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Ex Machina #4

Posted: Wednesday, September 29, 2004
By: Dave Wallace



Writer: Brian K Vaughan
Artists: Tony Harris (p), Tom Feister (i)

Publisher: DC/Wildstorm Signature Imprint

The story of Mitch Hundred – formerly “The Great Machine” - and his superheroic past continues to unfold, bringing an entertaining mix of political commentary, character observation and simple action to the table each month. This penultimate issue of the first arc begins to tie some plot strands together in a genuinely surprising way, and one which manages to avoid feeling trite or contrived. With the Snowplough bomber still on the loose, the mayor is keen to play down talk of “terrorism” at the same time as he attempts to work out just who this criminal might be. Meanwhile, Journal - his intern - is sent to negotiate with a precocious young darling of the art scene over an offensive painting in a state-funded gallery. It might not sound like the stuff great comic are made of, but writer Brian K. Vaughan injects a modern, politically aware sentiment into every page: whether it’s the Mayor’s acute awareness of the need for spin or Journal’s just-cynical-enough deconstruction of the art world, there are observations here which feel very real and familiar, helping to reinforce the series’ down-to-earth approach to its story whilst also managing to be downright entertaining.

Tony Harris’ excellent art complements every page of text, bringing a grounded feel to the superhero flashbacks in which Mitch really looks like a man in a home-made superhero outfit whilst keeping each of the character designs simple enough to be instantly recognisable among the fairly large cast. The blurring effects added to the fire and snow scenes subtly underline the aforementioned real-world feel of the book, whilst the colouring, detail, and clean inking of Harris’ pencils all contribute to the flawless visuals as a whole. Importantly for a book which covers so much ground in terms of the genre, the artwork seem equally at home dealing with high melodrama, intense talking heads, character comedy or the raw emotion of that final page.

The creative team evoke a powerful feeling of nostalgia in this issue, finding space in amongst the present-day events to give us some more backstory on Hundred’s relationship with his two best friends, Bradbury and Kremlin, and hinting as to how their attitudes to his past superhero career – and each other - may be affecting events in the present. As the audience is clued in as to likely upcoming plot points, it’s good to the characters themselves acting intelligently to quickly come to the same conclusions as the readers (as with the “Three Musketeers” segment), and so move the plot on swiftly without hanging around for the kind of “decompression” that is so popular in (say) Marvel comics story arcs. There’s no extra fat to be found on these storylines, and it makes for a compelling, page-turning read that doesn’t ever get boring or repetitive.

I like the fact that there are still a lot of unknowns about this series – the unclear source, nature and extent of Mayor Mitchell Hundred’s powers are further questioned by the use of a technology-based plot device at the end of this issue, and the character dynamics and history have been presented in such a filtered, chronologically-twisted sequence that the next plot revelation could come from anywhere in the past, present or future of the mayor’s political career. It’s an approach that keeps the reader guessing and the book still feels new enough to be refreshing. What’s more, it looks to be focusing on a very character-driven story in its first arc, whilst still providing enough old-school superheroics to keep genre fans reasonably happy. It might be a bit too talky for some or too slow or political for others, but there is an increasingly expanding niche of people – myself included – who carry on getting a lot out of this book. With only a few backissues to track down it’s still well worth getting into on the ground floor, because if it this series can maintain the high standard of these first few issues then it’s really going places.



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