Ex Machina – 2015 Weekly Writer Challenge: Brian K. Vaughan (Part 1)
52 weeks. 52 different writers. 2 trade paperbacks or hardcovers a week. Each week I’ll take a look at a different writer and read two different collected editions from within that person’s repertoire to help in the examination of their work.
Brian K. Vaughan
Brian K. Vaughan, much like the rest of the world, is a man with opinions. Like any good writer, Vaughan uses his work to share his opinions sometimes. Enter Ex Machina, a political superhero drama about a man who retires from superheroics to become the mayor of New York City. With Ex Machina, Vaughan sought to tackle tough political situations and express his view on some of them. Vaughan is a large advocate of doing creator-owned work in comics, feeling as though that is where he does his strongest work. After turning in the final script for Ex Machina, Vaughan stated, “I realized when I turned in this final Ex Machina script that it would be the first time I wasn’t under some kind of deadline at Marvel or DC since 1996. That’s a huge chunk of my life to spend with those characters. I love them, and I still read Marvel and DC’s superhero books. I just think I’m better when I’m working on my own creations. When there are so many talented creators out there who are better at that stuff than me, I should leave those characters to them. I should do what I’m fortunate enough to be in the position to do, which is to create more new stuff.”
Ex Machina Volume 1
Mitchell Hundred became the world’s first, and only, living breathing superhero following a freak accident that leaves his life forever changed. A civil engineer, Mitchell is called out to examine a strange glowing object lodged into the base of the Brooklyn Bridge. When the object explodes in his face, and takes half of it with it, Mitchell is suddenly given the power to talk to all sorts of machinery. Using this power, Mitchell becomes “The Great Machine”, taking on vigilantism with his new-found powers. After realizing he is becoming more of a nuisance to the legal system than he is being helpful, Mitchell decides to hang up his gear, out himself as “The Great Machine” and run as mayor for New York City. In the wake of a horrible, American tragedy, Mitchell becomes the mayor by a landslide victory. Now the mayor, Mitchell must juggle political scandals with the backlash that comes with being the only human on Earth with these exceptional abilities.
Ex Machina is, in my mind, one of the more brilliant and politically thought-provoking superhero stories that I’ve read. It’s a comic that has a clear superhero as its lead but beyond that it does well to stray itself far from the superhero genre to tell a story that will leave you absolutely salivating for more to come. Brian K. Vaughan writes this political superhero comic in a way that not only engages your mind but leaves you feeling anxious for the always struggling Mitchell Hundred, a man woefully unprepared for the responsibilities he takes on in becoming the mayor of New York City. It is simply stunning to see the level of anxiety Brian K. Vaughan instills in you as a reader through the trials that Mitchell faces, all the while acknowledging from the opening pages of this comic, that this story is nothing if not a tragedy. In knowing that, you sit with a bated breath the entire time, waiting for Vaughan to slip in a fatal blow that will spiral this story out of control, but instead Vaughan takes his time with the slow demise of Mitchell, making you fall in love with the character before he inevitably pulls out the rug from underneath him far down the road.
Let’s talk about Mitchell for a second. Mitchell Hundred is the stereotypical image of what you see Mayors, Senators, or even sometimes Presidents portrayed as within fictional media. He is charismatic, brave, slightly brash but largely likeable. There is just something to Mitchell’s personality that draws you in. Even though from the first pages of this comic he tells you that his story will be that of a tragedy, you can’t help but love the character. As you watch Vaughan work him over to you, watch him struggle and succeed, making decisions that spit in the faces of people who oppose him but still come off as a kind man, you can’t help but believe there is no way this man’s story ends poorly. He comes off as not too much of a saintly figure, but he is portrayed enough as a man of strong morals and conviction that no matter what, you just have to believe he’ll come out of this okay and as a better man in the end. Vaughan even gives you glimpses of the demons that plague him, failing to be the hero he needed to be when the time called for it, yet you still root for him. Mitchell isn’t the most compelling character to ever grace comics, nor wholly original, but he is a character that you have to love even though you know at some point he is going to fail and that is all thanks to the work Brian K. Vaughan puts in to get this character across to you.
Vaughan meticulously builds a supporting cast around Mitchell, choosing to spend these first eleven issues creating allies instead of developing enemies, further hammering home the idea that Mitchell is in fact the largest threat unto himself. Every other character that Vaughan introduces serves some form of purpose to Mitchell’s life, choosing to still include two primary characters from his past but also shaking it up and having the new people in his life due to his mayor campaign be far more at the forefront. Vaughan really wants to get across the idea that the most important part to the story now isn’t Mitchell’s past but his future and having characters like Dave Wylie, Journal Moore, and Candice Watts be more accessible to the reader. Dave Wylie is Hundred’s deputy mayor, oft dealing with the backlash of Mitchell’s actions. It puts the two good friends into adversarial positions sometimes but both men have cooler heads that tend to prevail. Journal Moore is a young beautiful intern who gets a quick promotion, something Mitchell is urged against giving due to it coming off as scandalous. Moore is a youthful character, as evidenced by her new job position of “Special Advisor on Youth Affairs”. Candice Watt is the fourth Chief of Staff for the Mitchell administration, after the previous three quit after only two weeks. The new Chief of Staff comes off as a whip-smart character, Candice is fast on the ball and can be rather clever with the way she replies to Mitchell’s sometimes cocky demeanor.
Although these few characters are at the front of the story, since it is told through the perspective of the present time, there are still a few characters that factor into the story heavily from the past. Rick Bradbury, Kremlin, and Jackson Georges are all characters from Mitchell’s past, during his time as “The Great Machine”, who heavily factor into the past timeline whilst also playing some factor in the present day narrative. Rick Bradbury is actually the only one out of the three men mentioned who becomes part of Mitchell’s administration, being given the job of Head Of Security by Mitchell. The two men are close friends and Bradbury is someone who Mitchell can always confine in. The two men’s tight friendship reaches back to Mitchell’s accident that gave him powers, bringing them even closer together during Mitchell’s time as the vigilante, “The Great Machine”. Kremlin is the closest thing to a father Mitchell ever had, with Kremlin being that emotional hook to Mitchell’s past as a superhero. It was Kremlin’s digital “know how” that provided Mitchell with a lot of his gadgets so that he could go out and fight crime. “The Great Machine” was of grave importance to Kremlin, giving his life new purpose and as such he struggles to let go of it when Mitchell retires. Even as Mitchell charges forward as mayor, Kremlin is there trying to urge him back to his former career, creating an odd rift between the once close allies. Jackson Georges is a member of the NSA who becomes tightly connected to Mitchell when he outs his identity to the world. Georges tries to decipher the strange symbol on the piece of the glowing object that gave Mitchell his powers. Although the two men initially have a strong bond, it quickly sours as Georges sanity begins to deteriorate in wake of recent events while he examines the symbol.
As I highlighted through the mention of all these characters, there are three different plots all running at the same time throughout the story. You get glimpses at Mitchell’s past as the Great Machine, his present day life as the mayor and then a brief glimpse at the future at the end of the story. To an even further degree you can break down the present day storyline into another two plot lines on top of that as it often juggles the politics of Mitchell’s time as mayor with physical or emotional problems launched against him. While Mitchell deals with some major problems within his administration, there is a mysterious person out in the streets killing snow plough drivers, or he has to deal with marrying a gay couple in a city where gay marriage is illegal, or he has to handle the political backlash of having a painting hung in a museum that has the “N-word” written across an image of Abraham Lincoln. Mitchell gets hit from every angle with obscure problems that all need dealt with in different and clever ways. There are plenty of spinning plates at any given time during the story, but Vaughan makes it work wherein the plot is still rather concise, using the past to compliment what’s happening in the present. The only true downfall to the way this story plays out is that the past storyline doesn’t travel in a uniform motion, choosing to jump to different intervals in the past. One glimpse might be set in the middle of May in the year 2001 and then the next time jump could be two months later or two months before. It all reads fine as long as your paying attention and you become more comfortable with this way of storytelling the further along you get, but it takes a few issues before you truly feel fine about the rhythm Vaughan uses to tell the story.
Collect: Ex Machina #1-11
Best Character: Mitchell Hundred
Best Line Of Dialogue/Caption: “Your security detail calls you “Superman”? I always pictured you as more of a Batman kinda guy.” – Suzanne Padilla
Best Scene/Moment: Mitchell vs. Gay Marriage – Chapter 3
Best Issue: Chapter 2 – State Of Emergency. This collection of Ex Machina breaks the comic down into chapters instead of issues, resulting in a far more fluid reading, just another area where this book triumphs in. Each chapter has a varying interval of issues, with Chapters 2 and 3 making up about 90% of this first volume. Chapter two deals with plenty of personal and political woes and this is absolutely where the story will hook you in. As a person stalks the snowy streets of New York, killing snow plough drivers and crippling the city’s road system, Mitchell also has to deal with the backlash of a painting that is hung in the BMA (Brooklyn Museum of Arts) that has the image of Abraham Lincoln with the “N-Word” written across it. You learn so much about Mitchell and his past during this chapter and you will quickly realize that you’ve never read a comic quite like Ex Machina.
Why You Should Read It: Ex Machina is just a brilliant piece of political superhero drama for the world to devour. It’s intelligent, witty, engaging and so many other things that I could talk about all day. It’s not the best work of Vaughan’s career, nor is it the worst, it’s just satisfying if you’re looking for something outside of the norm and bored of superhero comics by the “Big Two”. Everything that happens matters. It’s not a story where people are senselessly murdered for the sake of shock value, although that’s definitely there. It’s the story of a man’s slow demise while he’s trying to do what he thinks is best for New York City. Mitchell is a deeply conflicted character that you can’t help but fall in love with. Ex Machina is political superhero drama that carefully hides just how dark it truly is and I promise you it will be a book you simply can’t put down when you start it.