Friday, November 29, 2013

Two New Reviews from The Beat: Uncanny Avengers 14 and Infinity 6

Wednesday over at The Beat I reviewed two new Avengers Event-type books, Uncanny Avengers 14 and Infinity 6, both new this week from Marvel Comics. Those reviews are reprinted below.

Uncanny Avengers 14 by Rick Remender and Steve McNiven

I guess I'll start off by admitting I haven't really been reading writer Rick Remender's Uncanny Avengers. I read the first arc largely because of John Cassaday's presence on art, but Remender's story - involving the Red Skull stealing the recently deceased Charles Xavier's brain - left me a little cold. Indeed, most of Remender's writing at Marvel has left me unimpressed if not outright turned off. Many point to his long Frankencastle arc on Punisher as a wonderful exploration of unhinged superguy funnybook creativity, but I found the whole exercise - a story where Frank Castle is killed by Daken (Wolverine's wayward son, who appears in Uncanny Avengers) and comes back as a stitched-up Frankenstein battling/saving/something-ing various C-list Marvel monsters - patently ridiculous (to be generous). Maybe I've been spoiled by Ennis, Aaron and Rucka, but a silly sci-fi monster mag is just not what I want from a Punisher comic. (That said, I'm pretty excited about Nathan Edmondson and Mitch Gerards' upcoming run with the character.) The same general feeling applies to his most recent turn with Captain America. Following up Ed Brubaker's exceptional if too-long run with Cap is an unenviable task, but his Dimension-Z story was just too stupid for me. I can appreciate that Marvel gives their creators so much room to explore, to try weird things, to throw spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks. Sometimes you hit a pretty killer if unexpected formula, like Dan Slott's Superior Spider-Man or Fraction, Aja & crew's Hawkeye, and sometimes the spaghetti just bounces right off, leaving an unintelligible mess on the walls for someone else to clean up later. And Uncanny Avengers 14 certainly leaves a little bit of a mess that someone will reverse at some point.

It's unfair to expect creators to bend to my unknowable creative expectations, which is actually a common and slightly inappropriate long-term problem in fandom. Elements of superhero fandom seem to think that they have personal ownership of the characters, that they understand what makes characters work better than the skilled professionals whose job it is to create stories; they take personally the creative changes and outre storytelling risks with which they disagree. I find this attitude frankly repulsive. I'm a big believer in choosing one's own Continuity - oh, that dirtiest of c-words! - and if I don't like a story, or how it fits into my own idea of its place in the larger puzzle of the shared universe, I just ignore it. And anyway, I approach stories based more on who's making it than who's in it, and I also try a lot of new stuff if I don't know the creators in question. A creator's track record makes a difference, and I just don't like Remender's track record.

So: Uncanny Avengers. Launched in the wake of the AvX silliness of last summer is Marvel's go at integrating the X-Men and Avengers franchises. The X-Men, while solidly enmeshed in the larger Marvel Universe, has largely existed in its own corner with its own separate weight of continuity. Uncanny Avengers features a team of various X-Men and Avengers as a public face of human-mutant relations within the Marvel Universe, and also deals with the legacies of both organizations. Remender's first story is an example of that, featuring Captain America's nemesis dicking around with X-affairs. His follow-up stories, to the best of my tangential knowledge, features Apacolypse, then timey wimey Kang, with various rotating (and quite good) art teams. As we dive into the story at hand in issue 14, all of these elements seem to be coming together, and it's somewhat entertaining.

Maybe my experience has benefited by not having to go through the intervening 8-ish issues since I jumped off, cutting to the chase, and it's one hell of a chase. The issue opens with the somewhat clunky sequence of Kang going through all the previously established alternate-future Marvel Universes and picking up various superheroes for some task or another. There's Iron Man 2020, Earth-X Spider-Girl, 2099 Doom, and a few others. These opening pages are not addressed again as there are other pressing concerns the height of which conflict we're thrown into full-on. Something about the Apocalypse twins forcing Wanda Maximoff, The Scarlet Witch, to "rapture" the entire mutant race to their own homeworld, and Wanda's own efforts to subvert those plans. (Or something. I'm going off the recap page, here, and thank goodness for Marvel's useful recap pages.) But while Wanda's spinning her own wheels-within-wheels with the help of C-lister Wonder Man, Rogue and C-lister Sunfire have their own scheme to stop the Scarlett Witch.

And part of Rogue and Sunfire's plan is revenge. If Uncanny Avengers is dealing with the dueling legacies of the Avengers and the X-Men, the one point where they inextricably came together was House of M. Wanda Maximoff was responsible for the depowering of nearly the entirety of Mutant-kind, and there are many that understandably hold a pretty big grudge. (Mind you, Magneto the Terrorist is free to run around willy nilly instead of rotting in a cell or just plain cold-dead, but chalk my frustration with that up to my general problem with rogue's galleries - there's a relevant connection, but that's a whole other conversation entirely.) Rogue - and I'm going to ignore Sunfire here, though Remender does a decent job of upping her profile in this story - is seeking to stop Wanda from whatever it is she's doing and to make her pay for M-day in one swell foop, sugah. Remender tries to tie the events of M-day and Wanda's culpability in that into the fresh wound of Xavier's death, but I don't quite buy it. Nevertheless, it gives Rogue a chance to pull out some nifty, visceral tricks in her quest to make Wanda pay. Cue some cool superhero fighting, et cetera and whatnot. Oh, and death. Folks die. Well, superhero-die, which as we all know is meaningless and temporary.

It certainly helps that Steve McNiven (with John Dell and Laura Martin) is on the art. McNiven is a consistently entertaining practitioner of high-quality superhero art, and his stuff expectedly shines here. The combination of McNiven and the epic trans-time scale of the story gives the book an Event feel. I'm defining Event by scale of storytelling, not necessarily in the terms of over-hyped mini-series with countless pointless tie-ins. By my definition, the current "All Out War" story in Walking Dead applies, and so does the story presented here in Uncanny Avengers 14. Big Things Happen Here That Will Change The Marvel Universe Forever!(tm) including deaths and status quo changes that are bound to be reversed by another writer eventually, but nonetheless will have some lasting impact. I think. It's still all middle right now. It's a little refreshing to see such high-impact story in a single unheralded title, but it still has that Eventy tinge of Yet Another Superhero Death. I'm still not a fan of the Apocalypse/Skull/Kang stuff (which is largely minimized here anyway), but what is presented here is straightforward and entertaining enough. That is, if you are a dedicated Marvel fan. Even a Marvel Zombie may find it a stretch to really enjoy this whole thing and it will be completely incomprehensible to the uninitiated.

McNiven's art carries the story but even McNiven may not be able to save the whole thing when all is said and done. I'm not terribly inclined to keep reading after this nor to catch up on the stuff leading up, and it doesn't change my view on the quality of Remender's stuff. Nor am I inclined to really recommend it over, say, any random creator-owned book. But as a standard-fare Marvel superhero book, it's quite pretty, and if you have an affinity for the characters starring here it will either make you very happy or very, very mad.

And if it upsets you, just ignore it and pick up a better comic.

Like Infinity! Segue!

Infinity 6 by Jonathan Hickman, Jimmy Cheung and Dustin Weaver

Damn Events. Maybe it’s just a marketing term, but as I noted above, it’s a matter of scale. I’m sick of the term, and a little tired of the Events themselves, but Infinity is an Event by marketing and by definition. Going back to the cycle events that started in the age of Nu-Marvel, most have just been vehicles for launching other things, or killing characters. But Infinity is different. Sure, it’s the same in some things, but the quality is different, the structure is different, and the finished product is completely unalike any event. It’s Marvel’s differentest Event, and it’s Marvel’s best.

Strong words in a cycle that gave us Civil War, but the goal posts were/are different. Civil War was very much a vehicle for other things, and while flawed, was quite good. It also set a standard of sales and expectations that following events haven’t quite met. So I’m not really applying the same kind of standards, and looking at Infinity as its own unique order of Event storytelling. And unique is a great way to describe it. Writer Jonathan Hickman is a rare talent. His creator-owned books of the past year have been some of the best mainstream comics being published. And indeed, Infinity – the whole rigamarole that includes Avengers and New Avengers – might be the year’s best Superhero comic.

Let’s start with the art. Infused with Hickman’s distinct visual design aesthetic, Infinity features the prodigious talents of (alphabetically) Jimmy Cheung, Mike Deodato, Jerome Opena, Dustin Weaver, Lenil Francis Yu, and more. I can get frustrated with inconsistent art. But different is not always inconsistent and the art teams were consistent with the different stories Hickman was naturally telling. And damned good at it, too. Yu’s stuff suffers a little in the end, but otherwise the entire team is flawless, even Deodato (who I usually don’t really get, I guess) who changed up his style. Any series with 100 pages of Jimmy Cheung is a graphic-novel’s worth of content, more than worth the trip. Infinity 6 stars Cheung with an assist from Weaver, who give the work detail and care, the flash and energy they bring to the proceedings, the scope and execution of the grand space-operatic Epic and superpowered battling. Hickman and Marvel give them a ton of space to play and they tackle the proceedings with glee. If you haven’t been reading Infinity to this point, then picking up issue six might seem like a pointless exercise if not for the visual astonishments, and there are plenty.

The story in issue six is all action and it’s big big BIG. By this point, Hickman’s already pulled out all the stops. The twist of Inhumanity came a couple of issues ago, the juicy space opera elements have come and gone, the incursion has been averted. But Hickman keeps creating more stops to pull. This is all in the genius of the series’ structure. Secret Invasion, another invasion story as a point of comparison, was all decompressed middle and a silly twist to set up some other nonsense. But Infinity is so much more and then some. There’s been so many amazing visuals from the falls of Wakanda and Attilan, to the glorious space battles, to the Illuminati’s machinations, to every single thing involving Black Bolt. There sheer amount of story that is going on, has gone on, so masterfully juggled and interwoven by Hickman, complex yet accessible, all funnels into this finale issue.

Infinity is dense, thrilling, beautiful, intense piece of superhero sci-fi comic storytelling. The final main chapter is the capstone to this grand epic. Hickman’s vision with this story was clear and the execution flawless. And this is a fun, visually stunning (in story and art and Ideas) mainstream productions, written by one of the comic medium’s best talents.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Why Shaolin Cowboy 2 is A Terrible Comic

Shaolin Cowboy 2 by Geof Darrow
Dark Horse Comics
Geof Darrow's Shaolin Cowboy has always been one of those legends told in comic book circles, described with reverence and awe, the truth getting lost in the legend enhanced by its unavailability. The first series was published as seven issues intermittently between 2004 and 2007 by long-since-shuttered Burlyman Entertainment and has been subsequently out of print since. When Darrow started doing spot-illustrations for the revived Dark Horse Presents and was subsequently announced as reviving the title, there was a great deal of buzz and anticipation. I haven't read the originals as, perplexingly, neither Dark Horse nor Darrow saw fit to reprint the first series as a lead-in to the current one (maybe the reprint rights are all weird, as can happen with creator-owned books pulled from limbo). But I was aware of the legend, and eagerly anticipated the first new issue which came out in October. And needless to say, I was suitably impressed. Darrow's hyper-detailed art style and unhinged story involving slackers and zombies and pop culture and all kinds of crazy shit with the badass eponymous character were unique and delightful. Darrow's exhilarating work in Shaolin Cowboy 1 was quite stunning, and the detailed, manic nature of the work invited continual reappraisal.

Now knowing what to expect, I was very happy to see issue 2 drop without delay, and was floored for a completely different reason: Shaolin Cowboy 1 is one of the best comics of the year. Shaolin Cowboy 2 is one of the worst.

First, Shaolin Cowboy 2 isn't really a "comic." Sure, it quacks like a comic and looks like a comic, but when you open it up all you get are 33 images of a dude attacking a horde of zombies by swinging a large stick with a chainsaw at each end. And that's it. For 33 pages, Geof Darrow presents the Cowboy swinging his contraption and bifurcating many, many zombies.

I know more than a few people who would make the argument that 33 uninterrupted splashy pages of Geof Darrow-illustrated widescreen zombie annihilation is worth the price of admission. The level of gruesome detail Darrow lavishes on his undead horde and the physicality of the Shaolin Cowboy are all without par. Individually, each panel is a frankly masterful display of deliciously delineated violence. But there is no variation to the ceaseless butchery. None.

Every single panel is staged from the same angle. There is no sense of setting or threat, just repeated image after image: Panel: The Cowboy swings the contraption, kills some zombies. Panel: The Cowboy swings the contraption, kills some zombies. Panel: The Cowboy swings the contraption, kills some zombies... One panel of Darrow illustrating this is like fine caviar. 33 pages of this is like having fish eggs shoved down your throat for breakfast, lunch and dinner for a month.

The structure, the staging and the storytelling are all atrocious. Every single panel, with the exception of the first, can be interchanged with any other, making them all pointless. Look at all the images I've included with this review. They include the second panel, the final panel, and a random selection of others, all completely out of the order from the published thing. Could you tell? Could you put them in order without reading the comic? Could you do it after reading it? There is zero sense of progression. Comic books are sequential storytelling, but there is nothing sequential about Shaolin Cowboy 2. Of course many comics and many cartoonists can manipulate the language and mechanics of comics in daring ways to tell different kinds of comic stories. But that is not what is happening here.

Within the context of the larger eventual graphic novel, one could see these pages as simply an elaborate illustrative sequence, and within that context it is a forgivable excess that is quickly breezed by on the way to (presumably) actual plot and storytelling. But the appropriate context for this piece is as it was released, as a comic book - and as a comic book it is an abysmal failure and a waste of money. Whatever wow-factor we get from the first issue turns into an again?-factor. Like Darrow had one idea and stretched it about twenty times longer than it should go.

If the scene was the same - The Cowboy swings the contraption, kills some zombies - throughout the issue, but presented with some actual visual dynamism, from varying angles or panel constructions, (maybe, I dunno, sequentially!), then maybe it would be tolerable. But reading this, I'm struck by two things: that Darrow spent a great deal of time drawing all of this, and that he essentially chose to draw the same thing, over and over. If you are going through the trouble, when you have proven skills as a visual storyteller, why do this? It would be wrong for me to try to divine the artist's intent without knowing his true feelings, but this feels like simple, hollow artistic masturbation in four colors, stapled with a barcode for the suckers to lose three fifty on.

Ad nauseating ad nauseum ad infinitum.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Thoughts on the Lack of Comics Critic-Practitioners

Over on The Hooded Utilitarian, Ng Suat Tong (whose work I rather enjoy if not always agree with) had a post about the state of comics criticism, and Caroline Small had a fascinating follow-up questioning the lack of critic-practitioners in comics. My own thoughts (on what is a very, very interesting issue in the comics art form) are copied below.
The lack of comic criticism from comic professionals is something that struck me when I read Jonathan Lethem’s review of Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge in The New York Times a couple of months ago. I read reviews of well-known authors by well-known authors all the time, but it was the first time I seriously considered an equivalent concept for comics. (Perhaps that lack of consideration is a failure of imagination on my part, or maybe Lethem’s own association with comics tickled that nerve just enough for me to notice it.)

I think the biggest problem in establishing such a culture of criticism in mainstream comics of mainstream comics professionals by mainstream comics professionals, is that mainstream comics in the larger Anglosphere is very much a closed shop (or at least a small town where everyone knows, or at least knows of, everyone else). To make your way to the big boys, you have to play ball, and part of that game seems to include general congeniality amongst mainstream creators. Aside from the usual barbs thrown across publishers’ bows and the occasional twitter tiff, creators don’t want to rock the boat because there are only so many boats. But then again, I don’t think there is an expectation of practitioner-criticism in other mainstream arts, either. It’s not like Aaron Sorkin is writing about Vince Gilligan and vice versa. It’s more likely we’ll see current comics pros dissecting some classic work before we see them bringing a detailed critical eye to some current work.

But this being [Hooded Utilitarian], I reckon the mainstream isn’t even in consideration for this discussion, which is fine. (Though, establishing a culture of critic-practitioners in the mainstream can’t hurt its chances elsewhere.) But another major limiting factor that equally effects non-mainstream work and mainstream work alike is the availability of viable venues for comic critic-practitioners. It’s one thing when The New York Times calls Lethem to review Pynchon, because they can pay him for the effort, and well, too. (And he gets to plug his own new book in the process.) But to expect (or hope) for a rise in critic-practitioners in comics may be a stretch because, outside a handful, most comic creators and associated professionals are bloody broke. And most current venues of comic criticism simply cannot afford to pay.

To create a culture of critic-practitioners in comics, we need more coverage of comics in mainstream publications that cover other arts. Of course that coverage has been increasing exponentially year by year, but (to be consistent in my example) The New York Times seems to cover, say, opera more than comics. And by any measure – mainstream cultural penetration, variety and accessibility of contemporary works, sheer number of people consuming it – comics far outrank the so-called fine arts that mainstream cultural publications like to get off on. When outlets like The Times (New York or Washington or London) or Slate or The New Yorker start having daily, comprehensive, meaningful and intelligent coverage of our art and medium is when the rise in critic-practitioners in comics will come.

Our other hope in establishing a culture of critic-practitioners may lie, for the time being, in the small handful of comic news media that now exist that actually can pay for content, like CBR or Comics Alliance. Organizations like those, which already have connections to so much of the industry must start pushing for such content. (Yes, there is a frustrating lack of non-mainstream coverage in such places, but we have to start somewhere.) That isn’t to discount the outlets that exist now for comic criticism. Venues like HU or The Comics Grid are doing astounding things for moving the cultures of comics forward. But until Noah can afford to hire Spiegelman to write about Urasawa or Ware to write about Hickman or all four to write about Moebius (for random disparate examples), we have to wait for mainstream outlets to do it.

And I have frankly discounted The Comics Journal in all of this, because it is so easy to.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

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

The Comic Pusher Presents The Run: Ex Machina Part Eight

In The Run, I review long-form comic works across multiple parts. In Part Eight of my series on Ex Machina by Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris, I look at the finale, "Vice." For the other reviews in this series, click here.

As I finish this piece on Election Day 2013, results are in and New York has elected its first new mayor since 2001. In the weeks leading up to today's election, I have been covering the entirety of Vaughan and Harris's masterpiece - a visionary post-superhero, science fiction, New York City political character drama. Ex Machina is one of the finest long-form mainstream comics ever produced, and the finale, "Vice," is its crowning achievement. As with last week's entry, there will be significant discussion about plot details and the ramifications of what happens in the story.  We have reached the end of our journey; be warned, this is not a review, but commentary and interpretation, and all significant plot points will be revealed. 


In the space of a few days, Mitchell Hundred lost his mother to unspeakable violence and found out that he is enmeshed in an interdimensional war. He fought what he thought would be the only battle in that conflict, destroying The Voice and the means of invasion. But the war is not over, and there are consequences for his actions. By suiting up to defeat the menace facing the City, he put his freedom in jeopardy. And there is still the business of the city, and a future political run, and the future itself.

The cliffhanger from Pro-Life is resolved by a bait-and-switch. Bradbury and Hundred switched places at the last second after Hundred killed Padilla. Angotti doesn't get her man, and Bradbury gets the punishment meant for Hundred. From there, the story leaps forward...

The framing sequence is Hundred, sitting alone in the dark, talking to his old jetpack, the exact scene from issue one where he warns of the tragedies to come. But the tragedies he spoke of in "The Pilot" were not the battle, or the Horrors that Padilla unleashed, or the terrorist attack that took Journal, not even the death of his mother. The real tragedies are about to unfold before us.

In the days following the Horrors, Wylie and Hundred talk about what happened. Hundred is still a lame duck, and Wylie is still set up to take over Gracie Mansion. And Hundred, as he leaves the position from which he changed the face of the city forever, has one final plan. We skip forward a year and a half....

It's September 2006, and Hundred is speaking before the United Nations General Assembly, as United States Ambassador to the U.N. He has an idea for the future, one that honors the City and the victims of all the attacks that have occurred over the last five years: a new World Trade Center, rebuilt exactly as it was before. And we skip forward to March 2007...

To a nightmare. Hundred is standing in the burning ruins of what was once New York, behind him the shuttered United Nations hovering in the shadows of demons and monsters. "No. I stopped you!" Hundred screams. And another Hundred, perhaps the one that gave Mitchell his powers, answers him: "Did you really think you wouldn't get hit again?" He tells the Hundred we know (or think we know) the truth, that he's always been an ambassador for the Invaders. That it's only a matter of time. And Hundred wakes up, at night, with an intruder in his room...

"Easy, Boss. Just came to give you this back." It's Bradbury, with The Great Machine's rocket, Bradbury, broken, drunk, unrecognizable. After the Horrors, Bradbury took the fall. He lost his job, lost his family, lost his friends, and was reduced to signing autographs at conventions. The night he shows up in Hundred's room, he hit his wife. "I hit her, just like I hit Suzanne. I remember things now. I remember everything we did to her. To Pherson. To us." He needs help. Hundred responds: "Bradbury, you have to get away from me... Don't tell anyone you came here. This is a very delicate time for me. I'm about to announce my candidacy for--"

"But I love you" Bradbury says. He professes his love for Hundred. He takes Hundred in his arms, looks him in the eye. Hundred almost gives in, but he can't. There is too much to lose. It can all fall apart. He rejects Bradbury, tosses him out at the time of his greatest need. Bradbury strikes Hundred and leaves. And we skip to October 2007...

Hundred and Candy are standing in a field in the middle of Iowa, on the campaign trail. As Hundred grinds out the small indignities of a Presidential run, he finds himself abandoned by old allies, Wylie and Angotti. He gets a message from Kremlin, saying it was time to talk. Three months later, Hundred meets Kremlin in his workshop on Coney Island.

Kremlin has the file that proves (or at least strongly alleges) that Hundred stole the election in 2001. Hundred pleads with Kremlin; in Hundred's eyes, the very fate of the world is at stake. But Kremlin only cares about The Great Machine. He irrationally believes he can blackmail Hundred into returning. Hundred goes for the file, and Kremlin pulls out his gun. Hundred refuses to give in, and Kremlin, despondent, puts the gun to his own head. Hundred tries to calm Kremlin down, and then he asks him if he showed the file to anyone else. Kremlin said no, and at that moment Hundred used his power to set off the gun killing Kremlin.

And back to the present, the middle of 2010, Hundred reminiscing, talking to The Great Machine's machines. He gets a phone call, and on the other end is the man working on health care reform, his boss, the president.

Vice President Hundred puts down the phone, and picks up a picture of the three men that made The Great Machine. He smiles, there, in the dark, at his old friends. The only men who ever knew him if they knew him at all, rewarded for their loyalty with death and destruction.

And then, fade to black. An end.

"Vice" is an emotional roller coaster of undiluted heartbreak and despair. It is a tragedy of the highest order, where no-one really wins. Hundred, who dreamed he would be president, who did everything he could to get in power to protect the world, finds himself both a heartbeat away from absolute power and mired in absolute powerlessness. The jolt of those last pages is one of the series' wonders.  Ex Machina is about worlds: our own, the fictional one the characters inhabit, the worlds waiting at the edge of reality, bracing to invade. The alternate history, the alternate now of the series reaches it's stunning apotheosis, Hundred's impact in the universe reflected in the series' dark mirror of our own world. 

But the tragedy does not really lie in Hundred, though it's undeniably tragic. The tragedy is in the lives ruined on Hundred's path to nowhere. He justifies every sin he commits at every turn as necessary to protect the people of the City and the Earth. But there is an ambiguity - has all his sacrifices been for naught? He came so far, only to end up short. It could all have been meaningless. He stole an election and changed history. He killed his friend and mentor. And he rejected his greatest ally at his time of need.  

In these final pages, Vaughan and Harris rip out your heart and stomp on it. Because that is what you get by believing in something, let alone something as dirty and inhuman as a politician.

Harris's final art here is astonishing. All the strengths he showed throughout Ex Machina shines in "Vice." Eschewing an inker, Harris completes the full art (with Mettler's expectedly superb colors), turning in page after page of stunning line work. It is an issue largely filled with emotionally laden dialog, and Harris kills it scene after scene. Vaughan's scripting and storytelling is without peer, but it wouldn't have been worth a damn if Harris couldn't execute.

The emotional moments in this issue are masterfully executed. The issue's (and the series') two most heartbreaking sequences are just stunning. Look at the emotionally wrenching, difficult scene where Bradbury professes his love for Hundred. The pain in both of their faces breaking through the the rush of emotions and thoughts the scene evokes.

And of course there is Kremlin's death. The look on Hundred's face when he commits the act. Even subtler, Harris's presentation of the moment the gun goes off, Hundred's face, carefully framed in a shop mirror, the shock coursing through the reader's mind at the suddenness, the unforgivability, the finality, the intent. The reader coming to terms with the act at the same time as the one who committed it. The trauma of the event and Harris's unparalleled realization of it.

Harris's original art to Volume 10
And for a series with a pretty impressive run of consistently brilliant covers, the final two collected edition covers are some of Harris's finest work. Volume 10: Term Limits is uncharacteristically minimalist, featuring a lone Mitchell Hundred with piercing eyes, the ghosts of past blending into the background. For a character whose powers are machine based, where technology plays an important role, Harris flips that dynamic and has Hundred sitting in quiet thought, with a book and quill pen in stately surroundings, in muted colors, only the slightest hint of a gear in sight, the suggestion of regality betrayed by what Hundred really achieves.

The fifth Deluxe edition cover is even more reserved and minimalist. Absent are Harris's highly designed, lushly crafted, stylistic cover designs, and what remains are understated, elegant, and exceed the high bar Harris set for himself, and defy the very expectations of the genre.

They are striking images. Images that take on a new meaning after reading the story. What you think of Hundred, his actions, and his role in the story gives new meaning to how you approach the art.

The cover to Ex Machina: The Deluxe Edition 5 Hardcover
I especially love the Deluxe cover art and the weight of meaning it now holds, all storytelling hands and expressionless face, the coloring and otherworldly lighting adding dimension throughout. The meaning of that face, as cold and ambiguous as Hundred himself. The hands hiding his true face like a mask, the hands holding up the weight of the head, swollen with pride, heavy with the responsibility of his position and his crimes, the hands, containing the dark power hidden within. Harris's blacks and Mettler's greens, at the highest level individually, combine into a massive visual punch.

What Vaughan accomplishes here is his masterwork. The wonders of his story structure up to this point have been jaw-dropping, and Vaughan takes it even further with his audacious time jumps as he bounds forward towards the alternate present of the story's publication. He does a similar thing in the finale of Y: The Last Man, but where that finale was a coda to a journey's end, Ex Machina is a radically different thing entirely.

Again, the series plays with its relationship with superhero fiction early on in "Vice." Hundred opens with a monologue, contrasting the unreality of fiction with the stark, dark reality of life, always ending in pain, regret and loss. "Happy endings are bullshit. There are only happy pauses... That's why I like superhero books." In superhero comics, there is stasis, where every wrong has a chance to be righted. "Those stories never get to become tragedies." Ex Machina is the anti-superhero superhero comic, specifically rooted in a version of reality that mirrors our own, that changes and develops quickly. "Vice" is the antithesis of the what is presented in most superhero fiction, specifically and explicitly showing change and death and loss in a heightened shot, leaping forward years at a time, shattering our perceptions and the status quo with every jump.

Vaughan, through Hundred, also makes clear that what was chronicled in Ex Machina is but a small window into the darkness, the leap forward through time just a heightened version of what we've already been through. But it also has the remarkable effect of distilling who Hundred is, revealing that everything we thought we knew was wrong. This isn't a cheap soap-opera twist where it's revealed that Hundred is the villain, but a revelation born through complex characterization, a revelation that forces us to reexamine and reinterpret everything that came before. Vaughan reveals the truth about what's been happening in front of your face the entire time and his and Harris's accomplishment with this is nothing short of monumental.  

There are two distinct ways to reinterpret the events of Ex Machina in light of these revelations. The first is Mitchell Hundred, the political beast; the second is Mitchell Hundred, the potential enemy agent of another world. That both of these interpretations are inextricably intertwined is one of the book's remarkable achievements.

The first reinterpretation: Every single action Mitchell Hundred has taken since throwing his hat into the ring has been with the sole goal of attaining and maintaining political power.

As originally presented, Hundred is shown to be apparently honorable, seeking power to serve the people of the City he loves. Despite his popularity, he abdicates power by giving up a second term, to ostensibly focus on the business of City Government. He supports no political party and his actions as Mayor cover all ends of the political spectrum. 

But despite the narrative's omniscient point of view, we the readers never really get a clear idea of just who Mitchell Hundred really is. As the series moves forward, we get the sense that Hundred engages in a great deal of political maneuvering. That every decision he makes, every facet of his being down to his very sexuality, is tied to achieving and maintaining power. That, like all politicians, despite whatever front of public service he may provide, he is a politician and thus a right bastard.

The moment, the very panel Hundred sends out Bradbury to cover up the White Box affair in Ring Out The Old is the moment that the series really changes. When Bradbury reveals that Padilla might uncover its secret, his reaction, a simple, all lower-caps "what?" speaks volumes. He panics and sends Bradbury out right away, leading Padilla right to its location, and to her and the city's fate. Why would he care about the White Box? Certainly there is the perception that it may have played a role in stealing the election in 2001. But Bradbury believes Hundred when he says it was necessary for the safety of the city, indeed, he believes in Hundred. But does Hundred believe himself? He does the knee-jerk, guilty thing. He seeks to destroy the object that made it look like he stole the election, in the process making it look like he stole the election...

Because he did steal the election. There is just the matter of degree to which he lied to Bradbury and to himself, and the context of that lie. Throughout Ex Machina we are never given reason to assume that Hundred is anything but a straight-laced, honest man. But when he kills Padilla, sending her through the gateway to the malevolent realities beyond, he tells her the most important piece of truth uttered in the series: "I'm a politician. I lie."

Those last two words put everything that has occurred into a completely different light. "I lie." What are you lying about, what have you been lying about, 100?  This revelation is not all that surprising, of course. Everyone lies, all the time. But there is an important qualifier to Hundred's statement, and that was tying his lies to Politics and Power.

What happens in "Vice" is a heart-shattering extension of Hundred as soulless politician. Rick Bradbury's life has been shattered by his association with The Great Machine and with Hundred. The last we see of him, his is a completely broken man, with no family, no job, and no future. He dedicated his life to Hundred after 1999. He sacrificed as much of himself as Hundred at any point over the preceding eight years. He was unquestioningly loyal throughout, even taking the fall for his friend and boss. And he is repaid with destitution and abandonment. At his lowest, he comes to Hundred for help, and Hundred discards him like so much trash. Once an honored friend and associate, now a liability. He used Bradbury as a stepping stool and then as a patsy on his rise to power, and now he has no use for him. Mobsters and gangbangers have more honor and loyalty.

The emotionally destructive sequence of Bradbury's fall is amplified by the even greater tragedy of what Hundred does to Kremlin. Hundred confronts him, perhaps to only talk him down from whatever thoughts of blackmail he may harbor, perhaps to shut him up for good. Either way, he kills Kremlin at the first chance he has, once he knows Kremlin's death and Hundred's election-theft can't be traced to him. Kremlin, the man who largely raised him, his oldest friend, one-third of The Great Machine. Kremlin held the gun, but Hundred pulled the trigger, and no matter what his intentions were going in, that was the outcome.

The message in this is pretty clear: politicians lie. They cheat, they steal, they even kill to gain and keep power. They are simply a different class of criminal. Some politicians are corrupt and serve others' bidding in exchange for power. Others will crawl over whomever they can on their way to the top. But all put on airs of honor, and all honorless.

It's a cynical view of the universe, certainly. There probably are elected officials who wish only to serve, who attain power honorably. But Mitchell Hundred is not that man. Despite whatever protestations he may make about protecting the city or the country or humanity, the ultimate ends for all of his horrible means is political. It was always about Power.

And in the end, the only superhero in the world, who used his powers to gain ultimate political power, who sacrificed everything including his friends and himself, ends up Powerless.

The second reinterpretation: Every single action Mitchell Hundred has taken since becoming The Great Machine has been at potential service to the hidden programming from his unknown masters.

His power over machines was created by an alternate universe version of himself, with the intention of taking over this universe. There are many, many versions of Hundred who have willingly paved the way for their universes to be overtaken by these forces.

Hundred-prime, the great designer at the center of all Great Machines, makes it crystal bloody clear that Hundred is meant for one thing, and one thing only, even if he doesn't realize it. "You've always been an ambassador for us... For every Parallel that had you trying to stop me, there were two where you were first in line to help... I'm not your reflection, Mitchell. I am he, as you are he, as you are me, and we are all together." And a money shot:

There is a certain indomitability of character Hundred evinces throughout the series. At every turn, it appears Hundred is rejecting the expectations of his benefactors. He was given superpowers with the sole purpose of paving the way for an interdimensional takeover. But every time someone tries to tell him what his powers mean, he usually rejects it outright. He simply doesn't seem to care. It's not unreasonable to believe that he doesn't care, that he is immune to the programming which effects Pherson and Padilla and nearly every other alternate-universe version of himself, that he wants to stop the invasion and save his world. That certainly plays into Hundred's role as the hero throughout the series - he intervenes in 9/11, stops Padilla's takeover of humanity, and everything in between.

Indeed, when Padilla gives him the option of ruling humanity on behalf of the invaders who gave them their powers, Hundred says "no." But it's not a definitive, action-hero go-fuck-yourself, it is a contemplative, shaky no. Hundred clearly considers Padilla's offer, and he rejects it knowing it may mean his death. But he considers it. Perhaps that is illustrative of Hundred's heroism, that he has the same human weakness, and when tested rejects that power and what it means.

But any thought of Hundred's inviolability seems to be banished by what occurs in "Vice." He seeks ultimate political power under the self-justification of stopping the interdimensional invasion. Perhaps he sees his actions as ends justifying means. He rejects Bradbury and kills Kremlin - were these political acts or elements of his programming? His heartbreaking "What did I do to you" while standing over Kremlin's body mirrors Padilla's own questioning of her actions after she kills Hundred's mom - "I'm doing the right thing. Right?"

Everything Hundred does comes with the possibility that he is acting through the hidden programming of his makers, the alternate-himselves. Multiple times in the series he notes the role that dreams play in his ascension. The designs of everything from The Great Machine to the raygun that opened the door to the other universe to the White Box that stole the election came to him as an echo of the programming that came with his powers. Far from absolving him of the responsibility for his actions, it simply adds layers to the potential malevolence at work. That this isn't just your typical scheming politician and all the associated evils of that, but an enemy agent in deep cover, fighting against his programming, perhaps an ultimate slave to it when he doesn't even realize it.

When he kills Kremlin, it's almost like an automatic response from some element of him deep within. He looks at Kremlin's body in disbelief at what he did. But this isn't to absolve Hundred of his crime. Even if it was some buried element within him that pulled the trigger, Hundred commits the act only when he knows he's in the clear. And he leaves his fallen friend to rot, ignominiously, forgotten, alone. Be it some deep cover programming or basic survival at all costs, Hundred is utterly complicit in this act. In all of his acts as The Great Machine and beyond.

His murder of Kremlin is one of the hardest things to reconcile - Hundred has repeatedly shown himself to be rejecting the influences of his makers. But both interpretations I propose above have profoundly negative consequences for the future. If it was just an element of his programming that caused him to steal the election and murder Kremlin, what else is going on, what else could happen? But if it was just a larger symptom of Hundred's true nature as political beast willing to do anything in his quest for power, no matter his motivation, then what else is going on, what else could happen?

Who else is going to die because of Hundred? Who else is he going to kill? Will he even succeed at his Quixotic task of protecting the Earth from invasion? Will he be the cause it?

Beyond these interpretations, "Vice" forces a full reconsideration of all the events that came before. I have never quite encountered a piece of fiction that creates this effect so stunningly. The twist at the end of Sixth Sense and the revelations of the Shadows and Vorlon's true intentions (not to mention Garabaldi's betrayal) in Babylon 5 come to mind. But they don't come close to the impact "Vice" has on the reader, both emotional and intellectual and downright visceral.

Ex Machina is commentary on Power. It examines the consequences of superpowers through a logical and reconstructive lens. It explores the role of power in our lives, especially political power. It asks fundamental questions about the type of person that would seek that power, and the effect that quest has on those around them.

Ex Machina is vital and important work, effective as a superhero story, a political story, a science fiction work, all beautifully executed throughout. Certainly uneven in some parts, in the end it comes together in the pièce de résistance of "Vice."

Thank you for reading this far. This is the end of my story-by-story examinations of Ex Machina, but I'm not quite done yet. In the coming weeks I will have two more pieces on Ex Machina - one on the book's unique role as reconstructive post-superhero fiction, and finally a look at sexuality in Ex Machina.

Ex Machina 50, "Vice" is collected in Ex Machina Volume 10: Term Limits (November 2010) and in Ex Machina Book 5 (Hardcover, April 2011) from DC/WildStorm.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Nice Art: Twenty Years of Conan Bumps by Kevin Frank

Conan O'Brien, by Conan O'Brien
For about two weeks now Conan O'Brien has been celebrating twenty years on the air, showing best-of clips from all three iterations of Conan's long-running late night franchise. Through next week on they are also hosting a slew of classic Conan clips, including a significant amount of material from his many years at NBC. As a huge Conan fan from almost the beginning, watching these clips again has been a genuine thrill; so many memories, so many feels, as the kids say.

One of the niftier things currently up is a full gallery of bumps (title cards) from the entire history of the show by artist and designer Kevin Frank. Over the course of the series, Frank designed hundreds of clever, funny, and even striking images that weave the peculiar Conan iconography into well-known pieces of art, historical images and pop culture memes before meme was a word.

Some of the best, of course, were Frank's use of popular and obscure comic imagery. Here are four of his killer comic inspired Conan designs:

I love the more obscure Chris Ware references, especially in the final image. If you weren't familiar with Ware's work, it would be just a cute little sequential drawing of Conan and guests; knowing Ware's work and styles adds a distinct punch to the image.

Frank created hundreds of these images, showing a chameleon like ability to seamlessly absorb and subvert dozens of different artists', photographers' and designers' styles. Many, many more Frank-designed bumps are online at through November 15. For more on Kevin Frank, visit

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Opening Night at the Jack Kirby Pop-Up Museum [The Beat]

This article was originally published Monday on The Beat.

As Rand Hoppe, founder and Director of the Jack Kirby Museum told me tonight, "Jack Kirby hated the Lower East Side." Kirby would tell World War II stories and talk about the creation of his art all day, but when it came to the L.E.S., all he wanted to do was get the hell out. The Lower East Side of Manhattan was a very different place in Kirby's youth, and the neighborhood has had more than its share of ups and downs in the nigh-Century since the King was born. However, it is not irony, but Kirby-cosmic kismet that as part of the neighborhood's recent resurgence, her greatest son found a spotlight here. As part of the Kickstarter-funded Made In The Lower East Side's Storefront Transformer Project, the Jack Kirby Museum has been given a storefront "pop-up" gallery for this week only, dubbed Prototype: Alpha, the opening of which was Monday Night.

A pretty decent crowd of supporters, NYC comic professionals, and a few curious onlookers, braved the chilly autumn evening to attend the opening-night festivities at the gallery tucked into a storefront at the base of the Williamsburg Bridge. It's a tiny space, put together quickly but efficiently by the Kirby Museum's small band of organizers, specifically Hoppe and Museum secretary and digital guru Tom Kraft. As Kraft told me, everything Hoppe and Kraft and the other museum supporters do is entirely voluntary and largely out-of-pocket, a true labor of love.

To date, the non-profit Kirby Museum, which has been in constant development since 2005, has not had a physical space to exhibit. This temporary "pop-up" space is the Museum's chance to show what it can do, raise awareness for Kirby and the Museum, and to raise funds to someday find a permanent home. That is still some ways off, though. There are few permanent comic museums in the United States, and the costs of finding and setting up a permanent space are enormous. But if there is any significant American artist who deserves it, Kirby's the one. And it is evident that Hoppe, Kraft and crew are the ones to someday achieve this.

Funding is not the only hurdle to overcome, of course. The biggest is the availability of original art to display. It's no secret that one of the great tragedies of Kirby's career was the scattering and destruction of so many of his original pieces. What remains is in the hands of collectors spread across the world. But the folks at the Kirby Museum, at least in this pop-up exhibition, have come up with a pretty decent compromise. While the amount of physical art in the Museum's possession is small, their digital holdings are enormous - to date, they have full-color, full-page high definition scans of over three thousand Kirby pages, plus five thousand more scans of copies. For this exhibit, the museum has produced high quality prints of some key pieces in their archive.

If anyone might be disappointed in the concept of looking at a "copy," they need only look at the quality of work produced in IDW's extraordinary Artist Editions as an example of the work displayed this week. By going to prints, it allows the Museum to display important pieces at full-size with no loss in visual quality. Looking at the pieces on display this week, including some Fantastic Four pin-ups, about a dozen pages from Silver Age Marvel and a handful of DC material, if you didn't know they were prints you'd think they were the real thing. And as it is massively unlikely that you will ever be in the same room as original Kirby art, seeing these full-size prints, with the white-out and corrections and Kirby's extensive marginalia, is still pretty thrilling.

There is just a small handful of pieces on display, but there is also a pretty killer oversized print of trippy Kirby painting, some copies of pencils of the one story he did about his youth, and a small piece connecting Kirby to the Lower East Side, replete with census records and classic photos. The big windows to the street feature a glorious, massive Silver Surfer drawing, enticing you to come in.

Far from being a staid, dry exhibit, the Museum actually encourages hands-on exploration of Kirby's art. You can get as close as you want to the prints, and even flip some of them between the finished comic image, Kirby's full page art, and copies of his pencils. There are iPads presented to explore just a small fraction of the Museum's digital holdings. The potential for interactivity with this technology as we can see right now in museums across the world is immense.

Hoppe, who has very clearly made it his life's mission to spread the Gospel of Kirby, was very pleased by the success of Monday Night's inaugural turnout. There will also be a couple of fascinating talks given at the site later this week. A highlight looks to be "Ya’akov Kurtzberg – King of Comics," a lecture from Arlen Schumer. Schumer is known for his engaging and entertaining lectures, and if his enthusiasm Monday night was any indication, it looks like it will be a lot of fun. Also available are a small selection of Kirby books and t-shirts donated to the Museum for this event by Two Morrows, Fantagraphics, Arlen Schumer, and local NYC retailers Forbidden Planet and JHU Comic Books. (Perfunctory conflict notice, I worked for JHU for about six years until last week.)

As kind-of a full-scale mock-up of the possible, the exhibit is very effective. But tiny. Very tiny. Even taking your time, which you should do, it will take less than ten minutes to peruse the offerings. But that is all part of this exhibit's importance. This isn't the Museum but what the Museum could be. This is a What If in its purest form. What If there was a museum dedicated to one of American art's most important figures? What If we could celebrate his achievements and his seismic cultural contributions in an accessible, interactive way? What If The King had a Throne? This exhibit isn't a dream given form, but a dream given the notice it deserves. This is the first baby step in the mountain that will need to be climbed, but an important step nonetheless. And it is a good example of the work being done diligently by the Museum to archive Kirby's artistic legacy, and to spread the word on Kirby.

The Jack Kirby Museum's Prototype Alpha pop-up installation is at 178 Delancey Street in Manhattan through November 10th. Admission is free with a suggested donation of $2. For more on the Jack Kirby Museum and Research Center, visit 

Sunday, November 3, 2013

New, J. Michael Straczynski Interviewed, Protectors Inc #1 Reviewed

New! Now online at The Beat, I interview J. Michael Straczynski about his new Twilight Zone Comic, out this January from Dynamite.

And Protectors Inc. #1 by J. Michael Straczynski is out this Wednesday from Joe's Comics. Click here for my original review.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Run: Ex Machina by Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris: Term Limits

The Comic Pusher Presents The Run: Ex Machina Part Seven

In The Run, I review long-form comic works across multiple parts. In Part Seven of my series on Ex Machina by Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris, I look at the next two stories, Ring Out The Old and Pro-Life. For the other reviews in this series, click here. 
Ex Machina, as I have noted, works on many levels. It's layered and nuanced, and there are so many things going on that, once revealed, put the entire series in a whole new light. In my writings about it here for The Run, I've been trying to find the right balance of reviewing the story without giving away the layered meanings that become evident on reexamination. There is no way to put what happens in context without giving away quite a bit; the series raises many questions, and explodes many of our perceptions of what is happening to the characters, indeed who the characters even are. These are all elements that warrant further discussion that I have been largely holding off, until now. Fair warning, in my final two installments in this series, the first of which is presented here, the unavoidable spoiler-factor increases with every paragraph. 

Ring Out The Old

It's New Years Eve. 2005 is about to start, and Mitchell Hundred has just called a press conference to announce that he would not be seeking a second term. He tells the press he can better serve the city by focusing on being mayor, not trying to scramble together a second campaign. He endorses David Wylie to be the next mayor, and exits to get about the business of running the city. But there's more going on.

Hundred knows he is meant for more. The President offered him the U.N. ambassadorship after the Trouble trouble in Dirty Tricks. In Ex Cathedra, he had a vision (of sorts) from God (or something) telling him he would be President. And now, even the Governor's cronies are sucking up to him. Despite the evidence they have, or at least claim to have, evidence Hundred had locked away in his safe. A safe January Moore broke into on behalf of Kremlin. January wants to take down the Mayor for what happened to her sister. Kremlin still harbors an almost deranged fantasy of destroying Hundred politically while somehow turning Hundred into the Great Machine again. What Kremlin and January found, they turned over to Suzanne Padilla, one-time confidant and almost/maybe lover to the Mayor, and more importantly a reporter sitting on a big story. The information in that file could take down Hundred, and when Hundred gets wind of Padilla's investigation, he sends Bradbury to cover things up.

Meanwhile, and there's always a meanwhile, something bloody weird is going on. Amidst flashbacks to The Great Machine's encounters with the animal-controlling arch-enemy Pherson, hordes of rats begin to attack people. The attacks present a security and public relations nightmare for Hundred's administration as the clock quickly counts down to New Year's. And Hundred knows that there is a connection, somehow to Pherson. And there is, just not in any way he could have imagined.

With little other apparent recourse, he suits up and heads into the sewers that make the center of the animal activity, and he comes across someone... something that defies the natural order of things, that shouldn't exist. (This will be happening to Hundred a lot over the next few months.) The... person/thing controlling the animal attacks appears before Hundred, and Hundred shoots it, revealing its true nature, a pink box on a humanoid body. "Hello, demon," it says. "I was sent here to tell you that God is very disappointed. You were forsaken the tongues of fire with which you were blessed."

The bubbling undercurrent of trippy sci-fi becomes a raging torrent of interdimensional horror in Ring Out The Old. Vaughan still frames it with some mystery, but not in any obstructive way - dialog with something from another reality is bound to be a little obtuse. Now we have a clearer idea of just who the hell Zeller was and what he was talking about in Power Down. And if there was any ambiguity about the how and why of Hundred's powers, it is shattered by the revelations from the machine-man to the man who can talk to machines, down below in the guts of the city.

What Vaughan achieves in these few, tense pages are astonishing. He reveals the truth he has been telling you all along, and it lands like a tidal wave. The way he has structured the entire superstory comes into sharp focus, and it is beautiful and horrifying. Vaughan's master-class in story structure is amplified by Harris's own unique storytelling. Harris is equally comfortable at illustrating long talking-heads sequences with politicians in suits and intense bursts of superhero daring, and now, as we can see, interdimensional monsters. Harris, with inker Jim Clark and colorist JD Mettler, sets a mood of perfectly realized menace and suspense.

The revelations of the how of Hundred happen at the same time that the Kremlin conspiracy meets its first sudden, tragic end. Bradbury tracks down the White Box, the object revealed in the stolen file. During the election in 2001, Hundred had Bradbury go to certain polling places with the White Box. Polling places Hundred would surprisingly win. Hundred assured Bradbury that there was nothing untoward about the White Box, that it was to protect the people of the City. That it came to him in a dream, like The Great Machine. So Bradbury gets to the box, and Padilla gets to Bradbury, and something snaps. Bradbury lashes out - perhaps it was just a simple mistake during an emotionally wrenching time, perhaps it was violent reaction to his own role in what the box represents, about Hundred, about himself. He strikes Padilla with it. Just as the monster reveals to Hundred the spectrum of evil that should have taken over when Hundred received his powers... Violet for the beasts, Red for the crops, Green for the machines, and white, for the soldiers.

At that moment, Suzanne Padilla, reporter for The Voice, gains the ability to control human beings, and with it the programming to destroy the world. As he presses the button that drops the ball on 2004, the threats facing Hundred in 2005 are now clear: He was meant to be a weapon for an interdimensional invasion. And that invasion hasn't been thwarted yet.

Ring Out The Old transitions into the penultimate storyline, Pro-Life. Well, obviously it looks like we are going to tackle abortion. A little bit, anyway. Like all the political issues in Ex Machina, it takes a back seat to something else. Which is fine, really, considering all the crazy shit that's about to go down.

Like with anything to do with choice and anti-choice (or pro-choice and pro-life, sure), it's not about the actual issue but about political maneuvering. And that's what is happening here. Wylie, a liberal who put in his lot with a pure independent political wild-card in Hundred, ramping up his nascent mayoral campaign, finds himself somewhat lost in the political wilderness. As the Hundred administration winds down, Wylie wants to use millions to get more Morning-After pills into women's hands. Hundred doesn't want to touch this with a ten foot pole, mostly because he has a larger political future than city politics. And largely because he doesn't quite know what to think about it, or so he claims. Ultimately, Wylie (doing what Candy suggested to Hundred) leaked the plan to the press, forcing Hundred to come out against it, pushing him to the middle for any future national race, and propping up Wylie for the Mayoral election. Good old fashioned politics.

But, oh, yeah, there's a secret war on. Suzanne Padilla, now imbued with the power of The Voice, able to control human actions, has a plan. She kidnaps January and forces her to do her bidding. Certainly Padilla isn't pure villain, but frankly overcome by the programming that came with her powers. Programming that Hundred has managed to avoid, or so it seems. She confronts Hundred, offering him rule over humanity, which he refuses. She throws him into the East River, and then tracks down Hundred's mom. But this isn't about petty revenge, Hundred's mom just happens to have the second raygun Hundred had from his Great Machine days. This gun, however, is the portal to the universe with the invasion force meant to take over this world. And Padilla gets the gun. And she kills Hundred's mom.

The story's relationship with superpowers takes a fascinating turn in this story. Obviously Hundred and Pherson had some kind of supranatural control over objects and living things, but the way Vaughan presents powers in Ex Machina makes it isolated, and still somewhat believable even within the context of its realistic, reconstructive approach. But I love, love, love the reactions to Padilla's super-strength and flying abilities. The first page where she floats, goddess-like in January's kitchen is arresting. Hundred can barely comprehend what is happening to him when she shows up. The revulsion of seeing the physically impossible seems to exceed even that of the window into the hell awaiting Earth on the other side of the universal divide.

Padilla seeks to execute the plans deep within her programming, to open the door to the other universe and let in her masters and set humanity against itself. She gets on the air and tells New York to "Raise Hell," and the City obliges, compelled by the power of The Voice to destroy one another. As the city erupts into violence and chaos, Hundred works out a plan to reverse the effect (same way he defeated Pherson) and he suits up one last time to confront Padilla. He manages to defeat her - the nullifier Hundred supposedly created - now in Padilla's possession - is bullshit, it never worked. It was all part and parcel of Hundred's manipulations to gain political power. The series's most revelatory moment occurs here: Padilla is hurled to her death in the other dimension, and Hundred tells the complete truth, a truth that shatters the perception of Hundred up to this point: "I'm a politician, Suzanne. I lie."

There's more - This review continues after the jump!