Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Review - Ex Machina

Ex Machina
Written by Brian K. Vaughn; Art by Tony Harris
2005 Eisner Winner for Best New Series
2005 Eisner Winner for Best Writer

There is a theory that superheroes are a product of a bygone era which is why superhero comics are in such a decline. I'm not sure I agree with that since they can still draw a crowd to movie theaters but it's hard to argue that the simplistic worldview that allows for superheroes is completely at odds with the world today. There have been many attempts to shift the superhero to something more modern and I haven't been satisfied with many of them. Ex Machina is an exception. The series and concepts are firmly tied to the first decade of the twenty-first century. It captures the zeitgeist of today with a link to past superheroes in a fascinating package.

Mitchell Hundred was a civil engineer who found a strange machine attached to the pylons of the Brooklyn Bridge. When he touched the machine it merged with his head granting Hundred the ability to control machines and an inherent understanding of mechanical systems. He built a jet pack tried to be a superhero but quickly realized he couldn't make a difference like that. So instead he went into politics. Fate played into his hands as the one great deed he managed to do as a superhero occurred on the day of the mayoral primary and Hundred was swept into office.

Ex Machina is about that term in office which we are immediately informed will end in disaster. Mayor Hundred deals with the complications of being an independent mayor with no political base, skeletons in his closet, the usual raft of problems that the mayor of a large city has to deal with, and the fallout from his brief career as a superhero. The series kicks off with a serial killer murdering sanitation workers, a controversial art exhibit, gay marriage, and someone who has a connection to his own abilities.

Handling politics in comic books (well any pop culture, really) is usually done very poorly. It's rare for a creator to not present one side (the side they agree with, of course) as paragons of rationality and goodness while the other side are vile, reactionary monsters who are cynically harming the innocents for their own benefit. Even when I agree with the positions of the creator I find that kind of demagoguery obnoxious. Vaughan avoids that in Ex Machina mainly by presenting all sides as people who believe that they're right and doesn't show that anyone against Mayor Hundred is a fool. The initial political storylines are mainly about social issues but as the series goes on the politics become more murky and Hundred has to make compromises. It's not the most realistic depiction of local politics but it's a good one.

The plot of the series is the real selling point. There are layers of mystery as the series opens with a brief scene after Hundred's term as mayor before flashing back to just after his inauguration. It sets a pattern where tiny fragments of the overarching picture are revealed in flashbacks before returning to the main story. What gave Hundred his abilities and what agenda is it part of? What terrible secret does he have that the governor wants to use against him? What happened during his time as a superhero? It should come as no surprise since Vaughan is one of the writer/producers on Lost that he is very good at tantalizing the reader with those mysteries.

And I wound up being just as interested in the cast. Part of that is that Hundred is a very nerd relatable character. He's an engineer trying to engineer solutions to social problems and not always succeeding. He tried to be a superhero and found out why someone getting powers and putting on a costume isn't well suited to actually being a hero.

Tony Harris is an interesting choice for telling this story. While I was fine with his artwork on Starman it didn't blow me away. That mixture of human drama and superhero action seems to have primed him for Ex Machina where he's much better. He can show the tight action scenes that wrap up in just a few pages and then keep the momentum in the next twenty pages of talking heads. This might not be the ideal book for an artist to show off but Harris does some nice work.

I liked Ex Machina a lot. It's a smart, interesting take on the mixture of superheroes and politics. Vaughan has created a post-modern superhero that isn't about wallowing in how miserable his life is or how stupid the idea of being a hero is. This is the story of how a superhero might not be able to do as much as a man can without knocking down what came before.