Sunday Slugfest: Ex Machina #38

A comic review article by: Keith Dallas, Erik David Norris, Jason Sacks, Dave Wallace
"Dirty Tricks: Chapter 3"

Erik David Norris:

Ex Machina is using an auto-win every single month it comes out. And although those months have become more and more spaced out because of Vaughan's commitment to writing Lost, Ex Machina has unfortunately taken the back seat. Now this should mean that the quality of each issue rises because Vaughan can take his sweet time, but if issue #38 is any indication, it won't. In fact, the exact opposite is happening.

The "Dirty Tricks" arc has been such an enigma to me. Coming this late in the game without seemingly helping move towards revealing Mitchell's horrible fate first shown in issue #1 is really mind-boggling. Every other arc in this series has done a decent job of hinting, or revealing pieces, at how the big picture fits together, but "Dirty Tricks" seems like it's just a "realistic" super-hero story that's treading water. This Monica chick doesn't seem to be an example of anything besides a thorn in Mitchell's side for the time being, just another super-hero popping up because Mitchell's past somehow influenced her actions.

This has also been the first issue in the entire series where I felt the politics were jammed down my throat to the point of gagging. I'm not a political person. In fact, I consider myself a-political. I have yet to vote (I'm 23) and feel getting myself invested in politics will do nothing but cause head-aching trauma and blistering frustration. So you might be asking, "why do you read Ex Machina whose sole through-line is a political figure trying to make things right from inside the system?" Well, it's because Brian K. Vaughan has never jammed his point-of-view about certain political debates down my throat during any issue of this series before. He clearly touches on both sides of subjects, reveals interesting scenarios and outcomes swinging both ways and then settles them in regards to what makes sense for his characters. Never do you see Vaughan's political views really come out during this book; it's always Mitchell Hundred's views which always lead to great drama.

However, this issue just seemed over-bearing with all the political mumbo-jumbo which completely took me out of the story. It didn't seem like a character driven issue, but instead a slap to George Bush's face. And I understand this vigilante girl hates Bush and therefore he will be the center focus of all the vandalism, but it still seemed like just too much.

Tony Harris also disappoints this month, for the first time. I don't know if he is feeling overloaded because of his work on this series as well as War Heroes, but a lot of inconsistent art pops up in Ex Machina #38. People's eyes, lips, and heads seem to flux in size and shape which was unfortunately enough to grab my attention and pull me out of the narrative.

Man, I hope Ex Machina bounces back next issue and returns to "best on-going" status. It's just unfortunate that we don't really know when the next issue will come along to wash the sour taste of this issue out of our mouths. Besides a decent confrontation between Bradbury and Kremlin, Ex Machina #38 just didn't entertain this otherwise die-hard fan of the series. Very disappointing.

Jason Sacks:

So here we are in the heat of the Presidential election and, probably like most of you, I just want the damn thing to be over. I want closure, I want completeness, I want the day to come and for us to hear no more about all the stupid petty little things that suck up media attention during this election cycle. Enough about these the minutia of the three major players (I leave out Joe Biden because he's basically the forgotten man of this election since Palin hype has overwhelmed him); I'm anxious for either man to take office and finally start solving our great national crises. Whether Obama or McCain take the office, at the very least we'll be free of all this damn electioneering, speechifying and public posturing. Hopefully they'll help free us from the economic malaise that we've fallen into, as well.

Maybe the most frustrating aspect of an election cycle for me is that it's all hype and media frenzy. Somehow in the midst of exploring figures during an election, they seem to become public caricatures of themselves. It's an odd paradox of elections that the more scrutiny we give these public figures, the less it seems we know about them.

That wish – to unmask the politicians and see them as they really are – is an intensely popular task. The media often attempts to explore those questions, and is also a great impetus for media like The West Wing and our subject for today's review, Vaughan and Harris's Ex Machina.

Our hero, New York City Mayor Mitchell Hundred, is an interesting figure because he's an outsider in many ways. He's an outsider because, by definition, he's an ideologue in a world of pragmatists. He's a crusader in a world of people who just care about getting re-elected. He's neither Republican nor Democrat; walking his own ground rather than following a party line (though Mayor Hundred seems to me to be pretty liberal).

We also see Mayor Hundred literally with his mask off. He had once been a super-hero, but in this issue we see Hundred remove his mask in order to declare his candidacy for Mayor of New York. It's an odd scene for a number of reasons, but most especially for me because of the paradox of the media's reaction. Since they live in a world of cynical evasion and manipulation of the truth, Mayor Hundred's reflexive honesty is hard for the media members to grasp. They ask him questions that show their disbelief at Hundred's sincerity, that show the uphill climb that any honest man would have to face in the current media environment.

That disconnect could potentially be an interesting plotline. Readers have seen echoes of this theme throughout the series, and we see echoes of it in this issue as well. However, this complex theme is certainly not as large an element of this comic as it might deserve to be. I wish Vaughan would spend more time exploring complex issues like that more frequently in this comic.

But we do see Mayor Hundred's independence later in the issue, as he debates with an aide whether he should speak at the Republican Convention to be held in New York. Hundred sees himself as post-partisan, but his aide recoils at the idea of inviting Dick Cheney to the mayor's mansion. Hundred also sees the limits of his power, and the importance of playing politics to get what you want.

It's an interesting scene, for a former costumed hero to literally admit his powerlessness and use that powerlessness to drive for a pragmatic end.

That shows the level of game that Vaughan is playing in Ex Machina. His sights are squarely set on ideas like reality versus pragmatism; heroism versus compromise; and the always complex question of what makes a leader.

The problem is that sometimes Vaughan seems to lose track of these themes. We often get too much of the supporting characters to keep the main plot moving ahead with real resonance. For instance, in this issue we get a three-page sequence between the police commissioner and a Secret Service agent that doesn't add much to the issue. The scene may read better in the trade, but here it felt a bit out of place.

There's the other secret or flaw of this comic: to me, each issue is somehow less essential than it seems like it should be. Maybe it's because so many plotlines are going at once, or maybe it's because of the fact that it's hard to explore complex themes in a 22-page comic book, but I want to be engaged with this comic more than I am from issue to issue. I've been reading this comic for as long as it's been coming out, but I've never quite fallen in love with it.

I've always loved Tony Harris's art since I first discovered it on Starman. His art is highly photo-referenced and occasionally stiff, but it has a power and cleanness to it that I find compelling. His photo references bring a grounding and realism to this comic that fits it well. The more his characters look like real people, the more they seem to really fit into our world, and therefore the better he fits the central themes of this comic.

For me, Ex Machina #38 is very much like many other issues of this series. It's well written and intriguing, containing some interesting themes, but I just wanted it to come together just a little bit more than it does.

Dave Wallace:

Ex Machina #38 kicks off with a fun scene that follows a well-trodden path of the superhero genre, as we're finally treated to a flashback sequence that shows the moment at which The Great Machine revealed his secret identity to the world. Whilst other superhero books might build the scene up as a moment of huge drama and importance, Vaughan downplays the significance of the event to comedic effect, with a public reaction that veers between casual indifference and outright hostility. The writer toys with the idea that Mitch may have been more interesting and valuable to society as a superhero than as a politician, and gives a decent motivation to the villain of this current arc as a result.

"Dirty Tricks" has centred around the emergence of a new adversary for Mitch in the form of "Trouble," a theatrical, costumed female protestor who seems intent on disrupting the Presidential visit to New York. In all honesty, that core plot sees very little development here, and readers who have only joined the book recently may feel that Vaughan is padding things out with unnecessary character-based scenes that don't add a huge amount to the story at hand. However, I personally enjoyed these moments, as they develop many of the book's longstanding characters and plot points - some of which haven't been addressed for several issues.

I'll concede that, as the series gets closer and closer to the conclusion that Vaughan has planned, there's a sense that it's becoming less accessible for new readers. Most of the book's ongoing subplots require prior knowledge of the characters and their web of relationships in order to be fully comprehensible, and although newer readers may still find some of the more character-based scenes satisfying (such as the opening flashback, or the adult and mature flirtation between Commissioner Angotti and a Secret Service officer), many of the subtleties of the issue will only be appreciated by those who have been following the book for some time.

However, those long-term readers are well-served here, as Vaughan touches upon several significant plot strands for the series as a whole. There's an overt acknowledgement of the Presidential ambitions that were planted in Mitch's head at the end of the previous story arc; there's another appearance from the dimension-hopping Zeller in a dream sequence that foreshadows a great disaster (the same disaster that was alluded to in the very first issue?); and we witness further machinations on the part of January Moore and Kremlin (including a possible hint that they may be planning to involve Mitch's mother in their schemes).

Recent issues of Ex Machina might have lacked the societal relevance and "edge" that the first twenty or so issues of the book possessed – although there's a brief glimpse of the old magic this issue, as Hundred and Dave Wylie engage in a snappy discussion about the Democratic and Republican efforts to claim ownership over issues of national security, and Angotti describes the delicacy with which political protestors have to be handled when a big political circus rolls into town - but the strength of the ongoing mystery elements has just about made up for it.

The artwork continues to be one of the book's major strengths, with Harris mixing a fairly realistic tone with occasional cartoonish exaggerations for emphasis, and some cleverly-constructed panels (such as the shot of Hundred in a suit and tie, standing in front of his old jetpack in his hall of trophies). One of my only complaints, however, is with the artwork - specifically with the closing scene. Whilst it's a fun sequence that allows Vaughan an enjoyable pun (the likes of which Spider-Man would be proud), the final moment could have been conveyed with a little more clarity by Harris' artwork. It isn't immediately obvious where Trouble is, how her position relates to that of mayor Hundred, and whether the grappling hook and line that was fired through Mitch's window is the same one that Trouble is using to descend (which seems unlikely, given the angles involved). Due to this slight confusion, the final moment of the book lacks the usual cliffhanging bite - but it's a small complaint about an otherwise enjoyable issue.

Newcomers to Ex Machina may read this chapter and wonder what all the fuss is about, but those who have been with the title since the beginning will probably be satisfied with an issue that serves the needs of the bigger picture more than it advances the current story arc. I can't deny that I'm eager to get some answers now that the series is starting to approach its conclusion, but Vaughan is still managing to provide an entertaining book in the meantime.

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