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.]

"Masquerade"

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"

"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"

"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.

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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.

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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."

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