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).

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