Ex Machina Vols. 1-9
Brian K. Vaughan, writer
Tony Harris, artist
with John Paul Leon, Chris Sprouse, artists
various page counts
There’s something lovably clunky about Ex Machina. Before we get to the lovably, let’s talk about the clunky, from the ripped-from-NPR political factoids that in some cases all but replace actual dialogue to the silent-movie mugging and gesticulating of Tony Harris’s photoref’d art. In my re-read of the series in three or four sittings prior to its imminent conclusion with issue #50, I was struck by just how clunky it is, particularly at first–much more so than I remember it.
Those first few issues get over largely on the strength of Brian K. Vaughan’s unfuckwithable high concept, the most button-pushing such idea in a career already full of them: Main character Mitchell Hundred is a New York City civil engineer whose contact with a mysterious artifact gives him the ability to communicate with machinery, inspiring him to launch a second career as a masked vigilante which culminates in his diversion of the airplane aimed at the second tower on 9/11 and leads to his election as mayor months later. So strong is that final page of the first issue, with one tower standing next to the light beam used to memorialize the second, that it’s easy to forget how Hundred’s politics are a “both sides make good points” centrist-pragmatist-contrarian hodgepodge that’s both unwieldy and unconvincing. Having the aforementioned both sides shout their points at Mitchell and one another via his various advisors, staffers, and constituents doesn’t help matters, especially because they’re usually concocted in such a way as to smack you over the head with “hey look how ideologically diverse this city is, you can’t pigeonhole anyone, we’re here to challenge your preconceptions, it’s not as simple as Left/Right black/white etc etc.” If you meet a priest, you can bet he’ll also be a boxer who takes the Lord’s name in vain; if a gay couple’s gonna get married, you’re damn straight they consist of one of the city’s, like, eight black firefighters and a Log Cabin Republican. Meanwhile they all point and shrug and flail about like they have some sort of neurological condition. It’s quite silly-sounding and silly-looking at times.
And yet! Just because a choice of how to write or draw something isn’t the choice I would have made doesn’t mean those choices can’t work on their own terms. For example, I always preferred Ex Machina to the other BKV book written in this vein, Y: The Last Man, because of Pia Guerra’s stiff art on the latter–even though I think that stiffness, that neither-fish-nor-fowl not quite naturalistic not quite cartoony look that was Vertigo’s house style for so long, is a big part of what makes that book such a hit with people new to comics: It’s simple and clear, yet not “childish.” Rereading Ex Machina this time around, I had a few flashes of suddenly thinking “Guerra Was Right”: Maybe her simplified, styleless figures are the perfect vehicles for Vaughan’s dialogue in his sociopolitically tinged series, where complex ideas are boiled down into streamlined approximations thereof in much the same way. Maybe Harris’s almost fumetti-like fealty to his models is what makes Vaughan’s Trivial Pursuit: Fiorello LaGuardia Edition dialogue feel so weird here and there.
But you know what Harris does have, in spades? Style, even glamour. Compared with the white glare of that other famous photorealist, Alex Ross, Harris’s art is awash in thick blacks that seem to make his figures both shine and swirl, and their eyes light up the room like Ellen DeGeneres’s when your’e watching American Idol in HD. (Seriously, that woman has unbelievable Lord of the Rings eyes.) Their world of constant grinning and shouting may be one uncanny valley removed from our own, but it’s still a world it seems like it’d be fun to hang out in, argue in, get embroiled in a political crisis or hostage situation in. It’s buoyant, it’s bright, and even the recurring grand-guignol violence feels like some sort of pop-art explosion as much as a series of brutal murders.
And in reading all nine of the currently collected volumes back to back, I discovered so much to enjoy about Vaughan’s writing, or more specifically his plotting. I’d never noticed before that each arc features a masked “villain” of some sort, even if it’s more likely to be someone who stole a fireman’s outfit from the set of Third Watch than a genuine “bad guy.” I also never picked up on the fact that while Hundred and his confidants self-consciously refer to Jack Pherson–a super-powered stalker who gained the ability to communicate with animals in an attempt to crack and duplicate Hundred’s power–as his “arch-enemy,” the book also features a real arch-enemy in the sense of a character plotting behind the scenes to take Hundred down for pretty much the series’ entire duration. In other words, like many heroes, Hundred has a “fighter” arch-enemy and a “thinker” arch-enemy. And by contrast with so many serialized genre entertainments of the past decade, the mythology elements are doled out so judiciously I’d forgotten they even existed. Seriously, you can go for twenty issues at a time before a given reference to the mystery of Hundred’s powers is repeated or followed up on; I can think of at least one very major one from the book’s second arc that still hasn’t been mentioned again. Once you get into it, even the speech becomes easy to enjoy. Vaughan clearly has a blast cussing, for one thing. Moreover, behind the didactic dialogue lurks the satirical concept that the only way to power through the avalanche of ossified bullshit that is politics and government is for a superhero to essentially bully people into it.
But it’s important to note that Vaughan in no way thinks this is a good idea. Indeed, the real secret to Ex Machina‘s success for me is that Vaughan announces, from the first page (set after Hundred’s term ends; everything that follows is a glorified flashback), that the story is a tragedy. Hundred’s personal heroism and political maverickiness will all end in unspecified disaster, perhaps for him, perhaps for the whole city–and as the issues go by, it seems possible that it’ll end in disaster for the whole world. All the characters who argue and chuckle and backslap their way through this whole NYC morality play have no idea what kind of story they’re actually in, but we do. Some rough beast is slouching toward Gracie Mansion, and the tension between the zesty surface gestures and the dark heart beneath is what will ultimately make these ten volumes worth returning to.