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Sunday, 10 July 2011

Ex Machina: The First Hundred Days

Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Artist: Tony Harris
Inks: Tom Feister

Colors: JD Mettler
Publisher: Wildstorm Comics

What’s it about?
Have you ever wondered how the life of a superhero would look in real life?
What would he try to accomplish? Would fighting crime with super powers be actually enough?
What kind of repercussions would such a man have?
If we can consider the sort of popularity they'd gain, like a movie star, what if they were to use this fame to try to enter politics where such men could actually end up making a difference on a larger scale?

That is probably what Brian K. Vaughan had in mind when he decided to work on Ex Machina.  Ex Machina is the tale of Mitchell Hundred, the superhero known as The Great Machine in a world where only this man became a superhero...during the turn of the century in the early 2000s. It features a very political background over which Mitchell's story is told via flashbacks and even some flashforwards, alongside the present day events following his establishment as Mayor of New York City.

A dramatic story with a political aspect, mixed with some of what you would expect from superheroics, some shenanigans with villains and a mysterious origin story.  It may take place in a sort of alternate reality, but it feels that more real because of it.
What is good about it?
I wouldn't imagine saying it before I ever read this book, but politics do mix with superheroes.  It's a very odd mix at first, but easily the best aspect of the series.

The first book manages well to establish the tone of the series, starting most of the on-going threads of Ex Machina as well as anchoring this story in a real world, yet different from ours.  Ex Machina is a world of fiction, featuring an actual superhero with powers yet pretty plausible as it is told.

Mitchell obtained his powers from a freak accident with a mysterious device near the Brooklyn Bridge.  Since that day, he gained the ability to "talk to machines" - he can ask a car to stop, a gun to misfire, a computer to bring him some files, the NYC grid to shut down... Although it is more like the machines have always been alive and he is only now able to hear them.  However, machines can lie, machines can refuse to trust "The Great Machine".

He nicknamed himself after a famous quote from Thomas Jefferson. And dons a colorful original costume (sort of similar to The Rocketeer).  But around June 2001, Mitchell Hundred decided to leave the fantasy of playing "superhero" to enter politics...that is until the faithful day of 9/11, where once more, Mitchell had to be The Great Machine.  In the end, one of the Twin Towers is saved, the population has his gratitude and Mitchell wins the necessary votes to become Mayor of New York.

The art of Tony Harris is quite fitting for this realistic story.  It's a serious tale maybe, but not necessarily gritty and dark. There is some humor. And it's only human, giving this series a much more alive and real atmosphere.

The series may have started as a way to criticize the then-American politics of 2004, but it has evolved beyond that over the following years.  People tend to turn to their governments in time of need, and often expect much more out of them - for their representatives to save them in any occasion and protect them. But even they are only human, and with a superhero on their side, there's only so much one can do, as good as his intentions might be.

What is bad about it?
To be honest, it is a sensible subject.
Even after all this time.

Also, some might think politics and superheroes shouldn't mix, for those, there's always Marvel and DC's main line of comic books.  But if you stick to just Marvel and DC you are missing out, so when you're ready, don't hesitate to at least give the first introductory volume a try.

Also, it is a quite adult story, definitively not for children.  It's not really graphic, but the authors don't hesitate to show some violence, blood and even nudity, mostly in the later trades.

And as real as the tone might be, it will always be a fictional story set in another reality.  You'll have to expect seeing a lot of what could have been:

What’s the art like?
The art, as I never stop saying, is gorgeous!
You might have caught the overall look of the book in the above segments. Tony Harris and his inker Tom Feister have done fantastic work, keeping issues coming out month after month, with the quality never decreasing.  Harris, like Alex Ross, works mostly from live models with some friends posing for him as actors would.  His Mitchell, Rick Bradbury or Ivan "Kremlin" Tereshkov are all based on some of his personal friends. It really is like having actors playing them, giving them human features. Thus, the expressions are realistic, not exaggerated.  You'll find at the end of most volumes some 'making of' segments and behind the scenes look at some pages, covers and chapters.

The action scenes are a bit more imaginative than the dialogue scenes as this is where Mitchell can actually display his super powers.  This is closer in feel to what you would find in the original Superman movie, and these are the parts that make this book still feel like a superhero comic despite the political subjects.

The book is often pretty dark in colors, but is able to showcase a larger range of colors in the more personal scenes. For example, the moments that define Mitchell's past or those panels that need to properly immerse us in a world of magic and science fiction.

All in all, it's a beautiful looking book, with very natural characters telling us a supernatural story, set in our modern world.  This is easily Tony Harris at his best.

Other information
Ex Machina Vol. 1: The First Hundred Days
136 pg Colors - Softcover
Priced at approximately £7.43
ISBN 1401206123

The entire series is collected in 10 Volumes, for a run of over 50 issues (comprising 5 Specials) in:
Ex Machina Vol. 2: Tag
Ex Machina Vol. 3: Fact V. Fiction
Ex Machina Vol. 4: March to War
Ex Machina Vol. 5: Smoke Smoke
Ex Machina Vol. 6: Power Down
Ex Machina Vol. 7: Ex Cathedra
Ex Machina Vol. 8: Dirty Tricks
Ex Machina vol. 9: Ring Out the Old
Ex Machina Vol. 10: Term Limits

If you liked this series, the style of this story, I suggest checking out either these other similar Wildstorm series:
Alan Moore's Tom Strong

Or this Vertigo Comics who has a sort of similar tone:

And finally, these comics from the same creators:
Starman Omnibus
Y: The Last Man

1 comment:

  1. That first issue last page reveal bowled me over...

    Amusing (to me) aside: I just moved all of my comics into 4 legal sized file cabinets. I use a nifty program to catalog my comics, including where they are if I wish to re-read them. EVERY issue of Ex Machina is on the LEFT side of the drawer it is in...