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Ex Machina: The Deluxe Edition – Volume II (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.

It’s interesting how times change. Ex Machina was originally published in August 2004, written by a New Yorker as something of a response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. It’s an exploration of a time when the country needed heroes and figureheads more than it needed politicians and diplomats. Is a superhero in Gracie Mansion any more insane than a cowboy in the White House? However, reading it now it’s interesting to see the similarities between Vaughan’s protagonist, the Honorable Mayor Mitchell Hundred, and Barack Obama. It’s the sign of a good storyteller that the tale remains relevant years after initial publication. It’s the sign of a great storyteller that the tale becomes even more relevant in the years that follow.

He's got the whole world, in his hands...

I think it’s safe to say that the excitement which heralded the election of Barack Obama has faded in the first few years of his presidency. They say that the first 100 days of an administration will go on to define it, and we are well past that. I don’t mean that his administration isn’t aspiring for “hope” or “change” or anything similar – I’m sure that many of the members still plan to change the face of the American political scene. However, when the team ran their campaign based around personality and buzzwords rather than politics, is it surprising that they are meeting resistance on trying to push through political policies?

Vaughan’s protagonist, Mitchell Hundred, faces a similar problem. He ran a campaign based around his time a costumed vigilante “the Great Machine”. Later in this collection, he’s ambushed by a radio commentator demanding to learn his position on the death penalty, one that Mitchell himself managed to avoid outlining on his campaign trail – despite the fact all the other candidates did. “But because you were largely considered a dark horse up until your actions on 9/11,” the pundit explains, “you were never questioned about such subjects.”

Packs quite a punch...

Hundred was elected on a the cusp of a wave of public emotion. His heroic actions, saving the second tower, might pack more punch than the promise of “change” and “hope”, but the idea is the same. Hundred didn’t push himself on a political platform (in fact, he ran as an independent), which perhaps undermines his authority to push through more controversial pieces of policy. In fact, Vaughan notes how political popularity frequently isn’t actually tied to political perspectives at all. A freak terrorist attack in Manhattan makes Mayor Hundred infinitely more popular among his constituents than any policy on gay marriage or school vouchers.

“If we’re just talking popularity,” Hundred’s close friend and bodyguard remarks, “something like this is the best thing that could happen to a politician.” The attack immediately changes Hundred from a joke in the newspaper comics (“I never even wore a cape!” he protests) to a national hero, despite the fact that he’s done relatively little as Mayor of New York. What little he does (tracking down the man responsible with his powers), he does as a vigilante rather than an elected official.

... and the horse he rode in on...

Indeed, what’s remarkable about this second chapter in the saga is just how passive Mitchell Hundred is as the mayor of the city. The closest thing to a political decision that we see Mitchell make over the course of the issues collected here is when he allowed an anti-war march through the city. When challenged to give his position on the death penalty, one he’s avoided giving in the past, Hundred skirts around it – and acts as if he’s been “sabotaged.” Although he does give an answer (and makes sure that it can’t be broadcast), he seems reluctant to share his political opinions.

Indeed, much like with Hundred’s sexuality as hinted at in Volume I, Vaughan seems to intentionally keep the audience guessing on Hundred’s political positions. Here Hundred dances around the death penalty and the war on terror, two of the more controversial issues in American politics. Mitchell argues that these aren’t necessary to do his job. “I have as much to do with administering this State’s death penalty as you do with choosing Canada’s next Prime Minister,” he informs the chatshow host.

Airing his views...

While his sexuality is very much his own business – and Vaughan is right to question our assumptions – I am not so much convinced about his political beliefs. His position as mayor is – as much as it may seem almost administrative – a political appointment. Although his beliefs on those particular issues don’t directly affect his current job, I think they play into his wider political philosophy – which does concern his constituents. In fact, jumping around the issue looks like a cynical move for both the author and character. It saves Vaughan potentially alienating some of the audience by appearing politically neutral – however, more interestingly, it implies that Hundred might be more interested in his political prospects after being Mayor than he has let on. It’s a smart move, but Vaughan has always been a very smart writer.

However, politics play a remarkably small role in this section of the tale. Instead, Vaughan focuses on building up the character of Mitchell Hundred (exploring his family background in Off the Grid and putting him in the middle of a crisis in Fact v. Fiction) and exploring the superhero element of the story (introducing the oft-referenced Phearson in Life & Death and featuring more superheroes in Fact v. Fiction). The chapters here are markedly shorter than in the first book, which creates the impression that – having crafted the broad strokes of this fictional universe – Vaughan is now adding the finer details.

No waste here...

What’s remarkable here is how straight-forward Vaughan paints the superhero aspects of the world. Mitchell even gets a relatively long-term arch nemesis (who even gets to serve as his thematic counterpoint, talking to animals rather than machines) and inspires a copycat (“I was made by the great machine,” the vigilante boasts). Despite how cynical Vaughan might seem about the political aspect of the story, he seems hopeless optimistic about the superhero. There’s no doubt that Hundred had more of an impact as a guy with a jetpack than he does as a publicly elected official.

For the first time, we see his superpowers overlap and conflict with his elected responsibility. He uses his powers to resolve a hostage situation, but also when he goes “rogue” in search of his birth mother and hunts down those responsible for the terrorist attack on New York. He frequently observes that he has promised not use his powers while in office, but it’s a promise he can’t seem to keep – not that one can really fault him. One senses that, not unlike the “liberty and security” argument that Hundred references with Wylie, the issue is far more complicated in reality than it is in theory.

Vaughan's on fire...

Tony Harris does wonderful work here. It’s great to see him again, all these years after his fantastic work on Starman. His artwork suits the tale remarkably well – he is wonderful at catching figures in the middle of a vigorous discussion or debate. He does occasionally over-emphasises certain moments – it looks like we occasionally catch Hundred in what looks like the middle of a syllable – but it works remarkable well.

Ex Machina is a great book. It hasn’t quite developed into a story as compelling and fascinating as Y: The Last Man, but it’s still one of the more fascinating narratives out there. We’re still in the early stages of the game, but it looks like Vaughan is setting up something to remember.

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

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