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Ex Machina: The First Hundred Years, Tag, Fact v Fiction

Brian K Vaughn's creator-owned characters have the most interesting names in comics: Yorick, 355, Ampersand, Alter, Journal, Kremlin, Hero and, as the er... hero of Ex Machina, Hundred. Can't help thinking though that the only reason he chose that particular name was to pun on the title of the opening arc, "The First Hundred Days". At least Dr Mann in Y: The Last Man chose her name as a protest vote.

Vaughn also writes unashamedly learned characters. There are more references to university degrees and courses in Vaughn's books than all other comics put together (excepting Matt Murdock's law school flashbacks). He's willing to let his characters be not just intelligent (there's no shortage of geniuses in comics), but educated. And not just in vocational areas like science, law, medicine or engineering (as Hundred is, as it so happens), but - yegads - arts! He's the Aaron Sorkin of comic books.

The West Wing has to be a major influence on Ex Machina, though it's not as if there are obvious parallels between the events and characters of that show and this comic. But I think Sorkin has made political drama cool, even trendy. Of course superhero comics have addressed political concerns before, but I don't know if a book about a superhero who becomes mayor of New York so that he can do more good as a politician than a crime fighter would have found an audience as receptive ten years ago.

There are some interesting SF concepts and striking images (such as a number in the second arc, "Tag") which should be memorable ... but aren't, as I discovered when re-reading the first three trades. I think it's telling that the political issues - censorship, gay marriage, etc are more interesting than the superheroic ones ... but I'm not sure if that's telling more about the book or me. For instance, I found "Fact v Fiction", the third arc which keeps the political content to a minimum, to be the least interesting. But then, I really enjoyed Eagle: the Making of an Asian-American President (a manga entirely devoid of genre elements) and am finding traditional superheroes less and less appealing.

Vaughn moves comfortably between present and various points in the past, all introduced by a bold date stamp ala Y: The Last Man. We get to see how Hundred got his power over machinery, his comic book inspired exploits (as one of the most interestingly named heroes, "The Great Machine", in one of the most ... interesting ... costumes), his rise to political prominence in the wake of earth-shattering events and, as expected, childhood insights into his psyche.

Vaughn writes about protagonists not quite at ease in the world, even when they have an undeniable unique place in it, and who mask this disquiet with self deprecation and wit. This is true for Ex Machina, Y and Runaways. In the case of the solo books, he surrounds the central characters with a strong supporting cast. But while there might be structural and tonal similarities between the post-apocalyptic world of Y and post-cataclysmic world of Ex Machina, the two titles do each stand apart and on their own. So far however I've grown to like Yorick Brown and his entourage more than Mitchell Hundred and his. Maybe it's because it doesn't feel like the stories in Ex Machina grow as naturally out of the characters. For instance, the characterisation of Jackson Georges, Hundred's NSA handler, in "Tag" seems more plot and event-driven than organic.

Have to admit to not being crazy about the art. The figures are consistently recognisable and the storytelling is clear, but there's something unappealing about all of Tony Harris's faces, though not to the point of down-right ugliness, like Frank Quitely's. And the sickly colouring - yellows, greens, reds - makes the shadows and light on the faces look like blotchy birthmarks, even when Hundred's powers aren't manifesting themselves. This effect isn't helped by the fact that the shadowlines are clearly delineated, rather than graduated. (This possibly as a result of basing the art on over-exposed photographs, as documented in the back of the collected edition.) Maybe colourist JD Mettler and the creative team are making a comment on the corrupting nature of politics. Or maybe Mettler just needed some issues, as the colouring improves over the run.

Politics and superheroics in one title don't quite gel for me (except perhaps thematically in these post-9/11 days), but the mix is unusual enough, and Vaughn's writing certainly intelligent and literate enough to make it a series worth reading. Worth reminding myself that the first few Powers arcs were merely good, before "The Sellouts" (and to a lesser extent the earlier "Super Group") blew me away, or that Sandman didn't hook, line and sinker me until the "omygodwhatsgonnahappen" page turner that was "Seasons of Mists".

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on October 21, 2006 6:42 AM.

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