Ex Machina Vol. 10: Term Limits
Brian K. Vaughan, writer
Tony Harris, artist
DC/WildStorm, November 2010
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.)