Ex Machina #16

Reviewer: Iain Burnside
Story Title: “Off the Grid, part 2”

Written by: Brian K. Vaughan
Penciled by: Tony Harris
Inked by: Tom Feister
Colored by: Jo Mettler
Lettered by: Jared K. Fletcher
Editor: Ben Abernathy
Publisher: Wildstorm

Brian K. Vaughan has been making quite a name for himself by coming up with some mighty fine concepts, usually featuring one grandiose Big Idea, and then gradually exploring the sociological consequences of the big gimmick on his carefully-crafted characters. Y: THE LAST MAN remains the pinnacle of his output as it lets him elevate the story from essentially little more than a road-trip into a fascinating discourse on human foibles in the most trying of circumstances, usually directed by sexual politics. EX MACHINA, on the other hand, has let him focus straight on politics itself via many fascinating plot hooks to have sprung from that wonderful bald noggin of his. For instance, what if there was a superhero with the ability to talk to machinery? What if he had been able to save one of the World Trade Centre towers from 9/11 destruction? What if he retired and became the Mayor of New York City instead? Well, the ins and outs of the answers to these questions, coupled with the trials and tribulations of political office, have allowed Vaughan and his lead character Mitchell Hundred, a.k.a. The Great Machine, to give us fifteen wonderful issues on the trot. The sixteenth issue, the conclusion to a two-part story designed to get Hundred away from the office for a moment, gives him his biggest challenge to date – his mother.

The two haven’t had a lot to do with one another for quite some time, yet now Hundred finally catches up with her living in a trailer-park with the latest in a long line of unsavoury boyfriends. The boyfriend doesn’t actually feature in the book to any extent greater than a throwaway mention, which speaks volumes about the strength of that particular relationship, but the loan sharks he owes money to do come a-knockin’. They turn up bearing shotgun gifts, many unpleasant tattoos and not a great deal of clothing. They are in fact the local mayor, the sheriff and his deputy, which is a fine way of describing the fibre of the town that Mother Hundred wound up in. The local tourism board must be launching a campaign directed towards visiting other towns instead. That or they’re just clogging up their phone lines while calling a suicide helpline. Is “suicide helpline” the right phrase? I mean, do they really just help callers decide on the most suitable manner in which they can kill themselves? If so then that’s definitely the job for me. Right, you can stick your head in the oven, the fat guy on line two can jump into the lion’s den at the zoo, the ginger bloke on hold can act out the deadly sin of sloth from Seven, and anybody who owns a Janet Jackson album can pop over to mine for a most entertaining encounter with a bath and a shiny electrical appliance.

I have completely lost my train of thought. Then again, I never bought a ticket for it so at least the conductor won’t catch me now. Tsk, naughty boy…

Anyway, with his mother in such a precarious situation, young Mitchell inevitably steps forward to save the day. After all, there’s no point in having a super-power if you can’t use it to help out your parent. Before all that kicks off though, his mother reveals a nasty little secret about his childhood and his father. I won’t ruin the surprise since I want as many of you as possible to toddle off down to the store, buy this book, and find out for yourselves but, well, let’s just say that Mitchell’s parents had an intensely passionate relationship. Bear in mind that passion is not always a good thing, as Mel Gibson would no doubt take grand pleasure in explaining to you in painstaking detail and at great length. Regardless of the details, Mitchell’s idealized image of his father as some sort of Atticus Finch figure is shattered by the revelation. After all, even Atticus Finch had a few extra chapters that never made it into Mockingbird. An addendum that reveals exactly where the income that afforded him a good childhood and education came from is less personally affronting but could take a far bigger bite out of his ass politically should any prying journalists go snooping (such as the one introduced in earlier issues of the series).

As if that wasn’t enough, Mitch then gets a third proverbial smack upside the head when dealing with the loan-sharks. This one involves his special ability to talk to machinery and it is as obvious as it is shocking. After all, the fact that he can ‘talk’ to them does not necessarily mean that they need to be telling him the truth when they say things to him. However, if these machines are able to be duplicitous then this is indicative of a far greater intelligence on their part than previously expected. This is no longer just Mitchell interpreting electrical signals in a highly unique manner, there’s something distinctly ‘more’ going on here. Well, unless his powers just become less stable during deeply emotional periods. In this particular instance he comes out unscathed and the whole thing is entirely glossed over on just the one page, but it’s almost certainly going to build up to a more harmful pay-off later on.

That’s pretty much it for this issue. It’s certainly a good read and one that will become more significant as the series progresses, but it definitely isn’t one of the better examples of Vaughan’s skills. The ongoing ‘mystery’ of Mitchell’s sexuality is not alluded to so much as it is dolled up in pink and put on parade (but very quietly so as not to draw attention to itself, i.e. no streamers). The actual finale to the issue, a little coda with the Mayor and an associate letting some film students shoot in the water tunnel where his father was seemingly shuffled loose this mortal coil, is meant to be a touching resolution but just feels rather contrived. I half expected some soft-rock ballad to start playing as the Smallville end credits kicked off.

It’s slim pickings in the faults department though. This issue might be slightly less enthralling than its predecessors but, hey, the series didn’t win an Eisner for nothing. It’s still a more rewarding read than 99% of the hollow books that manage to chart higher, as is usually the case. Huge credit for this has to go to the fine work of Tony Harris. Let’s face it; the series is largely a comic about politics. Occasional superhero flashbacks aside, this means a lot of people just standing around chatting. Take this issue for example – Mitchell and his mum talk for a bit, his parents talk furiously in flashback, Mitchell talks angrily to the loan-sharks, then he talks with his mum a bit more before popping down to that water tunnel to, well, talk to some more people. In the hands of a lesser artist the book simply wouldn’t work, regardless of the Big Ideas or the quality of the dialogue. Thankfully, Harris is capable of using body language brilliantly and can produce some of the best facial expressions seen outside of a Kevin Maguire book. Between the two of them, Vaughan and Harris will no doubt build on the revelations of this issue and continue to make EX MACHINA an essential purchase.