Ex Machina by Brian K. Vaughan is a comic, in many ways, about comics. Set in a modern-day world, Ex Machina follows the story of retired civil engineer (and super hero) Mitchell Hundred. After a horrific and mysterious accident gives Hundred the ability to talk to machines, he tries his hand at being the world’s first super hero. Of course, he’s pretty bad at it, so after a year he retires, reveals his identity, and runs for mayor of New York city.
Vaughan has made a career of being clever, and Ex Machina is a very clever story. The title comes from the greek literary mechanic “Deus Ex Machina,” which means “God from the machine.” Basically, it’s a trope that’s used to save a protagonist at the last minute, usually from some unseen or unexpected force, frequently employed in comedies and old greek tragedies.
Vaughan layers this through the entire run of Ex Machina. First, Hundred’s super hero avatar is known as “The Great Machine,” and his powers include talking to machines. Ever more so, Hundred is elected Mayor of New York by a landslide because he uses his powers to save one of the Twin Towers during the 9/11 attacks. That action, in itself, is very much a deus ex machina device.
Maybe I’m a nerd, but I got way into that twist.
The art is very enjoyable, performed by the adept Tony Harris. The appendix of the first volume shows his art process, where he creates a physical mock up of each page with photos of real people posing as the characters. The result is kind of spectacular, one that perfectly supplements the story. While the art isn’t realism, the proportions are almost perfect. That duality compliments the tone and plot of Ex Machina, where there are comic book elements that have been interjected into a real world scenario. I’d assume that a lot of thought was put into this artistic direction, because it’s rare that such a strong correlation between visuals and writing can be made.
What’s most impressive, in my opinion, is that this is not a super hero comic. It’s more about government, and the real people involved in the every day life of Mitchell Hundred. I found myself just as excited to see how the main character would resolve the issues of education reform as I was about his past exploits as a jet-packed crime fighter. I think that’s pretty impressive, given that government can be extremely boring.
Ex Machina is a great piece of commentary, both on comics and on government. Vaughan is, easily, my favorite comics writer. While the story can take some time to get into, volume one does a good job of pacing the action. In fact, it begs to be read in one sitting, so long as you can get through the first issue. While there’s not much by way of “big events,” The First Hundred Days perfectly sets up the rest of the series. Impressively, the first TPB has the right questions asked, answers given, and mysteries unraveled to make Ex Machina one of the most compelling comics I’ve ever read. Seriously, check it out.