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).

Postscript: And now, a blackout story

Speaking of the Blackout from Power Down... Everyone in New York has a Blackout Story. Here's just one.

I had been homeless for just over three months by this point. Many times during this period of my weird fucking journey in this City, I would stay at this horrid slum in the Village (when I could afford it). It was a simple enough task to walk from my job at 32nd St and 2nd Avenue to Jane St. At about 4pm on Thursday, August 14 2003, I was at a Borders bookstore next to my work reading a magazine when the lights began to flicker. I immediately felt something wrong about the way the lights went out, something unusual in the flicker and slow drain into darkness. I went to work and helped evacuate the place, and waited in the lobby with co-workers, watching thousands of people calmly walk down Second.

As I noted above, the spirit of acceptance and just plain getting-on-with-it was in the air. We could see people directing traffic. The news coming in, what little we could actually get, was contradictory at times and increasingly worrying, as the scope and spread of the blackout became evident. There was a constant though that at any moment power would come back. It didn't. Eventually, as the sun set, I started towards my abode for the week. I found myself in Union Square, and I was far from the only one. There was a fantastic, hard to describe energy about the place. There was a sense of something about to happen, but no-one knew what. There was no tension, no danger, no worry, just expectation, but damned if anyone knew what to expect. And there was also positivity, a sense that no-one knew what was going on or what was going to happen, but the City had just been through it's darkest hour and knocked-out lights would not dim our spirit.

I lingered in Union Square. I don't know why, it just seemed like a good idea. The darkness was complete. There was no building lights anywhere, no light pollution, and just a decreasing amount of traffic as the city emptied out. You could shine a small flashlight to the tops of the tallest buildings ringing the square, it was so dark. This being New York City, this being Union Square, music started. Drums, lots of them, all improvised, no plan, just people started showing up with drums and started playing. Fires were started, not a "lets burn shit down" fires but "let us see" fires. The music flowed and the drums were passed around and everyone played and everyone danced. Uninhibited, joyful, ecstatic dancing. 2013 Me would slip 2003 Me some Molly or Acid for the kicks, but as this was going down I was stone cold sober, feeding off the energy of the City, getting high off the music and the joy wrapping around me. I danced for hours.

At some point (time really was meaningless) I took a break and found myself sitting with some other folks listening to a very striking woman talk. At first it wasn't clear what she was talking about or why, but details began to clarify... it was a sustained narrative, indeed a one-woman play, and the woman was portraying Sylvia Plath. This is long before I read The Bell Jar and was I was only tangentially familiar with Plath, but once it became evident I was watching a performance, indeed, a remarkable one-woman off-Broadway play. Just several feet away as I sat on the ground, was the actress Angelica Torn performing Paul Alexander's stunning play Edge.

The play wrapped up and I continued to meander around the park and time passed imperceptibly. Then I became vividly aware of a short story by Isaac Asimov, his groundbreaking and transformative work "Nightfall" from 1941. In it, a world at the heart of the Galaxy, surrounded by six stars, that has not known darkness, goes dark. A scientist - who had predicted this once in an eon occurrence (to everyone's disbelief) - was standing at the observatory where he made his prediction, and a light began to rise on the horizon. But it wasn't one of the six suns, but the population of his world, driven mad by the dark, coming, coming, pitchfork in hand. As the nightfall of New York drew to a close, I too saw the glow on the horizon and thought of "Nightfall," of my own city teetering on the edge of forever, of the possibility, so remote, that the City had erupted. But the glow was just the sun. New York made it through its long night. And I had had a quintessentially New York experience. 

The Blackout is where I experienced New York's character for the first time. Where I recognized the kind heart at the center of our gruff exterior. Certainly most of the time New York has a certain attitude and way of doing things that many may not understand. But never once think that we don't care for one another and that when the chips are down, we won't stand up for each other and defend each other. We are New Yorkers, and New York comes first.

It would be nine years before I saw my beautiful city tested in such a way again. But the story of the effect of Hurricane Sandy on this City, and of its effect on me and the twists and turns of what happened to me exactly one year ago this week, is, like Ex Machina, one that doesn't necessarily have a happy ending. But that is a much, much longer story for another time and another place.

Enough. Go read comics.

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