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Sunday Slugfest - Ex Machina #6

Posted: Sunday, November 21, 2004
By: Keith Dallas

“Tag: Chapter One”

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

Publisher: DC Comics/Wildstorm





Average Rating: 9/10

Bob Agamemnon:
Jason Cornwell:
Michael Deeley:
Kelvin Green:
Shaun Manning:
Dave Wallace:






Bob Agamemnon:

Plot: We learn more about Mayor Mitchell Hundred’s past career as the Great Machine and his relationship with the Federal Government. A string of weddings and an argument about New York City’s education system lead to a bold decision. Meanwhile, someone (or something) is mutilating dogs underneath the city.

Comments: Pop culture, whether through movies, television, magazines, or comic books, has always both shaped and reflected the American political landscape. Comic book superheroes have been patriotic Nazi-bashers (Captain America punching Hitler in the face in Captain America #3 of 1941), and anti-establishment revolutionaries (Frank Miller’s Dark Knight overthrowing the government in DK2 of 2001). In recent years, when mainstream comics have chosen to confront social and political life head on, it has been in the form of “event” comics, like last week’s Green Arrow #44, written by Judd Winick, in which Mia tests positive for HIV. Winick’s approach to such issues (he was also the writer behind the “Hate Crimes” story arc in Green Lantern) contrasts sharply with Brian Vaughn’s in his politically themed Ex Machina.

Mayor Hundred’s career is the center of this series, and as the second story arc begins, he is chaffing at the mundane responsibilities of local political office. Officiating at weddings hardly qualifies as the world-changing work that he wants to carry out as mayor. However, it is just these seemingly trivial responsibilities that lead to the major social controversy with which the issue ends.

The pleasure of watching Hundred struggle through his first mayoral term is in seeing his naiveté crash up against political reality. In an argument with his deputy about school vouchers he declares that “[he’s] not a liberal or a conservative. [He’s] a realist. . . Engineers are taught to care about facts, not ideology. ” But it is often ideology that gives context to policy decisions on the large scale. In the last story, the mayor dealt with a crisis over a controversial painting at the Brooklyn Museum of Art (mirroring former real-life New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s battle over the “Sensation” show at the same museum). Hundred tried hard to avoid turning the scandal into an ideological debate, but in the end it is the artist’s cleverness that resolves the situation. Likewise, this new story arc promises to give Hundred another hot-button political issue to negotiate.

Unlike Green Arrow’s “after-school-special” treatment of social problems, Vaughn’s Ex Machina is steeped in the day-to-day nature of such matters. Of course it is easier to play extensively with political notions when your hero is the mayor of a major U.S. city, but that is where the value of this book lies—not in its treatment of politics as an isolated theatrical event, but rather in the connection it makes between politics and simple acts, like having a wedding or shoveling snow off New York streets.

Vaughn is certainly not the sole reason for this issue’s success. Tony Harris’ distinctive and vivid style brings the characters out of the panel. Hundred’s face, in particular, is rendered with such flexibility of expression that the final two pages of the book are truly a triumph. The action sequence with which the issue begins is also deftly accomplished and provides a perfect balance for a story made up mostly of conversations.

Ex Machina #6 is an excellent starting point for those comics fans not already reading this series. The smart writing, meaty characters and authentic situations provide a great balance to normal superhero fare. That Ex Machina manages to make the travails of local government compelling reading for the comics audience, by framing it with a superhero story, is the real success of the series.




Jason Cornwell

Plot:
The book opens before Mr. Hundred took over as New York’s mayor, as we see he was approached by the National Security Agency, who tells him that they are interested in helping him learn about where his powers came from. The book then jumps to the present as we see a pair of sewer workers discover the mutilated body of a dog. The book then looks in on Mayor Hundred, as he considers the creation of a political firestorm by presiding over a same-sex marriage ceremony.

Comments:
I rather enjoy the idea that this book can play with it’s time frame, as the Great Machine’s adventures as a costumed hero, the story of how he made the move from costumed vigilante to mayor of New York, and his present day political maneuvering are all time frames full of unexplored corners that Brian K. Vaughan has proven to be especially adapt at pulling into the light. I mean this issue gives us quite a bit to mull over, as in the opening sequence our hero gets a visit from the National Security Agency, who wants Hundred to accept the rather unlikely idea that their motivation in helping him discover the origins of his powers is entirely altruistic in nature. The opening bit of action was also a pretty effective display of how useful the Great Machine’s powers can be. As for the material set in the present day, the idea of same-sex marriage is a nice hot-button
issue, especially in light of the fact that it was one of the issues that Republicans used to win the votes of America’s newly reborn moral populace. Now this issue was probably written before the votes had even been cast, so it’s nice to see this book is so topical with events playing out in the real world. The reaction to Hundred’s final page question should also be a lot of fun, as one does get the sense that Mr. Wylie is embarrassed by
his brother and isn't going to let Hundred endanger his political standing by taking such a public stance on the issue. The discovery of the dog’s body in the subway tunnel also makes for a rather unsettling subplot, and the conversation these two workers were having before they make their grisly discover is an amusing back and forth exchange, that results in a great punchline.

Tony Harris delivers an almost photo-realistic style that helps to sell the idea that this book could very well be set in the real world, as the only element that sets this title in the realm of a comic book fantasy is Mayor Hundred's superhuman abilities. Still, the most important details are perfectly captured by the art, as I loved the Great Machine's expression as he discovers the attack in the opening pages was all an act, or the terrified expression when the sewer worker discovers the dog’s corpse strung up in the tunnel. I also have to give the art credit for capturing the unsettling nature of what had been done to that poor animal. However the highlight of the issue would have to be the final two pages, as we see Mayor Hundred consider the idea of performing a same sex marriage ceremony before coming to his decision on the final page. I also rather enjoy the Jim
Steranko style cover design.




Michael Deeley

If you’re not reading this comic yet, this is your last chance. If you don’t jump on with this issue, I will hunt you down and kill you. This is exactly the kind of mature, intelligent series fandom should get behind. This is a comic you should show your non-readers. It’s the kind of comic that makes people say, “I didn’t know they made comics about that.”

Michael Hundred found a strange object under the Brooklyn Bridge in 1999. It gave him the power to talk to and command machines. With help from his friends Bradbury and Kremlin, he became the first real-world super-hero: The Great Machine. In 2001, Michael retired from his costumed career to successfully run for mayor of New York City. He figured he could do more good in politics than in a costume.

It hasn’t been easy.

The first five issues gave us a quick overview of Hundred’s life and events leading up to his election, a controversial art exhibit partly paid for with public funds, and a rash of murders that implied Kremlin was trying to bring The Great Machine out of retirement.

All of this illustrated by Tony Harris and Tom Feister. Written by Brian K. Vaughn.

You know Vaughn is a great writer. Ultimate X-Men has never been better than under his pen. And that’s the least of his work! Y The Last Man is his best series to date, and one of the best comics on the shelves. Ex Machina is a close second. His characters discuss politics in an honest and natural manner.

Harris was beautiful on Starman 10 years ago. He’s gotten better. Tom Fiester’s inking is elegant. Yes, I really mean “elegant.” The art is a joy to look at. It’s a beautifully drawn book. Big props to colorist J.D. Mettler for his great job in defining light and shadow.

So what happens in this issue? We see Hundred’s first meeting with NSA agents in 1999. Hundred and his second-in-command Wylie argue about improving the school system. Wylie’s brother wants Hundred to officiate his same-sex marriage. Hundred says yes.

Oh, and there’s some horrible monster stalking the subway tunnels eviscerating dogs and may be connected to the thing that gave Hundred his powers.

Enjoy!




Kelvin Green

Well, this is an odd one. I really don't know how I feel about this comic. I think a “political procedural” story can work as well in comics as any other medium, and I think it’s good that the U.S. industry is opening up a bit to something other than superheroes. That said, the industry is still immature enough that Vaughan needed some kind of superhero element to sell this to DC/Wildstorm, and that’s okay, because small steps are better than no steps at all. And you know, there’s no reason why politics and superheroes can’t mix. There are a lot of stories you can tell with that format. So, how well does Ex Machina do it?

I liked the political, out-of-costume bits a lot. Vaughan clearly understands that comics are just a medium, and you can tell almost any kind of story with them (musicals probably excepted). He does a good job here, and things never get dull. The argument about education policies does seem more like what two hypothetical persons from either side of the debate would say rather than what two real people might say. That shatters the illusion a bit, but on the whole, it’s well written stuff.

And the superhero part works for me too. There’s mystery and action, and it all comes together really well.

But for some reason, the two halves really don’t mesh for me. I’d like to see more of both aspects, but not within the pages of one comic. As I mentioned above, it’s not because I don’t think that these two different types of stories can mesh, because I think they can. It’s just that I don’t really see them working together that well in this issue. Perhaps it’s because I lack the context of the first few issues, but this is apparently designed to be a jumping-on point, so surely it shouldn’t read like two completely separate comics?

In terms of the look of the comic, there is something “rubbery” in the art, particularly faces, that I really don’t like, but for the most part, it’s a good job. The limited colour set works well, and any art team who could make that superhero costume not look absolutely absurd deserves praise.

All in all, I feel that this is a very good comic, and I can easily see what all the fuss is about, but on the other hand, there’s something at a basic conceptual level which doesn’t really work for me.




Shaun Manning

What you need to know:
Mitchell Hundred, a.k.a. the Great Machine, is the world’s first superhero, but he really wasn’t cut out for the biz. Though a freak accident granted him the ability to talk to and command machines, it turns out saving people is more difficult than it looks. What’s a failed superhero to do? Run for mayor of New York, of course! Trailing by miles in the polls, Mitch discovers how much of a hero he can be on September 11, 2001. Now, as mayor, the Great Machine’s toughest battles begin.

Issue #6:
Start of a new storyline! Back in his costumed days, Mitchell Hundred gets a visit from the National Security Agency as the government tries to discern his secret origin. At the end of the interview, the Great Machine takes an anti-war stance. Then, in 2002 (the series’ present thus far), the mayor presides over a wedding while a gruesome sight beneath the city may shed some light on the accident that gave the Great Machine his powers,

Reaction:
Yes! The final page of this issue actually made me cheer. Yes! Writer Brian K. Vaughn takes one of the most controversial issues in America and dismisses it with a single word. Exactly the right word, the proper response to this particular “moral” problem. Of course, since Vaughn does appear quite aware of the actual world we inhabit, I’m sure our Mayor Hundred will not have such an easy time over the next few issues. Still, yes! Yes! Yes!

The art, the dialogue, everything is up to the usual high standards we can expect from Vaughn and Tony Harris. The back story is building organically, with the writer’s clever use of chronology filling in holes whiles leaving much open for speculation. It will be very interesting to see what 2005 looks like in the world of Ex Machina.

Buy it:
This issue is an excellent jumping-on point for new readers, as very little background is required to understand these events. Indeed, those who have been reading since issue one will only have a bit more knowledge of the characters at this point. With a collected edition of #1-5 on the way, now is the time to start reading Ex Machina monthly. It’s one of comics’ greatest treats.




Dave Wallace

A new arc begins in what is easily my favourite new title of the year (and always easily in my top three of the month), bringing a whole new batch of political problems for the super-powered Mayor Mitch Hundred. We get more of the established snappy dialogue that serves the title so well, the beginning of a creepy mystery in New York’s subways, and some excellent flashback superheroics from Hundred’s career as “The Great Machine,” as Brian K. Vaughn follows up his great first arc with a second which looks to be taking the book in a darker direction.

In this issue Vaughn teases us with some new insight into Hundred’s technology-controlling powers, opening with a cynically cool montage that demonstrates a realistic take on how the US military might deal with a super-powered individual that they don’t yet understand. It’s a neat development of the threads from the first arc which tantalize us with parts of an incomplete story; we know that Hundred quit his career in super-heroics, but we’re not sure why, and the flashback sequences keep us interested to find out, constantly dangling story possibilities (A presidential career? An alien origin for Hundred’s powers?) in front of the reader as the plot slowly unfolds. These short sequences would only be so effective, however, without solid and compelling storytelling in the contemporary scenes: luckily Vaughn has managed to cram these pages of political talking-heads full of acute and subtle character observations, not to mention a highly balanced and intelligent take on some fairly hot political issues. Where else in comics do you see an extended debate on the merits of the public school system, mere pages after a rocket-powered superhero takes on an army squadron and two guys share a colourful conversation about internet porn? It’s testament to Vaughn’s skills as a writer that none of these elements feels forced, but all serve as perfectly natural – and highly entertaining - facets of Mayor Hundred’s complex (but never complicated) life.

Vaughn’s excellent writing is served excellently by the artwork of Tony Harris, again on top form whether handling the action of surprise military ambush or conveying the mood of a frazzled, tetchy late-night chat that starts to get a little too personal. I can’t think of any artist that would be better suited to the title, and considering that I was unfamiliar with Harris’ work before Ex Machina then he must be doing something right. He gives real character to his faces and brings a gift for framing a scene that is not so much cinematic as comparable to the best that TV has to offer – and that’s not meant as any kind of put-down, as it’s exactly the kind of look that this grounded episodic story demands. And how can you not love that psychedelic cover?

There may be occasional blips in the book: Hundred doesn’t really need to keep trying to convince us that he’s “not a liberal or a conservative” as his “realist” political balance shines through the writing of his grounded, everyman character, but the comment at least explicitly addresses any would-be accusations of partisan writing on Vaughn’s part. Whilst it might have been more interesting, say, for Hundred to react differently to the surprise at the end of the issue, it feels completely in-character for him to take the view that he does, and in that way the reader gets a further sense of Mitch’s genuine sincerity of character, reinforcing his heroic status and making the foreshadowing of eventual tragedy that kicked off issue #1 all the more interesting.

I can get fairly evangelical about Ex Machina, and I think it’s a title everyone should read (or at least try) even if politics isn’t really your thing. After all, those elements of the book are all about the issues that society has to deal with, rather than the dull mechanics of the system - and that’s something that affects all of us. Suffice it to say, if this was any other book, the rating would be even higher, but the past five issues tell me that this is only the setup for another great arc of this highly intelligent, complex but incredibly readable title.



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