Review: Ex Machina — The First Hundred Days

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Ex Machina: The First Hundred Days
by by Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris

★★★★☆

2005 (originally published 2004 to 2005) • 136 pages • WildStorm

It is amazing how time passes. Every once in a while, I’m astonished to realize that it’s no longer the late aughts but 2015, but I usually have a pretty good grip on where I am. (Where am I? Feverishly waiting for Trainwreck to come out next month, that’s where I am.) It’s far more disorienting to read something from George W. Bush’s presidency and have that whole political and pop cultural climate come rushing back. It helps (or hinders) that the early aughts were my political and pop cultural awakening (thanks, The Daily Show and The Lord of the Rings), so it’s sort of realizing that you still know all the words to Liz Phair’s “Why Can’t I” even though you haven’t heard it in years.

That’s what it feels like reading Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris’ Ex Machina, because this series is so pointedly a response to the post-9/11 world that it brings you right back there, all the way back to 2004. Especially with the way the first issue ends—that, my friends, is what you call a hook.

Ex Machina: The First Hundred Days collects the first five issues of Ex Machina, which follows New York Mayor Mitchell Hundred during his four years in office. Of course, Mitchell earned the post largely through his brief stint as the superhero the Great Machine, gifted with the ability to talk to and understand machines, a career that climaxed on 9/11. Despite his notoriety, however, Mitchell is much more dedicated to the law than to his superpowers as an agent of good. Now, if he could only get everyone to believe that on top of running the city that never sleeps during a hideous snow storm, resolve a controversial art piece at a local museum, and solve a string of seemingly connected murders…

Ex Machina: The First Hundred Days may actually be one of the first comics trades I ever put on my reading list, so many moons ago when it was just a baby spreadsheet and not an only mildly metaphorical Levithan. Ex Machina is exactly the kind of book (look at me using comics lingo, many moons ago Clare!) you hand someone tentative about comics, especially if their main complaint is “escapism.” (As Tolkien put way more delicately and articulately, the only people who hate escapism don’t have anything to escape from.) Ex Machina’s only magic bean is that Mitchell’s superpowers were granted to him via a most likely extraterrestrial device blowing up in his face. There are no other superheroes in this universe. And the book takes the time to deal with, in the various flashbacks to Mitchell’s brief superheroic career, the legal problems being a superhero could cause. Mitchell’s first career save is saving a kid from getting run over by a subway train—and the kid gets hurt.

While the book isn’t exactly sentimental about superheroics, it’s absolutely gaga about grassroots activism. Mitchell learned about politics from his mother, Martha. We’re first introduced to Mitchell as a boy in a flashback where he merrily reads DC Comics (which owns WildStorm, which published Ex Machina) as she volunteers at a polling station. (Martha immediately won my heart by basically calling the Justice League a sausage fest in her first appearance. Bless.) His mentor, Ivan “Kremlin” Tereshkov, instills in him an understanding of communism and other political systems. In a deeply divided political climate, Mitchell never loses sight of what political service can be and should be. Even his superhero name, the Great Machine, is taken from a Thomas Jefferson quote. Ex Machina is much less of an ad for jet packs than a call for public service.

But this doesn’t mean that Ex Machina is a political comic with a light gloss of superheroics to keep the nerds interested. Vaughan and Harris’ exploration of American politics requires having someone who can literally shut down the system but won’t. It gives Mitchell (and the reader, especially while this book was published) a sense of agency that he has a nuclear option without having a nuclear option. I haven’t seen Man of Steel, so I am not going to pretend I know a lot about what it says on a micro level. However, one of the first stills released featured Superman in handcuffs. Some astute observer pointed out that the point is not that the soldiers are better than Superman, but that Superman is letting them take him into custody because he knows that the system only works if you respect it. Mitchell, moreso through his informal political education than his brief time as the Great Machine, understands this intimately.

I rented this book from the public library.

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