Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris’ Ex Machina ran on DC Comics’ WildStorm imprint from 2004 to 2010, and sits as one of the more divisive comics of the past 20 years. The often-used trope of placing a superhero in the real world is supported by a heavily political parallel plot. Ex Machina is a series about political opportunism and its corruption of morality. It is also the most complex comic now-icon Brian K. Vaughan has ever written. With brilliant artwork from Tony Harris, Ex Machina is a series recommended to those who like their comics thought-provoking, if not necessarily emotionally satisfying.
Writing & Plot
Mitchell Hundred is a civil engineer turned vigilante hero after coming into contact with an “alien” device that enables him to talk to machines. After earning a reputation as “The Great Machine,” he successfully runs a campaign to become the mayor of New York City. From here, both the ins and outs of political actions and the consequences of his powers become the day to day for the Mayor and his allies. This is a story that mixes American politics and interdimensional conspiracies and tests the true moral character of Hundred himself.
Writer Brian K. Vaughan himself admits that he prefers stories with a focus on character over themes, which is part of what makes Ex Machina such an odd series in his bibliography. While the slick dialogue and unique characterization found in Vaughan’s other works are here (albeit muted), there is a clear focus on political and moral concepts. Hundred is in conflict with nearly everyone around him, including his most trusted allies. He clashes with his friends who supported him through his time as The Great Machine in an effort to distance himself from his vigilante past. He butts heads with his political allies over making the right moves on a litany of divisive key issues. As Hundred becomes further wrapped in his political career, he kicks harder and harder against his past. The plots dips back and forth between the “present” with Hundred as the mayor of NY, and a few years prior during his time as The Great Machine. He doesn’t just secretly fight against the rising threats from his power’s origin, but against the very people who have helped him along the way. The most shocking element of Ex Machina is how Vaughan is able to create a protagonist that is understandable and compelling as a character but is also devastating to watch. Hundred’s descent from hero to jaded opportunist is a brutal journey, and lead to one of the most disturbing finales to a long-form story in recent memory.
It doesn’t sound like I’ve given much reason to pick this series up, but I assure you that this isn’t my intention. This is a BKV work after all, so although it may be a bit dour, it’s still immensely compelling. The dialogue is sharp and highly varied among a large cast of recurring characters. While there is a considerable amount of political jargon in the text, it’s supported by a knowledgeable intent and personality unique to Vaughan’s writing style. Note too that this series started in 2004, so many of the exact political events the comic references could be considered a little dated. On the other hand, they could be considered a window through time to a different political era (like watching All the President’s Men in 2020). The events that transpire in Hundred’s life, from personal, to political, and to the supernatural, serve to zero in on his conflicted morality and often pained decision-making. The discoveries about his powers take a backseat to how Hundred handles them within his political career. While the circumstances around the Mayor’s ability have a decent story that becomes more complex as the series continues, it pales in comparison to Hundred’s steady transition to a political opportunist. Before long it becomes clear that his friends and allies are just items he “handles” for gain. It isn’t a sudden and malicious change, however. Hundred’s ideals and reasons for getting into politics are all presented to be for the right reasons. He’s amicable and trustworthy to the people around him for the large majority of the series. The slow transition from hero to opportunist is subtle, so much so that by the series’ end you’re left slack-jawed by Hundred’s cold actions, even if you aren’t surprised by them.
Arguably the real star of Ex Machina is Tony Harris‘ phenomenal artwork. Take the awe-inspiring but certainly human artistic style of his Starman covers and apply them to fifty-issues of character-focused political drama, and you have this comic’s aesthetic. The attention to detail in both the wide cast of characters and the urban environment of NYC is staggering. This series looks and feels like a high-budget television drama, and this is largely due to Harris’ work. His work here sits among the most consistently great-looking long-form series ever published. The level of craftsmanship needed to keep this kind of visual integrity up for the entire span of the run is mind-boggling, and I honestly believe it’s the single most impressive facet of this comic. Of course, much of this is aided by an immensely talented team of inkers, who provide dimension and atmosphere to Harris’ pencils. The art is brought to life with J.D. Mettler’s interesting use of colors. Outside of the usual detail coloring, Mettler will bathe entire pages and sequences in a unique color palette. Bright yellows, moody violets, rusty brown sunsets and eerie greens will tint whole scenes with thematic intent. It’s details such as this that make Harris & Co.’s work of Ex Machina such a visual marvel in the comics medium.
Ex Machina is a difficult comic to recommend. It’s a fantastic piece of the comics medium, and a riveting story about the evolution and death of a man’s desire to do the right thing to satiate his newfound political opportunism. The political and interpersonal writing overshadow the supernatural plot, but this I expect more and more is by design. It also has one of the most brutally dour endings to a long-form story in recent memory, but it actually sticks the landing in terms of how such an ending is approached. It’s written with every bit of craft one would expect from a Brian K. Vaughan work, but it focuses more on themes and concepts than character drama. The visual work from Tony Harris & Co. is some of the finest seen in a long-running series from the past twenty years. Again, this is not a story for everyone. However, if the tragic demoralizing of a likeable character and political intrigue are up your alley, then I cannot recommend this series enough.