Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Run: Ex Machina by Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris: Term Limits

The Comic Pusher Presents The Run: Ex Machina Part Seven

In The Run, I review long-form comic works across multiple parts. In Part Seven of my series on Ex Machina by Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris, I look at the next two stories, Ring Out The Old and Pro-Life. For the other reviews in this series, click here. 
Ex Machina, as I have noted, works on many levels. It's layered and nuanced, and there are so many things going on that, once revealed, put the entire series in a whole new light. In my writings about it here for The Run, I've been trying to find the right balance of reviewing the story without giving away the layered meanings that become evident on reexamination. There is no way to put what happens in context without giving away quite a bit; the series raises many questions, and explodes many of our perceptions of what is happening to the characters, indeed who the characters even are. These are all elements that warrant further discussion that I have been largely holding off, until now. Fair warning, in my final two installments in this series, the first of which is presented here, the unavoidable spoiler-factor increases with every paragraph. 

Ring Out The Old

It's New Years Eve. 2005 is about to start, and Mitchell Hundred has just called a press conference to announce that he would not be seeking a second term. He tells the press he can better serve the city by focusing on being mayor, not trying to scramble together a second campaign. He endorses David Wylie to be the next mayor, and exits to get about the business of running the city. But there's more going on.

Hundred knows he is meant for more. The President offered him the U.N. ambassadorship after the Trouble trouble in Dirty Tricks. In Ex Cathedra, he had a vision (of sorts) from God (or something) telling him he would be President. And now, even the Governor's cronies are sucking up to him. Despite the evidence they have, or at least claim to have, evidence Hundred had locked away in his safe. A safe January Moore broke into on behalf of Kremlin. January wants to take down the Mayor for what happened to her sister. Kremlin still harbors an almost deranged fantasy of destroying Hundred politically while somehow turning Hundred into the Great Machine again. What Kremlin and January found, they turned over to Suzanne Padilla, one-time confidant and almost/maybe lover to the Mayor, and more importantly a reporter sitting on a big story. The information in that file could take down Hundred, and when Hundred gets wind of Padilla's investigation, he sends Bradbury to cover things up.

Meanwhile, and there's always a meanwhile, something bloody weird is going on. Amidst flashbacks to The Great Machine's encounters with the animal-controlling arch-enemy Pherson, hordes of rats begin to attack people. The attacks present a security and public relations nightmare for Hundred's administration as the clock quickly counts down to New Year's. And Hundred knows that there is a connection, somehow to Pherson. And there is, just not in any way he could have imagined.

With little other apparent recourse, he suits up and heads into the sewers that make the center of the animal activity, and he comes across someone... something that defies the natural order of things, that shouldn't exist. (This will be happening to Hundred a lot over the next few months.) The... person/thing controlling the animal attacks appears before Hundred, and Hundred shoots it, revealing its true nature, a pink box on a humanoid body. "Hello, demon," it says. "I was sent here to tell you that God is very disappointed. You were forsaken the tongues of fire with which you were blessed."

The bubbling undercurrent of trippy sci-fi becomes a raging torrent of interdimensional horror in Ring Out The Old. Vaughan still frames it with some mystery, but not in any obstructive way - dialog with something from another reality is bound to be a little obtuse. Now we have a clearer idea of just who the hell Zeller was and what he was talking about in Power Down. And if there was any ambiguity about the how and why of Hundred's powers, it is shattered by the revelations from the machine-man to the man who can talk to machines, down below in the guts of the city.

What Vaughan achieves in these few, tense pages are astonishing. He reveals the truth he has been telling you all along, and it lands like a tidal wave. The way he has structured the entire superstory comes into sharp focus, and it is beautiful and horrifying. Vaughan's master-class in story structure is amplified by Harris's own unique storytelling. Harris is equally comfortable at illustrating long talking-heads sequences with politicians in suits and intense bursts of superhero daring, and now, as we can see, interdimensional monsters. Harris, with inker Jim Clark and colorist JD Mettler, sets a mood of perfectly realized menace and suspense.

The revelations of the how of Hundred happen at the same time that the Kremlin conspiracy meets its first sudden, tragic end. Bradbury tracks down the White Box, the object revealed in the stolen file. During the election in 2001, Hundred had Bradbury go to certain polling places with the White Box. Polling places Hundred would surprisingly win. Hundred assured Bradbury that there was nothing untoward about the White Box, that it was to protect the people of the City. That it came to him in a dream, like The Great Machine. So Bradbury gets to the box, and Padilla gets to Bradbury, and something snaps. Bradbury lashes out - perhaps it was just a simple mistake during an emotionally wrenching time, perhaps it was violent reaction to his own role in what the box represents, about Hundred, about himself. He strikes Padilla with it. Just as the monster reveals to Hundred the spectrum of evil that should have taken over when Hundred received his powers... Violet for the beasts, Red for the crops, Green for the machines, and white, for the soldiers.

At that moment, Suzanne Padilla, reporter for The Voice, gains the ability to control human beings, and with it the programming to destroy the world. As he presses the button that drops the ball on 2004, the threats facing Hundred in 2005 are now clear: He was meant to be a weapon for an interdimensional invasion. And that invasion hasn't been thwarted yet.

Ring Out The Old transitions into the penultimate storyline, Pro-Life. Well, obviously it looks like we are going to tackle abortion. A little bit, anyway. Like all the political issues in Ex Machina, it takes a back seat to something else. Which is fine, really, considering all the crazy shit that's about to go down.

Like with anything to do with choice and anti-choice (or pro-choice and pro-life, sure), it's not about the actual issue but about political maneuvering. And that's what is happening here. Wylie, a liberal who put in his lot with a pure independent political wild-card in Hundred, ramping up his nascent mayoral campaign, finds himself somewhat lost in the political wilderness. As the Hundred administration winds down, Wylie wants to use millions to get more Morning-After pills into women's hands. Hundred doesn't want to touch this with a ten foot pole, mostly because he has a larger political future than city politics. And largely because he doesn't quite know what to think about it, or so he claims. Ultimately, Wylie (doing what Candy suggested to Hundred) leaked the plan to the press, forcing Hundred to come out against it, pushing him to the middle for any future national race, and propping up Wylie for the Mayoral election. Good old fashioned politics.

But, oh, yeah, there's a secret war on. Suzanne Padilla, now imbued with the power of The Voice, able to control human actions, has a plan. She kidnaps January and forces her to do her bidding. Certainly Padilla isn't pure villain, but frankly overcome by the programming that came with her powers. Programming that Hundred has managed to avoid, or so it seems. She confronts Hundred, offering him rule over humanity, which he refuses. She throws him into the East River, and then tracks down Hundred's mom. But this isn't about petty revenge, Hundred's mom just happens to have the second raygun Hundred had from his Great Machine days. This gun, however, is the portal to the universe with the invasion force meant to take over this world. And Padilla gets the gun. And she kills Hundred's mom.

The story's relationship with superpowers takes a fascinating turn in this story. Obviously Hundred and Pherson had some kind of supranatural control over objects and living things, but the way Vaughan presents powers in Ex Machina makes it isolated, and still somewhat believable even within the context of its realistic, reconstructive approach. But I love, love, love the reactions to Padilla's super-strength and flying abilities. The first page where she floats, goddess-like in January's kitchen is arresting. Hundred can barely comprehend what is happening to him when she shows up. The revulsion of seeing the physically impossible seems to exceed even that of the window into the hell awaiting Earth on the other side of the universal divide.

Padilla seeks to execute the plans deep within her programming, to open the door to the other universe and let in her masters and set humanity against itself. She gets on the air and tells New York to "Raise Hell," and the City obliges, compelled by the power of The Voice to destroy one another. As the city erupts into violence and chaos, Hundred works out a plan to reverse the effect (same way he defeated Pherson) and he suits up one last time to confront Padilla. He manages to defeat her - the nullifier Hundred supposedly created - now in Padilla's possession - is bullshit, it never worked. It was all part and parcel of Hundred's manipulations to gain political power. The series's most revelatory moment occurs here: Padilla is hurled to her death in the other dimension, and Hundred tells the complete truth, a truth that shatters the perception of Hundred up to this point: "I'm a politician, Suzanne. I lie."

There's more - This review continues after the jump!
I'll have quite a bit more on the ramifications of this specific turn in my final installment. We still need the final context of the tragedies to come in the finale, because we're not close to done yet. We've seen the horrors of 2005 that Hundred tells us about in the first scene of the first issue, but the ultimate tragedy, and the ultimate meaning of the series is still to be revealed.

Of note in Pro-Life is the way Harris's art changes in the story. In the collected editions of the series, there is a significant amount of juicy backmatter detailing Harris's processes. We see his own influences on the story (including changing the nature of Hundred's powers and his very look) and his extensive and remarkably effective use of photo referencing. We also get a look at some of his visual experimentation earlier on in the series, but it is in Pro-Life that Harris modifies his art style, completely changing the look and tone of sequences, reflecting the emotional toll effecting the characters.

I marvel at his ability to make long, talky sequences engaging. Just as expressive as Harris's faces are his hands. In Ring Out The Old, a sequence between Tripp and Hundred is entirely framed by the characters' hands. In Pro-Life, a conversation between Angotti and Hundred is stunningly presented in gorgeously laid-out whole-page constructions of elegant, curved panels with a focus on Angotti's smooth, effortless handling of a gun. It's sequences like these that mirror Harris's ceaselessly astounding cover work on the series.

As Pro-Life plows forward into Padilla's assault, the emotional consequences are reflected in the art changes. The flashback, nightmare, and rescue sequences after Padilla throws Hundred into the East River are rendered with Harris's finest line yet produced in the series. There's more cross-hatching and fine detail, culminating in the murder of Hundred's mother. (Vaughan and murdering mothers: he killed off Yorick's mom in Y: The Last Man, too.) When Hundred is told of his mother's death, the art breaks down into flats, an all-white panel of complete loss, a lone cigarette falling from Kremlin's trembling hands above.

Hundred, overwhelmed by grief, breaks down. The break down in the detail of the art in the page before that, flat, blurry, monotonous, reflects the collapse in Hundred's world. A universal fuzziness to mirror the cloud of grief engulfing him now.

And within the same issue is Padilla's hijacking of the airwaves and forcing the City into chaos. Padilla, especially Padilla as The Voice, is Harris's most vividly rendered character in the series. The ultimate villain, she is lushly presented throughout, especially in the sequences where she uses her powers. But on the page where she sends New York into the Horrors, she is presented in shadow, a chiaroscuro rendition seen nowhere else in the series. And just look at the way January, enslaved to Padilla, melts into the background of the top panel. If she wasn't pleading for our lives, we wouldn't even know she's there.

This is followed by a splash-page that looks almost painted, as if by another artist. The image manages to be just as affecting as the prior splash page where she murders Hundred's mother.

Though his role is minimized in these sequences, the inker, Jim Clark, deserves no small amount of credit. Clark's inks become somewhat secondary in the sequences I show above, and Harris actually inks himself in the wogboggling final chapter. But the real artistic co-star of this series is colorist JD Mettler. Mettler's dynamic and bold coloring throughout is one of the wonders of this series. His thoughtful and engaging color choices highlight Harris's art. Coloring is easy to do badly and hard to do well, and Mettler's cinematographic contributions are one of the key components of Ex Machina's artistic success.

I cannot praise enough the intensity, the drama, the action, the heights achieved by Vaughan and Harris in these two stories. It is only surpassed by the story to follow, the finale, "Vice."

There is a laundry-list of things Vaughan and Harris deftly pull off in Ex Machina, the most impressive is the superhero aspect of the series. There are certain kinds of superhero stories often done and redone to death. One of them is the "real" superhero, the exploration of superhero tropes through the lens of real-world logic. Ex Machina is that type of series, repeatedly delving into the unique futility of the very idea of costumed superpowered vigilantism. Another disparate type of commonly executed superhero story is one where the hero is pitted up against massive odds, usually exemplified by an invasion from another world or dimension. Ex Machina reveals itself to be both of these.

But Ex Machina is also a fiercely political book - not necessarily politics in ideas put forth, but a story about politics and power. It is a remarkably straightforward exploration of realpolitik and the mechanics of municipality, wrapped in a cultural history of a city and her people. Ex Machina uses a conflict against monsters from another dimension and associated stories about the nature of vigilante justice as a launchpad into commentary on the costs of political power.

And the story of political power is often written in the conquered, be it the blood of the losers or what you lose and who you are willing to ruin on your way to the top. Ex Machina is a superhero story, it is a sci-fi story, it is an alternate history story, and it is - most of all - a political story, and there is no politician who is innocent.

Least of all Mitchel Hundred. The Great Machine. The Harbinger. The Voice. The Demon. And I'll cover that, and the repainting effect it has on the entire story, in my final installment.

Ex Machina Volume 9: Ring Out The Old (May 2010) was originally serialized by DC/WildStorm in Ex Machina  41-44.

Pro-Life was serialized in Ex Machina 45-49 and is collected in Ex Machina Volume 10: Term Limits (November 2010).

Both stories are also collected in Ex Machina Book 5 (Hardcover, April 2011).

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