Saturday, January 15, 2011

Book-A-Day 2010 # 346 (1/15) -- Ex Machina, Vol. 10: Term Limits by Vaughan, Harris & Mettler

There's an old writers' rule -- forgotten, or never known much, in the fields of comics, I imagine -- that your story should be the most important thing that ever happened to your central character. That doesn't necessarily mean it has to be "important" in a world-historical sense: it could be the day he decides to put his aging mother in a nursing home, or the moment she gives up her dream of being a musician. But it does have to be central to that person's life; and the story should encompass the full sequence of events. [1]

Ex Machina started off promisingly on that score: the otherdimensional thing that hit Mitchell Hundred and gave him the ability to command machines was obviously the most important thing that happened to him. But this final volume ends without finishing that story; writer Brian K. Vaughan makes it very clear that Hundred -- who has fended off a few attempts by otherworldly elements to push through to this world, over the course of the series -- will have more trouble from the makers of that thing, and that he may have to face a stark choice, eventually. But that choice doesn't happen here. Hundred's essential story is left in medias res, like a million single-issue comic books from the last three-quarters of a century. Even if Vaughan never writes about Mitchell Hundred again, even if this really is the end of Ex Machina forever, he didn't tell the story of Hundred's most important decision.

Term Limits collects the last six issues of the series, with a five-issue story in which Hundred must battle The Strongest Foe of His Superhero Life to Save His World, and then a single-issue coda to bring his story up to close to the present day, and, incidentally, to fail to end that story well. It's classy and street-smart about politics and tough-minded about people as always; Vaughan's weaknesses in Ex Machina have always been ones of focus, and not of execution: the moments he shows are strong moments, precisely arrayed.

But, as happens all-too-often with Big Comics, it's more about moments -- about this month's issue, and the cool splash pages and shocking revelations in it -- than about the shape of the whole story. Perhaps the problem is that Ex Machina is naturally a tragedy, and either Vaughan or his editors were unwilling to let it really be that tragedy -- to let Hundred either destroy the world or destroy himself to save it. So, instead, it's a tragedy with no fifth act, left at a moment of tension, shrugging its shoulders and shuffling offstage, pretending that the play is over.

In the end, Ex Machina is a curate's egg: parts of it are excellent, but some things got scrambled in the making of this omelet that should have been left alone. (I've covered volumes six, seven, eight, and nine of this series in some depth, and earlier volumes more desultorily, deep in the archives.)

[1] Series novels have trouble with this rule as well; the first book in any series is often Real Big and Real Important, but the drive to keep topping that is a major pitfall itself.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index


James Davis Nicoll said...

Series novels have trouble with this rule as well; the first book in any series is often Real Big and Real Important, but the drive to keep topping that is a major pitfall itself.

In The Best of L. Sprague DeCamp, DeCamp commented that he got this wrong in one of his early series; in the first story, the talking bear saves the world. By the last one, he's just saving his boss's job...

Gareth Wilson said...

There's another possibility: Mitchell is mistaken. He really has permanently defeated his enemy, and everything he does in the final issue is just paranoia. The comic did have a scene where someone sincerely believes that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, and there's an obvious parallel between the Iraq War and Mitchell making huge sacrifices to defeat a threat that doesn't exist.

Andrew Wheeler said...

Gareth: That would be comforting, but we know that the entity -- whatever it is -- on the other brane has been able to make multiple incursions into Hundred's brane already, and there's no reason to assume that the destruction of one emissary would end that ability. In fact, thinking that there are only two branes is massively optimistic; the assumption should be that there are an infinite number of branes, some indefinable fraction of which have already fallen to the entity. When you play with multiple universes and humanity-destroying cross-brane entities, it's an inherently dark and apocalyptic multiverse.

Post a Comment