Thursday, October 31, 2013

Sibling Rivalry in Los Bros Hernandez's Love and Rockets New Stories 6

Love and Rockets: New Stories 6 by Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez

Love and Rockets: New Stories #6
By Jaime Hernandez and Gilbert Hernandez
Fantagraphics, 2013
Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez have been producing their venerated anthology Love and Rockets for 32 years now. As is usually the case, Jaime's stories focus on the one, long epic work of love, life, family and friendship that he has been weaving for over three decades, the Locas cycle of graphic novels. Gilbert alternates between his own Palomar/Luba epic and many self-contained works. Each brother has a unique voice and unique visual style, and one could make the argument for either brother being this country's finest cartoonist. That both put out their work through this one, remarkable anthology makes each Love and Rockets installment a seismic literary event.

2013 has absolutely the year of Gilbert - between two Love and Rockets reprint collections, Julio's Day and Children of Palomar, and two new original graphic novels, Marble Season and the latest of his Lubaverse movie "adaptations" Maria M, Gilbert continues to cement his reputation as one of the most prolific and important voices in comics. No-one holds a candle to what he is able to accomplish year-in, year-out. Except for maybe Jaime, whose quantity of output doesn't come close to Gilbert's, but whose quality is nearly unmatched in comics.

Yeah, if someone put a gun to my head and told me to choose, I'm a Jaime guy, always have been. That isn't to discount Gilbert, but something about Jaime's stuff has always connected with me in a way that Gilbert's hasn't. But that's almost like being given two identical bars of platinum and being told to choose between the two. Or maybe ripping the baby in half with the bathwater (or something). Anyway, New Stories 6 is a great example of the strengths and differences in each creator's works.

Love and Rockets New Stories 6 is about family. With each brother always doing their own unconnected thing, it is rare to see a thematic commonality between their individual works, The obvious through-line in this year's volume between both creators' work is the unique relationship that adult siblings share. Your brother or sister will be the original and best frenemy you will ever have, and both Jaime and Gilbert play with that to different degrees in New Stories 6. I don't think the thematic overlap was a conscious decision between Los Bros, but a happy coincidence, and a natural extension of the stories each has been telling.

Some Gilbert
Gilbert continues his long, winding soap opera of Luba's descendants, popping between Palomar and Hollywood. The trials and tribulations of the Luba clan take center stage, with focus jumping around between various generations of sisters as they deal with the small dramas of life and celebrity. We get to visit current-day Palomar, with all of its associated phantoms, and we get movies-within-flashbacks as Gilbert traverses the labyrinth he has constructed for thirty years. But even longtime readers may have difficulty keeping track of what's going on and who's who without consulting the infinitely valuable resource of this year's Love and Rockets companion. I know these stories will work better when all is collected in some future hardcover, it just gets a little hard to follow at points. Gilbert's Lubaverse stuff is sadly impenetrable for the uninitiated.

Far more accessible are Jaime's stories. Despite never really veering from the established narrative he has set up in his decades-running Locas cycle, Jaime still manages to produce superb, almost stand-alone narratives that are vital architectural components to a very large building. The focus this time around is away from Maggie and Ray, but considering the emotional wreckage that occurs in New Stories 4, this is not surprising. With New Stories 5, Jaime turned the focus over to the new character Tonta, sister to recurring character Vivian (frogmouth!). Angel, from God and Science, also plays a minor role, but the main characters are Tonta and her four mostly adult half-sisters and brother. 

The first thing that jumps out about New Stories 6 is the sheer amount of short stories packed into the volume. Jaime alone uses 17 short chapters to tell his story (largely though variously titled Crimen, Spanish for Crime). But far from being interruptive, the vignettes that make up Crimen work to build an easily accessible larger narrative in intense bursts. As Jaime's story effortlessly glides forward, we are introduced and reintroduced to Tonta's extended clan of sisters from different misters (and a half-brother she never realized she had). Throughout Crimen, the siblings must come to a difficult decision to go after their own mother for the possible murder of their respective fathers, a decision that ignites a media firestorm and threatens to splinter each of their lives.

Some Jaime
Despite the potential headiness of the subject matter, Jaime still tells the story with humor and a fiery visual joie de vivre. His mastery of the physical form he consistently shows in his work is breathtaking. The way he effectively mixes almost cartoony emotional sight-gags of character reactions with the visual, kinesiological poetry of the human form in movement in his wrestling sequences is stunning. Effortless is a such good word for Jaime's stuff. That isn't to say Jaime put no work into it or that it's sloppy, far from it. Jaime's stuff in New Stories 6 is so perfectly constructed, so beautifully and simply illustrated, that it is a pleasure, a joy, an ease to read. There are so few long-form works that are so consistently amazing as Jaime's, certainly nothing with Locas' length and depth. 

In Crimen, Jaime delivers a nearly stand-alone, accessible graphic novel about crime and brothers and sisters and the perils of memory and family, a beautiful, funny, fantastic work on par with everything else he has done. It's accessibility, especially compared to most of the intricately interconnected Locas run, is a happy accident.

But while Gilbert's stories are slightly more obtuse, he still manages to deliver one of the best short stories of the year. "Untitled" on page 59 is a stunning, visual feast of profanity and weirdness. No-one can do weird quite like Gilbert Hernandez, and sometimes you just need an injection of the bizarre into your life. Certainly Gilbert's weirdness can be overwhelming and is best served in small doses. "Untitled" presents just the right level of brevity and bizarreness.

Love and Rockets New Stories 6 is another great installment of the venerable anthology from Los Bros Hernandez. Love and Rockets continues to be a vital and important ongoing document of two creators at the absolute height of their powers, and the only venue to read new material from Jaime. The brothers' respective works, their respective worlds, stand alone - but in Love and Rockets we get the privilege of experiencing jolts of both, alternating between brother and brother, between greatness and greatness.

For my definitive guide on all things Love and Rockets, click here

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

NYCC 2013 Panel Report: John Layman and Rob Guillory on Chew [The Beat]

During New York Comic Con, I reported from the Chew Panel with John Layman and Rob Guillory. After the jump is a repost of my original panel report from the Con for The Beat.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

DC Unapproves New York.

New York City is the cultural and historical capital of the American mainstream comics industry. The vast majority of golden age creators were New York kids or creators who came to New York from around the world. And DC has been at the center of that since 1934. But in recent years, their corporate parents have been consolidating operations on the West Coast, and as of 2015, DC will have left New York City.

I know a couple of DC staffers, and I know their lives are going to be effected by this. My best wishes to all the staffers who have got to make some hard decisions. In terms of how this will really effect mainstream comics, it's frankly negligible. Corporate comics are created by all kinds of folks in all kinds different places. Geographical proximity is no longer necessary to make safe factory-line WFH comics. And it's a smart business strategy from LA-based TimeWarnerBrosDCEntertainment. All that said,

Their loss. New York is by far one of the best cities in the world and far better than Los Angeles in every conceivable category (and I originally typed them all out; there are many). By leaving New York you loose the energy and life and hyperdense overlapping of cultures and genre and languages and lifestyles and media. By going to Los Angeles, you gain nothing.

No matter, it's too late for DC. Elements of their editorial structure are widely reported to have shown themselves to be creatively bankrupt and managerially incompetent. They make some pretty awful comics. NYC-based Marvel is not immune to this condition, but is far better by any measure.

Yes, when it comes to my preferred flavor of Superhero comics, I make mine Marvel. But DC keeps giving me reasons that validate that predilection. And if you want out of the greatest city in the world to go to that cultural dump, go ahead.

I am clearly biased towards New York, too. But this is a natural consequence of the city being as amazing as it is. Don't hate the player, hare the game.

I'm going to go write about Love and Rockets now. 

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Run: Ex Machina by Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris: World's Finest

The Comic Pusher Presents The Run: Ex Machina Part Six

In The Run, I review long-form comic works across multiple parts. In Part Six of my series on Ex Machina by Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris, I look at the next six stories, "Masquerade," "World's Finest," "The Race," Dirty Tricks, "Ruthless," and "Green" For the other reviews in this series, click here.

[A bit of a lightning round of Ex Machina reviews this week, covering five short stories and a small arc. Next week's penultimate examination of the series covers the last two arcs, followed by my final review on election day covering the series finale.]


We'll book-end this week's review with the third and fourth Special issues, this time illustrated by the great Jean Paul Leon. The first of these, "Masquerade," opens in October 2003 with Hundred reviewing a petition from the KKK to hold a rally in Central Park. That political hot-button (which also touches upon Hundred's role as a masked vigilante in contrast to the Klan's use of masks) frames the flashback to Hundred's first unintentional go at vigilantism precisely four years earlier.

Hundred, fresh from the hospital and all bandaged up like the Invisible Man (or perhaps the Unknown Soldier) from the explosion that took half his face, is at a pharmacy to get his prescription filled when a small crew of thieves enter in full Halloween costume to rob the joint. Before slipping out into the costumed night, they steal Hundred's watch, a family heirloom, and Hundred accidentally uses his powers to stop their gun from firing. Hundred clearly still has no inkling of the powers at his disposal, though he admits to hearing the watch calling out for him. He crashes at Bradbury's and has his first dream of The Great Machine. He goes to get his watch and stops one of the robbers who has gone completely insane.

"Masquerade" is overall a fairly straightforward Year One-esque pre-Great Machine superhero story, a nice, stylistic piece of filler. I love Leon's art, and what he produces in "Masquerade" (and later in "Green") is superb. But stylistically, it's just too far from Harris's grounded pop-superhero photo-reffed sci-fi. Leon's atmospheric, flat, noir style just doesn't jive with the rest of the series in the way that Sprouse's stuff does from the first two Specials that make up Life and Death. And unlike most of the short stories throughout Ex Machina, it is also largely inessential, providing nothing terribly new in terms of character development and understanding. "Masquerade" is a small window into a brief encounter with The Great Machine, and an even briefer non-issue with the politics of dealing with hate groups.

"World's Finest"

"World's Finest" - another Vaughnian play on words, referencing both the DC superhero team-up book and the common term for the NYPD, New York's Finest - is a short little biographical look at NYPD Commissioner and gadfly of The Great Machine, Amy Angotti. "World's Finest" is structured much in the same way as "Stand Alone" (which looked at Rick Bradbury's life), quickly focusing on a small life event and then leaping forward several years. The framing sequence is Angotti on the roof of One Police Plaza, talking on the phone with Hundred, and the flashbacks look at Angotti's meteoric rise to the top of the NYPD along with her relationship with her husband and contentious relationship with The Great Machine.

Vaughan and Harris really do translate the why and how of Angotti in the short vignettes of "World's Finest." We see the moments that made her the cop she would become, and her own kind of obsession with The Great Machine. There are some high-impact moments that Harris captures beautifully, plus a couple of nice little plays with the illogic of superheroism.

"The Race"

"The Race" involves Race and like the hamfisted title, handles the concept with the subtlety of a wrecking ball. Naturally the center of the story is David Wylie, Hundred's right-hand man at City Hall, who Hundred believes can be the next Mayor. While Hundred is on the phone with Wylie, he sees a ghost of a slave (or possibly some kind of manifestation of the City-Machine's guilt... or something). Hundred thinks it's connected to any number of times City building projects have disturbed nigh-ancient slave burial sites. Vaughan uses it as an excuse to talk about New York's complicated history with slavery and the general inequity that still exists, and to look at the first time The Great Machine and Wylie met. But overall, it's all too transparent and just doesn't work.

Dirty Tricks

A common theme in superhero fiction is the ripple effect a notorious costumed vigilante leaves in their wake. Vaughan and Harris have explored facets of this before, with Leto and his copycat Machine, and the villain Pherson's origin stemming from the Voice of Hundred. Then there is the individual who gets fixated and obsessed with the hero, usually with a psychosexual component. In Dirty Tricks, a young woman who was saved by The Great Machine and became dangerously obsessed begins to cause trouble for Hundred and his administration (they even dub her Trouble). Her high-profile stunts and vandalism would not be a major issue if not for the Republican National Convention.

The RNC is the point of Dirty Tricks - the GOP isn't just hosting their convention in NYC, they want Hundred to be speak at it. Throughout Ex Machina, Hundred has straddled all sides of the political fence, but his willingness to talk at the RNC raises eyebrows within his left-leaning administration. He sees this as an opportunity for himself, and at the very least his City. But before anything can happen, the Trouble trouble needs fixing, and the ultimate solution is a little silly. Nonetheless, the ramifications of Hundred's acceptance of the RNC will have a far-reaching impact. I just wish Dirty Tricks wasn't so dull and had more dirty tricks in it.


"Ruthless" opens in October, 2004, with comic writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Tony Harris meeting in a park in Manhattan. They are on their way to meeting with Hundred's administration about making a biographical comic about him for DC. Vaughan meets Hundred (who confuses him for Brian Michael Bendis) and they talk about the City, September 11, love, and life. Hundred convinces Vaughan to follow his heart and he picks two creators to make the graphic novel of his life. The End.

But there's much more to it. By featuring Vaughan and Harris as themselves, it would be easy to look at "Ruthless" as mindless self-indulgence. But it is important to view this within the context of the established relationship the series has with superhero comics. Hundred, Bradbury and Kremlin became The Great Machine not from any logical approach but from the distinct illogic of superhero fiction. When you get powers, you get dressed up and fight crime because that's what heroes did in the comics Hundred read growing up. Because of Hundred's love of comics and the specific way he rose to political power, it's not a stretch to imagine that someone may want to make a comic about him. That Vaughan and Harris are trying out for the gig is appropriate. More than anything, though, "Ruthless" is not an excuse to do the "Grant Morrison meta thing" as Vaughan says himself, but as an elegiac love letter to New York City.

Outside of Morrison's well-worn trademark of writing himself into nearly everything he makes, creators showing up in their own work has a surprisingly long history in superhero comics. The way it happens in Ex Machina is less contrived due to the book's identity of being so solidly grounded in (at first) a recognizable mirror of our own reality. It also allows Vaughan to poke fun at himself, with Hundred professing to not like Vaughan's Y: The Last Man and Harris complaining about Vaughan's tendency to drop useless factoids all over the place. But "Ruthless" isn't about comics, it's about New York. Putting himself and Harris into the title allows Vaughan to come to terms with his own relationship with the City and his eventual decision to leave it to be with the woman he loves. And it allows him to tell a beautiful, moving story unique to the personality of New York.

"Ruthless," like every other chapter title in Ex Machina, has many meanings and layers, but the simplest is that Vaughan's wife is the playwright Ruth McKee. At the time this story takes place, Vaughan, exactly like the version of him presented here, is contemplating a move out of New York to be with his then-girlfriend, Ruth. "Ruthless" is Vaughan's Dear John letter to New York, and it's sad and uplifting and beautiful. The stunning, surprising final two pages, the comic within the comic about The Great Machine, drives this home. (The final pages form a break from Morrisonian Metafiction: "Ruthless" doesn't see Vaughan and Harris making the comic that features Vaughan and Harris making the comic because Vaughan and Harris in the comic don't get to make the comic.)

Despite it's inside baseball references to comics culture, "Ruthless" works for the same reason everything else about Ex Machina works, logic, humanity, and a love for New York. Having an understanding of comics culture and who the creators are enhances the reading experience, but outside all the referentiality, "Ruthless" stands on its own as a celebration of New York, her people, and her indomitable spirit, and the small moments of profound beauty that pop up in this glorious town, if you know how to look. 


"Green" is filler by every definition, published as fluffing to pad out shipping delays in the series' original run. The story, about a nutcase who offs one of Hundred's opponents in the press, is almost pointless. There's also the standard hint of a possible link to Hundred's powers (that may just be spurious bullshit). There's not much in Ex Machina that can be called bad (except for maybe Ex Cathedra), and even the worst stories have some value. But Green is clunky, provides zero character development, and provides nothing to the mythos of The Great Machine. This is just skippable filler, no more, no less.

Overall the six stories reviewed above are collectively the weakest run in the series. "Ruthless" makes the slight slog worth it, though to be fair it is one of the more divisive issues in the run and your mileage admittedly may vary. We're now in the home stretch our extensive look at Ex Machina - the next three epic, tragic stories feature Vaughan's best writing and Harris's best art. If "Green" is at a one on a scale of ten, everything else in this series is about to get ramped up to eleven.

Ex Machina Special 3, "Masquerade" is collected by DC/WildStorm in Ex Machina Volume 8: Dirty Tricks (December 2009) and Ex Machina Book 3 (Hardcover, May 2010; in softcover Fall 2014).

Ex Machina 34, "World's Finest" is collected in Ex Machina Volume 7: Ex Cathedra (October 2008) and Ex Machina Book 4 (Hardcover, January 2011).

"The Race" was published in Ex Machina 35; and Dirty Tricks was serialized in Ex Machina 36-39. Both are collected in Ex Machina Volume 8: Dirty Tricks and Ex Machina Book 4.

Ex Machina 40, "Ruthless" is collected in Ex Machina Volume 9: Ring Out the Old (May 2010) and Ex Machina Book 4.

Ex Machina Special 4, "Green" is collected in Ex Machina Volume 9: Ring Out the Old and Ex Machina Book 5 (Hardcover, April 2011)

Nota bene: The reviews in this series have heretofore followed the order from the five 'Book' collections, which slightly diverge from the order of the "Volume" collections. For the final installments of these reviews, I follow the story-chronological order after "Masquerade" (which actually takes place before the previously reviewed Ex Cathedra). "Green" is the most out of place, undated in the story, collected before '"Ruthless" in the 'Volume' collections and oddly after Ring Out the Old in the 'Book' collections. For the purposes of this review and for the best reading order, "Green" should follow "Ruthless."

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Movin' On Up

Today, I leave JHU Comic Books, my employer of the last six years. It has been an enlightening, educational, and wildly entertaining experience. I don't know what the future holds, but know I'm going to be in comics for the rest of my life and JHU was one hell of a launching pad. That store and the people there have made me the man I am today. It's where I found my calling, and found my family. JHU was the first place I could call Home, where it ever felt OK to be me. Exactly one year ago, JHU as a company and as a group of people supported me through a very crazy time, and I'll be forever grateful for that. 

I want to keep working in comics, plus my writing here at The Comic Pusher continues unabated. And stay tuned because I'll have more stuff coming from The Beat as well! Follow me on twitter @B5Jeff, Like The Comic Pusher on Facebook, and follow CP on Tumblr, and of course stay tuned to The Comic Pusher, home to The Run, The Wednesday Review, and a some pretty swell reviews and criticism.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Wednesday Review: Pretty Pretty Deadly

Pretty Deadly 1 is the debut creator-owned comic from Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios, and it's pretty awesome. The story doesn't quite hook you from the start as the issue is clearly set-up, but what is there is, yes, pretty, and also dirty and bloody and violent, too. A western, it opens with a stunning page two a little girl blowing the head off a bunny and some dialog we don't yet know the context for. The scene shifts to a town, one of those late 1800 American old west towns, full of saloons and whorehouses and horses and dust and folks carrying guns . An (apparently) blind old man and a little girl cloaked in black feathers have rolled in with their snake-oil cart ready to push their wares. Except their wares are stories, and she gleefully tells a pretty dark story about the daughter of Death. After they leave town, they are set upon by shady ill-doers while back in town the daughter of Death shows up, scares the bejeezus out of everybody, and then picks up the trail of the old man and the girl. For some reason. It's not quite clear who the players are and what their motivations may be. Despite the hint of fantasy, everything else about Pretty Deadly is down and dirty western, and the final page is wonderful. Rios's fine, high-energy, high-style line and Jordie Bellaire's colors just nail the visuals. The story still needs developing but is still solid enough; I'll stick around to see where this goes.

Velvet 1 is Ed Brubaker's latest noir-ish book, this time with the superb art of his long-time Marvel collaborator Steve Epting. A grounded spy thriller, Velvet is about the British spy agency's secretary who is also a badass spy herself. One of their best agents gets killed in the field, another agent is set-up for the crime, and Velvet gets caught somewhere in between.  Brubaker and Epting work well together, so the two doing espionage stuff feels natural. And while its nice to see them doing spycraft outside a sci-fi superhero universe, the book doesn't really crackle. Epting kills it on the art, but the story, featuring every comfortable spy-fiction convention including an eye-rolling frame-up at the end, is just flat.

The Massive 16 sees Kapital and crew going up against old-timey sailboat whalers (because its not like there's anything else going on). This series is still so maddeningly uneven. Mind MGMT 16, on the other hand, is still so consistently superb, with issue  exploring with a stunning science fiction novel counterpoint. And Kindt's art manages to get more and more assured. This is some of mainstream's finest stuff. Sex Criminals 2 focuses on John this issue, and the exploration of his sexual identity and sexual superpowers is just as heartfelt and entertaining as the first issue's look at Suzie. 

Young Avengers 11 takes a twist (and a big cast expansion for next issue), FF 13 has some Allred-cubed Watcher-action, and Ultimate Spider-Man 28 has Miles accepting the burden of his future while Roxxon drops some knowledge. Plus there's a sweet new Hellboy graphic novel with Fegredo, Midnight Circus out today.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Repost: A Drifting Life by Yoshihiro Tatsumi

Over four years ago I reviewed Yoshihiro Tatsumi's astonishing memoir, A Drifting Life. Check it out again for the first time at this link.

For the full index of all Comic Pusher reviews, Click Here!

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Run: Ex Machina by Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris: Power Down

The Comic Pusher Presents The Run: Ex Machina Part Five

In The Run, I review long-form comic works across multiple parts. In Part Five of my series on Ex Machina by Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris, I look at the next two stories, Power Down and Ex Cathedra. For the other reviews in this series, click here.

Power Down

Ex Machina is so many things, and one of its most important elements - wonderful, trippy science fiction - is not even all that apparent on the first read-through. Sure you see the superhero stuff, as radically grounded as it is, but the thrumming current of outre sci-fi that actually makes up so much of the story is cloaked in a business suit, hidden behind the day-to-day grind of city government. Vaughan's ability to present such expansive storytelling without you even realizing it at first is one of the unique talents he shows so brightly in this series. When you read something like his Saga, the fact that it's a grand space opera is almost secondary. Ex Machina, with such a focus on New York City history and politics, as well as the more front-and-center post-superhero stuff, almost surprises you in the end by how important the sci-fi element is. Really, that aspect of the series is there right in front of you the entire time, and Power Down is one of the centerpieces of that.

Power Down is also another remarkable example of Vaughan's extraordinary skills as a structural storyteller. He possesses a rare ability to draw out and reveal details in a way that is ceaselessly suspenseful, and always pitch-perfect. One example lies in the specifics of what exactly happened with The Great Machine on 9/11. We know Hundred went rogue and stopped the second plane (and we've seen evocative, terrifying flashes of the events), but we are never really shown the whole thing. And when Vaughan and Harris do show us what happened, despite knowing what is to occur it still has a sense of mystery and suspense, and it is always as a counterpoint to some other events going on in the story. And where the events of September 11 are known but only incrementally shown, the mystery of hundred's powers are repeatedly shown yet somehow unknown. This is flawless, bold storytelling.

The present story opens in August 2003 with Hundred and team reviewing plans for Ground Zero. Hundred: "What absolute horseshit. It's been two years, and all we have to show the world is a hole in the ground and a cheap model that looks like a rejected Blade Runner backdrop." (That frustration was just as applicable during the story's initial publication in March 2007, too.) The foot dragging of what the hell to do with Ground Zero was always one of the biggest frustrations of the post-9/11 era in New York, at least for this New Yorker. Garth Ennis, a writer with, on the surface, not a hell of a lot in common with Vaughan, actually touches on a lot of the same thematic bases in his work, especially the other definitive long-form work of the previous decade, Punisher Max. Both Ennis's Punisher and Vaughan's Ex Machina examine the role of power in our lives within the very specific post-9/11 landscape. More to the point, Ennis's post-superhero epic The Boys also deals with the aftermath of very different September 11, at one point very specifically commenting on the lack of progress at rebuilding Ground Zero.

But the opening of 9/11 frustrations is just the doorway into the historical touchstone at Power Down's center, which is the 2003 Northeast Blackout which saw 55 million people loose power, including all of New York City. Vaughan mines the Blackout, the most significant event to strike the city since 9/11 and to strike the city until Sandy nine years hence, for plenty of storytelling. Naturally the Blackout is a big deal for the Mayor, but the stakes are raised when his mother and Kremlin are put at risk from a mysterious figure with mysterious connections to Hundred and Hundred must tackle the problem himself. This seems like another bit of gimmickry from Vaughan, but his reasons for getting directly involved in this conflict while the City endures potential catastrophe are far better than other hard-sell interventions in the past. 

But first I will criticize Vaughan's portrayal of the City in the Blackout; he simply doesn't give New York or New Yorkers enough credit. He shows looting, panic and assaults. While the portrayal is not of widespread social upheaval, it is still not reflective of what actually happened that night. To be fair, Ex Machina is an alternate history, and even the minor quibble that depicted weather does not match the historical record is excused when January casually mentions that weather has been out of whack for four years (or since Hundred received his powers). It's all part and parcel of the impact of The Great Machine. That still doesn't make the portrayal feel any less off. This summer actually marked the tenth anniversary of the Blackout, and I remember the experience vividly: the seas of people flowing down Second Avenue to the bridges, good samaritans helping perfect strangers evacuate the subways or volunteers spontaneously directing traffic, the palpable sense of calm acceptance and coming through for your fellow New Yorker. Sure, there were fears that things could get ugly, but they were quickly allayed by the overwhelming brotherhood and good faith that actually rose up in those hours and days. This was New York City's first real test since September 11. There was no way to know what was really happening. Verifiable news was hard to come by and the scope of the outage that we were starting to hear about, stretching from Detroit to Baltimore and into Canada, was startling. But New Yorkers had been through an incomprehensibly difficult time just two years prior and we would be damned if things were going to get out of control. Where so much of the series captures the heart and soul and essence of New York, Power Down drops the ball slightly. (I write a bit more about my own blackout experience in the postscript below, after the jump.)

But back to the story and the mysterious person Hundred must confront. It's made clear by Vaughan that this individual, brilliantly depicted by Harris with Tom Feister's deep inks and JD Mettler's atmospheric colors, is the one indirectly responsible for the Blackout. It wasn't intentional, but there is something really, really damned weird going on. This man who calls himself Zeller is polite if a little disjointed in his speech, and in his own words, "dressed like a blasted martian." He is in contact with someone or something unseen, and is trying to hook into databases of some kind to figure out what is happening. When he arrives, he is shocked by the sight of the one-tower World Trade Center. He speaks of a radically different history than Hundred's altered timeline or even our own. He knows who Hundred is and professes to know the source of Hundred's powers. He holds Kremlin and Mitchell's mother hostage to draw out Hundred and it naturally works. Mitchell's mother thinks Zeller is from the future because she thinks Mitchell's powers came from the future. Kremlin calls Zeller a demon because he believes Mitchell's powers were gifted by God. But Zeller tells them simply that he is from another world, though he is far from an extra-terrestrial.

But just like with Pherson who professed some deeper knowledge of what's been really happening with Hundred, Hundred doesn't really care about the answers. He wants to eliminate the threat to his family and get back to the business of disaster management. But even if Hundred doesn't want the answers, Zeller is giving them. Zeller's statements aren't told in riddle, there are no lies or obfuscation, but it may be hard to parse exactly what he's trying to say. The thing of it is, he knows what he's saying and it makes perfect sense to him even if it doesn't make sense to us until the reread.

Reading Power Down is a shockingly different experience on the first read than it is on the second. The way Vaughan writes Zeller, as apparently decent and truthful despite his somewhat misguided hostage attempt, knowledgeable of pop-culture and presenting a sense of humor, is really off-putting. It would be easy to dismiss his ramblings as that of a madman, except that Zeller isn't mad, and he may have weird powers of his own if not at least access to some pretty weird technology. Zeller escapes, but not before telling Hundred exactly what is happening. But the way Vaughan is telling this story, these truths are not evident though they are presented directly before us. There is enough wiggle-room in the interpretation that when the final hammer drops after the final story, reading Power Down again becomes an eye-opening revelation. Yeah, Ex Machina is a huge sci-fi epic, and this is the first real explicit indication of what kind.

Zeller warns Hundred of the coming threat of "immigration." Each Ex Machina story has a sociopolitical theme it touches upon, and to call out immigration in this way is a pretty funny moment on the first read, but again has a completely different light on the second pass. After being told by the feds in the aftermath of the Zeller incident that no-one expects him to save the day, we see in all its double-page splash glory that one time he did. This is about different worlds. The world presented in Ex Machina is different from ours because of Hundred's presence in it as The Great Machine, and the impact The Great Machine had on one particular day. But that's just one world, or two if you want to count our non-fictional lives. And just what if... there were more?

Ex Cathedra

Oof, I never liked Ex Cathedra, despite a couple of really cool moments. The simple pitch: the Pope wants to see Hundred. Except, (and there is naturally an except) someone wants to take out Hundred and the Pope at the same time. Conflict ensues. Putting Hundred in the Vatican allows Vaughan to raise some issues of religion, both in government and in Hundred himself, and to talky talk about the Catholic Church in all its contradictions.

Hundred agrees to see the Pope (it was still John Paul II in December 2013) despite not being Catholic. Indeed he's not much of anything. But many New Yorkers are Catholic, so it's a good P.R. and political move. He gets to the Vatican and meets the chief astronomer, a priest who seriously considers Hundred to be a possible manifestation of the Antichrist. Meanwhile, a shady eyepatch-wearing double-crossing secret agent has stolen some technology that controls rats with electrodes, intending to use it remotely on Hundred to have him Kill The Pope. (The agent, just the latest foreign entity to target Hundred isn't really presented with any degree of subtlety... If he had a mustache, he'd be twirling it.)

It's a silly set-up, but one that allows for two really cool visuals. First, as Hundred is fighting the influence of the radio signals trying to hijack his head, he tears away at his face, and it's bloody and visceral. Second, Hundred has a vision (far from his first as we've seen him have many hint-dropping visions while meditating in the past) that drops a story-bomb about Hundred's political future that Vaughan has been pointing towards for some time. Both are illustrated with manic, schizophrenic glee by Harris.

Ex Machina likes to use the pulpit of City Hall and superhero vigilantism to comment on various issues, and Ex Cathedra was the One Where They Talked About Religion and Stuff. It's all just a little hamfisted and a seemingly long way to travel to deliver an interpretive bit of previously acknowledged foreshadowing.
Ex Machina Volume 6: Power Down (November 2007) was serialized in Ex Machina 26-29 and is also collected in Ex Machina: Book Three (Hardcover, May 2010; in softcover Fall 2014).

Ex Machina Volume 7: Ex Cathedra (October 2008) was serialized in Ex Machina 30-33 and is also collected in Ex Machina: Book Four (Hardcover, January 2011).

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Interview: Jamal Igle on Molly Danger [The Beat]

This interview was originally published on The Beat.

Jamal Igle is having a good week. His new Kickstarter-funded creator-owned graphic novel Molly Danger was released, with a huge release party at JHU Comic Books Saturday Night in Manhattan. Molly Danger, about an apparently ten year old superhero, is that rare gem of a comic, steeped in genre yet remixing it in fresh ways, energetically written and beautifully illustrated, and a true all-ages book that can be enjoyed by adults and children alike. Hardly an overnight success, in Molly Danger Igle has announced himself as one of mainstream comics' new superstars, riding the new wave of the creator-owned renaissance and one of Kickstarter's many remarkable success stories. After the break, my conversation with Igle for The Beat from the floor of New York Comic Con about Molly Danger, turning rejection into success, and making a comic his daughter can read.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Wednesday Review: NYCC Hangover Edition

Happy Wednesday! New comics are out. I don't know about you, but I'm still recovering from New York Comic Con. A metric ton of stuff came out last week, this week's relatively slim pickens, but thems the con-month breaks.

There was some biggish news from the Con: Dan Slott and Allred & Allred are doing Silver Surfer, and it sounds pretty boss. Marvel is putting Miracleman back in print, all the way through Gaiman and Buckingham continuing their unfinished story, and it's about time. And I'm really keen on reading all this, finally. Finally, finally. Anyway, I was reporting from the Con, typing up panel reports for The Beat with my mad qwerty skillz - see them here. Onto the comics.

First up, Dogs of War by Sheila Keenan and Nathan Fox is out today. Read my original advance review here. (I liked it.)

It's been a while since we've gotten our Hawkeye fix but Fraction, Aja and Hollingsworth make the wait worth it. Issue 13 is all nine-panel grids, no real action but after-action. The point of Hawkeye isn't the punch-em-ups, but the recovery, the time in between, the quiet dark, the hangover, and issue 13 inhabits this space. Taking place around the same time as the Annual, Clint is falling deeper and deeper into malaise if not depression, falling into a bunch of bottles if not the bottle, always on the mend and never quite mending, his life spinning slowly if not spiraling out of control. This is superb visual storytelling, delicate, sublime. More Hawkguy and Lady Hawkeye, please.

Hoo, dilly, I've been digging Infinity, but Avengers 21 and New Avengers 11 were kind of messy, visually. Deodato's incursion and Yu's annihilation were muddy, and neither seemed up to the meatiness of Hickman's slightly over-dense scripting. But the cover to Avengers 21 is pretty awesome, so props to Yu.

Fables 134 is one of the best issues of the series in years. Bill Willingham and the aforementioned Mark Buckingham deliver an emotional gut-punch. It's hard to pull off twenty pages of just two characters talking (half in front of a blank background, no less), but Willingham's scripting of two old friends (of the readers if not each other) and Buckingham's expressive, beautiful art pulls it off.

Zero 2 was quite good. Writer Ales Kot is joined by Tradd Moore in this issue (it has rotating art teams, thanks for the heads up, Ales).  Kot takes Zero's story to the beginning, a child soldier forged in a cauldron of pain and hate. Moore's stuff takes some warming up to, but the last three panels are astonishing.

Invincible 106 was fun, Adventure Time 21 played some Watchmen 11 trickery-doo, and Fantastic Four 13 shows me again why I just can't stand Mark Bagley's art.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Advance Review: Protectors Inc. 1 by J. Michael Straczynski and Gordon Purcell

Protectors Inc. 1, out November 6 from Image, is the latest superhero title in the newly revived Joe's Comics line by J. Michael Straczynski. The book is competently though unspectacularly illustrated by Gordon Purcell. (Joe was giving out copies at his spotlight panel at New York Comic Con, the special cover for which by Michael Avon Oeming is pictured at right.)

The premier issue is pretty much all set-up, playing with the well-worn tropes of superhero fiction with a slight twist to it. The issue is framed by seemingly disparate disappearances of individuals in a flash of light, one, a CIA asset, the other, a girl coming out of a bar. The book is narrated by a District Attorney in Chicago, briefly going over the history of superpowered beings. Like many modern independent superhero books, Straczynski remixes the established ideas of superhero fiction into a fresh batch. The source of superpowers dates to a mysterious event in World War 2, with powers popping up around the world soon after. The 50 or so heroes, functionally immortal, called themselves Protectors, and would eventually incorporate and become media darlings, settling in big cities. But superpowered villains did not follow (as is usually the case in superhero stories). Occasionally heroes get into fights with each other, but these are usually just for show. The first time we see the Protectors is a flash in the sky as two of them tussle, and it's pretty cool. 

But even the re-imagined superhero mythos has become its own kind of cliche, and it takes something special to really stand out. And Protectors Inc. isn't that special (yet, anyway). Of course this is only the first issue, but many first chapters in serialized fiction (including many by Straczynski) avoid being as somewhat dull and largely unengaging as this. I am a fan of a lot of Straczynski's stuff, so based on how he tells stories there is much more likely to come, but what we get is just not exactly riveting or moving. But it is just 1/12th of a larger story that will hopefully come into focus later. Jupiter's Legacy, another modern superhero rejiggering, only really got interesting with the third issue (and at least it has Frank Quitely).

J. Michael Straczynski is going to have a ridiculously busy 2014 - this is the third new Joe's Comics title along with Sidekick and the delayed Ten Grand. In addition to work-for-hire books for Dynamite (Twilight Zone) and Dark Horse (Terminator) and a television series with the Wachowskis for Netflix (Sense8), he's also got Apocalypse Al and Dream Police with Sid Kotian, and two projects I'm looking forward to, Alone with Bill Sienkiewicz and the return of the wonderful Book of Lost Souls with Colleen Doran. But not everyone can bat a thousand. Middling art, which also effects Sidekick and may soon come to effect Ten Grand, certainly doesn't help.

I'm a long-time fan of Straczynski's stuff, so I'll stick with the book for now. Honestly, Protectors Inc. isn't that bad, it's just not all that great either. 

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Run: Ex Machina by Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris: Life and Death

The Comic Pusher Presents The Run: Ex Machina Part Four

In The Run, I review long-form comic works across multiple parts. In Part Four of my series on Ex Machina by Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris, I look at the next three stories, Life and Death, Smoke Smoke, and "Stand Alone." For the other reviews in this series, click here.

Life and Death

Life and Death was published as the first two of four Specials that would be sprinkled throughout Ex Machina's run, written by Vaughan and illustrated by guest artists - in this case Chris Sprouse. I really like Sprouse's stuff, and the inks from Karl Story and regular Ex Machina colorist JD Mettler do a good job of visually meshing with Tony Harris's distinct visual style.

The modern day framing of the story opens in March 2003 with Mitchell Hundred on a radio interview, being ambushed by the host with gotcha-questions about capital punishment. We flash back to March 2001 and go through the interactions between The Great Machine and his "arch enemy" (per Kremlin's reckoning), Jack Pherson. We've heard of Pherson before but this is the first time we see him and how he got involved with The Great Machine, origin through ignominious end.

But where the series uses subversion of superhero fiction through immutable logic everywhere else, Life and Death is oddly traditional in its use of the well-worn trope of the arch nemesis. A common theme in superhero fiction is that the arrival of a hero leads to the rise of a villain with each at constant loggerheads, and that is Life and Death to a tee. Naturally, it is infused with the situational humor that is one of Ex Machina's trademarks (in the "superhero" scenes), and rather than irrationally going in circles for decades, the hero-villain interaction between The Great Machine and Pherson lasts just a couple of months.

By framing the flashback within the context of a debate on capital punishment, the story brings up the age-old issue of whether or not heroes (specifically within the context of American superhero fiction) should kill. Each side of the argument has its merits, and Life and Death doesn't bother making an argument but simply showing what happened to Pherson. Like many sociopolitical situations in Ex Machina, Vaughan punts the ball. But it's all misdirection anyway. Where you read an entertaining reconstructive look at the hero/villain dynamic with some nice use of political swearing thrown in, Vaughan is delivering more pieces to the puzzle at the story's beating heart. Though long gone, Pherson is an important part of the story in ways that won't become clear for some time.

Smoke Smoke

Smoke Smoke is The One About Marijuana and Stuff. The storyline is pretty straightforward: amidst a media kerfuffle over Hundred admitting to smoking pot at one point in his life, someone is going around dressed as a firefighter and beating people up. Neither story is particularly interesting. The FDNY imposter is less menacing than gross, the weed stuff an excuse to raise issues of the propriety of marijuana prohibition and the limits of vigilantism that both fall flat.

Smoke Smoke is a bit of a mess, but not completely pointless. As The Great Machine in April 2001, Hundred went out of his way to apprehend a couple of low-level weed pushers, one of whom gets killed in jail resulting in his mother self-immolating on the steps of City Hall in July 2003. A bit convoluted, but these deaths effect Hundred to the point of shorting out everything around him. This effect plays into the larger concerns among his staff that he is overworking himself, a concern that we'll hear a few times in the series. And we do get more of the bubbling Kremlin-January conspiracy.

But Ex Machina's penchant for gimmickiness is what really shows here. Where Vaughan can usually balance it with meaningful commentary, action, and gripping character (and political) drama, here Smoke Smoke just kind of fizzles.

"Stand Alone"

"Stand Alone" is the first of a few stand-alone short stories in Ex Machina that primarily focus on one side character, in this case Bradbury, who was there the night Mitchell Hundred got his powers, was there as part of The Great Machine, and is there at the right side of Mayor Hundred.

The story shows a handful of moments from his life: when his father left him as a child, when his wife left him, taking friendly fire in the first Iraq war, the moments after Hundred got his powers, an encounter with Pherson, and when Hundred decided to go into politics splitting up The Great Machine. From abandoned to warrior to cop to vigilante to cog in a broken machine. Bradbury and Hundred's lives are permanently intertwined, by accident, by politics, and by forces neither of them can yet comprehend. Their relationship is actually quite complex despite its apparent simplicity, but Bradbury knows that as much as he has sacrificed for his friend, as much as he believes in him, he still stands alone. He has no family, no life, and no support, and "Stand Alone" is the first window into one of the great tragedies of the series that Hundred talked about from the very beginning.
"Stand Alone" is largely a well-executed excuse for deep background on Bradbury that has some of Harris's best art. And it also has one of my favorite moments in the entire series. Amongst all the things going on throughout Ex Machina - and there is quite a bit - is the work as love letter to New York City. Moments after the explosion in 1999 that blew off half his face and gave him his powers, Hundred, lying bleeding, maybe dying, asks if the Brooklyn Bridge is alright. Bradbury tells him it is, he apologizes to Hundred for letting this happen...
Life and Death was serialized by DC/WildStorm in Ex Machina Special 1-2 and collected in Ex Machina Volume 4: March to War (November, 2006) and Ex Machina: Book Two (Hardcover, December 2009; in softcover May 2014).

Smoke Smoke was serialized in Ex Machina 21-24 and "Stand Alone" was published as Ex Machina 25; both are collected in Ex Machina Volume 5: Smoke Smoke (March 2007) and Ex Machina: Book Three (Hardcover, May 2010; in softcover Fall 2014).

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Comic Pusher is Reoprting from New York Comic Con! (Updated!)

I've been reporting all weekend long from New York Comic Con for Heidi MacDonald's The Beat, and several reports are now live!

For my report on the J. Michael Straczynski Writing Workshop, click here!

For my report on the BOOM! Studios editing panel, click here.

For my my report on the Chew Panel, click here

And for my brief review of the DC Comics Documentary, Necessary Evil: The Villains of DC Comics, click here.

For my report on the East of West panel, click here.

For my Molly Danger interview with Jamal Igle, click here.

And for my convention wrap-up, click here!

I am also tweeting extensively at @B5Jeff and posting on The Comic Pusher Facebook

Stay tuned for many more updates as they become available!

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Wednesday Review: NYCC Edition

Happy Wednesday, everybody! It's Comic Con week here in New York, and like any big con week there are a metric ton of good books out. I cover some of the comics I read before deadline below, but first a cool-looking indie book that came out a couple of weeks ago...

Tales of the Night Watchman is a self-published indy series created by Dave Kelly & Lara Antal, about Nora, an often exasperated NYC barista and her roommate/coworker Charlie who is also a time-displaced supernatural superhero the Night Watchman. The third issue of the series, featuring the short story "The Night Collector," came out last month. The overall story that writer Kelly has been telling - of the mysterious origin and powers of the Night Watchman mixed in with Nora's broke New York girl life - never really quite gels, though its clear there is a larger story going on and the mundane way Kelly approaches vigilantism has promise. Lara Antal's art and lettering are the efforts of an obvious novice - nothing wrong with that, the stories are just difficult to read. Antal is learning, and her art (and the overall production values of the finished comic) improves drastically between the first two issues. Issue one, scribbled apparently with a ballpoint pen, is, generously, a mess, but in issue two her art is a lot cleaner, though not anywhere nearly as good as guest artist Molly Ostertag in the third issue. Issue 3 is largely stand-alone, featuring a fairly rote vampire story, but Ostertag's art is phenomenal, and I'd really like to see more from her. That said, overall Tales of the Night Watchman gets incrementally better but is still not quite ready for primetime. But the creators show some promise, and future issues seem likely to increase in quality. (And I should note that Antal's mini-comic, A Comic Guide to Brewing is pretty awesome.)  And speaking of mini-comics, Koyama Press continues to impress with their diverse, high quality offerings from cutting edge creators. The publishers behind Michael Deforge's extraordinary Lose anthology have also put out a nice original collection from Nathan Bulmer, Eat More Bikes. Named after his hilarious daily webcomic, Eat More Bikes is a fabulous showcase of Bulmer's particular style and humor.

Hey, New Comics!

Infinity, Chew, Shaolin Cowboy
I've been talking a lot about Infinity in the Wednesday Review, because it's just so damn good. In issue 4, Hickman and Opena and Weaver deliver a thrilling, breathless grand sci-fi superhero magic. This is the best superhero story of the year and one of the best superhero books Marvel has put out since Civil War. Catch up, stick with it, this is extraordinary, wonderful stuff.

This is a big week for infrequent releases, and demons are sure enjoying a nice winter holiday as we speak, for the new Shaolin Cowboy 1 dropped today. The exclamation mark was invented to describe Geoff Darrow's brilliant, hyper-detailed art and hyper-manic storytelling. This entire comic, from the dense novella-length recap page that opens the story through the teaser for the next issue ("More Zombies! More Chainsaws!") is a rare treat, an exhibition of a mad master at work. And Dave Stewart's colors are astounding, too (of course). 

Walking Dead 115, the beginning of the event All Out War features Stefano Guidano on inks, and it's the best art the series has had in its ten year run. The writing is solid and it is absolutely gearing up for an intense story.

Chew 37 continues to mix high-concept weirdness with fantastic character drama with genuine hilarity in story and art. Layman and Guillory are working a pretty special voodoo with this book, inventive, clever, high energy and always surprising.

I challenge you to find a creator having more fun making comics than writer Jason Aaron on Thor. I challenge you to a cage fight over it. 

Resident Alien: Suicide Blonde 2 was another superb outing from Hogan & Parkhouse. They manage to elevate a fairly straightforward mystery with simple, elegant storytelling, and the back-door sci-fi elements are icing on the very well-made cake.

Buck Rogers 2 by Howard Chaykin was ugly and racist, a 180 from the last issue (or maybe not, feh). If you want your jetpack fix, get Amy Reeder and Brandon Montclare's Rocket Girl 1. In it a teenage time cop from the sortof future goes back to NYC in 1986 to fix something that goes wrong. I'm not entirely sold on the concept, but the first issue is good fun and worth checking out.

I haven't read these yet, but they are in the pile and certain to be amazing: Multiple Warheads: Downfall collects the long out of print early black and white MW work of Brandon Graham. Graham is working on a different level of pure creativity and I'm excited to see this early stuff. The new volume of Best American Comics is out, edited by Jeff Smith this year. There is far more mainstream representation this time around (a positive), though like all volumes of the Best American series the merits of the entries are decidedly debatable. More on this one later this month. Battling Boy from Paul Pope looks frankly breathtaking, no surprise there. Palookaville 21 from Seth is a gorgeous new hardcover with some new Clyde Fans, a couple of shorts and sketchbook material. Finally, Love and Rockets New Stories 6 is out, featuring 25 (!) short stories from Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez. Words do not exist to describe how excited I am for this new volume. It's Love and Rockets, what more needs to be said?

The Comic Pusher at New York Comic Con!

Ahoy, everyone! My hometown convention, New York Comic Con is happening this weekend and I will be reporting from the convention for Heidi MacDonald's amazing news website, The Beat!

I've been a fan of Heidi's for many years, and I am very excited to be reporting for The Beat all weekend long.

Stay tuned to The Comic Pusher online, follow me on twitter, like The Comic Pusher on Facebook, and bookmark for everything NYCC, Thursday, October 10 through Sunday, October 13!

Update: For all my reporting from NYCC, click here!

Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Run: Ex Machina by Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris: The March to War

The Comic Pusher Presents The Run: Ex Machina Part Three

In The Run, I review long-form comic works across multiple parts. In Part Three of my series on Ex Machina by Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris, I look at the next three stories, Fact v Fiction, Off The Grid, and March to War. For the other reviews in this series, click here.

Fact v. Fiction

I originally wrote a much longer analyses of the idea of superheroism as it is approached by Ex Machina for this review, but I think I'm jumping the gun a bit. So later on in The Run I will go into greater detail on my view of Ex Machina as a piece of reconstructionist superhero fiction. But I will point out that Ex Machina's approach to costumed vigilantism is not part and parcel of a preexisting culture of superheroism (as in most superhero fiction), but as a character's response to superhero fiction itself. In Ex Machina, Mitchell Hundred, in concert with Bradbury and Kremlin, becomes The Great Machine because he is inspired by the ideal of vigilantism as presented in superhero comics, the oddest of uniquely American genres. Few would make the leap to vigilantism when given unique powers, and the idea that someone could be good at it is actually a massive stretch of the imagination. The Great Machine was largely terrible at superheroism not because of any failings in Hundred and crew, but because superheroism, presented within a real-world framework of basic logic as it is in Ex Machina, is simply a really Dumb Idea.

Fact v. Fiction opens with Hundred's relationship with superhero comics and the often bizarre storytelling tools often employed within them. Hundred is shown, in flashback at various points in his life, consuming and engaging with superhero comics. And as is often the case, these experiences directly comment on the present reality of Mayor Hundred with a copycat vigilante that Kremlin and Bradbury team up to take down. Occasionally Vaughan will get gimmicky with Ex Machina, and the ways that Hundred's superhero past can come up to bite him. Though Hundred himself doesn't take down the imposter hero, the connections to Hundred run deep. (This apparent convenient gimmickiness is actually commented upon by characters later on in the series.) But this copycat hero is the B-story that opens up ideas that very cleverly plays with the concepts at the core of superhero fiction to comment on the A-story.

The A-story is a bit gimmicky, too, but when you are telling a story in punctuated bursts of action across many years, that is bound to happen. We are not being shown every torturous detail of Hundred's administration but the highlights of major events. Mind you, the major events that occur to Hundred and crew are far more major than what most New York Mayors go through, but that is part of the fun of fiction, to put your characters through the grinder and see how the come out. So the gimmicky A-Story of Fact v. Fiction is that Hundred has to go to jury duty. The case he hears isn't the point, but what happens in the deliberation room, when Hundred and the other jurors are held hostage.

The hostage taker is a deeply troubled man who says he served in the first Gulf War. He claims to have been part of a classified team that found some "chasm" that changed him forever - he claims to talk to machines like Hundred can, that he is tortured by sounds, like static in his brain, and he wants Hundred to "fix him." After all, Humans are just machines and he claims they share similar powers. The eventual, inevitable solution to the problem circumvents any actual quest for truth that can be given. Does the man share Hundred's powers? Did he find something otherworldy in Iraq all those years ago? The goverment claims the man never served in the army, and was simply delusional. Vaughan doesn't provide definite answers, but brilliantly dangles the possibility of the veracity of the man's claims by introducing the meta-context of the retcon. In flashback, Hundred and his childhood friend - who is now his lawyer and chief supplier of comics - along with the store owner are discussing Superman's parents, long dead, now written as never having died:
The concept of retroactive continuity, the most frustrating tool often used by creators in shared superhero universe to rewrite history, is brought up to throw into doubt the claims of the officials who say the man didn't serve, that he was simply crazy. Maybe the truth lies somewhere in between. And when we get the final answers at the end of the series, the possibilities raised here will come into a whole new light.

Off The Grid

Off The Grid in its own ways plays with retroactive continuity, but the more direct kind in lies told. In this case, the untruth comes from Hundred's mother, who comes back into his life after many years away when she runs into trouble about a year after his election. Hundred travels outside New York to take care of the situation, in a groan-inducing action piece. While we get another humorous flashback to his Great Machine days, and a very cool present use of his powers, the whole point of Off the Grid is to introduce Hundred's mother into the story while revealing an aspect of his familial past. The story is short, but it still feels sluggish and unnecessary in many aspects of its execution. Oh, and there's Vaughan's occasionally annoying habit of having his characters expositionally spouting esoteric facts about New York City:
Yay facts! As a New Yorker I know most of this stuff already - maybe that's because I'm a bit of a current events and history geek - but seeing stuff like this is not all that interesting, and comes off as a transparent and often inartful story setup. Ex Machina, while overall superb, has a few clunkers in its run, and Off the Grid is one of them.

March to War

It's February 2003, and America is gearing up for War. I remember this time well - like hundreds of thousands of others, I marched through the streets of New York in one of the planet's largest protests. In the end, the voices of hundreds of millions of people around the world were meaningless and America lurched into a pointless political war that would cost trillions of dollars and countless lives. March to War documents this time in New York's history, with one key difference - during the march, which in Ex Machina freely goes past the United Nations, a terrorist attack disrupts the protests, injuring and killing innocent civilians. March to War uses the fiction of this attack to comment on the reality of what the city and country was going through, from the issues of Civil Liberties to hate crimes to the idea of the War itself.

Hundred is not really concerned with the War, though. As Mayor of New York he doesn't have much to do with the country's overall political direction, though decisions he makes can change the conversation. Hundred's political stances, which continue to defy easy definition, come into play in a major way here. He supports the protestors on freedom of speech grounds, and he is heavy handed in his response to the attacks. He plays both sides of the civil liberties coin, and at no point takes a stand in the largest issue of the day. His political tack is almost extemporaneous, not remotely easily labeled. (The same can be said about his personal life.)

The attack occurs, injuring dozens, taking the life of a major character. We see how Hundred and local and federal officials respond to the attack. Hundred institutes "random" NYPD searches at all subway stops. Every decision has a cost, in this case in the apparent loss of freedoms, and beyond. There are discussions about the propriety and usefulness of these actions, and at one point, a low-level drug pusher is killed by police who panic when he runs from a checkpoint. Elsewhere, the social cost is shown when an innocent Sikh taxi driver is targeted in a hate crime. Hundred does what he can to keep together his City, already on perpetual edge, as it comes to terms with the events of the story. 

March to War - the best story of the series so far - is very much rooted in the nitty gritty of local New York politics and the larger social issues involved, and is less concerned with Hundred's superpowers. There are few flashbacks as the story plows forward, focusing on Hundred's response to the attack. His powers do come into play in a minor form, we get another trip into a meditation-triggered fever dream that may comment on deeper issues of Hundred's mysterious powers, and we are also shown members of the Iraqi leadership contemplating what an American superhero could mean for the region. But this story does not concern the exercise of superpower but the exercise of political power and, as mayor of one of the largest cities and most influential cities in the world, the effect that power has on every day life. And how, in his response, Hundred gains politically from the attacks on his city.

We also see how some of Hundred's relationships have developed over his 14 months in office. He has begun to gain the confidence of Commissioner Angotti, and we get more snapshots of his complicated relationship with Suzanne Padilla. Padilla may still hold a torch for Hundred, but its difficult to gauge how Hundred approaches Padilla - she's clearly become a personal confidant and close adviser, but there is a part of the picture we are clearly not yet being shown.
Panels and pages from Ex Machina
Tony Harris's art, with Tom Feister's defining inks and JD Mettler's atmospheric and dynamic coloring, continues to astound in these stories. Between superhero action sequences and long scenes grounded in the mechanics of city politics, Vaughan asks a lot of Harris and Harris and team deliver in every panel. Harris shows a remarkable ability to portray emotion, with visually energetic staging. There is force and vitality to Harris's art. Mettler's colors, while using recognizable leitmotifs, never get repetitive, often vibrantly setting the scene.

The only real weak points come from Vaughan's occasional clunky exposition. But another element that can be interpreted as a weak point is actually one of the comic's great strengths. Hundred's political stances - and the often contrary responses by various members of his politically diverse staff - as well as the ways he reacts, are not a wishy washy cop-out by Vaughan. Hundred is an iconoclast in his own way and his lack of definition allows Vaughan, through the story, to raise social and political questions without turning Hundred or the story into a mouthpiece for one viewpoint or another. It's very easy to be heavy-handed with these issues, and one of Vaughan's remarkable achievements in Ex Machina is that you don't get a sense that Hundred's opinions are Vaughan's - they could be, but more importantly, it is certain Hundred's opinions are Hundred's. We get the sense that he believes in what he does, that there is an unvarnished "honesty" to it all. But this is politics. Perhaps, Hundred's opinions and actions are political, that they are a means to a political end. That he is a political beast, a political machine, his stances and actions at the service of gaining and maintaining power.

Because when all is said and done, more than anything else, Ex Machina is a story about Power.

Fact v. Fiction was serialized by DC/WildStorm in Ex Machina 12-14; Off the Grid was serialized in Ex Machina 15 & 16; both are collected in Ex Machina Volume 3: Fact v Fiction (April 2005).   

Ex Machina Volume 4: March to War (November, 2006) was serialized in Ex Machina 17-20.

All three stories are also collected in Ex Machina: Book Two (Hardcover, December 2009; in softcover May 2014).