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Ex Machina Review: Deconstructing The Modern Superhero
Ex Machina, like Brian K. Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man, opens with a high-concept hook and flips back and forth through time. 2002 is the story’s present time-line initially, with frequent flashbacks to 2001 and beyond.
Mitchell Hundred was a simple civil engineer who in an accident gains the power of controlling any machine via his voice. After a stint being a low-fi superhero in New York, he decides to help people in a more reasonable manner and runs for Mayor. Chapter 1 ends with the striking image of one of the two towers having survived 9/11, and it becomes clear that we are in an alternate timeline.
The story is a darkly humorous vision of what would happen if a superhero presented himself in modern society. How would New York react? With extreme prejudice! There is no heartening Spider-Man moment with crowds cheering Hundred on. Instead the citizens consider him a menace, and a particularly stubborn cop sets about hunting him down. In the present time-line, she’s become the police commissioner, and they have to work together to get to grips with various incidents that beset the city, from terrorism to political intrigue.
This is beginning to sound like Batman right? Vaughan has an awesome full page punchline to that line of thinking. Gallivanting around town at parties like Bruce Wayne one moment, doing his civic duty by being on a jury the next, Hundred is a multi-tasker that runs New York with a pragmatic spirit, willing to work with both Democrats and Republicans to ensure the citizens benefit.
Vaughan’s exploration of governance, civic duty, and the consequences of a superhero in a real world is expansive, and delivered with brilliant wit. The concept of a superhero in the ‘real world’ has been handled before, but this is so much better than the garish Kick Ass and its ilk. Vaughan is deconstructing and exploring the medium and genre with heavy emphasis on characterisation, emotion, drama and all of the consequences involved in the premise.
Along with artist Tony Harris, he’s also not afraid to get brutal with graphic violence. Hundred’s power is cool and ripe with potential for creative action sequences. Not knowing where it originated from, Hundred often has weird dreams that help him build weapons, and use his voice to disable any that his enemies may use against him. Often he’s forced to jam handguns with a simple utterance of “jam!”, hindering anyone foolish enough to attack him. There is a hilarious moment when he’s accosted by a bow and arrow wielding maniac and in the spur of the moment mutters “jam?” in desperate hope.
Harris’s art manages to make the characters express themselves to an impressive degree. However, sometimes I found it hard to recognise characters until they spoke, which is a major problem, and my biggest nitpick with his work. His strength is facial expressions, and weakness is action scenes. Depicting characters about to enact something is fine, but in amidst the action it feels a bit too staged and traditional, which may or may not be the point, considering the story is exploring the theme of superheroics in a modern context.
A little more detail in the action would have been welcomed. But regardless, the story’s strength is not action but character interaction, in true Vaughan form, as Hundred has to contend with all manner of NY citizens from all walks of life, from police commissioners to crazed vigilantes. Harris draws emotion with skill, enabling the characters to perform rather than remain static on the page like mannequins.
Vaughan’s picked the best decade possible for this tale, the years 2001 to 2010 were a hectic ten years of insanity. Vaughan subverts it with Hundred’s character saving one of the towers and altering the course of history slightly. There is still an attack on Iraq in 2003 and the mass hysteria of terrorism and racial profiling to deal with.
He handles explosive topics with a deft touch, straddling a fine line between gratuitous and thought-provoking, exploring the nature of power from the individual to the collective, while never forgetting that this is a comic and demands awesome stuff and comedic banter.
A mayor is such an un-superheroic role for a protagonist, but also a masterstroke. It’s easy to be an armchair critic and complain about the city we live in, but in Hundred’s shoes, we see him deal with factions vying for his attention. Having to placate one annoys the other, so he has to navigate this game of thrones, as it were, with a deft touch, to ensure he survives as mayor, and hope that he manages to change peoples lives for the better along the way.
There are some spine-tingling double-page spreads, mostly in relation to 9/11 which the story continually flashes back to, as we slowly get a sense of the magnitude of what Hundred had to deal with. It does feel exploitative at times, but fiction is our way of processing events, and Ex Machina is a meditation on justice in all its grey glory. Make no mistake, this is not your standard superhero comic, as Hundred himself states from the outset, via Vaughan’s writer’s voice.
Speaking of the writer, there is a bizarre meta moment late in the story that is so self-referential it will either make you laugh out loud or take you completely out of the story. Vaughan essentially cameos in his own tale and interacts with his own character.
A flaw for some readers will be the episodic nature of the story, rather than concentrating on mythology, it essentially consists of snapshots of hundred’s tenure as mayor and flashbacks to his crime-fighting days. There is still the mystery of his power’s origin hovering at the edges, but that may be a problem for readers. Though every plot thread is handled by the end, before you know it you’re rushing towards issue 50 and the dramatically explosive resolution.
When the mystery of Hundred’s powers is answered, the revelation is pretty damn cool, diving Ex Machina head-first into sci-fi territory and into a sequence of brutal and audacious chapters in true Vaughan style. This is where the review has to wrap up to avoid spoilers, but if you’ve read Y: The Last Man, you’ll know how big Vaughan’s punchlines, and how shocking his twists can be.
The denouement is powerful, utterly scathing, comically shrewd; and portrays a character arc as mesmerising as Walter White’s from Breaking Bad. Ex Machina is an incisive portrayal of the great machine of politics; how it sucks one man’s soul in between the gears and cogs, churns away, and spits it back out changed forever. For a comic, it won’t leave you laughing, but reeling in stunned appreciative silence.