The formula, in case you missed it, is pretty straight forward. Set your book five minutes in the future or, doing the whole Sliding Doors thing, in an alternative present. Make sure at least one of your central characters is a failed, retired or otherwise deeply flawed superhero. Suggest many parallels, with all the subtly of a wildebeest stampede, to contemporary world events. Raise large philosophical questions about the true meaning of “heroism,” “patriotism,” and “innovative.” The formula, as far as it goes, is fine. The problem for would-be “mature” comics is that these days mainstream comics are handling the formula with more finesse and bigger payoff. In fact, I would even go so far as to venture that the best version of the formula I have encountered in recent months was not in a comic as all, but in a 2003 episode of the Justice League entitled “A Better World.” It is time, I suspect, for the “mature” serial comics industry (built largely on the pioneering accomplishments of The Watchmen) to find some new recipes.
But the stiffness in Ex Machina is not solely the result of the formula. There is a liberal earnestness (despite endless protests to pragmatic independence) to the comic that seems desperate to make a case for comicbook writers as the heir to Shelley’s “unacknowledged legislators.” This is present in Y as well, but there it carries with it an edge, as the characters are forced to question their own progressive truisms in the light of the apocalypse that has befallen half of the human race and the brave new world taking shape in its aftermath. In Ex Machina it just feels forced and pleading.
As for the art… well, working with Tony Harris might have been a dream partnership for Vaughan, but he couldn’t have done worse given the forces of rigor mortis with which this book already had to content. Harris’s pencils have all the dynamism of David Rees’s Get Your War On. Although deeply talented, I have always felt that Harris was ill-suited to sequential art, and here he brings all of the emotion and energy of stamp art. As the series progresses, the compositions do become more dynamic and engaging, lending some much-needed energy to the page. But lockjaw continues to maintain its fierce grip on the features and gestures of the characters themselves. Given that the subject of the story is a man who can communicate with machines, some of this stiffness might be deliberate (ironic)? But that would suggest a sense of humor Vaughan’s earnestness does not quite have room for here.
In a way, the alternative present formula seems less urgent now than it did in 1986 when Moore introduced us to the Watchmen. After all, for all our self-righteous paranoia during Reagan’s America, now we really are living in war times, dark times, when our government openly spies on its citizens and when a corrupt administration openly eviscerates what was left of checks-and-balances in its holy war on dissent in all its forms. Boy Scout ex-superhero mayors bucking a corrupt and Byzantine political system seems frankly quaint, despite all the in-your-face references to our post-911 world.
Of course, this post-911 world is different in at least two vital espects. Here Mayor Hundred, in his former identity as superhero, managed to stop the second plane from hitting the Twin Towers, and one tower remains as a living monument to his last act of heroism as the Great Machine. Shortly after that day, which marked him as a hero in the eyes of the nation and as failure in his own estimation, he unmasked himself and ran for mayor, defeating Bloomberg, seeking to become a hero in politics instead of a masked vigilante. The premise packs a punch for all of an issue or two, but a full seventeen issues into the series and we still know nothing about the mysterious (alien?) origins of Hundred’s ability to communicate with machines. And the nature of that communication (generally consisting of Hundred barking commands to everything from toasters to Bluetooth headsets) is about as riveting as listening to a towtruck dispatcher on the midnight shift.
When he is not chatting with machines, Hundred is debating with his administration as to the best way to handle the most urgent political crises of the moment. Too often Vaughan uses his comic as a forum to propose pat and cheesy solutions to the political landmines of the day—gay marriage, censorship of publically funded art, smoking bans. Only with the current issue (#17) does he begin to address the larger and more incendiary backdrop of the war in Iraq and terrorism. How he handles these next few issues will largely determine whether Ex Machina will ultimately be remembered as another in a long line of quaint but almost immediately dated pieces of sequential chutzpah, or as something truly seeking to find a way to make a comic at least as topically engaged as 24 or The West Wing. Frankly, I wouldn’t put my money on Vaughan and Harris with this one, but as with any serial story, there is always hope that the machine will find life.