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Ex Machina

October 25th, 2010

One of my favorite comic-book series of the last decade, Ex Machina, drew to a close last month.  Before reading the 50th and final issue, I decided to go back and re-read the entire run of this extraordinary series.

Ex Machina tells the story of Mitchell Hundred.  In a world very much like our own (i.e., a world without any super-heroes like the ones you find in comic books), an accident on the docks gifts him with the mysterious ability to communicate with and control machines.  As a life-long comic-book reader (and egged on by his gruff but idealistic mentor, nicknamed Kremlin), Mitchell decides to become a super-hero, The Great Machine, and fight crime in New York City.  After a series of rather hapless adventures (more like misadventures), he decides that he could accomplish more within the system, so he runs for Mayor of New York City.  Though Hundred is first treated like a joke, his actions on September 11th, 2001 (the details of which are slowly revealed over the run of the series, but the gist of which are captured by the staggering final page of the first issue — more on this in a minute) lead to his being shockingly victorious at the poles.  Ex Machina chronicles his tumultuous four years (from 2002-2005) as Mayor of New York City.

What’s extraordinarily impressive about Ex Machina is its verisimilitude.  That’s a strange word to use in connection with a story about a former super-hero, but I think it’s appropriate.  Author Brian K. Vaughan takes his fictional characters and weaves them in and out of the real events that transpired in New York City and the country in the years 2002-2005.  Although there are a few super-heroic smack-downs (unsurprisingly, a few out-of-the-ordinary figures from Mayor Hundred’s super-hero past do show up during the course of his four-year term), for the most part Ex Machina deals with Mayor Hundred and his friends & staff (an extraordinarily well-realized ensemble of characters) wrestling with potent, real political issues: gay marriage, censorship in art, education reform, abortion, and more.  Ex Machina is a very “talky” series, but that’s not a criticism — Mr. Vaughan’s scripts are dense with fascinating political intrigue and conversation.  As someone who follows politics pretty attentively, I was continually impressed with the historical details constantly woven into the stories.  This is a smart book.

This rather intellectual approach to a super-hero story is extraordinarily well-matched by the art of Tony Harris (ably enhanced by inkers Tom Feister and Jim Clark and colorist JD Mettler).  The bulk of the drama in Ex Machina, as I just mentioned, comes not from super-hero slug-fests but from people talking with one another, and there are few artists who could make that sort of story-telling visually engaging, issue after issue.  But Mr. Harris makes it look easy.  The man can render real-world environments and situations with incredible skill.  I’ve read that he uses photo-reference extensively in preparing for each issue.  This shows in his panels, which really look like photographs come to life.  One might think that artwork that is so heavily based on photo-reference might look stiff and dull, but I always found Mr. Harris’ pages to be extraordinarily vibrant.  I was continually blown away by the detail in his renderings.

Right out of the gate with issue #1, it was clear that Vaughan, Harris, and co. had a clear story to tell that was unlike any other comic on the stands.  I often find that when I go back to re-read the beginings of comic series that I love, I discover that those early issues aren’t quite as great as I remembered — that it took the creators a few issues to find their style, and to shape the series into what I would grow to love.  (This is very similar to going back to watch the early-episodes of long-running TV shows.)  But I found those early issues of Ex Machina to be very much of a piece with the issues published in the series’ final year.  Mr. Harris’ art style had changed, but the over-all style of story-telling — and the confidence displayed by the creators — remained consistent.

I won’t spoil the details here, but I still remember seeing, for the first time, the final page of issue #1.  Clearly, a series set in New York City in 2002 that intended to be a realistic piece of speculative fiction would have to address the events of September 11th somehow, but it was stunning the way that the final page of that first issue addressed that elephant-in-the-room head-on.  Without being gratuitous or superficial, that page showed readers that this series meant serious business.  It’s a wonderful, powerful image that I still find haunting to this day.  (It also perfectly explains just how one could realisticly imagine that a man who once dressed up as a super-hero could actually be elected Mayor of New York City.  I think it was key to the success of the series that readers be able to buy into that central conceit, and boy did that final page sell it.)

Speaking of powerful images, issue #2 boasts what might be one of my favorite comic-book covers ever.  It was seeing that image on the comic-book stands that prompted me to give this series a try.  I didn’t buy issue #1 when it first came out, but that cover to issue #2 just MADE me pick it up.  That, of course, lead me to tracking down a copy of issue #1, and I was hooked from there.  This is a good time to give special praise to Tony Harris’ work on ALL of the series covers.  Each issue’s cover was truly a magnificent, intricately-designed work of art.  Really eye-catching stuff.

Knowing that Brian K. Vaughan would go on to work as a writer for Lost, it’s amusing to look back and see that, right from the first issue, the series utilized a very Lost-ish device of opening with flashbacks to Mayor Hundred’s super-hero days (and, occasionally, flashbacks even further in time to various periods of his youth), that connected with and gave context to the main story.  These flashbacks weren’t nearly as central to Ex Machina as the flashbacks were on Lost, but they were a useful device to help fill-out the backstory of Mayor Hundred.  They were also a clever way for Vaughan and Harris to incorporate some super-hero action into their stories, since once Mr. Hundred decided to run for office he hung up his Great Machine super-hero suit.

Ex Machina was an intelligent, sophisticated piece of work.  It’s a series that I am certain will have a shelf-life long past the end of its publication last month.  I highly recommend this series to comic-book fans and non-fans alike.  Jump in with Ex Machina: The First Hundred Days.  (Love that title!)  C’mon back tomorrow for my thoughts on the series’ 50th and final issue…

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