Monday, May 16, 2011

Trade Waiting – Ex Machina Deluxe Edition, Books 4 & 5

It’s been a little while since Ex Machina wrapped up with its 50th and final issue but I have been waiting on the Deluxe HCs so I managed to catch up on the last two volumes all at once. It was one hell of a ride and I certainly enjoyed it. But while thinking about how it pulled in for its landing it also got me to thinking about how it read in such a quick pace. Ex Machina’s final two years were pretty damn fine so hit the jump to see my thoughts on the books without too many spoilers at all.

Ex Machina Deluxe Edition, Books 4 & 5
Written by Brian K Vaughan
Art by Tony Harris and John Paul Leon

There’s a fair bit of back story in the first three Deluxe HCs (I reviewed one and two here, and three here), obviously, and the thing with this title is that each story centre or concept spirals upwards and onwards. This means much of it comes back into play later. That said, it had been a little bit of time since I’d finished the third HC and I was fine to jump straight into this one and not feel like I was having any memory gaps on anything. Plot threads come back in but they’re memorable enough to ping your memory.

Mayor Mitchell Hundred’s visit to the Vatican is a little different but instead of being intriguing as a narrative it becomes an arc of thematic instruction and meaning. It all comes down to free will or fate, science versus religion, faith versus whatever the rest of us have. Vaughan surely built this arc into the wider tale so he could play into these concepts. He defines their eternal struggle in a universal setting as well as showing Hundred’s standings on these topics.

The result is a mix of beliefs with Hundred’s powers almost sounding like some bizarre deified gift. The ultimate truth is left a little open but you can be sure the consequences will be revisited before the series wraps up.

Vaughan does back story really well by making things cycle through into the present all while adding true depth to the past as well. It never feels like Vaughan gets an idea and then flips back through his scripts to seed it in. Everything is effortless and it makes the book feel dense and the landscape real in a way a story of a man who can talk to machines really shouldn’t. Vaughan does this with nearly all his work and so it’s no surprise he manages the feat so successfully here as well. Lines cycle through to an intelligent double entendre and memories hold significance for current events.

I’m not sure if Vaughan brought the trick over from LOST, or if the show picked him up because he does it so well, but most chapters of this book open with a disconnected memory of Hundred as the Great Machine and then the central theme of that sequence informs what comes next. It is a great way to show character without exposition or being didactic. However, the structure becomes predictable and you either have to like it or it’s going to become transparent and annoying. I like it because Vaughan uses these sequences so well but it’s not something every book needs to use from now on. Call it an acquired taste.

A girl later falls in love with The Great Machine which makes for interesting drama as she hates that Mitchell Hundred later sells out to drop the suit and play politics like a good boring human. She returns as an urban troublemaker, a graffiti artist for the masses, and in doing so causes Hundred all sorts of mayoral problems. It’s not explained how she goes from being a NYC tour guide to someone who can basejump off buildings and walk high wires but I guess if you’re fanatical enough about something you can train yourself to do, and be, anything you like.

Hundred dealing with this girl is about his dealing with the aftermath of his short-lived superheroic career. There are always going to be followers but he has to reinforce the concept that this is all in his past. He is doing better in the present than he ever did with a jetpack on his back. But maybe he needs to convince himself of that as well.

Behind all of this we have a long running subplot of Kremlin, Hundred’s oldest confidant and aid to The Great Machine, trying to bring down the mayor so the hero can return. It’s a sad betrayal because Kremlin is hooked on this one idea and prepared to just about ruin Hundred’s life to get the status quo back to where he wants it. Perhaps it’s a commentary on comics, that creators ruin the lives of characters just to see the horizon settle where they want/need it. As much as creators find a dire response when they pull this tablecloth trick so too does Kremlin become less and less likeable in our eyes as he continues the quest. He doesn’t quite become a villain so much as a nemesis, and he opens Hundred’s life up to things far worse than he imagined by attempting this retcon. Hundred has experienced growth and change as a man and Kremlin wants the old ideal back.

The final issue of the fourth HC is issue #40 and in it Brian K Vaughan and Tony Harris emerge as characters. They are in New York to interview for the job of chronicling Mayor Hundred’s life in a graphic novel. It’s a ballsy meta move that’s either going to alienate fans because it’s too artsy or it’s going to bring us all firmly into the fold. I’ll state two things right up front, the creators only appear as themselves for this one issue, and the whole things works pretty damn well.

Vaughan and Hundred hold a massive conversation about what New York is and it’s just an extreme way of putting the theme of this book right up into the foreground. This whole book is one large love letter to the Big Apple, among other things. Vaughan, like Brian Wood and Frank Miller, makes the scenery part of the story and he does so through icons and history. The author as a character is a perfect fit for Hundred because while they both love their surroundings they are both very different people. Hundred is internally a mess but externally he exudes confidence because he knows, through his role, he must. Vaughan is pretty well the opposite.

Harris is as honest with his pencil as Vaughan is with his words. They don’t try to turn themselves into heroes or complete caricatures, they just are. It’s also smart that they aren’t working on the book Ex Machina in the book, that could have been a little too much. If you can get past the whole meta thing you’ll find this issue incredibly enjoyable. Then the final two pages, written by Garth Ennis and drawn by Jim Lee, are just a complete treat.

The end of the fourth HC delivers us a stack of covers from the series. I like having covers in the collections, though not always in the break places as that can mess up the flow of the tale, and so getting a stack at the end means I don’t miss out, which I appreciate.

The start of the fifth HC is the perfect time and place to start the final act of this tale. Kremlin cooks his plan into top gear by using Hundred’s intern, January, and a scorned reporter, Suzanne, to bring the mayor down and allow for the rise of the hero. Unbeknownst to Kremlin, events transpire to bring The Great Machine back as some villains with similar powers to Hundred come out of the woodwork and it takes more than red tape and spin to stop them in their tracks.

I am reticent to come close to spoiling anything because a writer this masterful should be given his own opportunity to win you over with his story so I’ll choose my words carefully. Hundred’s main nemesis has previously been presented as Pherson, a guy whose voice can command animals as Hundred’s controls machines. It’s always been hinted that there’s more like him and here we find out what the others are and what their purpose is.

Vaughan is sneaky in that he keeps enough off the table that you just never quite know. The information is all there but so much relies on you to fill in the gaps with assumption and inference. Vaughan doesn’t sugar coat or spoon feed, he assumes we are smart. He also hopes that we care more about Hundred’s journey than we do the specifics of some fantastical elements. This is, and always was, a book about a man. It doesn’t need all the colourful bells and whistles of the amazing to draw the crowd in. It’s a bold choice and it works.

All of the characters are drawn into a drastic and violent conclusion. A lot of seeds planted throughout the prior forty issues grow into a twisted oak of despair and peril with people needing to more show their human side to seize victory rather than just rely on their powers. It’s full of some absolute kick ass action as well as still being well written and smart. It’s a decent balance that also still includes plenty of politics, and political hustling right up to the end.

There is one flashback, where the young Hundred discusses comics and Earth-Two, that tells you so much about this book. It states all you need to know to understand the present so make sure you take your time on those pages and learn from them. This is Vaughan’s idea of dropping knowledge and exposition through pop references and kid arguments. You can skip past this and not think you’re missing anything important but you’ll be missing the centre to the entire central conflict.

The conclusion is mostly effective but it also feels a little convenient in some parts. Events escalate and some things play out a little too easily, or so it seems. You can see that Vaughan has an end goal in sight and he’s working to get there. Maybe it’s that sticking the ending on any long series can be hard but most of this felt a little simple. Some clever talking, a little bait and switch, and it was all done.

Then we get the coda, something Vaughan generally does well. I like the way Hundred reacts to the aftermath of his epic battle, it’s a scary premise and one that offers almost too much more story to comprehend. The final place that Vaughan leaves Hundred is pretty great. It seems like just a wonderful way to end this tale with him and yet I only want to know what happens next. Sometimes that’s the sign of a good tale, you do not want it to end. This ending is certainly very open but this feels like a great bookend moment and place for Hundred. We’ve followed him long enough.

Bradbury and Kremlin get their final scenes and I’m not happy with either. Vaughan really trashes what I thought of Bradbury and I felt a little cheated by his conclusion. It seems a far jump from the man we’d followed for 49 issue prior. Kremlin’s end is actually pretty good but the handling of Hundred in that scenario also fell flat with me and didn’t feel true. But who am I to say what’s true of these guys or not, I think Vaughan knows them a hell of a lot better than I. That still doesn’t stop me from feeling a little robbed on both counts.

The ending is good, damn well great in parts, but certain aspects struck me as off and that ruins the whole vibe. I feel satisfied with the painting but not with some brush strokes. In the end, I think that’s good enough. I wouldn’t say this is as strong as Y: The Last Man or Pride of Baghdad but it must be hard to live up to those two books. Those books are near on perfect and this book is still better than a great percentage of titles from the last ten years.

Tony Harris really needs to be commended for his art on this title as he stuck it out for every issue of the main series, he didn’t pencil the annuals, and his style remains tight, strong, and consistent throughout the whole tale. This artistic feat is not to be overlooked and Harris is more than just punctual and consistent. The pages are well framed and acted and this book would not be quite what it is without the presence and decisions of a brilliant artist.

The ghost of 9/11 haunts this book and makes it something more every time it is evoked. The book doesn’t dwell just on the sorrow of the event but nearly always looks forward from it. This isn’t nostalgia, it’s very much a future gazing book. Vaughan tries to show these characters, and the world, how to best move on from the event. It’s always well done and tasteful and ads to the story and character moments. This must have been tricky to deal with at all times but there isn’t one situation where it’s used simply for the sensational nature of it.

If you are a writer of comics then you have to read this book purely to learn some very important lessons. Page structure is something comics, unlike any other medium, can use. Vaughan makes each page drop with a beat at the end, and he uses a cycle of language and narrative to make a flow across each page that pays off and keeps you on your toes. Most pages are only four panels each, go through, have a look, it’s phenomenal, and yet he packs so much onto each page. This is a clinic on how to write a page and make it worth a damn. The structure is flawless, like a diamond.

A massive theme of this book is choice. Everyone has to choose their path and you can’t blame external forces you can only choose how you react to them. Hundred constantly gets into predicaments and it’s his choices within these scenes that define who he is. Every other character shows their true colours through what they do, not what happens to them.

My choice on this series was to wait for the Deluxe HCs and while I’m glad I’ve got them now, they look gorgeous together, I am also a little sad because this would have read so much better in the monthly format (but I’m slowly believing that about all well written comics). The pace of this book felt too accelerated and to cram nearly two years of work into a few days of reading doesn’t do it all justice. It races by and the month-long wait really would have opened up more thoughts on the characters and the story. I missed the boat so had to trade wait but I can tell the reading suffered by all happening so quickly. This book deserves to get the time to work its magic on you.

Verdict – Must Read. Ex Machina is one hell of a book. It’s fun and it’s full of action but it’s matched with heart and brains, too. Vaughan has crafted a book that will stand on its own for some time now. The blend of politics and superheroics matches the flow of erudition and excitement on each page. This is a comic for comic fans who want the absolute best from their favourite medium. I suggest you invest in these 5 Deluxe HCs. They are worth every damn penny you can drop on them.

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CombatSpoon86 said...

Great Book, I have vols 1-3 in sc.

Jormungand said...

Stunning series. I hope it's not BKV's swansong in comics, but if it is, he goes out on pretty damn near the highest possible note.
Sure, it's not perfect (but what is?) – we're left with multiple loose ends, a somewhat lacklustre final storyline, and Bradbury's final scene felt a bit random for a character you cared this much for.
But really, this is as good as comics get nowadays. No other current writer can touch BKV's mix of wit, humor and drama.
Oh, and the ending was heartwrenching... BKV has never written a sadder moment.
I can't wait to re-read it in a few years!

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