Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Run: Ex Machina by Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris: The First Hundred Days

The Comic Pusher Presents The Run: Ex Machina Part Two

In The Run, I review long-form comic works across multiple parts. In Part Two of my series on Ex Machina by Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris, I look at the next three stories, State of Emergency, Tag, and the short story "Fortune Favors." For the other reviews in this series, click here.

State of Emergency

In State of Emergency (from the first volume of the series, The First Hundred Days), we move into the third week of Mayor Mitchell Hundred's young term with a snowstorm and an artworld controversy. A snowstorm in a City this size has long-term effects and can be a logistical nightmare for any mayor. It costs a million dollars per inch to remove the snow and mass-transit can be crippled, but the day-to-day business of the city must go forward, including dealing with public relations nightmares stoked by the City's thriving tabloid press and equally thriving cadre of lampreys who feed off the spotlight controversy affords.

Hundred is at a press conference with Police Commissioner Amy Angotti, one of the few holdovers from the prior Administration. The first time Hundred met Angotti, it was as The Great Machine. He had decided to run for Mayor and introduced himself to her by flying down and scooping her up to a roof. She reaches for a weapon and Hundred notes that guns won't work on him. She's already ahead of him though, and pulls out a nightstick and beats Hundred with it. She wants to arrest him, "You are terrorizing New York City, and you are going to get someone killed! ... I will start arming my people with fucking bows and arrows and order them to shoot on sight!" Despite saving Tower Two on 9/11 where her husband was working, she's not remotely happy to be working for Hundred now, especially considering he used his powers during the assassination attempt last issue.

Right after the press conference Hundred is called to the Brooklyn Museum, outside the prying eyes of the press and in through the service entrance. A painting, paid for by the City, is about to set off a racial furor dampened only slightly by the weather. Hundred promotes Journal Moore, his young, artsy intern, to the position of "Special Adviser of Youth Affairs" to deal with the matter. (Wylie objects, "You cannot suddenly put attractive young female interns on the payroll!" Hundred, with a sly smile: "You think she's attractive?") But to compound the problems with the weather, someone has started killing the sanitation workers who have been cleaning up the mess of the storm, and Hundred has reason to believe it is Kremlin trying to draw him out as The Great Machine.

For Hundred to accuse Kremlin of murder is a big betrayal, but its made clear that Kremlin is still obsessed with the work they did as The Great Machine, and has dropped some oblique hints to Hundred after breaking into Gracie Mansion, focusing on an old "arch nemesis." Ultimately it is Kremlin who susses out the killer, and the art problem solves itself after a fashion. State of Emergency does a good job of painting a few days in the life of the Mayor of New York while weaving in mysteries of Hundred's past and exploring the complex relationship that exists between Hundred and Kremlin & Bradbury, the "heart and brain of The Great Machine."

Tag

Tag is an explosive story arc that reveals a great deal about Hundred's superhero vigilante past while revealing even deeper questions - including the series' most complex and enduring mystery - all the while exploring sociopolitical issues that may have a nationwide impact.

The present-day story opens at the end of March, 2002 with Hundred performing his nineteenth wedding. He goes upstairs to get away from the festivities and has a minor argument with Wylie about school vouchers. The next day they agree to disagree, then Journal lets slip that Wylie's brother, an FDNY firefighter, wants to get married and wants the Mayor to perform the ceremony. Despite all the marriages for donors and political allies he has had to perform lately, he'd make the exception for Wylie's brother: "You know I promised every rescue worker I'd do whatever I could for them after... ah... What I mean is, those are the only marriages I don't mind officiating." Wylie responds, "Well, you can't do this one sir." Hundred asks, "Why the hell not?" Wylie: "Because my brother wants to marry his boyfriend." Hundred's response as presented by Harris and Vaughan is as funny as it is surprising:

Hundred often makes surprising decisions. He has no immediately definable political inclination. As he tells someone, "My mind sometimes makes tactical decisions before the rest of me." This goes a long way to showing the internal gears of how The Great Machine works, how we get this far and how we get to the inevitable end.

So he decides to start officiating gay marriages, or at least one of them, between a liberal and a Log Cabin Republican, of course. (It's Fall 2013 and there is no question about the moral, ethical, and legal righteousness of same-sex marriage - but when this was published in the Fall of 2004, the debate was still in its very nascent stages. Vaughan essentially has Hundred, in March 2002, take the same steps Gavin Newsom took in San Fransisco in March 2004.) But Hundred may be digging a political hole for himself because he is single and even some of his staff may be questioning his sexuality. Hundred clearly doesn't care what they or anyone thinks - he says his personal life is as off limits as his past as The Great Machine, a naturally ridiculous wish for any politician to have. Suzanne Padilla, the Voice journalist from the first issue, drunkenly hits on him at the story's opening marriage reception, so he asks her out on a date, a date where the press conveniently shows up. Is he asking her out to distract from his bachelorhood during a same-sex wedding controversy? Is he covering for his sexuality? Or is he really interested in Padilla? And how much of it is tactical decision making that even he doesn't know he's doing?

Tag has multiple meanings, per usual for Ex Machina, the most obvious referring to graffiti, specifically graffiti that shows up in the subways and causes a woman to stab her brain with a pen. Indeed, there's all kinds of weird going down underground, and it's connected to Hundred's past. The feds show up to handle the graffiti issue and its revealed that the symbols are similar to one Hundred found attached to the thing that blew up in his face in 1999, giving him his powers. In July of 2001, The NSA got in touch with Hundred after he outed himself. Hundred's contact with the agency was through Analyst Jackson Georges. Over the months that follow, he'd become friends with Georges and his family (his wife and young daughter). But when the terrorists began attacking in September, Georges' reality (and his sanity) began to crumble around him. Georges blames himself - and Hundred - for the intelligence failures that lead up to the attacks: "Instead of worrying about the real world, I've been playing games with you, with your shrapnel, with this sci-fi bullshit."

In Georges we get a microcosm of the sick feeling in the pit of every stomach of every intelligence official in the country, and it drove him mad. In the months that followed he would grow increasingly obsessed and paranoid, but it may be enhanced by the shrapnel from The Great Machine, a madness that may be infecting his family, and may come back around to Mitchell Hundred.

In flashbacks we're shown various governments trying to get their hands on Hundred's shrapnel, trying to unlock the mysteries of what makes The Great Machine work. At one point, Mitchell tells someone that the shrapnel actually broadcasts a song from Nirvana that was never recorded. Is it a song from the afterlife? Another world? Or is Hundred messing with us? As the story draws to a close, and all the threads come snapping together, the apparently mad ramblings of a crazed individual connected to Hundred's past may end up revealing the true face of the power behind Mitchell Hundred. Pay attention: Vaughan is telling us volumes while making us look the other way. Who is Mitchell Hundred? How did he get his powers? What is actually going on in his head? How much of him is him? The answers will be told, and the first part of the answer is here.

"Fortune Favors"

"Fortune Favors" (collected in Volume 2, Tag) is a one-shot story that is one of the weaker outings in the series. It's July 2002, and Hundred orders Agnotti to start shutting down fortune tellers across the city. Vaughan often shows off his geeky knowledge of New York City minutiae throughout Ex Machina, and one of those things is a never-enforced ordinance outlawing fortune tellers. (If we're taking stands, and why not, I agree with Hundred here - they're charlatans and con-artists who prey on the weak.) Kind of a random issue to tackle for 22 pages, but its mostly an excuse to have Hundred visit a Roma seer who may have predicted 9/11 or somesuch. She seems to predict his future, and Hundred decides to go ahead with the round-up anyway. As I've said before, there is no wasted space in Ex Machina, and what she tells Hundred may indeed come true, but not quite how she, Hundred, or indeed we may think. If the story has any redeeming factor, its the bracing opening flashback sequence. But otherwise, "Fortune Favors" is dull and slightly manipulative.

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Touched upon several times through these stories is Hundred's relationship to 9/11. The subject makes him uncomfortable. As seen in "State of Emergency," he still has nightmares of that day, obviously symptomatic of post-traumatic stress, haunted by memories he doesn't want to relive. He stammers in Tag when bringing up his promise to first responders. In State of Emergency, Agnotti brings up Hundred saving Tower 2, knowing it made Hundred uncomfortable (and causing him to end the press conference early). This is in stark contrast to the scores of politicians from Giuliani to Bush and many more who gleefully attached their legacy to the September 11th attacks in the time frame of Ex Machina, using it as a cudgel to beat their opponents and a crutch to gain sympathy from their supporters. Hundred goes out of his way to avoid the disgusting political exploitation of the tragedy rampant everywhere else, despite his own genuine heroic role in the events of that day.  Maybe it's part and parcel of his efforts to separate himself from The Great Machine, to focus on the business of serving The City as Mayor. Or perhaps it is simply just another political stance in a life now dominated by political maneuvering.

Vaughan and Harris, throughout these stories, are able to capture the terror and confusion of September 11. Though the events presented take a radically different turn, the effects of that day are presented with an almost startling vividness. There are a few works of art that try to cope with 9/11, and Vaughan explores the attack and its after effects on New York in visceral, unblinking detail. He and Harris use the fiction of Ex Machina to put us in the shoes of the victims of that day and the City of New York herself like few works have.

And in the middle of all that, Vaughan and Harris are playing a long-con that we are only just getting a taste of. Harris's stuff is really phenomenal, and Vaughan is weaving a tapestry right in front of us, showing us his cards, all the while enhancing the multiple mysteries at work.
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State of Emergency was serialized by DC/WildStorm in Ex Machina 2-5, and collected in Ex Machina Volume 1: The First Hundred Days (February 2005).

Tag was serialized in Ex Machina 6-10; "Fortune Favors" was published in Ex Machina 11; both are collected in Ex Machina Volume 2: Tag (September 2005).

All three stories are also collected in Ex Machina: Book One (Hardcover, June 2008; in softcover from Vertigo January 2014).

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