Ex Machina is a smart political comic book. Because it is a comic book, the main character has superpowers. It is difficult, apparently, to get comic book stories published unless they are about super-empowered beings.
Fortunately, Ex Machina is not about super-heroics. Its main character, Mitchell Hundred, was given superpowers in a mysterious accident three years before the story starts. The accident remains mysterious so that the origins of Hundred’s superpowers can play a role in the intrigue of the book’s plot. After the accident, Hundred has the ability to talk to complex machines and control them with his mind. He dons a cyberpunk costume and becomes a vigilante. Among other things, he stops the second plane from crashing into the second World Trade Center tower on 9/11.
The story starts with Hundred being elected mayor of New York City in 2002, three years before the book was published. In the year before his election, Hundred had realized that–with the exception of 9/11–him fighting crime with a jet pack attached to his back was causing more property damage than good work. He decided to cash in on the celebrity he earned when he saved the day on 9/11 and become an elected official. In this moment of socio-political commentary, overt references are made to Jesse Ventura and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The book is heavy-handed when it comes to political commentary. In the two collections I’ve read so far, The First Hundred Days and Tag, Mayor Hundred tackles controversial public-funded art and gay marriage respectively. Sometimes these political topics feel like writer Brian K. Vaughan is politically lambasting, but he always gives all sides to each topic equal consideration. These plot lines run parallel to other sources of intrigue, like murder and references to the origins of Hundred’s superpowers.
The story does not run linearly. The story of Hundred’s mayorship in 2002 is interspersed with flashbacks to his time as a superhero, his mayoral election, and moments earlier in his life. These flashbacks serve to accentuate the plot and provide insight into the nuances of his character. Vaughan is a good enough writer that he makes this complex story work both as an emotional tale and an intriguing plot.
Tony Harris, who draws the series, has a unique, phot0-referenced style. A feature not unlike a DVD extra at the back of the first collection shows various steps of Harris’s style. Harris photographs moments from Vaughan’s script, with family and friends acting as the different characters. He then uses the photos of actual people gesturing and speaking as references for his inked artwork. The result is that in this book, which has more scenes of people talking about politics than explosions, the characters actually look like they’re acting and emoting. Scenes another artist might have rendered as boring have a sense of human energy. And unlike other comic book artists who use photos for reference as part of their style, Harris imbues a sense of motion and violence in the book’s few action scenes.
Harris’s final images, inked by Tom Feister, feature deceptively simple line work and moody shadows. He is assisted by colorist JD Mettler, who uses different color palettes to represent the book’s different time periods, and to underscore the mood of each scene. The final artwork is not incredible or bombastic, but it suits the tone of the book perfectly.
The concept behind Ex Machina is not particularly original, but the idea of a superhuman in political office is an intriguing one. The writer, penciler, inker, and colorist working on Ex Machina are all masters of their craft, and the result is a well-executed story.