Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Deus Ex Comica – The God in the Page

Brian K Vaughan’s Ex Machina is one hell of a smart and enjoyable comic. I’m going to show you why a man who can talk to machines and who holds a political position in the ‘greatest’ country’s ‘greatest’ city in a book host to an entire smorgasbord of varied and deep characters, alien symbols, gay accusations, and a rich sense of understanding and research can make for one of the best stories to be put into comics. And I’ll also show why a baseball bat knocking out an eye fits right in with it all. Hit the jump and be amazed.

Editor's Note: This post contains graphic images that may offend certain people or could be considered not safe for work viewing. 

The Ghost in the Machine

I sadly missed the boat on Ex Machina when it first came out. It was already well into the series when I discovered it through my personal all-time 'one book on a desert island' favourite, Y: The Last Man.

Originally, I had plans to pick up the trade, but then I found the Ex Machina Deluxe HC staring at me and promising me the chance to see Vaughan's series proposal as an extra in addition to what I suspected to be another masterpiece in the making and that was an offer I could not refuse. I purchased the mildly expensive hardcover, loved it, and never felt an ounce of buyer's regret.

I've now re-read it and caught up on the second deluxe hardcover and am here to offer up some general information and my thoughts on a book many of you are missing out on. Take a seat and allow me to explain why these two books are absolute must reads.

There Are No New Stories, Just New Ways Of Telling Them

Let’s kick off with an analogy because they always make things interesting. N*Sync were never awesome, I know, it’s true, but when Justin Timberlake came out at the Superbowl Half-Time Spec-Tac-U-Lar and released those fireworks from the fingers in his gloves, I have to admit, I was impressed. He’d found a new way to tell the tale. And thus, BKV’s tale of a super hero is like gloved fireworks directly to my brain.

Ex Machina follows the story of Mitchell Hundred, who gets super powers from a strange, and unknown, artifact after he is taken to where it has lodged itself against the Brooklyn Bridge. It explodes, right into his face, and suddenly Hundred can speak to machines. You don’t need to know more than that because Hundred himself doesn’t. It’s an awesome power with a mysterious origin. Many awesome boxes checked in my book from the get go. Now, Hundred can speak to machines, he can tell them what to do, he can be informed by them of certain things. He can’t make a clicky pen retract its nib, but he can make guns jam and a motorbike's front wheels stop. Admit it, it’s a very cool, and very modern, power.

Hundred decides to become the world’s, or at least this world’s, first super hero, The Great Machine. He flies around with a jetpack and other gadgets, of which the blueprints came to him in his sleep, and he saves a few lives. It’s a bit of fun, and it’s certainly difficult, but it only lasts just over one year. Hundred realises that he’s usually in the way and that he might be able to parlay his fifteen minutes of fame into something more. Thus, he embarks on a political campaign for NYC mayor for the best reason of all - to make a change for the good. Hundred was a civil engineer, so it’s not much of a stretch to have him run for office.

The polls are uncertain, as is Hundred, but he dons the jetpack and helmet one more time, right on poll day, to make a plane land. This event saves one of the World Trade Center Towers and places Hundred into political history for at least one term.

It’s a great start and refreshing to see BKV take the idea of a hero in the real world not actually work out for the would-be hero and then have them use their fame and status to try something else, something a bit more effective. It’s a serious deconstruction of how running a town with a three-piece suit can often yield the same cycle of arch-enemies, sidekicks, torrid love affairs, and personal discovery that wearing a cape has on the typical super hero.

Those Who Do Not Learn From History Are Doomed To Repeat It

BKV shows that he knows his history. Whatever he writes about, he has thoroughly researched, even if it’s just to drop a tidbit of information into a conversation. One character mentions that the basement of City Hall used to be a jail. Now, Hundred uses it as a technology free zone where he can meditate as he is constantly bombarded with the buzz and noise from electronics across the city (upon getting his powers, one of his first acts was to shut down an entire city's power since he couldn't handle the noise and new sensations). It becomes his personal jail away from the clatter of the world. BKV is good at making things come around like that.

Characters also drop nuggets of information around them and instead of it seeming like BKV just wants to show us what he learnt off Wikipedia, we get a sense that the information matters, or eventually will. The knowledge makes the characters seem more at one with their surroundings, not just posters for info-dumps. We discover historical chunks about an old use of Mayoral Gracie Mansion as a public toilet area, the Great Machine name comes from a Thomas Jefferson quote about American society, a previous Mayor with Mitchell in his name died falling out of a plane (he didn’t have his seat belt on, which leads the scene to end with a grand gesture, and the offer to buckle up), the Brooklyn Bridge and the poor endings of its creators is elucidated and countless other interesting tidbits are sprinkled throughout the book.
Additionally, there is a metatextual element to the comic as Hundred grew up wanting to draw comics, he loved DC superheroes, and, later in life, he wants to track down Adventure Comics #265, the one where Superman builds a robot. Does this tie into the actual story being told? You bet’cha it does. There's a robot getting around and solving crimes, in a heavy handed manner, and it says it was created by the Great Machine. Hell, a character in that arc even looks and dresses like some reporter schlub we all know from The Daily Planet. BKV likes to layer his stories, and here he does that with a fractured narrative of timelines, weaving plot threads both super, political, and romantic.

At one stage, Hundred discovers some of the secret history to his past, because no origin tale is complete without a little bit saved for later. This information changes everything he thought he knew about his father, and all heroes carry some daddy issues around with them. Through this, we get to understand what Hundred’s pedigree might really be, and it makes us think that he might have a lot more to fight as time goes on.

There are also new aspects added to his powers where he can almost interrogate one bomb, as well as listen to elevators sing, and he even had a gun lie to him. Nothing is ever as it completely seems, but when has anyone you have known been completely who and how you thought they were? Vaughan peddles in the nuances of the real life, not complete imaginary fluff.

Brad Meltzer writes the introduction to the first HC and he talks about BKV as a magician (which he was in his youth, and in turn made his other main character, Yorick Brown, in Y: The Last Man). BKV gives you the pledge, he offers us something and we always take it. Usually at face value. Then we get the turn, as we can see that it should allude to something, and we hazard a guess. Then the prestige opens us up to something completely different, or which we had forgotten all about due to his misdirection guiding us elsewhere. It is skillful writing and can be studied as much as enjoyed.

Chekov’s Gun

A discussion about swearing, and why Hundred should not do it, takes time to debunk an urban myth about Winston Churchill and then ends with a massive ‘motherFUCKER’ from Hundred. All while letting us know that an important player is now out of jail, and the expletive deletive neatly segues us into the next scene. Everything means something in this world.

The machine that gives Hundred his powers exploded. They don’t know what it was and there doesn’t seem to be much way to find out. There was one scrap left, with an insignia on it, and just that piece causes great havoc along the line. Why did the machine affect Hundred in this particular way? Why does the scrap affect someone else in a much different manner? We can’t help but feel that the answers are actually there, but BKV keeps so many plates spinning that we forget to look for his actual slight-of-hand elsewhere.

We meet The Great Machine’s arch-enemy, Jack Pherson, another person affected greatly by these mysterious powers. He gets a different colour - Hundred is green and gets machines while Pherson gets purple with an animal lean to his word. What other problems can this thing cause, and why does it even want to cause them? One character speaks of a word that needs to be spread, but BKV will get to that later. He likes to lay his seeds with plenty of time for sunshine so he can come back and show us a grand oak that grew in our absence elsewhere.

Mayor Hundred decides to start shutting down all of the fortune tellers and scammers in the city. This leads him to have a discussion with a mysterious lady named Zahala. She tells Hundred about his future, we even see it (in the image above), yet this does not spoil a thing. If Mayor Hundred is going to become The Great Machine again, with a much more stylish outfit, then I cannot wait to find out exactly why, and when. This is Vaughan's mastery of the written form - he can show you what is in his hand but you never know what will happen to it behind his back, nor how long it will be there, or if that is where it will return from. All you can do is wait and enjoy.

If Y: The Last Man showed us anything, it was that BKV knew how to pepper in acorns of awesome across his storyline and eventually show you the mighty canopy that would be developed by story’s end. There is mention of a man, Abdul, in Baghdad who will want to make things awkward for Mayor Hundred. Nothing has been followed up on that thread yet, but I have complete faith. If you fall back into the ethereal darkness BKV is assured to catch you. Eventually.

The fall will be worth it, have some trust.

Appearance Is Everything

Tony Harris has illustrated every issue of Ex Machina in the main series (other artists have worked on the specials and annuals) and he does a superb job of it all. He crafts the characters into believable people and works the acting well even when there's only pages of talking heads. He also has a great knack for drawing the more offbeat and colourful sections of the story, as shown below.

A lady jams a pen into her eye.

A man’s eye is knocked out of his head with a baseball.

A man has a chainsaw rebound off metal and sink deep into his skull.

Someone’s hand gets sliced off, in a fashion neither sterile nor surgical.

You think you’ve got this graphic tone settled into your mind and then the tension is broken by a wicked line. How often do you get to read something like this?

That's not to say Ex Machina is all about shock gore or extreme violence.  Far from it actually.  I just wished to show some of the juxtaposition between the extremes of these shocking, though story driven, events.


Ex Machina is absolutely phenomenal and, as far as smart comics go, I could not recommend it any more than I already do. Vaughan crafts each issue like it could almost stand alone, yet each still serves the greater purpose, and he does the same with each and every page. It starts, has a middle, and an end, of some sort, yet each is so much more than the mere intrinsic value of these outward appearances.

Pretty impressive for a man who hates to take the page to five panels or, heaven forbid, more than that. He looks at the form of storytelling from a very technical point of view, and so for that you rarely get wasted pages or lines. They’re all pieces to the puzzle, even the very first one he gives you.  Hundred even tells you at the start of the series that it all could mean so much, so all you have to do is keep picking up the bread crumbs on your way through the forest. And trust. In Vaughan we trust.  It’s the most important ingredient for any successful relationship.

Tell me, faithful readers, what say you all? Have you read Ex Machina?  What did you think of it?  If you haven't, hopefully this post has inspired you to do so and with post-haste for you are only hurting yourself the longer you hold off on reading a book as smart and expertly crafted as this one.

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Ivan said...

Man, I LOVE Ex Machina. I picked-up the "Símbolos" (that's Portuguese for "Symbols", but I'm not sure if that's the English title) trade, and I absolutely love it. I'm leaving work on a hurry now, but I'll read your post more carefully and try to make a better comment later.

Iambic said...

I haven't read it yet, but now I think I want to. You're very convincing.

Bill said...

I like this series a lot, though it reads much better in trades. Things got pretty slow last year with the long breaks between issues.

Brandon Whaley said...

I'm gonna have to check this out now. I've been on the fence for a while.

Max said...

This is by far my favorite current series. It will be very interesting to see if BKV can wrap this up better than Y The Last Man. He is a truly gifted writer, can't wait for his next original concept. Harris is no slouch either... but here's hoping BKV collaborates with Cliff Chiang soon!

Melissa said...

I love Ex Machina. I'm on pins and needles for the ending!

That said, I'm also a little apprehensive, because I was super let down by the final issue of Y.

Ryan K Lindsay said...

I'm surprised that people here din't like the ending to Y. Wow, I would rate it as one of the best, most satisfying, well written endings I have ever read.

I guess you never can tell.

Ivan said...

Just finished your article, and I loved it. I really liked how the comic approaches political issues showing all the shades of gray.

"Regular" superhero comics have evolved a lot since propaganda and racial profiling were acceptable, but whenever a politician is featured in a comic you can bet good money he's going to be the villain, with a few exceptions. Hundred does "villainous" stuff as mayor, but you understand WHY he's doing it and how he has a point, so he never comes across as mustache-twirling. Same thing as when he does something "nice" - he's not just a good samaritan and there are reasons other than "being nice" at play.

Hundred's power is awesome, in that it's a great superhero power while making his humanity a major factor in it(he has to TALK to the machines, after all). It's such a simple and effective power, while keeping it's weak spots, that it makes you wonder how the hell no one came up with that before (at least not in such a good way).

I agree with pretty much everything else, great article. This series deserves all the appreciation it can get.

Justin Draplin said...

We like to make people into superheroes. Thought this might be a good site to let people know it. Also, it is congenital hear defect awareness month, so if you're up to it you can also donate one to a child who suffers from a congenital heart defect. 1 in 100 children are born with a heart defect. Learn more and help them to be superheroes at www.kids-capes.com/heart

Anonymous said...

this is the second most fav. running series of mine only behind the walking dead...and pacing in the last few issues is so frenetic that i wish there are more than 50...

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