I was impressed enough with the first collected volume of Brian K. Vaughan’s Saga that when I spotted Ex Machina at my local comics store, I grabbed it. I wasn’t disappointed.
Mitchell Hundred has a past — as a superhero known as “The Great Machine.” It seems that in 1999, Patrolman Rick Bradbury summoned Hundred, who was then a civil engineer, to investigate an oddity on the Brooklyn Bridge. Actually, it seemed to be growing out of the pilings, and to have worked itself loose. When Hundred bent over to retrieve it, it exploded in his hand — and suddenly, he could hear Bradbury’s radio, his wristwatch, the city lights — anything mechanical or electrical. Worse, he could talk to them. And they listened, as when he screamed “Shut up!” and all the lights within sound of his voice went out. At the urging of Kremlin, who has been a sort of mentor to Mitchell since his childhood, he became the Great Machine and took to a life of fighting crime — with varied degrees of success. He’d forgotten about unintended consequences.
It’s now 2002 and against all odds, Hundred has just been elected Mayor of New York. He’s now faced with a terrible blizzard, some loon who’s going around nailing snowplow drivers, and the fact that the city has funded an exhibition at the Brooklyn Art Museum that includes, as a featured work, a painting that is, at best, in questionable taste.
The First Hundred Days is, in my estimation, a small masterpiece. Yes, it’s the set-up for the series, and it ends on a down note, but it’s brilliant. The dialogue is sharp, characters are vividly and concisely drawn, action is fast, and there’s a lot of topicality to it — it touches on issues as far ranging as racism, the art establishment, organized crime, and bullying. And it’s a comic for grown-ups — it doesn’t do much in the way of pulling punches.
The art, penciled by Tony Harris with inks by Tom Feister, fits perfectly — clean, open, spare, it’s as strong as the story. While the layouts are fairly standard, there’s enough variation in size and orientation of frames to keep it interesting, and some panels just jump off the page.
I think what pulls it all together is the structure. Graphic literature is a medium that lends itself to cinematic treatment, and Vaughan has made full use of that potential. We get the backstory through a series of flashbacks, from the “now” (2002) to Hundred’s career as the Great Machine, even back to his childhood as a boy who lived for superhero comics. While transitions are sometimes abrupt, there’s no sense of dislocation, probably because the creators have very thoughtfully given us a date for whatever we’re viewing at the moment.
Add this to the list of series I’m going to be following — it’s sharp, sassy, funny, and very real.