In 1996, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely published a four-issue spin-off of the acclaimed Doom Patrol called Flex Mentallo. The issues have never been reprinted and haven’t been collected in a trade paperback. You can find them for sale on eBay and on 4 Color Heroes, but it’ll cost you $50-$100 for the whole series. As such, I’ve never read it, but everything I’ve heard about the book has convinced me that it’s the finest work from one of the best writer/artist teams working today. Of Flex Mentallo, Bill Reed says, I avow the series to be the greatest comic book ever made–the holy grail of the medium.

Describing what it’s about is, I understand, a rather tricky enterprise. Every description I’ve read takes up many printed pages, and that’s just summarizing the key plot points and how they inform the greater points Morrison is trying to make. Greg Burgas writes about it at length at Comic Book Resources, but beware of spoilers. More from the same site here. If you do find a copy, Jason Craft did a finely detailed set of annotations. Anyway, the premise is that Flex Mentallo is a comic book character (in the comic) who learns that all comic book characters used to in fact be real but, to avoid a villain, created a new world in which they were fictitious, which is our real world. As you can guess, there’s a ton of post-modern stuff going on their, with a mixing of mediums and questions about authorial intent, imagined worlds, and so forth. Each issue is based on a different era of comics, with a cover parodying that era, from the Golden Age to the Silver Age to the grim and gritty 80s to the conclusion, Morrison’s thesis on where the medium is (or should be) headed.

Flex himself is a simulacrum of Charles Atlas, “The World’s Most Perfectly Developed Man”, a body-builder who founded his own gym and fitness program in the 20s. He’d run ads in comic books selling his workout program, promising to help weak boys bulk up so they could get girls. Gene Kannenberg Jr. wrote a piece for MSNBC about these called The Ad That Made an Icon Out of Mac, in which he discusses why they were so effective and how widely known and parodied they become. Atlas’s website has a collection of the classic ads.

There’s little doubt that Flex’s physique and leopard-print briefs come directly from Atlas’s own physical appearance, and his origin, printed in an issue of Doom Patrol, is a direct parody of “Mac” from the most famous of the cartoons. This likeness lead to a lawsuit by Charles Atlas’s company. The case was thrown out, on the basis that the Flex Mentallo is a valid First Amendment-protected parody, but my understanding (though I can find no source for it), is that a settlement between the two companies exists such that DC will give a portion of any of Flex’s proceeds to Charles Atlas. Because of the legal issue, DC has never reprinted the book.

There is hope, fortunately. DC has solicited a publication of the last volume of Morrison’s Doom Patrol, showing at least some interest in completing their collections of Morrison’s earlier work for the company, to go along with the Animal Man trades already out. I gather that a Flex trade would have to sell pretty well to make enough money for DC after their payout to Atlas. Rumor is that if Doom Patrol proves successful and demonstrates an interest in Morrison’s stuff, DC will reprint Flex Mentallo, but of course that’s not an official stance. In the meantime, you can read Morrison and Quitely’s current project, the excellent All Star Superman, or dine on some ultra-violence with 2004’s We3.