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Ex Machina: The Deluxe Edition – Volume V (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.

If you follow any story to its real conclusion, you always get the same thing. Regret. Pain. Loss. That’s why I like superhero books. Month after month, they just keep going. So no matter what terrible things happen, you know there’ll always be another chance for wrongs to get righted. It’s like, without a last act, those stories never get to become tragedies.

I guess that’s why they call ’em comics.

– Mitchell Hundred, Vice

This is it. The end. The final run of issues where Brian K. Vaughan wraps up his second hugely successful and hugely acclaimed original comic book series, as we follow Mayor Mitchell Hundred through the final traumatic year in Gracie Mansion…

… and beyond.

Ex mayor?

I really enjoyed Ex Machina. I think it works for a lot of the same reasons that Y: The Last Man worked. Vaughan is a writer who isn’t afraid of big issues or complex themes, but also doesn’t feel too tied down by them. There’s never a sense that the story is labouring a particular point, or that the writer is simply using the series as some form of political manifesto, the ideas just evolve naturally from the story – which flows remarkably well.

Indeed, even more here than in Y: The Last Man, I appreciate the ambiguities that Vaughan leaves us with. In Y: The Last Man, the gendercide was a plot device, a tool to set up Yorick’s journey from boy to man, while also offering the author a chance to comment on gender – it clearly never required an explanation, and it was quite obvious that the author would never really offer one. Those looking at the plague as the central mystery of the series were inevitably going to be disappointed, because  the plague was just a set-up.

Politics is in the toilet...

In contrast, the mysteries and ambiguities that Vaughan leaves us with after finishing this series are much deeper and much more philosophical. I criticised Vaughan a bit in the earlier issues for focusing too much on “the invasion” storyline. I think that criticism remains valid, but here the author ties this back into his own central ideas about the very nature of politics. Alien (or extra-dimensional) invasion stories have been metaphors for colonialism for centuries – just read War of the Worlds. That colonialism created America, and its democratic system, one which (even today) seldom acknowledges the original residents of the country. “Was it an ‘invasion’ that wrested this land away from those savages, or was it destiny?” one of the villains asks of Mitchell, and he doesn’t seem sure what to say.

Ex Machina wonders if the days of old-fashioned land-occupying invasion are over. The series has dealt with the invasion of Iraq, and suggests that something far more subtle has been happening in America. This isn’t invasion through force or war or brutality, it’s something far more insidious. It isn’t a foolish attempt to reclaim the planet for the animals (which was as far-sighted as Phearson could ever be). It’s the moment at which power is handed to an entirely new class of people. It’s a subtle political revolution, it’s the rise of those who – like Mitchell – avoid the debates and discussions and instead manipulate and coax. Mitchell doesn’t win debates, he pulls clever stunts.

Shots in the dark...

I’m not denying that Mitchell isn’t an effect administrator – indeed, his philosophy is one of an engineer, not a politician – but that he is, as an entity, toxic to democracy as Americans understand it. He is the replacement for the outdated partisan system. When the issue of abortion is raised, something that voters feel strongly about and feel entitled to be aware of in their elected officials, Mitchell remarks that he spent four years “successfully dodging that sh!tstorm.” He argues, and he’s reasonable about it, that “public servants should try to avoid genital politics and concentrate on actually getting sh!t done.”

However, Vaughan calls his lead character on this here. Over the course of the run, I’d worried perhaps I was being too cynical about Mayor Hundred, but Vaughan actually has one of the character’s close friends call him on the excuses that he’s been making – and the fact that he is able to twist everything into sounding as altruistic as it needs to be. “You can make this look as selfless as you like,” Ray accuses his old friend, “but it’s pretty obvious you’re just moving towards the Centre because you want to be President.” It’s certainly not an unfounded criticism.

An underground sensation...

This isn’t to say that Mitchell is a bad person, or that he has bad ideas. In fact, his political positions are shrewd and even-handed, and are perhaps a lot more honest than some of the tactics adopted by more traditional politicians. For example, deciding not to seek a second term so he can close out what he needs to in his first without having to worry about re-election is a very admirable goal, and perhaps politics would be better if more people adopted that philosophy. Similarly, his decision about what to do with the site of the World Trade Centre is deeply touching and purely rational. Indeed, Mitchell is a hero – in the midst of the carnage unfolding in New York he selflessly throws himself into the fray to help save lives.

And then he selfishly expects his close friend Bradbury to take the fall for him.

Indeed, Vaughan reveals that Mitchell is far more compromised than we might have expected. Well, the more optimistic among us might have suspected. Here he’s accused of being “a manipulative crook” who managed to “steal an election”, using a foreign device that was intended “to subjugate” native populations. Indeed, the “nullifier”, the tool he gave to Kremlin to stop him if he ever went insane and which the UN used to validate that he did not interfere with the election, is revealed to be a “lie” that he thought up. It’s just spin.

You gotta go when you gotta go...

Vaughan cleverly makes us wonder how much of this is actually Mitchell and how much of this is the foreign influence speaking through him. “What did I do?” Mitchell asks himself after one truly cold and horrifying act, which demonstrates how far he will go to protect himself. “That boy is the gentlest soul this asshole city has ever produced,” his mother claims, relating the story of how he cried when confronted with violent cartoons. However, he’s hungry for power. The villain goads him, “I know you know that you deserve to rule over more than just these workaday %^&*s and their meaningless bureaucracy.” He certainly does believe that.

Politics corrupts. Even the most well-meaning enthusiast eventually ends up broken down to a certain extent by the system, selling a little bit of their soul for a few more votes and solid grassroots support. Mitchell is tainted in someway by what has happened. Vaughan leads it ambiguous how much of this cold and calculating cynicism developed during his time in office, or how much came from the device, or how much has simply been waiting there all along, for an opportunity to show itself.

I love you, man...

By the by, the Obama references continue in this stretch of the run. I especially like the reporter who has a problem with Hundred “because he’s a nerd.” After all, Obama is arguably the first geek President. More than that, I like the way that Mitchell ends up on the cover of “the Spider Guy” comic, just like Obama did in real life. Of course, there’s a lovely stinger at the end, but I won’t spoil it. “A new kind of independent”, indeed.

However, there’s more to like than Vaughan’s thoughts on the evolution of politics and what the new millennium holds for the political caste. The simple fact is that this is just good storytelling. It’s clever, fun and exciting – all at the same time. And there’s a whole lot of stuff bubbling at the same time.

The series really takes off...

For instance, I like the backstory that Vaughan suggests for the invaders. It’s not an insult if I suggest it is “Grant Morrison-esque.” There’s something very clever about a device designed to communicate “in the predominant superstitions” of the world it finds – essentially using religion as a weapon, feeding off ideas and beliefs held. It’s a wonderful expression of Clarke’s Third Law, the union of science fiction and fantasy. Also, the use of colours in such a manner calls to mind Geoff Johns’ work on Green Lantern, and is a wonderfully “comic-book-y” concept that fits quite well.

Indeed, it’s great to see Vaughan pretty much embrace the “comic book superhero” aspect of the story. Over the run, I’ve sort of swayed back and forth over whether he was deconstructing the notion of a superhero as a force for good, or offering something of a defence of the genre. Perhaps it’s too complex to really fit into either of the two categories provided, but I love that this stretch of issues pretty much accepts a whole selection of comic book tropes and runs with them – but they feel earned rather than thrown in for the hell of it.

Mayor Hundred took care of things as they arose...

For example, Ring Out the Old suggests that Mitchell’s old enemy Phearson might be alive. Despite his rather graphic death, Kremlin insists that the villain is simply lying low, waiting for an opportunity to strike. “Besides, no matter what this one says, we do not know he is really dead,” the Russian insists. When it’s pointed out that there were bits of him scattered all over the place, Kremlin is smart enough to retort, “But not his head!” Although this is eventually proven not to be the case, Mitchell eventually accepts that Phearson still being alive is the “least illogical” explanation.

Similarly, Vaughan uses the DC comics concept of “Earth Two” to explain the other-worldly invasion forces. The bad guy of the final arc flies unaided. When the time comes for Mitchell to be the Great Machine again, the hero rips open his shirt in a classic Superman pose as he’s “Changing.” Indeed, we even get a riff on “it’s a bird… it’s a plane…” The saga truly goes into flat-out superhero mode for the final act – and that’s not a bad thing. Certainly not when Vaughan has been so restrained to this point, and the wonderful ideas remain bubbling away underneath.

Not just a desk job...

Ex Machina might not be as perfect as Y: The Last Man was, with its elegant simplicity, but it’s still a powerful comic book run, and one which has a lot of great ideas under a well-executed plot. Vaughan is a writer to watch, and I really hope he isn’t gone from comic books for too long. We’d certainly miss him.

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

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