Thousand Faced: Ex Machina

Ex Machina
Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Artist: Tony Harris

This is hands down, one of the finest comics series you will ever read. “Ex Machina” is Latin for “From the machine”. This is the story of Mitchell Hundred, who unexplainedly has some alien glyph of some sort of intelligent nanomatter blow up in his face while inspecting The Brooklyn Bridge. Now he gains a super power to control and communicate with machines. If it has moving parts he can manipulate it and hear it bitch while he does. You would think that would be enough to explore but Mr. Hundred is a thinking man with a sack full of good intentions so in his efforts to act on those intentions he also becomes Mayor of New York City.

The very first image you see in the first book, The First Hundred Days is Mitchell in his heroic persona The Great Machine as he approaches a jet-line in the skies over New York City. Yeah. Get chills. It’s that plane. There, a hitch in your heart, and that’s only one panel. See?

My contact at DC sent me every book collecting Ex Machina stories. I have drunk deep of this work. This is why I read comic books to have my mind blown and my emotions twisted by graphic detail. Believable characters getting caught up in fascinating events are the essence of good story telling and we get it in abundance. I cannot say enough good things about how this creative team delivers.

Brian K. Vaughan is one of those dream writers that makes other writers in the field envy his elan at creating great characters with sparkling dialogue. Many can spin good, engaging tales of adventure while Vaughan cranks out stories of aching humanity; it’s sickening. Another of his series, “Y, The Last Man” is also like this and highly recommended. In my head the voice of Mitchell Hundred is Kevin Spacey. To me, he seems to be the only actor who could personify the wit and depth of Hundred.

Tony Harris is by far, one of my favorite artists working in comics today. His work on Starman a few years ago was, if you pardon the pun, stellar. He uses as models friends, family and other targets of opportunity to accurately capture body language and facial expressions. This isn’t a series where a guy in a cape tosses bulldozers at another geek in tights. The effect works well when you can look at how somebody stands and where their hands are and what they’re doing to get the whole picture of what’s happening in the story. The adventures of being a hero are more ambiguous than usually depicted and Mitchell’s goofy Ed Wood take on what he’s doing is endearing. It gets to be that you too can see how he bumbles through events and it could easily go very badly and often does. Because you like the guy you get to start cringing for him, waiting for the other shoe to drop on Mitchell’s well intentioned head. Harris does rueful smarting guy very well.

In The First Hundred Days, a lot of the first part of the book deals with a radical artist who did a portrait of Abraham Lincoln with “Nigger” in bold slashing red across the front. There is considerable content about first amendment rights and the right to free expression even though Mitchell comments that he has precious little time to spend on this issue while he has homeless people freezing to death every night.

That’s how it is with this series. Although it is a big idea for unknown alien powers to give this dubious gift to a man like Mitchell Hundred. The powers are just the catalyst. It is the human intimacy which drives these stories. Characters so cool and fully realized you just have to buy into the reality of who they are. Kremlin. My favorite supporting character is a Russian emigre’ who has known Mitchell since he was a child, He bought the boy his first Superman comic and taught him how to read and what heroic values are. He is really the driving wheel of the creation of The Great Machine. Kremlin has a sense of greater destiny and he does his best to keep that sense of high purpose instilled in Mitchell. The female Police Commissioner Angotti, who beats the crap out of The Great Machine with a riot baton is a hoot. He saved her husband’s life in the second tower but she will not let him mess up her department so he can play at hero. Bradbury, the Mayor’s personal bodyguard and witness to the accident that created a super being out of Mitchell. He’s a loveable slob with ass-kicking abilities and also totally into the super hero phenomenon.

Throughout the story there is a killer stalking New York City employees. Specifically, snow plow drivers are murdered. It looks like Kremlin may be the killer. Mitchell is sure Kremlin is capable of anything in order to bring back The Great Machine permanently to fight evil. As it turns out it is a quest for heroism but that of a nerdy teenage boy who seeks immortality for shutting down the school system for several days. In a world where breaking the law and abusing your children net you reality show contracts and talent is equated with public exposure of genitals it seems like this would be as viable as any other media driven claim to fame. Three people dead for one screwed up kid’s fifteen minutes but he was a legend in his own mind. Squirmy time for Mitchell. “There but for teen angst and better rationale go I.”

Here’s where I broke down and cried. At the end of this first book Mitchell is doubting whether he’s doing any good in either capacity. He is extremely frustrated with all of his efforts. He expresses the regret that he didn’t get to the disaster site on 9/11 fast enough to prevent the first plane from hitting the first tower. You then get a full page shot of a lone World Trade Center tower still standing in the night while a pillar of light representing the destroyed tower thrusts up into the sky next to it. That image. Just thinking about it makes my eyes water. Pow! Right in the heart. Right where you should take the hit when it gets this good.

by Bill Hilburn

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