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Political Machinations

 

Ex Machina: The First Hundred Days

Brian K. Vaughan, Tony Harris, Tom Feister

Wildstorm/DC, 2005

Rating: 4.2

 

Posted: March 27, 2005

By Kevin Forest Moreau

In Mark Salisbury's excellent Writers on Comics Scriptwriting, noted comics writer Kurt Busiek says the following about superhero comics: "I think the lesson that we need to learn from the likes of Watchmen, Dark Knight Returns, Animal Man and the Fantastic Four (as done by [Stan] Lee and [Jack] Kirby) isn't to say, 'Look, there's a new direction that can work,' it's to go off and find your own direction. We should try and explore as much of this big field as we can, instead of building another little suburb and then overbuilding it until nobody wants to live there either."

Busiek's simple comment illustrates a fundamental problem with superhero comics: It's increasingly difficult for writers to come up with creatively (and commercially) viable new ways to play in the superhero sandbox. When one writer strikes upon a new idea -- say, Brian Michael Bendis with Powers, about a former superhero turned police detective -- everyone flocks to find a variation on that theme until it's no longer unique. In fact, finding a new "angle" has been all the rage in superhero comics for the last couple of years, resulting in such things as titles about bars and coffeeshops where superheroes gather when they're off the clock.

Brian K. Vaughan's Ex Machina, seems, at first glance, like just another attempt at superhero high concept: "There's this guy who used to be a costumed vigilante; now he's the mayor of New York City!" But Vaughan, an inventive writer who's already proven himself capable of mining engrossing stories out of one-sentence pitches (Y: The Last Man), isn't simply turning in "Powers goes to City Hall." Despite its easily digestible concept, The First Hundred Days finds Vaughan exploring a new part of Busiek's big field, expanding the parameters of the superhero story well beyond something like Powers (which, no disrespect to Mr. Bendis, is for all intents and purposes a superhero story in a different setting).

The First Hundred Days details the early days of the administration of Mayor Mitchell Hundred, formerly known as the Great Machine, the world's first (and apparently only) super-powered adventurer. Hundred is a former civil engineer whose encounter with a strange device of unknown origin blows off his left ear (which appears to have grown back) and gives him the ability to communicate with all manner of mechanical devices. After a brief stint as a superhero (Vaughan deftly shows us the foolhardiness inherent in a man's attempt to fly around the city righting wrongs), Hundred realizes that he's not really affecting much change, and approaches a wary city councilman for help in staging an independent bid for the mayor's office.

Owing largely to the fact that he affected the outcome of September 11, 2001 (which would seem to negate his theory that he's not doing much good, but never mind), Hundred wins the office, and the rest of The First Hundred Days follows him as he deals with the crises that befall him in his first few weeks on the job: a series of murders of snowplow operators; a racially charged painting at the Brooklyn Museum of Art that looks set to trigger a nasty, divisive controversy; an attempt at blackmail (so far undisclosed) by a flunky from the governor's office; and the fact that his Russian father figure, mentor and former support crew member Ivan (known as Kremlin) might be staging murderous acts to prompt Hundred back into his flight suit. All of this -- in fact, the whole series -- is told in a series of alternating flashbacks; near the beginning, a morose Hundred relates that his story is ultimately a tragedy, lending an added sense of structure to this episodic series.

But this is far from Hundred's show alone. In fact, to use the perhaps too-easy and obvious comparison, Ex Machina often recalls The West Wing, with an ensemble cast including Hundred's deputy mayor, an enterprising intern, a steely police commissioner and Bradbury, Hundred's bodyguard and, like Kremlin, a former member of the Great Machine's support crew. Vaughan sketches these characters with varying degrees of depth, just as he does his protagonist, a civil servant whose mother's political activism played a large role in shaping his worldview. Ex Machina is about all of them, and how they handle the political situations Vaughan conjures up, far more than it's about a guy who can talk to machines and flies around with a jetpack.

Mention must be made here of Tony Harris, whose model-based artwork grounds the story in a believable working-world milieu. His approach here lends moments of valuable expression, most notably in his faces. But the results can sometimes be too static. Many panels -- whole scenes, in fact -- are as stiff as photographs, lacking a credible fluidity.

If Vaughan had attempted to set this book in the Marvel or DC Universe with a pre-established hero, we'd expect him to don his suit often, taking to the skies when his executive capabilities hit a dead-end -- in short, it'd be a superhero book in slightly different clothing. But while Hundred's past is a critical part of the overall picture, it doesn't overshadow the title. It's not window dressing; it's central to the book, and provides Hundred an intriguing backstory, which Vaughan plays off of in nice ways (for instance, Hundred is forbidden to discuss any aspect of his costumed past by the National Security Agency). But neither is it an easy, one-dimensional hook ("Iron Man meets Spin City!"), an excuse to put a guy in a cape in a new environment and call it "a new approach to superheroes."

Ex Machina achieves that rare status: a story about a superhero that doesn't depend on standard superheroics, in which the very fact of superheroism is at once both central and incidental. Rather than following the pack down a new dead-end alley, Vaughan has tilled an appealing, absorbing and unique patch of ground all his own. (Just please, guys, don't start churning out President Maxi-Man or Governor Spandex, okay? The real-life Governator is bad enough.)

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: Breaks new ground
 4.0-4.9: First-rate
 3.0-3.9: Solid
 2.0-2.9: Mediocre
 1.1-1.9: Bad
 0.0-1.0: The worst

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