When super-hero comic books first came out in the late 1930s, it was such a different world. And yet, for the longest time, comic books still created their worlds with the perspectives and ideals of that time. No one can ever seem to deduce that Bruce Wayne is Batman and Captain America still yields his flag-painted shield against the foes of America, even though the “foes” of America vary from group to group. The fact is, these original heroes and many heroes of comic books today are presented as idealistic symbols to which we can intuitively assume what they represent.
Some recent super hero comic books are striving to genuinely update the mythic super hero, showing readers how a super-hero would develop and evolve in today’s world. In this tradition, Brian K. Vaughan, known for his Y: The Last Man series, delivers Ex Machina. The series deals with Mitchell Hundred, a one-time super-hero but now mayor of New York City. In this alternative history of sorts, Hundred gained the ability to “talk” with machines and ultimately control them when a mysterious artifact exploded in his hands. Though his attempts at being a super-hero are mostly unimpressive, his most spectacular act comes on September 11, 2001, when he prevents the second plane from striking the tower. With Rudy Guiliani as the sitting-duck mayor, Hundred runs for office and becomes the new mayor. Quickly, he comes to find that life as a mayor is as exhausting as life as a super-hero, particularly when his abilities as a politician and super-hero are continually called upon to deal with the many problems the city has.
The first volume covers the first five issues of the series, introducing us to Hundred. The plot flashes back to various points in Hundred’s career as the super-hero, the “Great Machine,” but only provides glimpses. The crux of the story deals with a snowstorm that has struck the city and the strange murders of several snow-plowers. Hundred has a few leads that direct him to one of his friends. At the same time, a controversial art exhibit funded by the city seems to be getting the attention of everyone and threatening the stability of Hundred’s office. And let’s not forget the continued threats, both verbal and physical, upon the mayor’s life. This collection gives a fantastic introduction to the complications and problems Mitchell faces both as the mayor and as a super-hero.
In volume two, strange deaths in the subways and sewers call upon Hundred to find out what is going on and how it may be connected to an old friend, Jackson Georges. But Hundred must also deal with the issue of gay marriage and decides a very firm stance on the issue.
The art, consistent throughout both volumes, works - except for Mitchell Hundred. His face is not typical, which works, but his facial expressions look a little too goofy at times to the point of distraction. So much of the rest of the art flows coherently with great backgrounds and use of lighting within the context of the particular strips. Both books include sketchbooks of characters and panels. Volume two even includes an introduction by the Wachowski Brothers of Matrix fame.
Unsurprisingly, Ex Machina won the 2005 Eisener award for Best New Series. The complexity of the story and plot dynamics reminds readers just how much can be done under the rubric of a comic book. With the creative genius of Brian K. Vaughan steering the helm, one can only expect that this series will continue to receive high accolades from inside and outside the industry.