"Smoke Smoke: Conclusion"
Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Artists: Tony Harris (p), Tom Feister (i), JD Mettler (colours)
This issue sees Brian K. Vaughan conclude his "Smoke Smoke" arc, and whilst it does a good job of wrapping up the outstanding loose ends, it somehow doesn't quite feel like it's firing on all cylinders. The arrest and capture of the arc's mystery firefighter is surprisingly (yet realistically) straightforward, as he's taken down via a combination of cerebral police work and straightforward force, and there are none of the kind of twists or complications in the story that you might expect from such an unpredictable writer. Regular readers might also be a little disappointed by the lack of action this issue, but the short flashback that opens the book does at least provide some superheroic antics to add a little excitement to an otherwise understated conclusion, reinforcing the writer's more realistic take on the genre with a hilarious scene in which The Great Machine tries to flee the police with the aid of a Batman-esque grapping-hook gun which proves absolutely useless in his escape. Despite the relative flatness though, and a couple of unusually clunky lines (double-meanings like "It's just stress on the system", or "I was dealing with some power issues" come off as a little too obvious) the dialogue is still as snappy as you'd expect from a book which is frequently compared to smart, well-written shows like The West Wing, and Vaughan still excels in grounding theoretical political issues in hard reality. Although politics has taken a slight backseat to criminal intrigue in this arc, the writer doesn't forget to return to the drugs issue at the end of this instalment, demonstrating the way in which the independent mayor Mitch Hundred is increasingly finding himself prevented from making his preferred decisions by political pressures, both internal and external.
Vaughan doesn't skimp on the human-interest elements of the book either, and there's a great character moment for Kremlin which shows just how badly he seems to want Hundred to focus his efforts and abilities on a return to helping people as the Great Machine rather than as a political figurehead. Whilst it's difficult to completely sympathise with Kremlin's obvious wish to return to his glory days of helping Mitch with his superhero career, it's also impossible to absolutely ignore the idea that he might be right to a certain extent, and these moral shades of grey sit well with the equally complex approach that Vaughan takes to the political elements of the book. Some people might also be taken aback by the issue's last couple of pages, but I don't think that the revelation of Hundred's drug use is that much of a stretch, given the information we already have about him from earlier issues. It's testament to the maturity of the book that this moment of quiet relaxation isn't made out to be a "cool" or dangerous piece of storytelling, but neither is it one for which Hundred is harshly judged either; it's merely a realistic, candid representation of how someone in Mitch's position might choose to deal with the stresses of their existence, whether he is a superhero or not.
I've raved about the artwork on this book in the past, but it's often easy to get so used to the high standard of Tony Harris' artwork that you forget to fully appreciate it. This issue continues to employ the new ink wash technique that Harris and Feister have introduced over the last few issues, and now that colourist JD Mettler seems to have got to grips with how to approach it a little more fully, it's easy to see just how much extra depth and definition it adds to the regular linework. Atmospheric scenes such as the reveal of January Moore's accomplice in the closing pages benefit immensely from the subtle shading, and every one of Harris' faces gains character and detail from the delicate watercolour-ish finish. It's also nice to see the book's editorial taking the care to rearrange elements of the issue's cover to accommodate Harris' artwork as best as possible. The placement of the title, indicia and credits may look incongruous compared to the book's other covers (and the barcode, as ever, proves a distraction) but the care which has obviously been taken to not obscure key parts of the art is definitely indicative of how much effort goes into making this book look as good as possible.
If I have any criticism of this issue (and the entire arc, actually), it's that the story seems to exist as much to set elements up for the book's future storylines as it does to tell a really gripping story in its own right. The way in which the apprehension of the arc's major villain plays out is somewhat anticlimactic, and there's never any real explanation of why he's been carrying out his attacks beyond the fact that he's mentally unwell. The most interesting parts of the book are the threads which don't see any resolution here, such as the meaning of Hundred's bizarre dream sequence from last issue, the reason for the power malfunctions and dizziness that he's been suffering, and the ultimate goal of January and her co-conspirator in undermining Hundred's tenure as mayor. Whether these plot strands will be fully explored in the next few issues or not, there's still a slight sense that they've taken up a disproportionate amount of space in this arc, considering their lack of resolution in an issue billed as a conclusion to the current story.
Having said that, the fact that this issue made me want to dig out my back issues of Ex Machina and read the whole thing through again up to this point must mean that the book is doing something right. The 24 issues that the title now has under its belt seem at once too many and too few: you can't quite believe that Vaughan has packed so many good stories, so much character growth and so much development of the overall plot into just 24 months, but there's also a freshness and sharpness to the writing which most titles lose once they get this far into their groove. Seeing as the book is only just reaching its halfway mark (Vaughan has apparently planned around 50 issues), it's too early to say whether Vaughan and Harris will be able to keep the standard so high for the entire run, but there's no sign of either of them flagging yet. If the next 24 issues are going to be as good as the first 24 were, then this is going to go down as one of the all-time great comic series, and I'm not going to tire of recommending it here until everyone at least gives it a try. With the earlier issues widely available in collected editions, there's really no excuse not to check it out, and I can't shake the feeling that Vaughan is building towards even bigger things in future.
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