Comics Time: Ex Machina Vol. 10: Term Limits

Ex Machina Vol. 10: Term Limits
Brian K. Vaughan, writer
Tony Harris, artist
DC/WildStorm, November 2010
168 pages
$14.99
Buy it from Amazon.com

[Note: I'm not going to come right out and spill the details of how this book ends, but I do say some stuff that doesn't happen, and I talk around what does in such a way that you could maybe figure it out, so be warned for semi-spoilers in that sense. Also, that's not the real cover, which I can't find online anywhere.]

I should have guessed where this was headed when I did my big read-through of Vols. 1-9 over the summer. That’s when I twigged to the book’s purloined-letter superstructure: In each story arc, Mitchell Hundred — Mayor of New York City and formerly the world’s first and only not-quite-a-superhero The Great Machine — deals with some hot-button political issues. He also has to contend with some perpetrator of violence or chaos, who I realized are usually wearing masks or displaying behavior otherwise resonant with supervillains. (Only very occasionally are the villains actually super.) And one layer beneath that, there’s the top-secret arch-enemy who’s been quietly plotting behind the scenes to take Hundred down. Everyone’s known the series would have an unhappy ending since literally its very first page; what I should have figured out is that the unhappy ending would most closely involve not politics and not nominal supervillains, but that quiet little arch-enemy.

So kudos to writer Brian K. Vaughan for the effective fakeout. The much feared extradimensional apocalypse, potentially ushered in by his similarly superpowered rivals, never materializes. Nor does a spectacular terrorist attack, the shadow of which has hung over the series ever since it involved a superhero preventing the destruction of the second tower on 9/11 in its high concept. Heck, Hundred’s David Broderesque Goldilocks centrism-contrarianism isn’t even rejected as a political platform. No, it ends up being a very personal tragedy/atrocity that Hundred was lamenting way back on page one of issue one. And as such…it’s a bit of an anti-climax?

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m all for avoiding the now bog-standard apocalypse in my fantastic fiction. And as I said in my review of Vols. 1-9, I think that beneath the both-sides-make-good-points triangulation that passes for political thought in Hundred’s mind, there’s a cheeky tweaking of that mentality, and an indictment of a political system that allows such people to gain undue influence simply through force of personality.

But that’s just it: Who is Mitchell Hundred, really, besides a guy who was in the right place at the right time twice and made a career out of it? At the end, certainly his politics take a turn for the even more opportunistic and incoherent, if the final page’s punchline image is intended to send the message most of the book’s readers will no doubt receive. Moreover he’s not a deep thinker, he’s not particularly likable or loyal, he’s never really given us much of a reason to care about him personally as opposed to caring about him for the role he could play in averting sundry disasters. So a climax that eschews such disasters in favor of having Hundred secretly do something personally, morally disastrous is underwhelming in that there was never a great man there whose decline and fall we can lament. He’s just a politician, and that’s what he remains.

(One last thing: I don’t have much to say about it, but I feel I should note that Tony Harris’s art gets really weird here at times, in the “rushed” sense of the word. His usual style is so singular that I actually checked the credits multiple times to make sure there were no fill-in artists. But yeah, a lot of this stuff is clearly colored off of pencils alone, at one time he loses a lot of detail and raises the contrast way up, and there’s at least one page I’m basically convinced is just photos run through some kind of filter. He finishes things up on a strong note, though. Just another weird wrinkle to a weird finale, is all.)

7 Responses to Comics Time: Ex Machina Vol. 10: Term Limits

  1. Simon says:

    SPOILERS:

    I thought the last arc recontextualized the previous 40+ issues in pretty devastating fashion. As she carries out all manner of atrocities, the transformed Padilla carries herself with supreme self-assurance about her goals, almost up until the very end. In that light, we can reassess Mitch’s almost fetishistic centrism over the course of the series. All the circles he tried to square, the middle grounds he tried to find, begin to look not just opportunistic, but possibly not even in pursuit of his own opportunities. In other words, Broderism isn’t just hollow–it’s a Trojan Horse! And its filled with freaky alien conquerors from another dimension!

  2. David says:

    I was so so so sadly disappointed by the ending of Ex Machina. And yeah, Harris’ art during the last year or whatever was incredible spotty/shitty. I wonder what BKV thought of it? Guh, it sucks! This books was super strong for a long time! I still hope he does another long form series though.

  3. [...] Ex Machina Vol. 10: Term Limits by Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris (DC/Wildstorm): I always preferred this to BKV’s other long-running high-concept science-fiction series Y: The Last Man, but this final volume threw me, with strange art hiccups from the normally consistent Harris and an ending that depended on our attachment to Mitchell Hundred, a character who ideologically and emotionally has always been something of a cipher. [...]

  4. Matthew says:

    Wow, I totally disagree. I found Mitch to be your classic everyman good-guy for most of the series, as I did with Yorick from Y (a little less so with Yorick, but pretty close). It’d be my main criticism of either series. Mitch is pretty clearly designed to get you to like him. He always seems the reasonable one, the one with the calm head, a person who really cares about the people. What decision does he ever make that even vaguely looks evil or untoward, except in the final volume? Same with Bradbury. What I loved about the ending of this and Y as well was that the characters finally become well-rounded! I don’t know why Vaughan can’t just write entire series that are this good. Jump ahead in time heaps if you have to, K-boy, it’s where you shine! I guess the fact that Mitch was such a goodie-goodie for most of the series did make the decisions in this final volume resonate with me much more than if he was Rorschach or something, but I would really have liked if this cool stuff could at least come in earlier in a series, rather than right at the end. In any case, the final issue was brilliant.

  5. Gotta say: how many times did you read it? (Not the past 9 volumes – but Vol 10). I mean – the first time I read it I was like – meh – that was a bit of an anti-climax – which I think had something to do with the feeling that there was going to be something awesome coming down the tubes (like Alan Moore’s giant squid or something): but then reading it again (and again) everything felt a lot more satisfying and all kinda fit in a much more nicer way. Like that splashpage with the (damn it’s been a while – so sorry if this is misremembered) “we are all together” : it has just the right amount of menace and craziness that your mind can do enough to fill in the blanks (and frankly – yeah – any more insight into that would have wreaked things maybe – it’s like someone said (was it quentin tarantino?) make a sandwich and then give the audience half of it / and then with the final page and the implications that kinda bleed from it – I mean – it’s nice no? A strong note of doom to sound out the series and leave ringing in your head. Put it this way: I wish I wish I wish they had kept Vaughan on for help on the Lost finale – there might have been a lot less disappointed people….

  6. Did you notice liking it more or less the second time you read it?

    In that Robot6 thing you linked to you said: “I always preferred this to BKV’s other long-running high-concept science-fiction series Y: The Last Man, but this final volume threw me, with strange art hiccups from the normally consistent Harris and an ending that depended on our attachment to Mitchell Hundred, a character who ideologically and emotionally has always been something of a cipher.”

    Like – I totally agree that the art shifts are damn strange (and think I did the same thing as you and double-checked the credits to see if it was still Harris and was a little thrown when it said it was) but I disagree with the idea that the ending (namely that final issue) depended on having an attachment to Hundred – like I can definitely see that it’s part of what is supposed to make the ending work – but more in a sense of – oh. here’s this guy – and he’s trying to do the right thing – but no I realise that – yeah – he was just a politician after all (or rather that’s what he has become by the time the story has ended – and that’s the shape of the entire thing – the tragedy he talks about from the first page). Like: do you think the same thing? Or you seeing it differently? Or what? Hell – it’s been a while since I read it so – whatever. But I guess it’s interesting to think about….

    I’ll stop now.