Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Guest Review: Ex-Machina by Brian K Vaughan and Tony Harris (comic book series)

The other day I picked up Walking Dead -my first comic book since my school days and posted a picture on Facebook. My friend Vinay – a comic book aficionado – was delighted and suggested I also check out Y the Last Man and Ex-Machina, which I have now put on my list. For all our other readers out there, read Vinay’s review of Ex-Machina below. This now HAS to be the next series I pick up.

Vinay blogs about comics, speculative fiction, books, movies, travel and anything else that fancies him at Konjam Random, Konjam Arbit . This post first appeared on his blog as “Ex Machina – The time is gone, the song is over,Thought I’d something more to say…”

“If you follow any story to its real conclusion, you always get the same thing. Regret. Pain. Loss. Except for superhero books with their perpetual second acts ” – Mitchell Hundred, ex-mayor of NYC

What happens when an ordinary civil engineer, with a fondness for the Brooklyn bridge and DC comics, gets a super power that allows him to talk to machines? What happens when the same guy, now operating under the name of “The Great Machine” and considered public enemy #1 by the NYPD, gives up his role and becomes the mayor of New York? This forms the premise of the creators Brian K Vaughn (writer) and Tony Harris (artist) political cum superhero comic series Ex Machina, that concluded its 50 issue run last week. Brian K Vaughn describes creating Ex Machina and its main protagonist, Mitchell Hundred, as a result of his anger at the political leadership (from both parties) in USA.

Ex Machina takes a look at Mitchell Hundred’s 4 year reign as the mayor of New York with frequent flashbacks to his time as The Great Machine during the course of its 50 issue run. A flashback that involves Hundred’s actions on the fateful day of 9/11 and his subsequent victory. From censorship to the ban on drugs to same sex marriage to anti-war protests to abortions, Ex Machina, through Mitchell Hundred, is unafraid of tackling these issues head on.

Each story arc (there are 10 in all) follows certain thread; a political issue, Hundred’s past as the Great Machine and concurrent storyline involving the mysteriousness of Hundred’s powers manifesting in other people. The resolution of the political issue is often shaped by Hundred’s own past as well the recent incidences of the manifestation of the powers in others and quite often flows naturally. The problem in most books when involving political action are the forced nature of the action. However, in Ex Machina, the reason for Hundred’s actions seem natural and are not preachy at all. This has to be the greatest achievement of BKV.

Intriguing and fleshed out characters, powerful emotions, grand yet quirky ideas set amidst powder keg settings are stock in trade for BKV over mainstream linear form of storytelling. Take for instance Mitchell Hundred himself. Morally righteous yet naive as both a superhero and as mayor to start with, a fondness for pop culture references, unafraid to speak his mind even in front of a radio show with questions about whether he is gay or not as well as drug usage. This is apart from his super powers, which is his ability to talk to mechanical devices as well as the strange dreams that he gets, forcing him to design unique objects. Mitchell Hundred is a character who raises as many questions as he answers.

A rich supporting cast adds further sheen. Rick Bradbury, Hundred’s closest friend and chief of security and Kremlin, a Russian Immigrant, were the team that helped Hundred during his days as the Great Machine. Kremlin, however, is entirely disillusioned by Mitchell’s decision to get into politics and is estranged from him. A deputy mayor who respects Mitchell as much as he questions him, a police commissioner who while reluctantly approving of Hundred the mayor, strongly disapproves of his past as a vigilante and forever threatens him with dire consequences if he reverts back to his super hero persona, a journalist who finds Mitch attractive but has her own agenda, constitute repeating members of the story.

Well begun is half the battle won. The very first issue of Ex Machina grabs you by the unmentionable, weaves in and out across multiple timelines in a non-linear format and culminates in a jaw dropping finale on what actually happened during 9/11. Its not just important to start well but also to finish well. Issue 50 marks the end of the series, again with a narrative that weaves in and out of timelines, packs enough emotional oomph while carefully addressing all the narratives and multiple threads that BKV had woven through the 6 years, while raising a huge lump in your throat as the final chapter enfolds. A concluding issue that has your jaw hitting the floor on multiple occassions.

Make no mistake. Ex Machina is a tragi-comic. The first issue has Mitchell Hundred in present times sitting and ruminating about how the entire thing might be a comic but it’s still a tragedy and that same narrative is picked up in issue 50. Its an indicator of the how well thought out, structured and layered BKV’s narrative has been. He has worked with a definite plan and it is indeed a towering achievement. However, Ex Machina is not a depressing read really. While the themes are serious, Mitchell Hundred himself in office is a fun character and there are tons of light hearted moments. Issue #40 features one of the best 4th wall bending creations that has BKV and Tony Harris appearing in the comic for an interview with Mitchell Hundred for creating a comic based on his exploits as superhero. With tons of hint hint wink wink moments, it really ranks as one of the best moments of the series.

Tony Harris. What a man, what a superstar artist. BKV’s script requires his characters to act in the comic and the clean lines of Tony Harris convey pitch perfect emotions. His work, deriving from extensive photo referencing, lend an air of realism in terms of poses. Another areas where Harris excels are the camera angles. Its almost uncanny how fundamentally awesome his positioning is. While Ex Machina is not as action intensive as other works, there is still no confusion over the flow of panels and action.
JD Mettler, the colorist, is another phenom at work. The transition schemes are beautifully rendered. It is very clear to see the contrast between the flashback and the present.

Normally, when people ask me “How do you read comics? Are not they just for kids?” and other similar questions, I ask them to try out Y the Last Man and wait for their reaction once they finish it. I have never had someone ask who has read Y the Last Man ask me that question again. I can now hand someone who asks me the same question, a copy of Ex Machina. More contemporary, more hard hitting and dealing with current issues, Ex Machina ranks quite high as the greatest piece of literature I have had the fortune of reading.

“Happy Endings are Bullshit. There are only happy pauses” – Mitchell Hundred, ex-mayor of NYC

Original Blog Title Source: Pink Floyd: Time (Dark Side of the Moon)
PS: The quotes are in no way spoilers

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