When Brian Ruckley asked me if he could review another graphic novel, I was happy to oblige! Ruckley is the author of the Godless World trilogy, which is comprised of Winterbirth (Canada, USA, Europe), Bloodheir (Canada, USA, Europe) and Fall of Thanes (Canada, USA, Europe). His newest work,The Edinburgh Dead (Canada, USA, Europe) will be published later this year.
This time, he went for Ex Machina by Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris. The books are available in trade paperback format (Canada, USA, Europe) or deluxe hardcover editions (Canada, USA, Europe).
Ex Machina, first published as a monthly serial back in 2004 and now concluded and available in various collected formats, is a pretty unusual superhero comic.
Our hero comes with all the standard trappings: mysterious powers, fancy costume (of gorgeously retro design, including cool jetpack) and super-villain nemesis. It’s even set in New York, which is pretty much the definitive iconic setting for superhero hi-jinks. So far so predictable, but what the writer, Brian K Vaughan, produces is decidedly not predictable, because Ex Machina’s got a lot more than conventional superheroics in its DNA. It’s also a high concept alternate history sf romp, and a faintly West Wingish political drama. A potentially indigestible ingredient mash, but somehow Vaughan makes it work. I’ll get to my one or two reservations later; first, the good stuff. Which is very good.
The central character, Mitchell Hundred, is indeed a superhero, but he’s retired. He hung up his jet pack in order to pursue a new career as ... the mayor of New York city. These two aspects of Hundred’s life form the (strictly adhered to) narrative structure for the entire story, as present day political and conspiratorial shenanigans alternate with flashbacks to his past crimefighting adventures. The two strands illuminate and comment on each other, and although it occasionally feels a wee bit repetitive as a technique, on the whole it works well. They also converge in various ways as Hundred’s past, particularly the mysteries surrounding the origin of his superheroic power to control machinery with his voice, comes to dominate and disrupt his present.
Now and again you come across some piece of fiction (well, I do anyway) and get a strong, immediate sense that it’s the work of a creator with an unusually clear understanding of and control over his or her medium. That’s the case with Ex Machina, especially in the first few chapters. The way Vaughan addresses the events of 9/11 – a relatively recent horror at the time of first publication – and makes them pivotal to his story, without (to my comfortably distanced mind, at least) in any way trivialising them, is ambitious writing of quite a high order. Throughout, he adeptly exploits the incremental nature of serialised comics, sprinkling cliff-hangers and clues around, threading sub-plots through larger plot arcs that themselves slot together to gradually reveal the bigger picture. His control of story pacing, rhythm and flow on the page and from scene to scene is terrific. The whole thing feels like a well-oiled machine.
And now a rather perverse, nitpicky reservation. It’s just possible this machine is a little too well-oiled for me. This might well just be an idiosyncratic feature of my reader-brain, so your mileage may vary, but I can’t shake the feeling that sometimes the sheer craftsmanship on display in Ex Machina overwhelms the heart, and leaves the end result just a fraction cold and calculating. Everything is so skilfully organized, and managed, and constructed, that I now and again had the sense of being a passenger, busy admiring how brilliantly and meticulously the vehicle was bolted together, rather than being a fully immersed and emotionally engaged reader of a living, organic fiction.
There’s certainly enough going on plot- and character-wise to grab and hold the reader’s attention. Mayor Hundred wrestles with a succession of political and personal dilemmas, all the while trying to both free himself of and resolve the unfinished business of his superhero antics. Those antics, shown in flashback, are some of my favourite parts of the whole story. It’s a pretty convincing portrayal of how someone trying to be a superhero in the real world might get on, i.e. with difficulty. A well-intentioned guy with a jetpack is not, it turns out, a simple and easy solution to a city’s problems, either large or small. Nor, of course, is a well-intentioned guy sitting in the Mayor’s office.
The science fictional elements of the story come slowly to the fore as the source of Hundred’s abilities gradually reveals itself. By the time the grand climax arrives we’re firmly in speculative fiction territory, with the fate of the entire world, and perhaps others, in the balance. There are super-villains, citywide chaos, portals to ... somewhere else entirely, and so on. None of this, until the closing stages, overshadows the character-based political dramas playing out. For any student of recent American politics – particularly, I imagine, New York politics – there are rich pickings here, with everything from gay marriage through race relations to drug policy getting its turn in the spotlight. None of it’s dealt with in simple black and white terms, and trite resolutions are generally avoided, which is something of a relief.
The political side of things could have been a bit dry and dull, but it helps considerably that Vaughan’s got a knack for creating engaging, appealing characters. The supporting cast is diverse and entertaining, particularly Bradbury and Kremlin, Hundred’s secret support team in his superhero days; that little team is broken apart by Hundred’s move into politics, and their complicated and difficult relationship is one of the main engines of the whole plot. It’s not just those three, either. Pretty much every character of any consequence is written well enough to feel plausibly real.
There is a good deal that could be said about Tony Harris’ artwork here in Ex Machina, and I’m about to fail to do the subject justice due to limitations of time and space (and also because, as a writer I can’t help but rather focus on the writing when I’m reading and talking about comics).
Fittingly for a series with such a distinctive voice, the art is out of the ordinary. A good deal of it is photo-referenced, in the most literal sense. Harris photographed friends and family acting out the scenes, and then precisely replicated those images in his art. The effect is striking, to say the least. It results in a detailed, precise and realistic style which is very nice but does sometimes give the figures a rather static, artificially posed feel; hardly surprising, given that’s exactly what they sometimes are. The action scenes, of which there are a lot, are on the other hand generally fluid and dynamic and engrossing, presumably because it’s a bit impractical to get a friend to pose as if flying with a jetpack.
I should mention as well that some of the scenes Harris depicts are seriously high on the gore quotient. Although it’s by no means a constant feature, there are sections that mix very bloody violence in with the sf, superheroics and politics. It is shown in graphic but unsensationalist detail, in tune with the realistic tone of all the art and writing. Not something those averse to such stuff will necessarily enjoy, though.
I’ll finish with a brief reflection on beginnings and endings, which I think we can all agree are kind of important in any piece of fiction . In Ex Machina, Brian K Vaughan delivers one of the strongest, cleverest openings you could ever hope to see, in any medium. The first twenty-nine pages (yes, I counted them; twice, in fact, just to be sure) are a masterclass in the compressed introduction of characters, setting and backstory, and foreshadowing of what is to come, that leave the reader with little choice but to keep reading. On the very first of those pages, Mitchell Hundred even gives away – in general terms – how the whole thing is going to end. ‘It may look like a comic, but it’s really a tragedy,’ he says.
Which brings us to the ending. Amidst all the climactic fighting and save-the-world drama, the real ending, the one that I think matters, is concerned with what becomes of certain key characters. This, like the opening chapter, is something of a masterclass in concise, sharp storytelling. It delivers effectively on the promise of tragedy, and does it primarily by focusing on character, not on action. But – if a reviewer’s allowed to admit to indecision – I can’t entirely make up my mind whether the writer laid quite enough groundwork with the characters concerned to make all that happens and is revealed feel truly satisfactory. Sadly I can’t go into more detail without unleashing the dreaded spoilers, so suffice it to say this story has a rather dark, somewhat unexpected and in many ways challenging closing chapter that will make the reader think and perhaps reconsider much of what has gone before. I suppose you can’t ask much more of an ending than that.
So there you have it. I definitely recommend Ex Machina as a demonstration of what talented creators can do when they push themselves, and their medium. I do so with only this fairly minor, personal qualification: it is possible to be dazzled by the creative and technical accomplishment embodied in a piece of work without falling unconditionally in love with it.