, and fans have often speculated as to his whereabouts and current status.
"Well, he was the sort of guy who would always land on his feet," Fiasco smiles fondly. "I can just see him now, sitting on a beach in Hawaii surrounded by beautiful girls and sipping a piña colada. Good old Wally, the guy's an inspiration to us all."
In fact, Wallace Sage died in 1982, a broken, penniless wretch. His talent destroyed by drink and drugs, his once desirable features gnawed into a bloody ruin by tertiary syphilis and face cancer, he was buried in an unmarked pauper's grave.
Flex Mentallo haunted limbo for over twenty years, present by implication alone in every other superhero title published in that period. Then, in 1990, a radical "postmodern" or "Dark Age" version of Flex appeared in DC's DOOM PATROL title. This Flex was used to challenge the ontological categories of the hypothetical DC "universe" and his success led to various imitators both here and in other lands, where the people are quite different. Characters with names like "Stress Psycho, Mindwrestler" and "Brute Braino, Psychic Weightlifter" are selling in the millions and offering eager readers the chance to face their deepest fears and insecurities on a monthly basis.
"Sure I've watched it happen," Chuck Fiasco admits sourly. "I don't particularly like any of this new stuff, the very dark, menacing sort of stuff. I didn't like what they did to Flex, I'm sorry. There was no sense of childish wonder like we had in the old days; it was all head crush this, snap that! Violate me, Satan! Impale me on your trident like some sort of maggot!... (laughs)...
"That sort of nonsense. There was no joy in it; it was a cold, joyless thing they created, a kind of abortion, I'd say. Sure. And who can understand this stuff? This modern stuff? You'd have to be a modern Einstein or a Stephen Hawking kind of character to understand what the hell's going on in these comics. Am I right? Is it just me?" Chuck Fiasco shrugs, utters a hollow laugh and drains his second bottle of "the old anesthetist, Doctor J. Beam," as he calls it. There's a trace of bitterness in his voice and I attempt to remind this man, Chuck "the Chief" Fiasco, that he's still the Chief in the hearts of dozens of old-time comics fans.
"Something like you belongs in the sea, not in a room," I say pleasantly. Chuck stares at me. I think I may have said the wrong thing and he asks me to collect my belongings, clear out of the room and leave.
Which brings us full circle as Flex Mentallo returns once more to his own spectacular series and launches the sparkling new age of superheroes!