Page 45 Review by Stephen
If you loved The West Wing even half as much as I did, then this books for you.
Its my favourite Brian K Vaughan series, and where he actually beat The West Wing was in giving those vile Republicans very fine lines and some pretty decent arguments too. Note: obviously the Republican Party has in the last 5 years lost anything remotely resembling eloquence or indeed any vestigial smidgeon of decency whatsofuckingever.
Deadpan classical art verging on photo-realism by Tony Harris kept it all very grounded even during brief (and frankly extraneous) sci-fi elements. They really are irrelevant. Also, leaping way too far ahead, I have never been so surprised absolutely stunned by any comic series final chapter. But in retrospect it all made perfect sense. Thatll be in the second half, obviously.
Heres what I originally wrote of its constituent volumes:
Ex Machina vol 1: The First Hundred Days.
Mitchell Hundred can talk to machines objects - he can order them about. He can make guns backfire, lights switch off, and disable bugging devices with a word. Which is handy if you're a politician. Quite how this process came about, we don't yet know. What we do know is that Mitchell decided that he could make a bigger difference to people's lives as Mayor of New York City rather than some sort of superhero. He could make them easier. Unfortunately it's making his more difficult.
Here he is at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, standing in front of an imposing painting of an American President upon which a single word has been stencilled: "nigger".
"Is... is that Lincoln? As in, Abe Lincoln?"
"But he's... I mean, what does it mean?"
"The work is untitled. Its meaning is open to interpretation. However, through juxtaposing an image of the "Great Emancipator" with the word some whites still use to keep American Blacks shackled to the past, I believe the artist is reminding us that no one can deliver this country from our legacy of bigotry."
"What the hell is she talking about? This thing is absurd. It's not even shocking, it's just... ridiculous."
"You're not going to be laughing when you hear who paid for it."
"That's not entirely accurate, sir. The city does provide the museum with a very generous $7.2 million annual subsidy, but we also receive significant corporate donations and --"
"Rima, be serious. This wouldn't be here without funding from taxpayers."
"That's... that's true, Mr. Deputy Mayor."
"Forget who footed the bill for a second. Why is this in the same building as Homer and... and Rodin? I'm as open-minded as any politician alive, but this is just puerile!"
"Really? I think Trista Braving's work is quite extraordinary. She dares to confront ideologues. Those with an aversion to the harsh reality of life."
"This artist. Is she...?"
"Is she what, Mr. Mayor?"
"Is she, you know...?"
"Is she black?"
Is she? And does that matter? All this and more (like how to get it removed without being accused of censorship) is debated in an unexpectedly pleasurable series which I still lament having even a trace of superheroics about it, because we could really use the equivalent of The West Wing in this medium, even if the industry as it stands wouldn't bloody support it. Like GOTHAM CENTRAL, the second storyline is looking even better than the first, with some real horror which may be linked to the Mayor's strange powers and some entertaining discourse on same-sex marriages, but this is a fine opening salvo introducing both the political players and a snowstorm which threatens to bring the city to a halt... since its snow ploughs and ploughmen are being targeted by a terrorist. Also: how did Hundred get elected, who stood in his way, and what methods did they use to do so?
Tony Harris uses photo references for his pencils. They're surprisingly good actors (I've seen this stuff done badly), and his art is surprisingly loose in spite of it. In fact, it's quite delicate. See how it's all done in the back!
"I think creators of all colours have a responsibility to appropriate "taboo" phrases from hatemongers. After all, Mark Twain used the n-word dozens of times in Huckleberry Finn, and it's considered the greatest novel in American Literature."
"Oh fuck. That means she is white.... This week is gonna suck, isn't it?"
Ex Machina vol 2: Tag
Some really vicious horror is coming home to roost here - even closer than you might expect - but I've always said my favourite bits here are the politics and the humour, and I promised you some quotations based on the unusual accolade I accorded this title when I wrote that when there's an argument here both sides sound almost equally convincing, and not everyone you'd expect to be cool is quite the cucumber you'd hope
and not every lemon is as sour, either. So, here's progressive Mitchell Hundred, Mayor of New York City, and his right-hand man Wylie, and another advisor:
"Screw the polls. This isn't about doing what's popular, it's about doing what's right."
"It's not about either of those things, Hundred! It's about my kid brother and his obnoxious boyfriend wanting to have a party at Gracie Mansion."
"I have to side with your deputy, sir. You can't perform this wedding. Literally! Same-sex marriage is against the law in the state of New York... isn't it?"
"You know what else is against the law in the state of New York, Candy? Shaking a dust mop out of a window. That's in the books. Should I call in a strike team to apprehend our cleaning staff? Besides, Wylie's brother is a hero. Who's gonna deny him his happiness."
"Sir, just because Todd's a fire-fighter doesn't mean anyone's going to give him a free pass. People are already starting to forget. I mean, 9/11 was six months ago."
"Exactly. We're well into the twenty-first century, and we're living in one of the most forward-thinking cities on the planet. It's time for this, no matter what the numbers say."
"Even if that were true, Albany makes these decisions, not us! And the state already grants domestic partnership, don't they? That gives gay couples almost all the same benefits as marriage, just in... different way."
"Great. Separate but equal. That usually works out well."
"Now you're coming around. Come on, let's get on the horn with your bro and... who's his significant other?"
"Bill Dunst. He's a political director for the Log Cabin Republicans."
Here's Bill talking to Todd in the park. Theyre boyfriends, remember:
"Sometimes, you can be so hopelessly fucking naive."
"Believe what you want. I've met the Mayor a few times. He's good people. Hell, anyone who can put up with my brother on a daily basis is a saint."
"Hundred's just another homophobe with a title. If he were serious about same-sex marriage, he'd let us meet in his office, not outdoors like friggin' animals."
Cue Mayor Hundred strolling onto the scene:
"Sorry, I thought you two'd be familiar with City Hall Park from all your late night "cruising". Kidding, of course. Everyone knows you people stick to The Rambles for that."
All of which gives no credit to Tony Harris' light-filled art. Nor does it tell you how the practicalities will play themselves out. Trust me: there will be repercussions!
Ex Machina vol 3: Fact v. Fiction
Tony Harris - the writing's so good I rarely mention Tony, do I? Just the right level of anchoring photo-realism - the saggy jowls and all - for a political thriller.
A political thriller about a mayor of New York who can communicate with machines (and do so highly imaginatively, as the courtroom highjack will amply demonstrate) and who reads WONDER WOMAN but has to hire a detective to buy the back issues for him because, like, if it ever got out that the mayor of New York City read the funny papers they'd think he was ripe for the funny farm. The press'd be all over that one.*
What else do we have here? Oh yeah, just in case you think every star of ever comic has to be above reproach, Hundred comes down pretty damn hard on fortune tellers and exits in a cowardly fashion. Loved the way Vaughan argued both sides as always, but here's why one fortune teller who claims she predicted 9/11 but only told one soul (and saved her) says she didn't alert the authorities:
"Who would have listened to me, Mr. Hundred? All I would done is set up my family and myself for a lengthy detention by federal authorities."
And she aint wrong, is she?
*[Editors note: This review and indeed the book itself! was written before President Obamas comicbook enthusiasm came to light. 752 points to Brian K. Vaughan.]
Ex Machina vol 4: March To War
Oh, this cerebral political thriller just gets better and better. I had to pull Tom away from some emails in urgent need of attention last week, just to discuss two pages of what will constitute volume five in which Mayor Hundred's marriage of his deputy's brother to his deputy's brother's right-wing boyfriend comes back to bite him in the ass - not in a direct, part-of-the-main-plot way, but in a much more circuitous and subtle spanner/works, works/spanner and thank you so very much indeed for confirming all those erroneous clichés about gay guys being genetically incapable of fidelity way. And I've said it before, but I love the lack of perfection in any given character here. It's the debate that's so riveting, and bravo to Brian for reinvigorating that much neglected art form in comics. Speaking of imperfection, a Manhattan protest against the war in Iraq is brought to an ugly and fatal halt when it's sabotaged... but by whom?
Ex Machina vol 4: March to War (I also appear to have written this!):
If you want some of the most impassioned and eloquent writing in comics, you might want to read the dialogue below on the US Death Penalty.
Terrorism returns to New York, bringing with it personal tragedy for Mayor Hundred, and ugly reprisals on the street. Skinheads indiscriminately target Sikhs as well as innocent Muslims, police officers shoot the wrong person on the underground (hmmm...?), and no one's looking in the right direction. Meanwhile, Hundred gets sick of being stitched up on air, and decides to do something about it:
"Dre, you asked me to come on your program so we could discuss extending Rent Regulations, not --"
"It's a simple question, sir. Do you or do you not support Capital Punishment?"
"<sigh> The Death Penalty is arbitrary and capricious, an anachronistic throwback that's looked upon with disgust by nearly every other democracy in the world. Practically, it's way more expensive than life without parole, and morally, it's applied in a manner that's totally unfair to anyone who can't afford my lawyers. And I'm sure I don't have to tell you that those convicted of killing Whites are significantly more likely to be executed than those convicted of killing Blacks."
"But you'd agree that it's an effective deterrent against future crimes?"
"No, I wouldn't. Murder rates often go up immediately following executions. We're sending a message to Americans that killing is the correct way to solve problems. Look, I realise we live in a culture where a story isn't satisfying unless the bad guy dies at the end, but unlike the movies, death really is permanent. How can we implement a decision that can't be overturned when we know how fallible our justice system -- how fallible we -- can be?"
"And Osama Bin Laden? If he were captured tomorrow, you'd argue to the families of his victims that he should live?"
[Assistant]: "What.. what did he say?"
"Dump out! Dump out! Don't let that go over on the air! What in God's name is wrong with you? You can't say stuff like that on a public broadcast!"
"Yeah, well, now you know how it feels like to be sabotaged. Enjoy the rest of your show, Dre."
"What was that all about, boss?"
"Doesn't matter, Bradbury. Come on, sneak me out of here before my Press Secretary shows up to scream at me."
"But I didn't hear your answer to whether or not you'd ice Osama."
"And neither did anyone else. It's a "Have you stopped beating your wife?" trap. If I say I'd kill him, I look like a hypocrite. If I say I wouldn't, I sound weak on security. Sometimes it's best to let your record speak for itself, you know?"
Ex Machina vol 5: Smoke Smoke (£8-50, Wildstorm/DC) by Brian K. Vaughan & Tony Harris.
As Mayor Hundred and his team gear up to tackle New York City's drug laws, with internal debates as sophisticated as any of those you'll have seen in that particularly cathartic episode of The West Wing, a woman sitting calmly on City Hall's steps douses herself in kerosene and sets herself on fire. Is there a connection between that, Hundred's recent admission to having smoked marijuana* and his earlier failure to get his priorities straight as a jet-packed crime fighter? Meanwhile his power to interact with machines appears to be overloading, and he's having strange dreams with talking animals in them...
"These plants. They're marijuana."
"It's not about the pot, 100. It's about the black kettle."
Threaded throughout is the search for a black male dressed in what looks like an authentic, department-issue fire fighter's gear, using it to smash his way into apartments, assault and steal, with repercussions as brutal as The Shield's. And that's where Hundred's liberal crusade to marry Wylie's brother to his boyfriend so publicly comes back to haunt him, because Wiley's brother is a fire fighter
"Relax, if The Vulcan Society hasn't gotten you a good attorney already, we'll --"
"Actually, Mr. Major, I've got a pretty tight alibi. I was, uh... I was at a hotel. With another man."
"When you say "another man," please tell me you're talking about your husband. Your lawfully wedded husband."
"Sir, Bill and I have an... agreement. As long as it's only physical, and as long as we're safe and discreet, we trust each other enough to --"
"Jesus Christ, do you think that will mean anything to Middle America after some homophobic asshole in the NYPD leaks this to Limbaugh? You two had a responsibility! You represent fidelity and.. and commitment to millions of people who think that's something your kind is totally incapable of!"
See, that's what I love about this: it's not just some liberal's facile wet dream. Its protagonists are complex and flawed, and the issues - including the drug ones - will not be easily resolved, however good the intentions.