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Ex Machina: The Deluxe Edition – Volume I (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.

I don’t think that any creator has had quite the success of Brian K. Vaughan when it comes to original comic book series over the past decade (okay, maybe Robert Kirkman). Both of his famous original books recently came to a close after runs of over fifty issues each, and are both being collected in superb deluxe editions. Ex Machina doesn’t quite have the same dramatic hook or clarity of focus as Y: The Last Man does, but that’s not to say that it isn’t a stunning example of pulp fiction – wonderfully well-written social fantasy which is cleverly observed and even more smartly constructed.

All cogs in The Great Machine...

Ex Machina‘s central plot device is that it offers us the notion of a superhero mayor of New York City. Mitchell Hundred was granted the power to communicate with machines after discovering a strange device underneath the Brooklyn Bridge. Using this ability, he promptly became “the Great Machine”, a reference – as the story admits – to society itself. However, the idea of the superhero isn’t quite what it once was.  It has been eroded and corrupted by years of cynicism and deconstruction. Indeed, Hundred – born into a family of political activists – decides that, to effect real and lasting change, he needs real power. “At best, I’ve been maintaining the status quo,” Mitchell admits to his campaign manager as he declares his intention to run for mayor.

Ex Machina lands one of its strongest blows early on. The splash page ending the very first issue is a bold statement which clearly differentiates Vaughan’s story from your standard deconstructionist fare. I’m not sure if I should discuss it here, because it’s a stunning visual composition which illustrates that the story isn’t just playing in a fantasy sandbox – the real world is bleeding in from the edge of the panel, rather than existing distinct from the story unfolding.

Hundred percent approval?

In many ways, it’s that intersection of fantasy and reality which makes Vaughan’s story work so ridiculously well. Characters reference all the major superheroes and shows like The X-Files, while we follow the story of a guy in a jetpack leveraging his “celebrity” into political authority. We live in a world where two of the actors from the original Predator have served as governor of California, so it’s not especially farfetched. It’s a smart starting point for Vaughan to use – and an intriguing high concept to begin with.

The potential problem I can see with the series is attempting to keep too many balls in the air at the same time. Though, to be honest, I feel a bit bad to complain about a writer cramming too many good ideas in. The story is on one level a political saga, on another an exploration of the superhero genre, and finally a grand conspiracy theory to be resolved. The first two threads seem to demand a fair amount of time in this initial volume, while the third bubbles away in the background. However, it already seems like perhaps the story is attempting to do too much – that in trying to fit each of these grand elements into one over-arching plot, Vaughan may short-change the others.

Pretty fly for a politician, eh?

Which is a damn shame, because the series seems to work equally well as an exploration of the democratic system or an examination of superhero drama through a modern perspective. Vaughan is shrewd in his plotting – I get the sense that Aaron Sorkin’s work on The West Wing was a heavy influence on his writing. Mayor Hundred doesn’t find himself facing calamity after calamity – instead he suffers what seems to be a series of quickly escalating minor incidents. The murder of snow-plow drivers vies for his attention against offensive art.

Rather than saving the world or turning things around, Hundred finds himself dancing around issues like “the n-word” or whether he’s gay or straight. The sad irony of it all is that it was likely this sort of twenty-four-minute news cycle was what likely won him the election in the first place – he got elected mayor of New York not based on any political debate or discourse, but because he had a jetpack. It’s interesting that he believes that he can affect real change from the office by leveraging his political beliefs, despite the fact that his popularity doesn’t come from those beliefs.

Explosive...

Still, Vaughan smartly positions Mitchell smack bang in the middle of the political spectrum. In many ways, it reflects the current political climate, and the idea that the left/right divide – as embodied by the two major American parties – is outdated. Unlike President Bartlett, Mitchell Hundred does not pin his colours to any existing political party – which gives the writer more freedom to explore the political issues (rather than being anchored to a particular perspective), but also perhaps defines him as a statesman for the twenty-first century. “I’m not a liberal or a conservative,” the mayor remarks at one point, “I’m a realist.” And it doesn’t seem like empty rhetoric – he handles most of his political issues in an even-handed fashion.

However, there’s always the sense that events have already overtaken him. It would be trite to describe the storyline as “Mister Kent Goes to Washington”, but one gets the sense that Mayor Hundred isn’t going to be able to affect any real or lasting change – that he’s quite possibly making less of a difference than he was when he wore that silly suit. After all, everyone reading the book knows that Hundred’s last act as the Great Machine was nothing short of astounding. He is, despite the difficulties shown in the book, a hero.

The series doesn't spend too long waiting to take off...

Ex Machina is informed by 9/11. It would be hard for any political series based around New York to skirt around the issue. Indeed, the opening shot of Mitchell Hundred reveals a photo of the attacks on his wall. As the author’s original pitch outlined, America needed heroes in those crucial hours – and it’s curious to note if the posturing and action around the attacks and their aftermath were more swept up in strong patriotism or progressive politics. After all, it’s hard to imagine Vaughan thought it was too much of a leap from the self-styled cowboy in the White House to a superhero in the mayor’s office.

Vaughan also handles the superhero aspect of the tale remarkably well. After all, many pundits have argued that there’s little to say in the genre after Watchmen. Many of Vaughan’s observations aren’t wildly original – for example, Hundred gets mailed dog feces from a man he saved (who blames him for the fall in the first place), and the police are less than pleased with the urban vigilante doing their job – but they are dealt with in an entertaining manner. It’s curious to note that the portrayal of the Great Machine is neither depressingly cynical nor hopelessly optimistic. The guy has done some good, but caused some damage – he’s not perfect, but he’s not a failure, either.

The Machine at work...

Vaughan plays around with the timeline in telling his story, which I think helps to balance the various elements. Obviously the earlier flashbacks focus on Mitchell’s time as a superhero, while the later ones focus on his time in office. It’s probably the smartest way to do things, but I must admit to being more than a little skeptical about hoping around a story’s timeline like this – it’s too easy to just introduce back story as you need it to come up (rather than setting it up and developing it); making it seem convenient. Vaughan is one of the most skilled writers working in the medium of comic books today, so I’m sure he’ll work it well, but it’s just something I’ve always had a bit of an issue with.

I’m not overly impressed with the over-arching conspiracy stuff. It’s almost a little too cliché for this wonderful story. A superhero Mayor of New York City – isn’t that exciting enough? He doesn’t need a shady origin coming back to haunt him and the city. The idea of the secrets of a superhero’s origins coming back to haunt them is a ridiculously old one, and a fairly standard plot device in any standard superhero tale. That said, I’m sure that Vaughan can make it work, even if it almost seems a tad lazy to work this element in on top – is if he’s pandering to superhero comic book conventions.

Just stick with it...

Vaughan does find more than a few interesting hooks in this standard tale. I especially like the religious undertones of the conspiracy – as one individual references “the gospel” and “the words of the prophets.” Set in modern New York after 9/11, that sort of phrasing gives the story an edge. It also works so well because Vaughan is just a solidly entertaining writer. He can write great dialogue and characters even when there’s not something especially interesting going on in the background – check out his Ultimate X-Men run for an example of that.

It’s interesting to note how much time Vaughan spends playing with the reader’s assumptions. It’s the mark of a writer who is aware of exactly what they doing. Throughout the series, he carefully and repeatedly presses the expectations of the characters (and by extension, the audience) as to various elements. Mitchell assumes that the police officer he injured was a man; Wylie guesses that the smartest kid in a classroom was a boy. The audience is made to wonder whether Mitchell himself is straight or gay when Vaughan consciously avoids telling us one way or the other – a question which wonders why we assume that his sexual orientation matters, thus catching us just as off guard about our own unquestioning assumptions.

Krem de la creme?

Ex Machina isn’t quite as strong out of the gate as Y: The Last Man was. I think it’s the fact that it lacks the conceptual clarity of Vaughan’s original effort. His story of the last man alive frequently grew complex and played with subplots and conspiracies, but it was always ultimately the story of the last man alive. Here Vaughan tangles two extremely complex genres – politics and superheroes – while crafting an elaborate back story. That isn’t to say that Ex Machina isn’t one of the better books out there, nor to suggest that it isn’t worth your time – indeed, it’s a superb example of the strength of modern comic book storytelling.

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

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