Over the space of fifty issues and four specials, Ex Machina tells the story of Mitchell Hundred. In a mysterious freak accident, Hundred is granted the power to communicate with machines. In hopes to do good for New York City, he assumes the identity of The Great Machine, a masked vigilante. Later, after 9/11, Hundred gives up The Great Machine, runs for, and eventually wins election as New York City’s mayor. Rather than focus on his life as a superhero, Ex Machina tells the story of Hundred’s tumultuous single term as mayor.
Writer Brian K. Vaughan doesn’t tell the story in a strictly linear fashion. In frequent flashbacks, the holes in the timeline are filled in. The story begins in the late nineties with Hundred’s accident and tracks forward almost a decade, cutting back and forth across the timeline. Because of this, we often see narrative outcomes before we understand the causes. For example, the first issue begins with Hundred in 2008 commenting on the most famous photograph ever taken of The Great Machine. In it, the costumed hero, riding on a column of smoke from his jet pack, approaches a falling airliner, arm outstretched in the quintessential comic book hero pose. It is not until the end of that issue that we understand the significance of that photo. In the world of Ex Machina, The Great Machine was able to stop one of the aircraft on 9/11, saving the south tower of the World Trade Center. In the first issue’s startling final page, we see the lone tower standing next to the ghost of its fallen partner. This act sets everything else in the narrative into motion.
Two splintered timelines, one pre-9/11 with Hundred as The Great Machine and the other post-9/11 with him as mayor, work toward an eventual convergence. By the end of the run, most of the important information is filled in. The source of Hundred’s gift is a constant, enduring mystery. Vaughan smartly layers on elements of this central question, introducing characters with complimentary abilities, strange visions, and (maybe) parallel universes. This fantastical, mythological element of the story is the least compelling part of Ex Machina, but it doesn’t really come into play significantly until the very end of the run. Vaughan never quite tells the whole story. He tells just enough to allow attentive readers to connect the dots.
While the story certainly has many of the hallmarks we expect from a superhero book, much of the real drama takes place in City Hall, not on rooftops. From his office and the governor’s mansion, Hundred has to do his best to deal with the myriad trials of running the most populace city in the country. The story is comprised of several arcs, each loosely designed around an incendiary political issue. In an early arc, Hundred has to deal with the political fallout of a tax-funded museum exhibiting a provocative painting of President Abraham Lincoln with the “N” word printed across it. In other stories, Hundred has to contend with privacy laws, gay marriage, marijuana legislation, and abortion, just to name a few.
It would be very easy for these arcs to be didactic or polemical, but Vaughan weaves the city hall intrigue with echoes of The Great Machine’s past, resulting in a story that is not solely about politics. Vaughan never uses the comic as an opportunity to stand on a political soapbox, and he has made it clear in interviews that Hundred’s political views (the character is an independent) do not necessarily reflect his own. Because the politics are the backdrop of the story and not the purpose of the story, I think this aspect of the story works really well. However, a few of the arcs feel a little abbreviated, and a few conclusions that are disappointingly similar.
Ex Machina has a cast of well-drawn supporting characters, from Hundred’s unfailingly loyal bodyguard Bradbury, to his unflappable deputy mayor Dave Wylie. The supporting cast is large and varied. Vaughan has always been good about writing characters who are racially and sexually diverse, and this book is no exception. Each character reveals different facets of Hundred’s complex character, and by the end of the book they are nearly as well fleshed-out as the primary character.
The most important character is arguably the city itself. So often, New York is used as a sort of shorthand for superhero settings. Many stories take place in the city, but the role the city plays in those works is mostly incidental. This is not the case in Ex Machina. This story would be impossible in any other city but the New York that existed in the years immediately following 9/11. Mitchell Hundred is driven, at his most basic level, by a profound love of and sense of responsibility for the city.
Ex Machina is ultimately a story about manipulation. Hundred’s ability to influence and interact with machines is only the most obvious example. In an attempt to maintain order in the city and to satisfy is own sense of morality and rightness, Hundred has to learn to manipulate the political system. Sometimes that action pays off. Other times, the results are disastrous. People close to him manipulate and betray him, either in the political arena or his personal life. Hundred’s goal, nonetheless, is always to help his city. The way to accomplish that goal, however, is rarely clear. In superhero worlds, good and evil exists as clear dichotomies. In the world of politics, rightness is much more difficult to determine. Watching Hundred try to perform this political balancing act is every bit as tense and interesting as the scenes in which is he flying on a jetpack.
Ex Machina is an impressive piece of fiction. It is at once reverential of the role superheroes can play in the public consciousness, and also interrogative of one of their core qualities: that no matter what, tragedies in superhero stories are never permanent. Mitchell Hundred does not have the luxury of retroactive continuity or reboots. And, by the end of the book, he knows it. After 9/11, he chooses a different sort of heroism, one that is often thankless and impossible, one with no guarantee of success. The central question of the book seems to be: What does it mean to do good? Is it even possible, in modern times, for a man to be a true hero? Does heroism even exist? Do we need it to? The ultimate answer that Vaughan suggests surprised me. Still, the more I thought about the ending, the more I was convinced that it was not only appropriate, but right.
Ex Machina didn’t hit me on the emotional level that Brian K. Vaughan’s other works have, but it is an immense achievement nonetheless. I give it four pieces of lasagna out of five.