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Ex Machina: The Deluxe Edition – Volume III (Review)

In an effort to prove that comic books aren’t just about men in spandex hitting each other really hard, this month I’m reviewing all of Brian K. Vaughan’s superb Ex Machina. And in June, I’ll be reviewing his Y: The Last Man.

We’re at the half-way point in this saga of the superhero mayor of New York City, so that means that Vaughan and Harris are turning things up a few notches. The three central threads of the series – Mayor Hundred’s time in office, his history as a superhero and the conspiracy surrounding his origin – are beginning to intertwine and collide in a variety of interesting ways. Being entirely honest, I’ve always been a bit skeptical about how the series hopes to balance all these different elements, particularly with a relatively short run of fifty issues. As things begin to move to a head, it becomes clear which of these particular threads that Vaughan is going to focus on.

Talk about catching the bus...

In many ways, the most interesting stuff that happens in this comic book happens in the background. It isn’t the big issues that the mayor is confronted with (in this case, the legalisation of marijuana), but the small moments when his past and present collide. The mother of a man he arrested in his superhero days sets herself alight on the steps of City Hall, after her son dies in a prison fight he was trying to stop. It’s little moments like these which work quite well.

I must confess that I am not especially fascinated by the whole “secret alternate universe conspiracy” aspect of the big story that Vaughan is crafting. In an early issue of the series, an NSA operative references how The X-Files made the bureau look stupid, so they won’t investigate Hundred’s strange powers. However, this series feels more than a little bit like Chris Carter’s 1990s television series, a strange combination of the fabulous and the mundane, a hint of black comedy and the banal nature of most horrors. However, to stretch the metaphor to breaking point, the overarching mystery surrounding Mitchell’s origin reminds me of the dreaded “conspiracy” episodes of the show.

Its all about building relationships...

Perhaps that’s a tad unfair. Carter was very clearly making it up as he went along, with no idea how to plot the arc a season or two ahead – let alone for a decade’s worth of television. In contrast, I suspect Vaughan had everything carefully planned down to the issue number by the time the first issue hit stands. I am certain that Vaughan will resolve matters in a very effective manner – he’s a superb storyteller. However, the comparison stands – there’s so much beauty and interest in the unrelated plot developments that it seems a waste to return to standard science fiction fare. However, that’s quite possibly just me.

With the series now halfway through its life cycle, the hints about Mitchell’s true nature come quick and fast. His visions describe him as “the bridge” for something coming – perhaps reflected in his concern for the Brooklyn Bridge after he wakes up. “I think I can shed some light on what you are,” a strange traveller who emerges from the river remarks, rambling about a world where the Cold War never ended. Hell, even the Kurt Cobain references recur – and the revelation that Mitchell’s accident is tied to an alternate world perhaps explains how he could hear a Nirvana song that was never recorded.

Was Mitchell right not to car-ry on being a superhero?

But enough of that. The most interesting aspects of the collection are again focused on Mayor Hundred’s time in office and his status as an iconic and heroic figure. He’s somewhat trapped by that reputation, even with his increased support following a terrorist attack on New York. When a casual remark about his use of pot sparks a media outrage, Hundred can’t blame the press for latching on to that sensational story instead of a more important one – after all, “they’re all looking for my next ‘stunt’.”

Vaughan has a bit of fun with the whole debate over the legalisation of marijuana. Although his characters all favour a pro-legalisation stance, he’s clearly more interested in the debate itself than the matter at hand. How we talk about the legalisation of drugs is as interesting as any debate on the topic – it frequently gets out hand and is hyped beyond belief. “We should be able to talk about it like adults, right?” Mitchell asks his staff, tempting fate. Debates over drugs typically get dragged into the most outlandish and sensationalist terms, and fly out of control in dozens of directions. The office can’t even control the discussion of the topic, let alone articulate their own reasoned points.

A crash course in superheroics?

It’s fantastic how Vauaghan ties the on-going series to its setting so ridiculously well. It’s not specifically in this volume of the collection, but it bleeds through. He’s obviously ridiculously familiar with the history of the city – as any number of random observations from any number of characters will assure you – but he also manages to tie it all together. Beyond the way that the series leans upon the attacks of 9/11, there are countless references to events from the city’s history – from the Son of Sam killings through to the blackouts and riots. This works to almost make the city itself a character in Vaughan’s epic story.

It’s hard not to look at some of the arguments that the writer makes and nod in agreement – to wonder who few other elected officials would dare to voice them. For example, Mayor Hundred wrestles with what to do about Ground Zero. “Make them stronger and make them safer,” he suggests, “but the towers should look exactly like they used to.” It’s a fair point, and one which probably makes more sense in a world where one of the two towers is still standing, but it’s also a brave a defiant decision. It is, as he observes, a better idea than “a giant tombstone looming over Manhattan.”

Sparks fly...

He also has some interesting things to say about the other genre that the story straddles – the superhero epic. I’ve remarked how Vaughan seems almost optimistic about superhero stories – Mitchell’s use of his powers as a superhero have undoubtedly saved more lives than his authority of Mayor of New York – but here he develops his own feeling with a bit more depth. In particular, he expresses his mistrust of masks – a sentiment which arguably echoes Garth Ennis’ similar dislike of caped heroes. “Anonymity is the fastest, most efficient way to let the rest of the world know your beliefs are worthless,” Hundred observes. It takes courage to stand in the open behind an ideal, but not to wear to mask. If an idea is worth fighting for, it’s worth fighting for in public. However, this criticism – as made in Ex Machina Halloween Special – is rendered a little less potent when it is collected right after the double-page spread of the Great Machine saving the second tower on 9/11 which ends Power Down.

It’s also interesting to see the fact that Mitchell could have rigged the election addressed explicitly – apparently he spent election night in a sensory deprivation tank. I’m not entirely convinced that this would be enough to stop him (given that, during the hostage situation in Fact v. Fiction, he was able to reach across the city – an ability nobody was aware of), but it’s nice to see that Vaughan is acknowledging the difficulties of an individual like that running for office. I strongly suspect that this is going to pop up again later on.

Soaring in the polls?

The deluxe editions are supposedly intended to feature a wealth of supplemental features, however this third volume is the first to really contain anything of note. Featuring additional text from writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Tony Harris, the back of the book contains a guide to how these books are put together, from script to pencils to inks to colours. It’s wonderfully effective and demonstrates just how tight the team are – Harris remarks that the book perhaps the truest collaboration he has ever been involved in. It’s quite fantastic.

Ex Machina continues to a fascinating on-going look at politics and celebrity. It’s also a damn good drama. I am also interested to see how exactly Vaughan plans to resolve everything – as I’m certain that he had it all planned out (even if not on paper) before it all started. We’re halfway through, so it’ll be interesting to see how it all plays out.

Check out our reviews of the rest of Vaughan’s run on Ex Machina here:

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One Response

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