Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 209 (8/31) -- Ex Machina: Ring Out the Old by Vaughan and Harris

There's no such thing as a bright-line test to divide comics from graphic novels, but, if there was one, it might go something like this: if there's a twenty-some-page sequence somewhere in the middle that's clearly just what the creators thought would be fun to do that month, what you've got in your hand is comics.

Ex Machina is comics, as proven by the first story reprinted here -- from Ex Machina Special #4, I believe -- in which writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Tony Harris pitch their concept for the in-world version of Ex Machina to Mitchell Hundred, ex-superhero, mayor of New York City, and possessor of an alien thingy on his cheek. It exists purely to wink at and nudge the ribs of the fans; it's Vaughan and Harris mugging to the camera and showing how quirky and self-conscious they are about doing a "real-world" SF comics series. And it's yet another weight slowing down the forward momentum of Ex Machina, not that the series has much inertia left after all the dithering about over the past ten or fifteen issues. (Another good test: graphic novels aren't always good, and have their own failure modes, but they don't break down so simply into "this month's pages" the way comics do.)

Ex Machina started out with great promise: it felt more like real science fiction than the usual comics lazy version of the same, and the superheroics were limited, firmly in Hundred's past, and primarily there to allow him to be in place to stop the second 9/11 airplane from hitting the World Trade Center. It was audacious, it was serious, it had a drive and a energy and a point of view. It also focused on practical, day-to-day politics to a degree unprecedented in mainstream comics, though it did have the usual West Wing premise of having the political leader be both unassailably honest and dependably Hollywood-style-liberal.

But in the forty-some issues between then and now, all of that drive and energy have leaked out, as the point of view swung around, under comics' relentless gravity, to yet another pseudo-alternative superhero comic, complete with threatened alien invasions and powered supervillains. Even worse, the SFnal implications -- and even the political ones (supposedly Ex Machina's strengths) -- of those developments have been systematically ignored in favor of the same old hugger-mugger of superhero comics and mediocre thrillers: fight scenes and multiple groups with secret agendas.

From a SFnal point of view, Hundred knows only a very little about the danger he and his world are in, and is in no good position to stop any of it. So the fact that there's only one more storyline worries me; at this point I'm not convinced that Vaughan and Harris can get to any plausible, satisfying ending (other than the entire domination of Earth by whoever-the-hell-they-are) in just six issues. At this point, I'm not going to give up on Ex Machina -- I still remember how good it was in the early days, back in 2004 -- but I'm not as hopeful as I'd like to be.

(I said much the same thing, in different ways, when I saw Vol. 8 as Book-A-Day # 12.)
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

1 comment:

RobB said...

I plan on going through this series in the trades now that it's complete. I, too, enjoyed the early issues and really like Harris's expressive art.

I'm a very big fan of BKV. I'm sure you've been recommended it before, but Y: The Last Man, imho, is a superb series that does not falter in its dedication to its main premise for the entire 60-issue run. Your post on Nexus mentioned people looking for SF in their comics and I can't think of a better example than Y.

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