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Ex Machina: The First Hundred Days
posted February 27, 2007
Brian K. Vaughan, Tony Harris, Tom Feister, JD Mettler
WildStorm, softcover, 136 pages, 2005, $9.95
This is the first volume of an award-winning, much-lauded series by writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Tony Harris. Mitchell Hundred becomes a superhero due to an accidental exposure to something alien and/or unexplained that gives him the power to communicate and with affect some control over machines. After trying and failing to do good as a altruistic superhero, Hundred enters a New York City mayoral campaign and wins because his unique powers allowed him to stop the second airplane crashing into the World Trade Center. The comic is thus set up to be a mix of political drama and superhero action, with the two elements weaving in and out of each other.
This book did nothing for me. I found the political storylines trite and uninteresting -- were they appear by themselves, they would barely pass muster on a fourth or fifth-place network television show. In the purest political plotline, a piece of (admittedly) ridiculous race-baiting art is hung with city money, and after a few bland, Aaron Sorkin-style "I'm smarter than you think" exchanges between a mayor's aide and the artist the situation ends up resolved through a silly and predictable action scene. There are hints at other issues, such as some distrust of the new mayor's abilities and a few negotiations between various power brokers that will be familiar to anyone who's been in the same library as a political novel or remembers the Michael J. Fox show Spin City
. Moreover, nothing about the superpower element really gives any of the situations metaphorical depth or an interesting twist, at least nothing that makes an impression on me, and the superhero drama more specifically involves a lot of standing around talking about old friendships and loyalties the way that modern superhero comics want to talk everything to death.
A lot of the disjointed aspects to the plot could be explained away by a creative team feeling their way into the series, or even a writer's planned slow immersion into the larger stakes at the series' heart. I'm suspicious that this is the case because the staging creaks feels all wrong, too. Tony Harris is a fine comic book artist when allowed to divulge his more decorative tendencies, but here his heavily photo-referenced art seems overwrought and stiff. I think Harris is trying to provide the staging of some of the comic's non-action scenes with their own energy the way many cartoonists will, but he does so in a heavy-handed way that works against the realism in which the script is grounded. Characters have a tendency towards bizarre hand motions and leaning one way or the other. There's a scene in a hallway where the characters gesticulate like oddballs in a Monty Python sketch instead of standing there talking like you and I might. In other moments there are abrupt shifts in framing that reveal characters standing much closer together than most people stand near one another, or simply not physically relating to each other the way anyone does outside of a staged photo. These choices disrupt the mood, and at times drove me out of the story altogether.
Worse, for such a potentially rich setting the book seems grossly underpopulated, with only five or six characters ever making an impression when it comes to being around the mayor and running his government. I work at home in my underwear and I interact with a larger group of people than Mitchell Hundred. I think this may have something to do with Vaughan's approach to the dramatic sequences of having characters always be on, always standing center stage and dominating the action, always acting, when what we're used to seeing with politicians on TV or in prose, fiction or non-fiction, is a man or woman amid a crowd, the embodiment of a government more than its near-entirety. Even the boss mayors punching holes into various points of our country's history have had wider supporting casts.
In the end, this wasn't smart enough or uniquely intriguing enough to capture my attention as political drama, it didn't provide the visceral thrill and poignant metaphors of the best superhero comics, and those elements together didn't cohere to provide a greater whole. As all of these things can be done well in comics, as we're no longer in a place where if you want to tell a political tale you have to figure out how to make a superhero comic do that, the novelty of blending genres and the nobility of doing something slightly different should only delight us as much as the creative team skillfully hits its mark.