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Sunday Slugfest: Ex Machina #39

Posted: Sunday, November 23, 2008
By: Thom Young

Brian K. Vaughan
Tony Harris (p), Jim Clark (i), and JD Mettler (color)
In the shocking conclusion to "Dirty Tricks," the groundwork is laid for the epic tragedy that superhero-turned-mayor Mitchell Hundred first hinted at back in the very first issue of this long-running series.

"Dirty Tricks: Conclusion"

Dave Wallace:

Jon Judy:

Paul Brian McCoy:

Dave Wallace:

This concluding issue of "Dirty Tricks" wraps up most of the arc's outstanding plot strands, bringing an end (for now, anyway) to the story of the flamboyant political protestor known as "Trouble" and resolving Mayor Mitchell Hundred's dilemma over his speech at the Republican National Convention. However, it's too simplistic and contrived a conclusion to provide a satisfying payoff for the arc as a whole.

I'm used to the concluding issues of Ex Machina arcs being a little lighter on political discussion than most issues of the title. When Brian K. Vaughan has multiple plot threads to bring to a conclusion, there often isn't much room for the kind of solid characterisation and enjoyable ideological debate that often characterises the series.

However, Vaughn usually manages to provide a satisfying yet realistically complex resolution that addresses individual plot points and brings each one to a natural conclusion. Unfortunately, this issue doesn't really manage to achieve that manner of resolution as it focuses too much attention on "Trouble" herself and not enough on the other plot threads.

In trying to find a straightforward way to defuse the threat posed by "Trouble," it seems as though Vaughan has had to modify certain elements of her character in order to make his conclusion work. Her confident, aggressive attitude is toned down to the point that she seems impotent and pitiful--in stark contrast to her earlier appearances.

She poses very little threat here to Hundred, and she has to threaten suicide in order to get a reaction out of him. The justification provided for this change in behaviour (her romantic obsession with The Great Machine) is thin, and "Trouble" remains underdeveloped as a character despite a flashback at the start of the issue that attempts to shed a little more light on her.

What's more, the manner in which Hundred is coerced into fulfilling her fantasy doesn't make much logical sense. Once Hundred has gotten close enough to her to accede to her request, there's no way she would be able to commit suicide--and so she could have easily been restrained.

The dominance of this plot strand means that the secondary plot of Mitch's planned speech at the Republican National Convention is given short shrift, with Vaughan disposing of the plot point in just a few brisk lines. What's more, Hundred's decision to abandon the speech apparently results in no negative consequences for him--in fact, it even leads to a job offer by the end of the issue.

Vaughn’s decision here undermines the tension that had been built up over the course of the previous issues--especially given that the speech was meant to be the first step on the road to Hundred running for President in 2008. Even if the developments that arise out of Hundred's new role do pave the way for bigger things in future, it still doesn't really feel as though we're that much closer to seeing the realisation of Hundred's loftier ambitions.

The arc ends with yet another scene that shows Ivan "Kremlin" Tereshkov working to undermine Hundred's political career. If this scene had been the first that showed Kremlin plotting toward this goal, it would make for quite a dramatic cliff hanger. However, Vaughan has pulled this reveal one too many times for it to feel really significant.

In retrospect, it might have been more effective to have Kremlin be a positive presence in Hundred’s life for a little longer at the beginning of the series, in order to make his turn feel more dramatic and significant. As it is, it feels as though Kremlin is constantly stalling in his attempts to ruin Hundred’s career and encourage him to take up the mantle of the Great Machine again--thus undermining Kremlin’s strength as an antagonist and making him feel like a one-note character that isn't living up to his potential.

While this issue doesn't feel as though it delivers on the strong setup of the rest of the arc (making it even more of a disappointment considering the high standard of the previous issues in the series), there were a few enjoyable elements in it. Vaughn provided some well-written moments and enjoyable lines of dialogue, and Tony Harris’s artwork definitely helps to redeem the story to an extent.

I assume that the reason that this book doesn't ship on a monthly basis is that Harris takes more than a month to illustrate an issue (which might be partly due to his simultaneous work on Image's War Heroes). Still, I'm happier to see him handle the book at his own pace than I would be to see a fill-in artist take the reigns.

Harris's artwork maintains the high standard of previous issues, with only very occasional weaknesses (there are one or two shots where his style appears a little more exaggerated and caricatured than usual, but they're not particularly jarring or distracting). The element of his artwork that is most notable this issue is his strong sense of composition--whether it's the inclusion of occasional alternating panels that depict mirroring images of "Trouble" and Hundred, the full-page visual montage of the pair embracing one another, or the attention-grabbing symmetry of the cover.

I still enjoy Ex Machina enough that I'll continue to pick it up whenever it appears. It's a fairly intelligently written adult superhero title with strong artwork and some fairly original ideas, and that's more than I can say for most books on the stands. However, I'm starting to realise that I don't look forward to each issue in the same way that I used to. The slow pace of the overarching plot development--which is only exacerbated by the erratic shipping schedule--may soon start to alienate even the most dedicated fans of the book.

Jon Judy:

As I mentioned in a previous review of Ex Machina, the book follows the same plot structure over and over, the same one used on the television show Lost: current events trigger flashbacks that reveal details about the past of one or more of the characters. These flashbacks add an extra layer of depth to the characters and their pasts, and they parallel the present--offering insights into the characters’ thoughts and feelings while functioning as a commentary on the current story.

And I also pointed out in a previous review that Vaughn has used this structure so frequently that it has become more repetitive than effective.

Thankfully, that problem isn’t evident in Ex Machina #39, in which the reliance on this narrative structure elevates the issue from mediocrity to, well, “above-good,” and, perhaps, a story that will even reach “great” once the series is finished and we can look back to see how it functions in the larger story.

Some spoilers: The plot of the “present” portion of this story is downright anemic. Trouble gets in to Hundred’s room, makes with some crazy, gets nabbed, and then Hundred is offered a gig by the President.

That’s it.

It’s the flashbacks that make this issue. For instance, they elevate Trouble from being a clichéd thrill-seeking-nutjob to an intriguing character. Mental illness is so rarely handled well in comic books--in all popular culture, actually. The mentally ill are almost always dangerous killers, Arkham Asylum material.

The reality is that the vast majority of the mentally ill pose no threat to others, and often not even to themselves. Trouble may not be harmless, but at least Vaughn humanizes her, offering some explanation as to her irrationality and making her a sympathetic character.

It has often seemed to me that despite all of the efforts at telling “realistic” superhero stories over the last few decades, almost no one has touched on the element of reality that would be most intriguing in a world with superheroes: How normal people, or the slightly abnormal, would react to those beings. I’m not talking about “normal” people like Lois Lane or Ben Urich--reporters, a common character in adventure stories because of the way we have romanticized their lives – or long-suffering supporting characters like Aunt May. I’m talking about the average person whose lives briefly intersect with those characters.

Think of how many people have angel obsessions. According to a survey conducted by Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion, half of all Americans believe they are protected by guardian angels. How can so many of us believe in something so illogical in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary? How can we believe we are guarded by invisible, magic protectors when people die horribly and illogically all the time? And yet we do believe. We surround ourselves with angel statues and pins and clothing and, well, become a little obsessive.

Well how much more fervently would we react if we could actually see those protectors? Actually hear them and touch them and talk to them? And how much more obsessive would we be if, after they saved us once, they moved on, no longer responding to us?

I’ve always thought this was a sadly unexplored issue. How do you go on living once Superman has swooped along, saved you from a burning skyscraper, than just dumped you back down on the ground? You actually flew in the arms of a god, and now you have to go back to teeming among the masses? How do you do that? There would have to be massive numbers of super-stalkers. And support groups for people trying to get on with their lives knowing they’d never touch a god again.

Well Trouble’s backstory gives us just a taste of that kind of character. It’s just a taste, but it’s intriguing enough to taste really, really good--and to elevate an otherwise meh issue.

Vaughn’s work is, at its worst, very good, and Harris’s work is, at its very worst, great. As neither of them phones this one in, it starts out being an above-average comic. Throw in Trouble, and the hope that she might be back and explored in greater detail, and this one ends up being very good.

Paul Brian McCoy:

Well, that was a bit of a letdown. Spoilers, ahead.

From what I understand, this series is supposed to end at issue 50, which is eleven issues from now. We're supposed to be following Hundred through his four-year term as the Mayor of New York, which means that there's around a year left of his term to cover in those eleven issues.

We have intimations that Hundred may be the Antichrist . . . or possibly the Messiah. Other people who have interacted with the machinery that gave him his powers went mad. Someone else could talk to and control animals in a manner very similar to Hundred's abilities with machines. And someone from an alternate reality has shown up to warn him that some sort of horrible future is in the making.

And we've just spent four issues on a blonde sex-pot extreme-sports enthusiast with psychotically liberal beliefs who has had a crush on Hundred ever since he "saved" her years earlier. During this time, Hundred has been preparing a speech to give at the Republican National Convention. This speech, he hoped, would get him some time in the national spotlight and jump-start a run at the Presidency in 2008.

In the end, he doesn't get to give the speech, but is offered the job representing the United States at the UN. Of course, he can't (or won't) accept it now, but can wait until the election before making his decision. The offer is apparently being made by President Bush because Hundred took care of "Trouble," the girl who's been doing a little "art terrorism" to protest the Republican Convention.

Honestly, I think the time could have been better used.

The only obvious movement of the overall narrative is the offer of the UN job, and Kremlin dropping off some mysterious documents to reporter Suzanne Padilla (which he doesn't actually do until weeks after he gets his hands on them). All of this isn't to say that the pacing of the story is too slow. As a stand-alone story, "Dirty Tricks" has been entertaining and hardly what I'd call boring. Overall, though, it seemed to be spinning its wheels when it could have been moving us forward into the year 2005--which, when telling the story of his time in office, Hundred called "godforsaken" (thanks, Wikipedia!).

Tony Harris's art continues to maintain the high standard he established when this comic first started four years ago. The use of models and photo-referencing is still obvious, but not distracting--which suits a story set in the "real" world where there are no super-heroes. Well, at least not since The Great Machine quit and went into politics.

I suppose I'm just being impatient. I want this story to move and regain the energy it had over the first twenty-odd issues. There was a time when this comic engaged and challenged me. There was a time when this comic could shock and amaze me. Now, I can't even remember the last time I was excited about a new issue showing up at the comic shop.

I'm not disappointed when an issue drops, I've usually just forgotten all about it--which is why I had to go back and re-read the three previous chapters of "Dirty Tricks" to even find anything to say other than "Well, that was a bit of a letdown."

Even then, I just don't have much to say other than that if there weren't only eleven issues left, I'd drop this title from my pull list. I just hope it picks up some steam from this point.

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