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).

1 comment:

  1. Finally, as I wrote this, these stories find reflection in current events in surprising ways. (Perhaps convenient, perhaps reflective.) High-profile politicians are often targets of deranged individuals. Thursday in Washington, a delusional and dangerous woman - who was certain that President Obama was personally surveilling her - met the same sad end as Hundred's own ill attacker. In the next part in this series, we'll cover someone who self-immolated at City Hall in Ex Machina, where Friday someone self-immolated in Washington on the National Mall. And just last month, a Sikh scholar, Prabhjot Singh, was attacked in the streets of New York, assaulted by ignorant thugs calling him "Osama." If there is any positive to the latter event, it is in the larger response from New Yorkers, the very vast majority who reject such extreme hatred, and moreso in Dr. Singh's remarkably forgiving and inspiring response, seeking not vengeance but to educate and illuminate his attackers about his faith. If only we all shared Dr. Singh's strength.