Ex Machina – “The First Hundred Days” (2004)
Collects Ex Machina issues 1-5. Writer: Brian K Vaughan, Penciller: Tony Harris, Inker: Tom Feister, Colourist: JD Mettler, Letterist: Jared K. Fletcher. Published by Wildstorm Comics in 2004.
Winner of the 2005 Eisner Award for Best New Series, Ex Machina follows Mitchell Hundred, a former superhero that went by the name of The Great Machine who gives up crime fighting to become mayor of New York City in a post-9/11 world. To understand the world writer Brian K Vaughan presents in this series, it is key to clarify that The Great Machine wasn’t just A superhero in this world, but rather he was THE ONLY superhero. So this isn’t as though Peter Parker hung up his web shooters but still had Captain America and Iron Man to pick up the slack (when they aren’t busy fighting each other), it’s more as though Unbreakable‘s David Dunn fought crime for a couple years after the movie, then gave up touching people in train stations to become a public servant.
After an unexplained accident gives him the power to communicate with machines, former civil engineer Hundred decided to use these new-found abilities to fight crime. But after toiling away as a vigilante for a few years, he realises that he may be doing more harm than good, and could do more good as mayor. The book begins with his first days in office, having won while running as an independent. He is sworn by the NSA to not divulge the nature of his “extra-normal abilities”, and by New York’s police commissioner to never use his powers to fight crime again.
Instead of a traditional superhero comic, Ex Machina is more focused on politics and the difficulties involved in running one of the world’s largest cities than it is on fights, tights, and explosions. It reads more like a cross between The West Wing and Spin City than it does an episode of Smallville or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with all the political intrigue and associated concerns involved. Instead of worrying about power-mad villains and alien invasions, Mayor Hundred has to deal with city-wide snow removal, controversial municipally-sponsored artwork, and, of course, approval ratings and re-election.
But he is super-powered, and that element of the book is never forgotten. He is imbued with an interesting gift, one as useful in day-to-day life as it is in the superhero realm. He can tell machines to do what he wishes, be it telling guns to jam, lights to dim, or planes to land. He can also receive messages from machines, which is helpful in picking up surveillance equipment, but an annoyance when every PDA, computer, and copy machine in the office has something to say.
It is the attention to these little details, in how Hundred has to deal with both his powers and his mayoral duties, that makes the book such a delight to read. But, beyond the little things, Vaughan does an excellent job in creating an overlying storyline to grip the reader and bring Hundred’s two worlds together. In “The First Hundred Days”, he has to settle into office while dealing with questions of his true origin, and a controversial new exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum that threatens to bring racial tensions to a head. While juggling these public affairs battles, someone is attacking snow plow operators, threatening to bring the city to a standstill. Is it a normal case of crime, or has the mayor’s heroic past come back to haunt him?
Each element of the book is as strong as the next, leaving readers as interested in the criminal mystery as they are in the public relations problems. The scenes of Hundred’s days as mayor are just as riveting as the flashbacks to his days as The Great Machine, promising to provide many ongoing stories for the series (Vaughan has stated that he intends the series to go 50 issues, with the end of the series hinted at in the first page of the first book). Artist Tony Harris employs an interesting photo reference style, wherein he photographs friends in positions he intends to use as panels, lays out the photos as panels, then draws the series based on those photos (which is shown as a bonus at the end of the trade edition of this story). His art gives the book a realism not often seen in superhero books, as none of the characters are amazing specimens of humans, including Hundred himself (who never wore spandex as The Great Machine).
These are fleshy, normal looking characters who are quickly as interesting and unique as any colourful, anatomically-enhanced character from traditional comic books. The series is fantastic, a perfect blend of politics and action, with Vaughan’s characteristic wit thrown in to tie it all together.