Saturday, September 04, 2010
Word Balloon: Ex Machina
In getting back into the flow of writing columns for the blog, I knew without a shadow of a doubt, what my comic book pick of the month was going to be, Ex Machina by writer Brian K. Vaughn and artist Tony Harris. The 50 issue maxi series is published by DC Comics Wildstorm imprint and the series just came to a close as the 50th issue was released last month. Ex Machina is a look at the term super hero in very much a modern sense of the word, it's a look at what would happen if a so called super hero decided to really make a change.
The name Brian K. Vaughn maybe known already to some of my readers, as both a writer on the famed TV series Lost and as the writer of one of the very first books I covered in this column (and one of my favorite series of all times) Y the Last Man. Vaughn has consistently moved away from main stream super heroics in recent years, choosing more to focus on Lost and Ex Machina, though rumors abound that he is at work on a new series. Vaughn has stated that Ex Machina was created to be a voice for his frustrations with our current government (when he launched the series in 2004).
Tony Harris has been the series artist from the beginning. An industry veteran, Harris is most famously known for his epic run on Starman with writer James Robinson, one of DC's most influential books of the 1990's though he has worked on several properties over the years. His stylized art gives a real depth to his characters, showing wide ranges of emotion and feelings. His style makes each character not just a stylized figure, but adds a real depth of passion to each.
The book itself is about Mitchell Hundred, a civil engineer who is exposed to an alien device in an explosion. It scars him permanently (the scars look like circuits) and Mitchell finds out in the hospital that he has the ability to communicate with machines. A lifelong fan of comics, he along with his friends Bradbury(a former marine who witnessed the explosion with Hundred) and Kremlin (a former communist defector who believed that Mitchell's power was a cosmic sign) create a super hero persona for him. Calling himself the Great Machine, Hundred uses his ability to communicate with machinery to create a jet pack and fight crime.
Hundred quickly realizes that fighting crime isn't as easy as it seems and wants to quit, alienating Kremlin n the process. When he uses his powers one last time during the terrorist attacks of 9/11, he realizes that he may be able to truly make a difference somewhere else, and runs for Mayor of New York. Kremlin believes this to be a terrible decision based on his own dis-illusion with Communist Russia and opposes the electoral bid but Bradbury sticks with him. The 50 issue series unfolds as Mitchell Hundred deals with many of the thematic issues that rival today's government officials; health care, censorship, gay marriage, abortion, civil rights, riots, public service strikes; all the while flashing back and forth to Hundred's time as The Great Machine.
Ex Machina is a book that delves into the real world of politics and political relationships, it's material that is very much outside the normal realm of capes and cowls. Using these pretense of super heroes, Vaughn and Harris manage to tell a story that highlights many political views. Its certainly material that most fans of the medium turn to comics to get away from, yet here they are presented in a timely and well thought out manner, under the guise of a super hero comic. Vaughn really embraced the same concepts that Obama would look towards nearly 4 years earlier, how to embrace change. How to make a difference in a set political system. The first trade paper back of the series, titled Ex Machina: The First Hundred Days, dives right into Mitchell's first days in office, facing things like media censorship, and sets a tone for the series that no issue is taboo.
As the series progresses, Mitchell is forced to re-examine the relationships in his own life, from his deputy mayor's support of gay marriage, to his public liaison's death, each tragedy resounds in Mitchell's life in its own way. Vaughn and Harris even dig into the personal demons of Mitchell, showing his relationship with his mother, and the consequences his actions as The Great Machine had on people, not just the people he helped (or hurt) as a super hero, but what it has meant to his best friends, and the sometimes dangerous paths it set them on. The series even shows how the appearance of a "hero" must inexplicably lead to the formation of a "villain" where Hundred is shown facing off against other characters, both in his past as a hero, and in the present as the mayor. Not only must he face these threats, but he must also face the threat of the decisions he has made. Sometimes teh greater good comes at a very personal cost.
In closing, this book is about a set period in one man's life. From the birth of his powers through his 4 years as Mayor of New York, to his ultimate future in the final issue, the book is about one man's insistence that a single person can make a change. He realizes that being a super hero isn't so much about foiling robberies or stopping criminals, but how he can use his abilities to help the world. How his choices weigh upon him, and the sacrifices he must make personally and professionally to enact that difference. Ex Machina, literally meaning an ex machine (playing on his former life of a hero) is a comic book that made you think. It doesn't forget it's four color roots, but it expands beyond the medium to tackle real issues. It's another reminder of why this medium is so great, how comic books are not just bits of escapism, but are tools that really can tell an important story.
I encourage you to check out Ex Machina: The First Hundred Days from DC/Wildstorm. Brian K. Vaughn and Tony Harris weave a tale of serious importance that is also fun and entertaining. Vaughn cements himself as perhaps the king of the independent comic book scene of the decade with this book and Y the Last Man. As the man said, its time for a change, and this book certainly fits that criteria.
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