"Power Down: Chapter Two"
Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Artists: Tony Harris (p), Jim Clark (i), JD Mettler (colours)
Publisher: DC Comics/Wildstorm
In the midst of the New York City blackouts of August 14th, 2003, Mayor Mitch Hundred finds his ability to talk to machines nullified by the power outages. At the same time, an enigmatic traveller from a very different world to our own comes looking for him, promising revelations concerning his powers which have remained something of a mystery since the very start of the series.
Vaughan shows his strengths as a writer here, mixing a story with strong fantasy elements with some more down-to-earth scenes, with smaller but nonetheless resonant character moments (I loved the look of relief on Mitch's face as the machines of the city go quiet and he realises that he's "free," and the opening flashback provides another welcome glimpse of his childhood relationship with his mother) and humour (such as Dave Wylie's evident discomfort as he's trapped in a broken lift) helping to reinforce the human drama of his grander sci-fi plot. Thankfully, the mystery traveller who appeared last issue decked out in futuristic, technologically advanced garb gets a lot more attention here, but Vaughan is careful not to give too much away about him just yet. We see that he has a particular interest in Hundred, that he is communicating with somebody who appears to be based in an alternate reality or parallel dimension, and that his appearance may be linked to the power outages which also seem to have robbed Mitch of his ability to talk to machines. It's dramatic stuff and promises some major developments on the horizon for Mitch and his supporting cast, but by the end of the issue, we're still not much closer to working out why.
There's even less action in this issue than usual, but penciller Tony Harris still manages to excel with some stunning panels, including one showstopping double-page splash which shows a montage of The Great Machine's heroic actions on September 11th 2001. Some people have criticised the use of the real-life tragedy in this book as tasteless, but it never feels as though Vaughan and Harris are exploiting the event - merely acknowledging the importance of the attacks on the World Trade Centre to their central character (who is, after all, the mayor of New York City). Harris also deserves credit for making the more fantastical elements feel at home in what is a relatively grounded series, this issue integrating the funky sci-fi design of Vaughan's mystery traveller into the more realistic world that we've come to expect from Ex Machina. Jim Clark's inking is almost indistinguishable from his predecessor, Tom Feister, and I mean that as a compliment, as the book benefits from the cohesive feel that comes with having had such a consistent art team steer it through all 27 issues so far. JD Mettler's colouring continues to make the best of Harris' linework, with the lighting of each scene taking on particular importance in a storyline which revolves around the city of New York suffering a blackout. Mettler also subtly reinforces the loss of Mitch's powers by playing down his facial disfigurement, changing its usually green hue to a more natural flesh tone in another example of the art team working on every level to convey the intentions of the book's author.
This is one of those issues that I know will make more sense when the storyline is complete, as it poses many more questions than it answers and leaves us on a cliffhanger which hints that significant revelations will come next issue, but gives very little away for now. I like that Vaughan is starting to give us some major clues to the overall mystery which has been running through the book since its very first issue, and I like that he's managed to shift the tone of the book in a more overt science-fiction direction without feeling like he's moving too far away from its core. However, the lack of political substance in this arc has removed one of the title's more thought-provoking and intelligent elements, and I hope that it doesn't signify a permanent change of pace, as Ex Machina is at its best when the political machinations are at the book's forefront rather than mere garnish for the story.
For the moment, this is a slightly confusing story arc, but a nevertheless enjoyable one which should ultimately shed a little more light on the nature of Mitch Hundred's powers and their purpose, and I'm sure it will prove to be a significant part of Vaughan's long-term plans for the book. It's the nature of serial fiction that we occasionally have to put up with an individual instalment which will sit more easily as part of the whole than as a satisfying story in its own right, but to give Vaughan and Harris their dues, they still manage to make the book entertaining and very readable despite these limitations.
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