"Smoke Smoke: Chapter Three"
Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Artists: Tony Harris (p), Tom Feister (i), JD Mettler (colours)
Publisher: DC Comics/Wildstorm
Brian K. Vaughan serves up another standard issue of Ex Machina here, as whilst it isn't particularly revelatory or inspired, it's a solid continuation of the "Smoke Smoke" storyline which starts to weave a few of the threads from the last couple of issues more closely together. The manhunt for the murderous firefighter-impersonator continues, and although there's not much obvious progress made in uncovering his identity, Mayor Mitch Hundred does at least come up with an elegantly simple and logical way to protect the New York populace from him gaining entry to their homes. More interesting is the connection that Vaughan makes between the mystery suicidal arsonist from two issues ago and the drug dealers who have appeared in flashback throughout the story, and I can't help but wonder whether that connection might somehow extend to the mystery identity of the fake firefighter, too. Vaughan uses this plot strand to make an interesting comment on the over-simplistic, short-term and consequence-free nature of mainstream comics superheroics, but it's subtle enough that it never threatens to overshadow the story.
Tony Harris' artwork continues to impress, and his new ink wash technique is already becoming better integrated with J.D. Mettler's colouring than it was in its debut last issue. Although the action sequences are compelling and well-drawn enough, it's in the quieter moments that Harris really shines, capturing the bittersweet and nostalgic quality of a photo of Journal perfectly, and making the most of a trippy, psychadelic dream-sequence (?) which allows Vaughan to drop more hints as to the nature and purpose of Hundred's powers. There's another allusion to the mayor's "other half," Pherson, which suggests that he may make an appearance in the main title soon after his origin in the two recent Special issues, and there's further suggestion that Journal's sister is up to no good, culminating in a "WTF?" cliffhanger which may or may not be connected with her devious plans, but poses a real threat to Hundred either way.
Whilst it probably won't wow new readers, I'm glad that Ex Machina is continuing to remain accessible whilst it builds on its past stories with relatively self-contained story arcs which also reference the book's history in a way that suggests that Vaughan really has a firm plan in mind for his book. As a mature superhero comic for mature readers, Ex Machina is unparalleled, and even issues like this one - which are relatively middling on the book's own terms - provide enough food for thought and beautiful art that they still stand head and shoulders above the competition.
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