Originally published as a series of fifty-four issues by DC/Wildstorm from 2004 to 2010; republished as a five volume series of hardcover by Wildstorm from 2008 to 2011.
I picked up Ex Machina in part because it seemed to do what I want to see more often in superhero comics: Using its conventions as a mean to talk about something else; paying attention to the real world; and, perhaps more importantly, ending. The average superhero title exists in a state of meta-stability, not daring to change its basic premise too much lest the core of the character becomes unsalable. That’s how you end up with meaningless decades-long melodramas starring hundreds and comic-book tropes that have less and less relevance to ourselves.
But Ex Machina, like my beloved Transmetropolitan, takes place in a completely separate universe untainted by other superheroes and was always planned to end after a set number of issues. It diverges from our reality on October 18, 1999, as Mitchell Hundred, an engineer working for the city of New York, is wounded in an explosion while working on the Brooklyn Bridge. Recovering, he discovers that he now has an ability to talk to machines and make them do his bidding. Conditioned by years of reading comic-books and encouraged by his new ability to build advanced technology, he decides to become a superhero and, over the next few years, becomes “The Great Machine”, fighting crime (not always successfully) around New York City. After revealing his identity and announcing his intention to run for mayor, his last achievement as a super-hero is to save one of the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001.
Ex Machina begins after 2005, as Hundred narrates the events of his tenure as mayor. The series being one big flashback, it skips and hops in-between all eras of Hundred’s life in an effort to tell his story with maximum drama. The nice thing about having an ex-superhero mayor protagonist, at least for series writer Brian K. Vaughan, is that he gets to fill his 50 issues with issues both political and science-fictional. Hundred’s powers come from somewhere, and this mystery hangs over the entire series as a question to be answered. Meanwhile, Hundred presides over America’s largest city at a time where terrorist threats and new social issues combine to make his tenure uniquely complex. The series veers in-between issues both realistic and fantastic, trying to give equally satisfying time to both.
It doesn’t always work, especially when the series forgets its super-heroic premise to discuss social issues. The entire series may look impressive when collected in hardcover tomes, but it’s still constrained by the parameters of American political discussions. While Vaughan may try to claim an affiliation to the moderate centre, this doesn’t always translate to “moderate center” by non-American standards. Furthermore, some story arcs are meant to serve “very special lessons” that are only ground-breaking within the narrow realm of comic books. Is Ex Machina better than other comic books when it comes to political credibility? Yes. Is it good enough to sustain the scrutiny of political junkies? Not quite.
The series also seems unwilling to resolve some of its own issues; mentions of Mitchell being sexually ambivalent, pot-smoking, potentially traumatized by the deaths of people near and dear to him eventually resolve to… nothing much. It’s not an indefensible choice, given how clearly the last issue presents him as someone so convinced by his own obsession that he seems willing to sacrifice everyone around him to his ultimate (admittedly altruistic) goal. But something got lost in-between the planning of the series and its final execution. The pacing of the super-heroic mystery component of the narrative seems to be deliberately held back until the last volume, the character’s lack of curiosity betraying the writer’s uneven pacing.
From an artistic standpoint, I have always disliked the coloring of the series, which takes Tony Harris’ realistic art style and gives it a garish palette… but at this point, I’m just kvetching, because Ex Machina remains a modest success.
It’s not a series I’d recommend without reservations, but it’s a good example of an ambitious project, decently executed. I may quibble with the series’ empty moments or the unadventurous nature of its political content as perceived from abroad, but by the stunted standards of the superhero comic book genre, it’s far ahead of its competition and helps the sub-genre perceive possibilities that may not have been as obvious before. It’s also good where it counts, which is to say to provide an ending that definitely closes the series while leaving a big intriguing question mark over what else may happen to Hundred after the last page of the series. Closed-ending science-fiction comic book series aren’t that plentiful; I should be grateful that this one is there to do most of it right.