Comic Picks By The Glick

What I’ve Been Reading: Ex Machina vol. 9 — Ring Out the Old

May 23, 2010

While I've always been entertained by writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Tony Harris' tale of the world's only superhero who goes on to be the mayor of New York City, there are times when its narrative hasn't flown all that smoothly.  Times like in vol. 4's take on the War on Terror or vol. 6's story of a guy who mysteriously appears from somewhere else... and nothing happens.  It's for reasons like these that I've always assumed that this series would be Vaughan's second best after "Y:  The Last Man."  I'm still betting that's the case, but with this latest volume he proves that he really did have a plan for the series from the start.

Things start off with a bit of metatextual fun as Vaughan writes himself and Harris into a story about their efforts to become Mayor Mitchell Hundred's official biographers.  This could have been painfully overindulgent, as the story is about Vaughan more than anything else, but he makes it into an interesting character piece that would've worked even if he hadn't written himself in.  Helping matters immensely is the great sense of humor on display throughout the issue as he riffs on his own knack for putting miscellaneous factoids into his comics, and Harris' use of photo-reference.  There are also a lot of industry in-jokes that will go right over the head of the uninformed, but will make anyone who gets them laugh out loud.  His timing and use of the phrase "Brian Bendis?" is the funniest thing I've seen in a comic this year.  Overall, this was so entertaining that I'd like to see them tell the story of the creators who actually did get the job as Hundred's biographers.

The next story in the collection, "Green" the fourth "special" issue of the series and the second illustrated by John Paul Leon, isn't really in the same league.  It starts off trying to tell two different stories, about the decline of newspapers and Hundred's efforts to find more "green" energy solutions for NYC, and then segues into a thriller that attempts to shed more light on his past and his powers.  While there are some good ideas here about green energy and the media's role in society, this is a textbook example of a story that tries to do too much in too little space and time.  Reading this, I was at a loss as to why Vaughan felt this tale needed to be told, let alone why it needed its own special issue.

Then I read through the four-issue "Ring Out the Old" arc and it all became clear.  No, really.  EVERYTHING became clear after this.

I wasn't expecting to have that reaction to a story that starts off with a flashback to one of Hundred's confrontations with his archenemy, Pherson, who can talk to animals in the way the Mayor can talk to machines, and then goes straight into his pledge to not run for a second term as mayor and instead focus on balancing the budget and raising graduation rates.  If he fails, he tells the media that he'll leave the city; but, before he can start focusing on that he has to deal with the upcoming New Year's Eve celebration.  Compared to his recent pledges, it should be a piece of cake... if it weren't for the rash of homeless people being attacked and killed by rats and Hundred's former ladyfriend, reporter Susane Padilla, asking about the "White Box."

Now the big tease of this storyline was that it was going to involve the return of Pherson, which would've been interesting to see after his death many years ago (and chronicled way back in vol. 4).  The return of the hero's archenemy after his certain death is a time-honored tradition and it makes perfect sense for a series that has such strong roots in the genre to wheel out this convention as it moves into its final act.  However, the confrontation between Hundred and "Pherson" doesn't really subvert the superhero convention so much as it repudiates it.  More than anything else, it shows that while the series was initially marketed as an examination of politics through the eyes of a superhero, it's actually a straight-up work of science fiction.  The revelation also makes plot elements that seemed questionable upon their introduction (see Zeller from vol. 6, and the gardener from "Green") key pieces of the overall story and shows that Vaughan has actually had a plan for this series since the beginning.

Further proof of Vaughan's skill as a plotter can be seen in the parallel revelation about the "White Box."  Ever since the beginning of the series, it's been hinted that Hundred has an embarrassing skeleton in his closet that could potentially bring down his administration, and Kremlin, his former partner from his superhero days, finally put his plan to use that skeleton into effect in the previous volume.  While I thought it would be something that had to do with his sexuality, the skeleton actually proves to be crucial to the overall story at large.  Even more interesting is how Kremlin's plans wind up not only fail to come to fruition, but they also backfire in a way that has dire circumstances for not just Hundred and NYC, but possibly the nation and world.

These revelations are so satisfying that I'm sorely tempted to actually buy the final six issues themselves before the final trade paperback comes out in November.  I think I'll be able to make it if only because I've managed to for every other series I've read.  Even so, this is a fantastic volume and will not only serve to thrill its existing audience, but should serve as a beacon to all of the holdouts that they are missing out on something truly special.