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Ex Machina #50

October 26th, 2010

Yesterday I wrote about the wonderfully intelligent, compelling comic-book series Ex Machina.

Last month, series creators Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris unveiled the series’ final issue: number 50.  So what did I think of it?

(I’ll try to be vague about the details, but of course there are SPOILERS ahead.)

In short, it’s a poignant and gut-wrenchingly emotional end to the series, wonderfully written by Mr. Vaughan and gorgeously illustrated by Mr. Harris.  I do have some lingering dissatisfaction, though, which I’ll get to in a minute.

For the most part, during the run of the series, ex-super-hero Mitchell Hundred managed to overcome all of the obstacles that he encountered — whether they were of the super-villain OR New York political opponent variety.  But the first two pages of issue #1 (which I had quite forgotten about until re-reading the entire series from start-to-finish last month) warned readers that the story of Mitchell Hundred “may look like a comic, but it’s really a tragedy.”  With that in mind, as the series approached its end I have been nervously waiting for the other shoe to drop.  In issue # 50, it dropped, and it dropped hard.

Although the stories they told were completely different, Ex Machina bore a number of stylistic similarities to Mr. Vaughan’s other amazing comic-book series, Y: The Last Man.  Both series utilized flashbacks in almost every issue; both series used a device of giving an exact date for every issue’s events as well as for the flashback scenes; both series revealed the title of each issue on the final page; etc.  And in Y: The Last Man as in Ex Machina, the protagonist and his friends seemed to be able to always best their opponents throughout the series.  That all changed in the final issue (#60) of Y, which is one of the most emotionally devastating comic books I have ever read.  Spanning many years, that final issue presents the fates of Yorick and the rest of the primary characters in the series — and in almost every case, those fates are horrifically tragic.  I have a lot of problems with that final issue of Y.  While I must doff my proverbial hat to Mr. Vaughan for being able to write a comic-book that so profoundly affected me emotionally, I am to this day upset at the practically unremittingly tragic fates that befell the main cast of the series, all of whom I had grown to love over the run of the book.  It seemed needlessly cruel to the readership to have crafted such a bleak ending, and while emotionally powerful, it felt to me to have been somewhat out-of-step with the tone of all the previous years’ worth of stories in the book.

Having seen how Mr. Vaughan chose to end Y: The Last Man, and with the warning from issue #1 of Ex Machina that the story being told was a tragedy, I braced myself for a lot of unhappy events in issue #50.  It’s good that I did, because this is a rough, brutal ending for Mitchell Hundred and company.  Through a series of vignettes spanning several years in the future following the events of issue #49 (set in 2005), we see what happened to all of the surviving cast members, including Mitchell Hundred.

Pretty much none of our beloved characters are in a happy place when we get our last glimpse of them in this issue.

I think the only reason why I wasn’t as much of an emotional wreck when reading this issue as I was when I read the final issue of Y: The Last Man is because, as I just mentioned, I was emotionally prepared going-in for a tragic ending — whereas that last issue of Y caught me completely off-guard and unprepared.  But where I was really angered by the events of that final issue of Y, what goes down in the final issue of Ex Machina felt more right to me.  Though much of what happens is horrible and very, very sad, in many ways those events felt somewhat inevitable based on what had come before.  The one scene that really bothered me on a deeper level — approaching the way I felt reading the end of Y — was the final scene with Bradbury.  I am filled with anguish at where Mr. Vaughan chose to end things for Mitchell’s loyal friend — that was a really painful scene, and it’s the moment I’ve been drawn to re-read several times.  I keep hoping to find some glimmer of hope for that character, but sadly there was none that I could see.

There were some great moments in the final issue: I loved that the story returned us to the scene that opened issue #1.  I loved Hundred’s unveiling of the memorial — such a perfect, poetic moment (and don’t think I didn’t notice, Mr. Harris, the genius way that Hundred’s pose echoed his pose on the cover of issue #1!).  I loved the final scene, and the final line.  As with the end of Y: The Last Man, I was bowled over by the perfection of the title of the final issue, revealed on the final page.  Staggering genius at play there.

Tony Harris’ art was jaw-droppingly beautiful, as usual.  (Though I must mention that I was a little thrown by the change in the art when Mr. Harris began inking himself in issue #44.  I adore the look that Harris’ self-inked pages have, but those pages look a LOT different than the art style of the series had been to that point.  I sort of wish Mr. Harris had maintained a more consistent look through the series’ final issues, and then busted out this new style for his next project…)

Where the ending of the series really fell down for me was in its failure to provide any concrete answers to the mystery of the origin of Hundred’s powers.  Throughout the run of the series, we’ve been teased by this question.  Hundred (along with us, the readers), encountered several cryptic figures who seemed to be connected to his origins, and to perhaps the people or creatures who sent to Earth the object that exploded in Hundred’s face on that fateful night beneath the Brooklyn Bridge.  Periodically through the series, we’ve seen Hundred receive confusing and tantalizing visions that gave us fascinating peeks at the true nature of Hundred’s powers, and that hinted at a much larger story at play than just New York City politics.  But we never really got any concrete answers, and that is frustrating to me.  I can theorize that Mr. Vaughan was trying to layer additional tragedy onto the life of Mitchell Hundred — that he never found out the answers to those big questions.  But to me, as a reader, that’s a disappointing cop-out.  Seeing as how Mr. Vaughan’s stories, through the series, kept returning to the question of the origin of Mr. Hundred’s powers and the true purpose of the object found beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, I really expected a pay-off to those questions.  (It would have been different had the series never returned to those issues after Mitchell’s “origin” in issue #1.  Then I would have viewed those mysteries as unimportant macguffins designed merely to set the story in play by giving Mitchell super-powers.  But Mr. Vaughan’s stories CONSTANTLY brought up those questions, right up through the final issues of the series and Hundred’s confrontation with whatever was in the White Box that took possession of Suzanne Padillo.  That, to me, makes it a failure that those story-lines did not get resolved in any meaningful way.)

I must also confess to some frustration that Mr. Vaughan chose to never tell us if Hundred was a homosexual.  That’s another story-point that was teased throughout the run of the series, and I was really hoping for a definitive answer.  (It’s funny, when I read the series originally I always read it as if Hundred was straight — but re-reading the series all in one go I changed my mind and now believe that the character was gay.)  On the one hand, it doesn’t really matter — Mitchell Hundred’s sexual preference wouldn’t change any of the events that transpired in the series.  But I do think reading Ex Machina thinking that Mayor Hundred is secretly gay gives one a vastly different view of the series than reading it thinking that he’s straight.  Since I am now coming down on the viewpoint that Mr. Vaughan intended Hundred to be gay, I wish he’d just come out (no pun intended) and made that clear.  I can’t think of any reason not to do so.  This isn’t a case where I think the story gains anything by that point not being clarified.

Throughout this review, I’ve been constantly comparing the final issue of Ex Machina to the final issue of Y: The Last Man, and their similarities (both in structure — vignettes spanning many years that gives us glimpses as to what happened to the major characters — and tone — in both cases, unremittingly bleak) did give Ex Machina #50 a bit of a feeling of “been there, done that.”

But that would be selling the series a bit short, I think.  Mr. Vaughan and Mr. Harris have crafted a wonderfully sharp, gripping, unusual story, and I commend them for being able to end that story on their own terms, in the manner that they felt best.  There are many great comics that never get to have a definitive ending.  Some because they seem to continue indefinitely (like the continuing adventures of Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, etc.), and many others because they were cancelled or abandoned before they could reach a conclusion.  (In this way, comics are much like TV shows — so many great shows over the years never had a chance to craft a “final episode” to give an ending to the series and their characters’ story-lines.)  I love that, these days, it seems like there are more and more comics (and TV shows!) that are allowed to have a beginning, middle, and end the way novels do.  This allows those stories to achieve completion, and it enables those stories, I think, to remain far more relevant in the years following their publication.

I have some problems with the end of Ex Machina, as I have expressed.  And, in many ways, Ex Machina #50 doesn’t feel nearly as definitive an ending as did the end of Y: The Last Man. By issue #60 of Y, it was clear that the story of Yorick Brown had reached its end, and thus it seemed logical that the series be concluded.  But by the last page of Ex Machina #50, I felt there was still a lot more of the story of Mitchell Hundred yet to be told!  Partly because of all the hanging questions about his powers and origins, but also because there were so many lingering questions about his character and the other characters of the series.  (For example, how did his relationship with Commissioner Angotti play out following the events at the end of issue #49?  Were the two ever able to rebuild their friendship?)  I hold-out hope that some-day Mr. Vaughan and Mr. Harris might return to this series and those questions, even though the logical part of my brain recognizes that that’s not going to happen.  But I’ve gotten off-topic here — my point is that, even though I have some complaints about the series’ end, it is impressive and worthy of praise that Mr. Vaughan and Mr. Harris were able to bring the series to such a powerful conclusion.

I expect that Ex Machina will remain a well-thought of series for many years to come, and I know it’s one I look forward to revisiting again in the future.

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