Featuring the art of Tony Harris and an introduction by Brian K. Vaughan.
Publisher: DC Comics/Wildstorm
Don't let the floppy format of this book fool you, as Ex Machina: Inside the Machine isn't an issue of the regular series. In fact, it isn't a comic at all. This special issue is essentially a collection of extras which aims to give some insight into the creative process that goes into Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris' superlative series which mixes politics and policy with flights 'n' tights (well, jetpacks and flightsuits at least) to great effect.
It's difficult to get these kind of collections right, because readers will inevitably approach it from different perspectives. Some will want to see how Tony Harris' art is created, whereas others will want more input from the writer of what has been a fairly original and always thought-provoking series. For the most part, though, Inside the Machine takes the former approach; presenting us with scripts-to-pencils-to-page comparisons, cover sketches and breakdowns, unseen artwork and even some shots of the computer model that Harris uses to model Mitch's superhero jetpack which he wears as the Great Machine. There are also plenty of annotations (and an afterword) from Harris which show the thought processes which went into creating several of his covers and pieces of promotional art for the series. However, the book suffers from a severe lack of material dedicated to Brian K. Vaughan's input. The only contribution from the writer is a foreword which speaks of the book's collaborative spirit, but offers no more insight into the themes, structure or characters of the series than any other commentator could have managed. It's a major drawback for a collection like this, especially considering the depth and complexity of the socio-political ideas which are frequently explored by the series.
However, the sections of the book which deal with Tony Harris' artwork still manage to provide some food for thought. Of particular interest to me were the photos of the models that Harris uses for the major characters of the series. The model who "plays" Mitch Hundred is one Jimmy Hill (which is funny if you're a British football fan - but no, it's not that one), and seeing the comparison between photos of him posing for Harris and the final panels as they appear on the page evokes a sensation which is difficult to describe. It's like hearing the voice of Bart Simpson coming out of Nancy Cartwright's mouth; it initially seems strange and disconcerting, but it also makes a whole lot of sense. I only hope that I can put the images out of my mind when reading future issues of Ex Machina, as whilst these kind of peeks "behind the curtain" are often illuminating, there's always a risk that you won't be able to look at the comic in quite the same way again, once you know who the characters are based on.
In a way, these kinds of books are always facing an uphill struggle. No-one would expect someone who isn't a fan of the regular series to shell out $2.99 for a collection of extras, and even those of us who are regular readers of the title may think twice before dedicating money to a glorified sketchbook which could otherwise be spent on a full issue of a completely different comic. However, for those fans of Ex Machina who are keen to learn more about the book - especially from a visual point of view - there should be enough here to justify a purchase. Just don't expect too many secrets to be revealed.
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