Ex Machina: The First Hundred Days
Written by Brian K Vaughan
Drawn by Tony Harris
Published by Wildstorm/DC Comics; $9.95 USD
Despite its appearance and whatever information you may have heard to the contrary, Ex Machina is not a superhero comic. If the book can be labeled with any title, it’s a memoir. Granted, it’s a memoir of a man who doesn’t exist, but, a memoir nonetheless. By nature memoirs chronicle the life of their subject as told from their perspective, or a period within that life, in that aspect Ex Machina is no different.
It’s the story of Mitchell Hundred, a former superhero who has been elected mayor of New York. This collection follows him as he reminisces on his past while dealing with a scandalous art exhibit, a crippling snow storm, and a killer determined to keep the streets blanketed with that snow by executing the city’s plowmen. It’s a plot summary that does the book a true disservice, as there are multiple layers at work within its pages.
Mitchell has the ability to “communicate” with machines, something that reads the slightest bit goofy, and sounds like the world's worst superpower, but between Vaughan and Harris they make it an enviable one. Who needs to fly when you can create a jet pack in your sleep? Who needs to be bulletproof when you can tell a gun to not fire at all?
Ex Machina takes place in an alternate timeline, a place that is all-but parallel to our Earth, a fact that is hinted at through various ideas (As a kid Mitchell reads DC comics, Arnold is mentioned as California’s Governor, etc.), but becomes increasingly clear when the events of September 11 are brought up. Only, in Mitchell Hundred’s world, he was there to stop the second plane, a picture we are presented with on the very first page, but don’t yet realize the relevance of.
The politics of the book feel very real, like a separate, invisible character within the book's pages, as does Harris’s depiction of New York City. Each character feels fully realized in both dialogue and appearance. In fact, Vaughan’s script and Harris's art meld so well together it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins, which makes it impossible to compliment one over the other, or even one without the other.
Within the first five pages we’re presented with four distinct depictions of the main character, Mitchell Hundred. On the first page we see Mitchell the hero, “The Great Machine” he calls himself, and though we do not know it yet, he is stopping the second plane from the September 11 attacks. This is the ideal Mitchell, the person we want to see, even the person we want to be, he’s the one that can save the world. Next there’s Mitchell sitting in a darkened room, introducing the story, he’s the Mitchell no one sees, the Mitchell inside his head; melodramatic, moody, and doubtful about his abilities and his place in this world, blaming himself for things gone wrong. There are moments after this where this version comes to the forefront of Hundred’s personality, but they are rare, and usually only happen around his closest friends. Then there’s Mitchell the child; wide-eyed, excited, the person we all wish we still were, the child that thinks everything is “cool” and “neat” and can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings but still manages to squeeze every drop of life out of today. Finally, there’s Mitchell the Mayor, the person that is. He’s confident, and even cocky at times, he’s the mask put on for the rest of the world to see, the one that says “I can handle anything.” In five pages Vaughan and Harris present a fully realized fictional character, something most books in the medium are unable to do within their first six issues.
Add to that the interesting mix of supporting characters, along with Vaughan’s layered plots, and what you have is an interesting comic. Something that disguises itself in the clothes of mainstream, seemingly offering a different take of the superhero genre, but once read reveals itself to be nothing of the sort. Its closest comparison is probably The West Wing, and Ex Machina feels very much like a television show, if not exactly that television show.
Vaughan even manages to add a bit of mystery to the plot, hinting at first in Mitchell’s intro, then again during an attempted blackmail. Then there’s the city’s snow-plow killer, which sad to say, is probably the worst element of the book. There’s a tremendous amount of buildup, you think it’s going to be an important plot twist, but in the end it turns out to be what it should have been all along, just something that happens with no real relevance to what is coming after.
The best moments in the book are the character pieces, particularly our introduction to the supporting players, and the times at which they are introduced. We meet Kremlin (real name Ivan) from the child’s point of view, and rightly so, he’s the person that is right beside Mitchell through it all, he is the person that believes in the hero, he bridges the kid we wish we still were with the hero we long to be. Then we meet Rick Bradbury, he is the polar opposite of the dark Mitchell, he’s the man that welcomes the danger, a man who wants to carry the world on his shoulders and be responsible for it all. He’s ultimately responsible for Mitchell’s transformation into a hero, and later becomes his bodyguard. Finally we meet Wylie, the person responsible for the present Mitchell Hundred, he’s taken all of the other elements and molded them into something the outside world can accept, the mask that is put on for everyday life.
Ultimately Ex Machina is a drama about the human condition. It’s about an un-extraordinary man attempting to do extraordinary things, be it in a costume or in a three piece suit, and how the follies both of those are one and the same. In soul it’s one of the few real children of Alan Moore’s Watchmen, Vaughan seems to understand that it’s not “real world superheroes” that drove a book like that, but human characters, ones who aren’t as fantastic as they may seem, ones that screw up daily, make wrong and right decisions, and in the end did what they thought was best. It may lack the extreme depth, grand scale and overall brilliance of a book like Watchman, but it captures its essence better than any that have since tried. Books that’ve done nothing but attempt to ape what Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons put down on paper without ever really understanding what it was about. Vaughan and Harris seem to know exactly what was being said, and with Ex Machina are doing their best to carry on that tradition.
Much like its main character Mayor Mitchell Hundred, Ex Machina is a disguise for something else. There’s always something new to discover, if only you’re willing to look a little closer or dig a little deeper. It’s the aspirin mainstream comics needs dipped in chocolate to hide its true taste. Grade: 5/5
-- Logan Polk
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