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Ex Machina: The Deluxe Edition – Volume IV (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.

What’s weird about the fourth ane penultimate volume of Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris’ superb superhero political science fiction mish-mash comic book is simple how much fun it is. I’m not suggesting for a moment that the first three volumes were anything less than superb, but there’s a sense of playfulness in this volume which just makes it seem like the creators are have the time of their lives. I was worried after the last volume that the underlying “conspiracy” story would overwhelm the saga as it reached completion, but it’s still just as fascinating and unpredictable as it was back when it began.

Justice for all?

I remarked at the start that perhaps Ex Machina tries to be too much. It was a fifty-issue run, in which it’s attempting to be a conspiracy thriller, a superhero saga and a political study. That’s a lot to juggle – it’s a crazy combination of genres which each have considerable demands. As we enter the fourth of five books, I get the sense that Vaughan and Harris have well and truly got the hang of it – or, perhaps, I’ve got the hang of it myself.

Here, Harris and Vaughan play with the separate strands of story, tying them together in interesting ways. There’s a trip to the Vatican, a copy cat vigilante, a series of comic book memoirs and more. There’s also a growing sense of New York as an entity. Vaughan pulls a little post-modern magic (not bad, given he remarks, “I’m not big into the whole Grant Morrison “meta” thing”) by working himself into the comic and relating his own experience of the attacks on 9/11. I suspect, but I can’t find any statement one way or the other, that a large portion of what Vaughan said relates to his own experience (apart from the bit where the comic diverges from reality).

Hundred discovers that when you reach out to the community, sometimes they reach back...

It’s a very clever idea, but also a very honest one. It’s hard to portray what happened that day objectively, even for those of us who watched over television. It’s a profoundly personal experience and Vaughan seems to accept that it’s hard to portray the day in any complete fashion. Throughout the books before this one (and during this one itself), we see snippets of the horrors that occurred, but never the complete picture – perhaps because that picture is too big to cover in a fifty-issue miniseries. However, Vaughan’s own account of the day is the most thorough exploration of that moment the series has offered – it’s as close to a whole picture as we’ve seen. By putting himself into his story, he doesn’t have to worry about being objective or giving us the full story. All that matters his that we get his full story.

It’s remarkable how powerful Vaughan’s image of the solitary tower is. Even thirty issues into the series, I’m still struck whenever it appears. Perhaps because of the restraint of the team, the picture of the tower still standing remains potent every time it’s used, even as an establishing shot for a phone call between the Mayor and Deputy Mayor.

Vaughan and Harris paint a picture...

However, it’s more than that which links the series to New York. In this collection we are treated to World’s Finest, which looks at the city through the eyes of the current police commissioner and Dirty Tricks in which Mayor Hundred’s costumed persona manages to reignite a young tour guide’s interest in the city. As throughout the series, we’re treated to vignettes which highlight just how strange and wonderful the city can be, with the Great Machine chasing a bail jumper to a quiet retreat or stopping a pair of college students from sacrificing a chicken. It’s weird, it’s wonderful and it’s vibrant. Hell, Mitchell’s LSD-inspired fantasies have a hard time competing with the neon glow of the city.

Of course, there are serious political machinations at work. We get an interesting look at the intersection between religion and politics. Although Vaughan seems a bit on the nose at times (“why is hatred of atheists the last acceptable prejudice?”), he handles the subject matter well. It’s interesting to see how established religions treat a man who can command machines – “I fear you’re the antichrist,” one priest confesses, as the Pope himself plans “an exorcism.” In fairness, Vaughan’s writing is careful and considered – he acknowledges that his characters inhabit an irrational world – after all, the Mayor is visited by a ghost a few issues later.

The predators are circling...

Meanwhile, Hundred is considering his next job – one which seeming appears to him through some divine intervention (though he is hesitant to describe it as such). I’ve observed that Mitchell is perhaps a far more cynical figure than he lets on – and one perhaps with stronger ambitions than one might suspect. After all, he dismisses several other candidates to replace him because “they all want my job, which immediately disqualifies them.” If Mitchell really believed that idealistic sentiment, surely it would disqualify him from his candidacy.

I compared Mayor Hundred to Obama in my earlier reviews, and the trend continues here. He reminds voters that “contributions as small as one dollar can be made directly to my new website”, back in 2001 – long before Obama made it fashionable (of course, the comic was written after, so let’s not get into it). Much like Obama, he plans to turn an address to a party’s National Congress to a platform for a future Presidential bid.

The run has really taken off...

Vaughan continues to play with the idea of the superhero here. Of course, any superhero narrative where the main character saves the second tower can’t necessarily be too harsh on the idea of putting on a silly costume, but the writer still toys with childishness of the idea. “You’re all children!” distressed Police Commissioner Angotti declares as costumed people start running around making nonsense. Hell, Hundred’s Deputy Mayor Wylie has his own race-related explanations for Mitchell’s superhero identity, “The Great Machine was nothing but a burdened white paternalist who thought he could swoop down out of the heavens to save the helpless people of the ghetto.”

However, the clear hint seems to be that perhaps none of this is a bad thing. While sometimes playing out a fantasy can be dangerous (as when Mitchell’s stalker “Trouble” tries it), sometimes there is room for a little childish indulgence in the world. Commissioner Angotti makes her peace with Mitchell by constructing what might be best referred to as a “Machine Signal”, even if it doesn’t work (“guess it got lost in the clouds,” she remarks). Hell, Mitchell and his friends do a better job keeping costumed crime under control than the NYPD – as they try to identify Trouble, the Commissioner lists off any number of costumed individuals who have all been handled by Mitchell’s people (“that case is still open too”).

Looking for the word under the street...

And there’s room for fun too. When Mitchell glances at “the maker” in his divine vision, why does the creator look like Alan Moore? If you answered any reason except “Alan Moore is cool”, I think you’ve put more thought into this than I have. When confronted with an inexplicable occurence, Mitchell is ready to tackle it. “I’ve read enough E.C Comics to figure this out for myself,” he advises his staff.

Perhaps the best illustration of this sense of fun that the writer and artist are having in creating this wonderful series is the way that they draw themselves into the final chapter, Ruthless, as they bid for the right to illustrate Mayor Hundred’s autobiographic comic. Of course, it serves to allow Vaughan to recall his memories of 9/11 within the context of the comic, but there’s also a sense of good-natured fun about it.

In the gutters... looking at the stars...

Any writer who allows himself to be confused with “Brian Bendis” simply because he’s bald is alright by me. There’s a sense of playfulness, as Tony Harris warns the writer (perhaps expressing a feeling a reader or two might have had once or twice), “If you mention one more useless factoid… I am going to punch you in the heart.” There’s an awkward beat panel of the two sitting there in the waiting room as Harris is “just sketching the two of us sitting here in the waiting room.” Mayor Hundred does recognise Vaughan’s work – “So you do the book about the guy being chased around by lesbians on motorcycles?”

Only a well-put together comic could afford to be that self-aware and still be endearing. There’s a sense of genuine accomplishment as the series draws to a close, and it’s a well-earned one. In fact, the “extras” in this hardcover include a cover gallery for the entire fifty-issue run. Which is great, because it deserves celebrating. In some cases, a book being this comfortable with itself would give you pause – it would seem perhaps a little arrogant and maybe even foster some resentment – but there’s a genuine sense that this book deserves it.

Ex Machina is a wonderfully written and drawn book. It’s smart and funny, and never takes itself too seriously – but always just seriously enough. It may never have eclipsed “the book about the guy being chased around by lesbians on motorcycles” in Vaughan’s portfolio, but it’s still a damn fine read.

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

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