Thursday, January 20, 2011

Wrapping Up Ex Machina

So I just read the last volume of Ex Machina, which has been out for a little while, but being frugal I waited until I found a copy for a price I could stomach on Amazon (boy, that must drive comic book creators nuts.  They already hate that we wait for the trade, and now they've got to deal with us waiting for the trade at a discount).  This was a bit of a milestone for me, because Ex Machina is the first comics series that I bought and read entirely in trade paperbacks as they were being published.  I've read other series entirely in this fancy new format, but that was always after publication had long begun (and, in some cases, finished) and it was just easier to buy the books.  But this was the first time that a new series was published, and I said nope, I'd rather have those as books, I'm gonna wait.  Now that's become standard practice for me, but at the time I remember it being excruciating.  I'd see the new issue on the shelf, and want to read it, but I'd pull my hand away like Stimpy with the History Eraser Button:

But I digress.  Ex Machina volume 10 was about as good as the rest of the series. Which is to say, it was what it was.  At some point, Ex Machina went from a book I enjoyed quite a bit, and to which I looked forward, to one I liked well enough and didn't think about much at all.  And I'm not quite sure how or why that happened; I don't think there was a decrease in quality somewhere along the way.  Rather, I think it was the repetition of quality, month in and month out, from volume to volume, that eventually allowed this title to settle into a kind of blase sameness that defined the book for at least the second half of it's fifty issues (plus multiple specials).

It certainly started with an intriguing premise:  Mitchell Hundred is the world's only super hero, the Great Machine, a civil engineer who gains the ability to communicate with machines after a strange device blows up in his face.  He uses his new powers to fulfill his longstanding fantasy of being a super hero, until he realizes that it's a pretty dumb fantasy.  But he comes out of retirement on 9/11, using his powers to guide the second plane away from the Twin Towers, saving the building and thousands of lives, and casting himself as a hero in the process.  He used that notoriety as a springboard to an unlikely and successful run towards the mayor's office, where the bulk of the series is focused.

I was never sure if Ex Machina was a super hero comic masquerading as a political comic, or a political comic masquerading as a super hero comic.  I suppose that was part of the charm; Ex Machina didn't really read like anything else on the stands.  Writer Brian K. Vaughn used a unique storytelling format, jumping around different times within the course of a story, with the bulk of the action being set during Hundred's one term as mayor, a flashback to the Great Machine years, and occasional bits in his distant past or ominous future.  And it was a clever storytelling formula, but a formula nonetheless, and like any formula eventually the methodology becomes obvious, the beats predictable.

Meanwhile, artist Tony Harris provided a similar conundrum.  His work, which relies heavily on photo reference, is nicely stylized, but drifts into sameness all too quickly.  Ex Machina seems to me at once both easy and difficult to illustrate, because most of the book is simply people talking, which is not hard to draw (or shouldn't be, for a professional), but not easy to make interesting.  And Harris pulls it off, mostly.  But it's a very dark, moody book, artistically, all of which makes it both unique and somehow unmemorable.

And I think, reading this last chapter of Mitchell Hundred's saga, that's my big takeaway from the book ultimately: moody and unmemorable. A few books ago, when the conspiracy against Hundred began to take shape, and one of its' members revealed she blamed the Mayor for her sister's death, I realized that I'd totally forgotten about that.  I vaguely recalled the character, but her death had meant... not much.  Likewise,  I recognized the book's big villain, but I don't have the foggiest notion about the events in her story that lead up to volume ten.  And I suppose that's my fault, and my faulty memory, but it's also the fault of the book:  far, far too often, the big moments weren't very big at all, and ultimately not very memorable.  Thus the resulting payoff isn't really much of a payoff, because the original events didn't make enough of an impression.

And then there's the ending, the big reveal as to what granted Hundred his powers, which isn't so much as a reveal as it is a vague allusion to something broader (it won't surprise you to learn that Vaugn was a writer on Lost).  Vaugn's a good writer, and he has a unique voice, but all of his characters speak in it, interchangeably.  I couldn't really say what the differences in personality are for any of the characters in Ex Machina, or from his other major work, Y the Last Man, for that matter.

So Ex Machina is gone, and the comics world is better for it's existence, but I can't say I'll miss it much.  After all, I stopped noticing when it was still around.

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