Saturday, November 9, 2013

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

The Comic Pusher Presents The Run: Ex Machina Part Eight

In The Run, I review long-form comic works across multiple parts. In Part Eight of my series on Ex Machina by Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris, I look at the finale, "Vice." For the other reviews in this series, click here.

As I finish this piece on Election Day 2013, results are in and New York has elected its first new mayor since 2001. In the weeks leading up to today's election, I have been covering the entirety of Vaughan and Harris's masterpiece - a visionary post-superhero, science fiction, New York City political character drama. Ex Machina is one of the finest long-form mainstream comics ever produced, and the finale, "Vice," is its crowning achievement. As with last week's entry, there will be significant discussion about plot details and the ramifications of what happens in the story.  We have reached the end of our journey; be warned, this is not a review, but commentary and interpretation, and all significant plot points will be revealed. 


In the space of a few days, Mitchell Hundred lost his mother to unspeakable violence and found out that he is enmeshed in an interdimensional war. He fought what he thought would be the only battle in that conflict, destroying The Voice and the means of invasion. But the war is not over, and there are consequences for his actions. By suiting up to defeat the menace facing the City, he put his freedom in jeopardy. And there is still the business of the city, and a future political run, and the future itself.

The cliffhanger from Pro-Life is resolved by a bait-and-switch. Bradbury and Hundred switched places at the last second after Hundred killed Padilla. Angotti doesn't get her man, and Bradbury gets the punishment meant for Hundred. From there, the story leaps forward...

The framing sequence is Hundred, sitting alone in the dark, talking to his old jetpack, the exact scene from issue one where he warns of the tragedies to come. But the tragedies he spoke of in "The Pilot" were not the battle, or the Horrors that Padilla unleashed, or the terrorist attack that took Journal, not even the death of his mother. The real tragedies are about to unfold before us.

In the days following the Horrors, Wylie and Hundred talk about what happened. Hundred is still a lame duck, and Wylie is still set up to take over Gracie Mansion. And Hundred, as he leaves the position from which he changed the face of the city forever, has one final plan. We skip forward a year and a half....

It's September 2006, and Hundred is speaking before the United Nations General Assembly, as United States Ambassador to the U.N. He has an idea for the future, one that honors the City and the victims of all the attacks that have occurred over the last five years: a new World Trade Center, rebuilt exactly as it was before. And we skip forward to March 2007...

To a nightmare. Hundred is standing in the burning ruins of what was once New York, behind him the shuttered United Nations hovering in the shadows of demons and monsters. "No. I stopped you!" Hundred screams. And another Hundred, perhaps the one that gave Mitchell his powers, answers him: "Did you really think you wouldn't get hit again?" He tells the Hundred we know (or think we know) the truth, that he's always been an ambassador for the Invaders. That it's only a matter of time. And Hundred wakes up, at night, with an intruder in his room...

"Easy, Boss. Just came to give you this back." It's Bradbury, with The Great Machine's rocket, Bradbury, broken, drunk, unrecognizable. After the Horrors, Bradbury took the fall. He lost his job, lost his family, lost his friends, and was reduced to signing autographs at conventions. The night he shows up in Hundred's room, he hit his wife. "I hit her, just like I hit Suzanne. I remember things now. I remember everything we did to her. To Pherson. To us." He needs help. Hundred responds: "Bradbury, you have to get away from me... Don't tell anyone you came here. This is a very delicate time for me. I'm about to announce my candidacy for--"

"But I love you" Bradbury says. He professes his love for Hundred. He takes Hundred in his arms, looks him in the eye. Hundred almost gives in, but he can't. There is too much to lose. It can all fall apart. He rejects Bradbury, tosses him out at the time of his greatest need. Bradbury strikes Hundred and leaves. And we skip to October 2007...

Hundred and Candy are standing in a field in the middle of Iowa, on the campaign trail. As Hundred grinds out the small indignities of a Presidential run, he finds himself abandoned by old allies, Wylie and Angotti. He gets a message from Kremlin, saying it was time to talk. Three months later, Hundred meets Kremlin in his workshop on Coney Island.

Kremlin has the file that proves (or at least strongly alleges) that Hundred stole the election in 2001. Hundred pleads with Kremlin; in Hundred's eyes, the very fate of the world is at stake. But Kremlin only cares about The Great Machine. He irrationally believes he can blackmail Hundred into returning. Hundred goes for the file, and Kremlin pulls out his gun. Hundred refuses to give in, and Kremlin, despondent, puts the gun to his own head. Hundred tries to calm Kremlin down, and then he asks him if he showed the file to anyone else. Kremlin said no, and at that moment Hundred used his power to set off the gun killing Kremlin.

And back to the present, the middle of 2010, Hundred reminiscing, talking to The Great Machine's machines. He gets a phone call, and on the other end is the man working on health care reform, his boss, the president.

Vice President Hundred puts down the phone, and picks up a picture of the three men that made The Great Machine. He smiles, there, in the dark, at his old friends. The only men who ever knew him if they knew him at all, rewarded for their loyalty with death and destruction.

And then, fade to black. An end.

"Vice" is an emotional roller coaster of undiluted heartbreak and despair. It is a tragedy of the highest order, where no-one really wins. Hundred, who dreamed he would be president, who did everything he could to get in power to protect the world, finds himself both a heartbeat away from absolute power and mired in absolute powerlessness. The jolt of those last pages is one of the series' wonders.  Ex Machina is about worlds: our own, the fictional one the characters inhabit, the worlds waiting at the edge of reality, bracing to invade. The alternate history, the alternate now of the series reaches it's stunning apotheosis, Hundred's impact in the universe reflected in the series' dark mirror of our own world. 

But the tragedy does not really lie in Hundred, though it's undeniably tragic. The tragedy is in the lives ruined on Hundred's path to nowhere. He justifies every sin he commits at every turn as necessary to protect the people of the City and the Earth. But there is an ambiguity - has all his sacrifices been for naught? He came so far, only to end up short. It could all have been meaningless. He stole an election and changed history. He killed his friend and mentor. And he rejected his greatest ally at his time of need.  

In these final pages, Vaughan and Harris rip out your heart and stomp on it. Because that is what you get by believing in something, let alone something as dirty and inhuman as a politician.

Harris's final art here is astonishing. All the strengths he showed throughout Ex Machina shines in "Vice." Eschewing an inker, Harris completes the full art (with Mettler's expectedly superb colors), turning in page after page of stunning line work. It is an issue largely filled with emotionally laden dialog, and Harris kills it scene after scene. Vaughan's scripting and storytelling is without peer, but it wouldn't have been worth a damn if Harris couldn't execute.

The emotional moments in this issue are masterfully executed. The issue's (and the series') two most heartbreaking sequences are just stunning. Look at the emotionally wrenching, difficult scene where Bradbury professes his love for Hundred. The pain in both of their faces breaking through the the rush of emotions and thoughts the scene evokes.

And of course there is Kremlin's death. The look on Hundred's face when he commits the act. Even subtler, Harris's presentation of the moment the gun goes off, Hundred's face, carefully framed in a shop mirror, the shock coursing through the reader's mind at the suddenness, the unforgivability, the finality, the intent. The reader coming to terms with the act at the same time as the one who committed it. The trauma of the event and Harris's unparalleled realization of it.

Harris's original art to Volume 10
And for a series with a pretty impressive run of consistently brilliant covers, the final two collected edition covers are some of Harris's finest work. Volume 10: Term Limits is uncharacteristically minimalist, featuring a lone Mitchell Hundred with piercing eyes, the ghosts of past blending into the background. For a character whose powers are machine based, where technology plays an important role, Harris flips that dynamic and has Hundred sitting in quiet thought, with a book and quill pen in stately surroundings, in muted colors, only the slightest hint of a gear in sight, the suggestion of regality betrayed by what Hundred really achieves.

The fifth Deluxe edition cover is even more reserved and minimalist. Absent are Harris's highly designed, lushly crafted, stylistic cover designs, and what remains are understated, elegant, and exceed the high bar Harris set for himself, and defy the very expectations of the genre.

They are striking images. Images that take on a new meaning after reading the story. What you think of Hundred, his actions, and his role in the story gives new meaning to how you approach the art.

The cover to Ex Machina: The Deluxe Edition 5 Hardcover
I especially love the Deluxe cover art and the weight of meaning it now holds, all storytelling hands and expressionless face, the coloring and otherworldly lighting adding dimension throughout. The meaning of that face, as cold and ambiguous as Hundred himself. The hands hiding his true face like a mask, the hands holding up the weight of the head, swollen with pride, heavy with the responsibility of his position and his crimes, the hands, containing the dark power hidden within. Harris's blacks and Mettler's greens, at the highest level individually, combine into a massive visual punch.

What Vaughan accomplishes here is his masterwork. The wonders of his story structure up to this point have been jaw-dropping, and Vaughan takes it even further with his audacious time jumps as he bounds forward towards the alternate present of the story's publication. He does a similar thing in the finale of Y: The Last Man, but where that finale was a coda to a journey's end, Ex Machina is a radically different thing entirely.

Again, the series plays with its relationship with superhero fiction early on in "Vice." Hundred opens with a monologue, contrasting the unreality of fiction with the stark, dark reality of life, always ending in pain, regret and loss. "Happy endings are bullshit. There are only happy pauses... That's why I like superhero books." In superhero comics, there is stasis, where every wrong has a chance to be righted. "Those stories never get to become tragedies." Ex Machina is the anti-superhero superhero comic, specifically rooted in a version of reality that mirrors our own, that changes and develops quickly. "Vice" is the antithesis of the what is presented in most superhero fiction, specifically and explicitly showing change and death and loss in a heightened shot, leaping forward years at a time, shattering our perceptions and the status quo with every jump.

Vaughan, through Hundred, also makes clear that what was chronicled in Ex Machina is but a small window into the darkness, the leap forward through time just a heightened version of what we've already been through. But it also has the remarkable effect of distilling who Hundred is, revealing that everything we thought we knew was wrong. This isn't a cheap soap-opera twist where it's revealed that Hundred is the villain, but a revelation born through complex characterization, a revelation that forces us to reexamine and reinterpret everything that came before. Vaughan reveals the truth about what's been happening in front of your face the entire time and his and Harris's accomplishment with this is nothing short of monumental.  

There are two distinct ways to reinterpret the events of Ex Machina in light of these revelations. The first is Mitchell Hundred, the political beast; the second is Mitchell Hundred, the potential enemy agent of another world. That both of these interpretations are inextricably intertwined is one of the book's remarkable achievements.

The first reinterpretation: Every single action Mitchell Hundred has taken since throwing his hat into the ring has been with the sole goal of attaining and maintaining political power.

As originally presented, Hundred is shown to be apparently honorable, seeking power to serve the people of the City he loves. Despite his popularity, he abdicates power by giving up a second term, to ostensibly focus on the business of City Government. He supports no political party and his actions as Mayor cover all ends of the political spectrum. 

But despite the narrative's omniscient point of view, we the readers never really get a clear idea of just who Mitchell Hundred really is. As the series moves forward, we get the sense that Hundred engages in a great deal of political maneuvering. That every decision he makes, every facet of his being down to his very sexuality, is tied to achieving and maintaining power. That, like all politicians, despite whatever front of public service he may provide, he is a politician and thus a right bastard.

The moment, the very panel Hundred sends out Bradbury to cover up the White Box affair in Ring Out The Old is the moment that the series really changes. When Bradbury reveals that Padilla might uncover its secret, his reaction, a simple, all lower-caps "what?" speaks volumes. He panics and sends Bradbury out right away, leading Padilla right to its location, and to her and the city's fate. Why would he care about the White Box? Certainly there is the perception that it may have played a role in stealing the election in 2001. But Bradbury believes Hundred when he says it was necessary for the safety of the city, indeed, he believes in Hundred. But does Hundred believe himself? He does the knee-jerk, guilty thing. He seeks to destroy the object that made it look like he stole the election, in the process making it look like he stole the election...

Because he did steal the election. There is just the matter of degree to which he lied to Bradbury and to himself, and the context of that lie. Throughout Ex Machina we are never given reason to assume that Hundred is anything but a straight-laced, honest man. But when he kills Padilla, sending her through the gateway to the malevolent realities beyond, he tells her the most important piece of truth uttered in the series: "I'm a politician. I lie."

Those last two words put everything that has occurred into a completely different light. "I lie." What are you lying about, what have you been lying about, 100?  This revelation is not all that surprising, of course. Everyone lies, all the time. But there is an important qualifier to Hundred's statement, and that was tying his lies to Politics and Power.

What happens in "Vice" is a heart-shattering extension of Hundred as soulless politician. Rick Bradbury's life has been shattered by his association with The Great Machine and with Hundred. The last we see of him, his is a completely broken man, with no family, no job, and no future. He dedicated his life to Hundred after 1999. He sacrificed as much of himself as Hundred at any point over the preceding eight years. He was unquestioningly loyal throughout, even taking the fall for his friend and boss. And he is repaid with destitution and abandonment. At his lowest, he comes to Hundred for help, and Hundred discards him like so much trash. Once an honored friend and associate, now a liability. He used Bradbury as a stepping stool and then as a patsy on his rise to power, and now he has no use for him. Mobsters and gangbangers have more honor and loyalty.

The emotionally destructive sequence of Bradbury's fall is amplified by the even greater tragedy of what Hundred does to Kremlin. Hundred confronts him, perhaps to only talk him down from whatever thoughts of blackmail he may harbor, perhaps to shut him up for good. Either way, he kills Kremlin at the first chance he has, once he knows Kremlin's death and Hundred's election-theft can't be traced to him. Kremlin, the man who largely raised him, his oldest friend, one-third of The Great Machine. Kremlin held the gun, but Hundred pulled the trigger, and no matter what his intentions were going in, that was the outcome.

The message in this is pretty clear: politicians lie. They cheat, they steal, they even kill to gain and keep power. They are simply a different class of criminal. Some politicians are corrupt and serve others' bidding in exchange for power. Others will crawl over whomever they can on their way to the top. But all put on airs of honor, and all honorless.

It's a cynical view of the universe, certainly. There probably are elected officials who wish only to serve, who attain power honorably. But Mitchell Hundred is not that man. Despite whatever protestations he may make about protecting the city or the country or humanity, the ultimate ends for all of his horrible means is political. It was always about Power.

And in the end, the only superhero in the world, who used his powers to gain ultimate political power, who sacrificed everything including his friends and himself, ends up Powerless.

The second reinterpretation: Every single action Mitchell Hundred has taken since becoming The Great Machine has been at potential service to the hidden programming from his unknown masters.

His power over machines was created by an alternate universe version of himself, with the intention of taking over this universe. There are many, many versions of Hundred who have willingly paved the way for their universes to be overtaken by these forces.

Hundred-prime, the great designer at the center of all Great Machines, makes it crystal bloody clear that Hundred is meant for one thing, and one thing only, even if he doesn't realize it. "You've always been an ambassador for us... For every Parallel that had you trying to stop me, there were two where you were first in line to help... I'm not your reflection, Mitchell. I am he, as you are he, as you are me, and we are all together." And a money shot:

There is a certain indomitability of character Hundred evinces throughout the series. At every turn, it appears Hundred is rejecting the expectations of his benefactors. He was given superpowers with the sole purpose of paving the way for an interdimensional takeover. But every time someone tries to tell him what his powers mean, he usually rejects it outright. He simply doesn't seem to care. It's not unreasonable to believe that he doesn't care, that he is immune to the programming which effects Pherson and Padilla and nearly every other alternate-universe version of himself, that he wants to stop the invasion and save his world. That certainly plays into Hundred's role as the hero throughout the series - he intervenes in 9/11, stops Padilla's takeover of humanity, and everything in between.

Indeed, when Padilla gives him the option of ruling humanity on behalf of the invaders who gave them their powers, Hundred says "no." But it's not a definitive, action-hero go-fuck-yourself, it is a contemplative, shaky no. Hundred clearly considers Padilla's offer, and he rejects it knowing it may mean his death. But he considers it. Perhaps that is illustrative of Hundred's heroism, that he has the same human weakness, and when tested rejects that power and what it means.

But any thought of Hundred's inviolability seems to be banished by what occurs in "Vice." He seeks ultimate political power under the self-justification of stopping the interdimensional invasion. Perhaps he sees his actions as ends justifying means. He rejects Bradbury and kills Kremlin - were these political acts or elements of his programming? His heartbreaking "What did I do to you" while standing over Kremlin's body mirrors Padilla's own questioning of her actions after she kills Hundred's mom - "I'm doing the right thing. Right?"

Everything Hundred does comes with the possibility that he is acting through the hidden programming of his makers, the alternate-himselves. Multiple times in the series he notes the role that dreams play in his ascension. The designs of everything from The Great Machine to the raygun that opened the door to the other universe to the White Box that stole the election came to him as an echo of the programming that came with his powers. Far from absolving him of the responsibility for his actions, it simply adds layers to the potential malevolence at work. That this isn't just your typical scheming politician and all the associated evils of that, but an enemy agent in deep cover, fighting against his programming, perhaps an ultimate slave to it when he doesn't even realize it.

When he kills Kremlin, it's almost like an automatic response from some element of him deep within. He looks at Kremlin's body in disbelief at what he did. But this isn't to absolve Hundred of his crime. Even if it was some buried element within him that pulled the trigger, Hundred commits the act only when he knows he's in the clear. And he leaves his fallen friend to rot, ignominiously, forgotten, alone. Be it some deep cover programming or basic survival at all costs, Hundred is utterly complicit in this act. In all of his acts as The Great Machine and beyond.

His murder of Kremlin is one of the hardest things to reconcile - Hundred has repeatedly shown himself to be rejecting the influences of his makers. But both interpretations I propose above have profoundly negative consequences for the future. If it was just an element of his programming that caused him to steal the election and murder Kremlin, what else is going on, what else could happen? But if it was just a larger symptom of Hundred's true nature as political beast willing to do anything in his quest for power, no matter his motivation, then what else is going on, what else could happen?

Who else is going to die because of Hundred? Who else is he going to kill? Will he even succeed at his Quixotic task of protecting the Earth from invasion? Will he be the cause it?

Beyond these interpretations, "Vice" forces a full reconsideration of all the events that came before. I have never quite encountered a piece of fiction that creates this effect so stunningly. The twist at the end of Sixth Sense and the revelations of the Shadows and Vorlon's true intentions (not to mention Garabaldi's betrayal) in Babylon 5 come to mind. But they don't come close to the impact "Vice" has on the reader, both emotional and intellectual and downright visceral.

Ex Machina is commentary on Power. It examines the consequences of superpowers through a logical and reconstructive lens. It explores the role of power in our lives, especially political power. It asks fundamental questions about the type of person that would seek that power, and the effect that quest has on those around them.

Ex Machina is vital and important work, effective as a superhero story, a political story, a science fiction work, all beautifully executed throughout. Certainly uneven in some parts, in the end it comes together in the pièce de résistance of "Vice."

Thank you for reading this far. This is the end of my story-by-story examinations of Ex Machina, but I'm not quite done yet. In the coming weeks I will have two more pieces on Ex Machina - one on the book's unique role as reconstructive post-superhero fiction, and finally a look at sexuality in Ex Machina.

Ex Machina 50, "Vice" is collected in Ex Machina Volume 10: Term Limits (November 2010) and in Ex Machina Book 5 (Hardcover, April 2011) from DC/WildStorm.

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