Ever since Alan Moore’s Watchmen (1986) and Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1987), “realism” has been in style in comics. These two groundbreaking works arguably started the trend towards writing comics that explore “real world” implications of superheroes. Brian Michael Bendis’ Powers explores superheroes from a police perspective; the same writer’s Daredevil is more about organized crime than superpowers; Mark Millar’s The Ultimates looks at the celebrity side of heroics; and the new Small Gods puts psychics into the context of a police procedural.
So, it seems almost trite and cliché to say that Vaughan and Harris’ new series Ex Machina is a “real world look at superpowers”, but it is. They don’t reinvent the wheel, but Vaughan and Harris insert yet another facet of reality into the fictional world of comic book superheroics, one that has gone largely overlooked: politics. The few attempts to bring a political slant to mainstream comics (and this is fairly mainstream, published as it is by an imprint of DC Comics) have been mostly unsuccessful: see, for example, the post-9/11 take on Captain America. Vaughan and Harris’ work seems poised for success because they do not shy away from the shades of gray and dirty details that make the American political system what it is.
Mitchell Hundred, the protagonist of this series, grew up with a curious mix of influences. His mother was a political activist and worked with the League of Women Voters. A family friend, a Russian immigrant Mitchell nicknamed “Kremlin”, found little in the political system to believe in, but did have high regard for the difference between right and wrong. And of course like any all-American boy, Mitchell had his comic books, extolling the virtues of heroes as they fought garish villains.
Fast-forward to years later, as Mitchell, a civil servant still believing in right vs. wrong, is injured by a mysterious device, and given the power to communicate with machines. Teaming up with a cop named Rick Bradbury and his old pal Kremlin, Mitchell decided to use his powers, which also included the newfound ability to design fantastic new devices, to become a true hero, known as The Great Machine. However, Mitchell soon found that heroism was harder than it looked, and after a rather mixed performance, to put it mildly, he hung up the jetpack and decided to be a real hero; he ran for mayor of New York City. Despite going up against a well-connected GOP candidate, the former vigilante rode into office in 2002 off of his last public act as the Great Machine, a particularly stunning, and shocking, heroic moment, revealed to the reader at the end of the first issue.
This, more or less, is where this new series steps in. But as the introduction tells us, this is to be anything but the story of an honorable man’s glorious rise to prominence. Mitchell, sometime after his four years in office, says to us, “It may look like a comic, but it’s really a tragedy.” The tragedy, or so it seems after the first five issues, is that there is no room in politics for heroes. His police commissioner threatens to have him arrested for the slightest hint that he will return to his vigilante ways. The governor’s political machine has little use for Hundred, threatening him with blackmail, over what we do not yet know. Rather than fighting criminals, he spends his days dealing with controversial art pieces funded by the city. Where are the lines between right and wrong from his comic books?
In Y—The Last Man, Vaughan took an improbably premise—a mysterious plague wipes all but 1 man on the planet—and added a level of realism and plausibility to it that continues to keep it one of the best books on the market. While in that book, Vaughan explores issues of gender and sex, in Ex Machina he, along with co-creator and artist Tony Harris, explore the unpleasant realities of politics, realities that make the system a truly gray area. As with his other books, Vaughan’s dialogue is snappy yet believable, and his sense of pacing is tremendous. However, the book does suffer from some awkwardness in its visual presentation. Tony Harris, while clearly skilled, relies too much on photo references, as the art gallery in the back of this collection demonstrates. His dependence on posed models makes many scenes seem stilted and, paradoxically, less life-like. Facial expressions and hands especially seem contorted and artificial. It is almost as if one is watching an episode of Tom Goes to the Mayor.
Despite this, Ex Machina is a fascinating book. For all its political ramifications, it is primarily the story of Mitchell Hundred as he struggles with his notions of heroism. He desperately wants to be good, but he is in a position where “good” is determined by public opinion. As he tries to do what he thinks is right for the city, every action is called into question. His motives, his beliefs, his morals are all up for debate, and even he seems to wonder if he is right, after all. While this story may be a tragedy, it is also perhaps a quiet call to action. We can only wish that our current leaders were as devoted to do good as Mitchell Hundred.