Pop Culture Gadabout
Wednesday, March 02, 2005
      ( 3/02/2005 07:47:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"AND HERE I THOUGHT CHEESE WAS YOUR KRYPTONITE. . ." – First story image we see of Mitchell Hundred (a.k.a. the Great Machine) is of the short-term superhero racing through the sky to intercept what seems to be a falling jetliner. "You're probably sick of that picture by now, huh?" a tee-shirted Mitch asks the reader as the panel pulls back to reveal that we're looking at a painting on a basement wall. "Christ knows I am!"

But Brian K. Vaughan, Tony Harris & Tom Feister's Ex Machina (Wildstorm/DC) isn't just the story of an embittered former superhero. Turns out that Mitch has also been mayor of New York City. The First Hundred Days, which collects Ex Machina #1 – 5, describes the new mayor's rocky beginnings as leader of the "ungovernable city," and one of the basic underpinnings to the series is the idea that working effectively in city government can be even slipperier than chasing after super-villains. Hundred and his staff face challenges that range from a serial killer in a city-paralyzing snowstorm to the presence of a politically sensitive piece of agit-art at one of the city museums. As the world's first and only supertype, Mitch's powers (the ability to communicate with machines) and good intentions weren't enough to keep bad things from happening – he's haunted by the fact that he was unable to keep the first plane from destroying the one twin tower felled on 9/11. How much good he'll be able to do as "just another cog" in the political machine is still unclear.

The title of this comic, then, is wittily multi-faceted: on one level, it refers to our hero's mysteriously defined abilities to hear and control machinery; on another it connects to Thomas Jefferson's description of democracy as a "Great Machine;" while on a third it also alludes to the Greek drama device of "deus ex machine," the god-in-the-machine that dropped down out of the skies at the end of a play and put things right. Hundred may think of himself as a good Jeffersonian liberal (who ran for office outside of both parties), but the reality is he was elected in a wave of voter response to his public display of heroism on September 11th. ("People blame me for Bush in his flight suit and Arnold getting elected governor," he notes in the opener. "But the truth is. . . these things would've happened with or without me.") He's been voted into office as Big Daddy Rescuer, not as Great Mediator.

Mayor Hundred's friends and co-workers have their own different takes on the man, of course. To Russian émigré Kremlin, the amusement park mechanic who designed the Great Machine's jet-pack costume, the fact that Mitch has turned away from costumed heroism is a betrayal of his god-given powers. To police commissioner Angoti (a lifelong Republican "with the alleged 'fashion sense' of a Democrat"), Hundred's powers are something to be kept in check, just like the rest of her unruly city. To cynical dreadlocked political advisor Dave Wylie, Hundred's inexperience and desire to buck the established political machine are both strengths and weaknesses. To Hundred himself, looking back at his term from 2002 through "godforsaken 2005," his tenure as mayor is essentially one big tragedy. We may not know the specifics yet, but it looks like this story isn't going to end well.

Vaughan's engagingly hard-mouthed script at times comes close the sitcom quips of the Michael J. Fox-led Spin City (our hero has a wisecrackin' assistant who could've come right out of that show), but he also uses his book's "mature readers" advisory to allow his characters to speak (once they're out of press earshot) with a candor not allowed in mainstream network television. When Mitch and his advisors receive word of an inflammatory painting that's part of a new display at the Brooklyn Museum of Art (a portrait of Lincoln with what everyone keeps calling "the N-word" plastered across it), the first thing Mitch and Wylie want to know is the race of the artist who created it. When the museum curator states that, "I think creators of all colors have the responsibility to appropriate 'taboo phrases' from hatemongers," Mitch replies, "Fuck! That means she is white."

Tony Harris & Tom Feister's art – as a seven-page supplement showing both the photo sources and sketch-to-finished-page process reveals – favors the dark-toned faux realism of so many superhero comics today. The approach is suited to the muttery backroom action that comprises so much of the book (we do get a few flashbacks of Mitch in full superhero glory), though at times the panels come off a bit too posed and subdued to capture all that's happening in the story. Still, if you're gonna err visually in a book like this, underselling is probably the way to go.

I missed latching on Ex Machina when it first began appearing as a regular comic, so I'm happy to have the opportunity to catch up with this nicely priced ($9.95) collection. Aside from the intro chapter, the rest of the book comprises a four-part story arc that, in trade form at least, is well-paced and tightly constructed. I suspect that this - like Vaughan's other "mature" series for DC, Y – The Last Man - is a work well-suited to the collected format. If DC keeps releasing 'em that way, I know that's how I'll be following Mitch and the gang. . .
# |

Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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