“March To War: Chapter 1”
Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Artists: Tony Harris (p), Tom Feister (i) JD Mettler (colours)
Publisher: DC Comics/Wildstorm
A recent advertisement on British television has been shown whenever a local or nationwide election is about to take place. In it, a cartoon character claims that “I don’t do politics,” after which this statement consistently come back to haunt him as his friend reminds him just how deeply politics affects the many aspects of society which his friend has a problem with. In its own heavy-handed way, it’s trying to make the same point as Brian K. Vaughn has throughout this series - but whereas that advert tries to convince the public to actively participate in the democratic process by telling them how important the invisible hand of politics is in every element of our day-to-day lives, Vaughn prefers to show us how the ideals and principles of our politics translate to positive action which has a huge bearing on the inner workings and direction of our society. The stuff of academic concepts and hypothetical arguments becomes a solid, tangible reality through the actions of Ex Machina’s principal players, and although the political issues are layered and frequently complex, they’re never made complicated under Vaughn’s pen. This is a far more engaging call to a disenfranchised generation to become interested in politics than any government-sponsored publicity campaign that I’ve seen, and as such I can only hope that it finds an even wider audience, because Vaughn is one of those few writers “with something to say” who actually deserves to be listened to – and I can’t think of any higher compliment to pay to his writing than that.
A new storyline kicks off with this issue, and whilst it’s been fun to see Vaughn throw out a few shorter arcs in the last few months, I’m pleased to see him get his teeth into a more substantial and lengthier story here. It seems as though the creative team is going to take full advantage of the broader canvas that is provided by a longer arc too, as “March to War” ups the ante on the comparatively parochial political subject-matter which has characterised this title so far, setting out its stall to deal with one of the most significant developments of world politics in recent years: the US-led war in Iraq. This opening chapter presents Mayor Mitchell Hundred plunged into political controversy in early 2003 as he permits a protest against the war to take place in the heart of New York City, despite predominant public support for the attack on Iraq and advice to the contrary from the National Guard (whose fears are proved to not be wholly unfounded in the issue’s final few pages). It’s satisfying to see Vaughn continue to explore the nuances of politics as seen through the press, as Hundred makes it clear that although he believes in and supports the right to public protest, that doesn’t necessarily reflect where his own politics lie. Nevertheless, Hundred knows that public opinion won’t see things in such shades of grey, and as such he has to endure the inevitable media backlash against him. Things are further complicated when Hundred’s young intern Journal decides to take a public stand on the war herself, putting her own job on the line in order to stand up for her beliefs, and paying an even higher price that she expected at the issue’s end. Without spoiling things, it’s a mildly shocking (if ambiguous) final panel, and it makes me very eager to find out where Vaughn is taking this arc - especially if the intriguing section featuring the mayor of Baghdad (seen in this issue’s opening pages) is going to be brought into play more fully.
There are also a lot of smaller subplots going on here, which continue a number of threads which have been running since the series began. Hundred’s relationship with his journalist girlfriend seems to be growing more sophisticated and serious, and there’s an element of tension which remains between the two characters despite their blossoming romance. It’s a pleasingly adult and mature take on a subject which is almost always woefully simplified in superhero comics, and I look forward to seeing how Hundred’s mayoral obligations continue to impinge on his affairs of the heart. Vaughn also reprises the 9-11 reference which seems to have defined Hundred’s career – and US politics – so significantly with more subtlety this time around, although the visual impact of a one-tower World Trade Centre transformed into a memorial is still not lost under Harris’ superior linework. This time, the image seems more portentous, especially in light of this arc’s subject matter. Tony Harris continues to provide effortlessly superior artwork for the book, richly enhanced by even more vibrant and evocative colouring than usual from J.D. Mettler which is particularly notable in its creation of an alluring feeling of warmth and subdued passion in Mitch’s girlfriend’s apartment. Even some of the slightly more gratuitous elements of Vaughn’s story are given added artistic justification by Harris’ pencils, as whilst I’m not convinced that the nudity in Journal’s bedroom scene is entirely necessary to the story, it gives Harris a chance to exercise his T&A skills in a way which is soft, pretty and entirely inoffensive. Harris’ depiction of the gorier segments of the issue’s opening sequence also hits exactly the right note, and it’s nice to see this title return to the occasionally shocking moments of violence which punctuated previous arcs so effectively.
Thinking back over the series before I wrote this review, it seems amazing to me that all of Vaughn and Harris’ work on the book so far has been contained within a scant 16 issues. Whereas other writers might take one or two ideas and stretch them into a 6-issue TPB-friendly arc, Vaughn isn’t afraid of juggling a number of different concepts at the same time, both political and personal, and has the skill to make it all work together at the same time. Although there’s a fair amount of soap opera here, Vaughn also hits a number of resonant political notes this issue, but never uses clumsy writing techniques or overstates his case in order to get the point across. His characters don’t feel like mouthpieces for his own political points of view, but speak in a very natural way which is true to their individual personalities. However, this doesn’t prevent Vaughn from using them to make a point about real-world politics. When Mitch says “Look, I realize these are dangerous times, but that doesn’t give us magical justification to deny people their first amendment rights,” his political idealism shines through at the same time as we realise how potent a commentary that is on the state of contemporary world politics. We’ve all watched in recent years as the spectre of “Terror” has allowed governments – both in the US and elsewhere – to override certain crucial human rights, and I’ll be interested to see if the alternate reality which Vaughn has created by throwing The Great Machine into the timeline continues to bear a close resemblance to our own, or if it diverges into a very different world as a result of Mitch’s actions.
Ex Machina seamlessly mixes complex and subtle political ideas with the best kind of superhero plots – ones which spring out of the characters, their situations, their beliefs and their choices rather than an empty conflict with the generic villain du jour. We’re barely a third of the way through the huge opus that Brian K. Vaughn has planned for this proposed 50-issue title, and I can’t wait to see where Hundred’s story goes next. “March to War” has the potential to be the book’s best arc yet, dealing with concepts on a global scale yet still managing to relate its larger ideas to a very personal and intimate story. Even though this is very much an issue of set-up, the possibilities for this arc are already looking very promising indeed. Well worth a read, even if you don’t “do” politics.
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