The Great Machine : Brian K. Vaughan’s ‘Ex Machina’

So yeah, I do other things besides spend all my money on records. I dabble in other activities that expand my mind and intellect. I realize there’s more to life than spinning vinyl and sipping beers. Snorkeling in the pacific ocean, horseback riding in the Lexington countryside, hiking the Appalachian Trail, camping under the starry Montana skies, and skydiving in Big Sky country are all things I’ve heard of. I’m sure they’re great, really. But just not for me. I’m afraid of large bodies of water, I’m allergic to horses, I’ve seen Deliverance so the Appalachian Trail is OUT OF THE QUESTION, don’t want a damn rattler crawling in my sleeping bag, and skydiving? Really? No thanks.

I’m a reader. I’m music guy. I’m an art house cinema kind of fella. I don’t do Davy Crockett and James Bond activities. I do like a good hike through the woods, and watching a sunset over the great lakes(safely on land of course.) But I’m a pretty landlocked dude. I like exploring inside the gatefold sleeve of a double LP, or cracking open a good graphic novel.

Yep, comic books. They’ve become another hobby of mine. Not the usual stuff. Not the cape and tights crowd(though I dabble in some of those.) I like the flawed superheroes. I like the screwed up folks in those books that are trying to make a difference. Brian K. Vaughan is a writer that excels at the broken and flawed. Books like Y: The Last Man, Saga, The Private Eye, and Paper Girls are epic, genius tales about regular people doing the extraordinary. The guy has written so many books, but these I mentioned are the ones I’ve read(or are currently reading.) Saga I think is his most operatic and vast in scope. It’s an interstellar love story. Two people from opposite sides of warring planets fall in love, have a baby, and are on the run from nearly everyone. There’s adventure, sex, humor, tragedy, creatures of all shape and size, and your typical parenting fiascos like losing your kid to the enemy and flying around space in a giant tree. It’s brilliant in every way.

I’m now currently deep into Vaughan’s Ex Machina, which debuted in 2004. Ex Machina is the story of civil engineer Mitchell Hundred, who becomes a superhero after an extra dimensional device blows up in his face after he discovers it at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge. The accident leaves him scarred on the side of his face and body. The scar resembles a circuit board, sort of. His ability is that he can talk to machines. Like lights, toasters, guns, airplanes, missles, or anything that is mechanical in any way. With the help of a man named Kremlin(yes he’s Russian) that Hundred has known since he was a little boy, they build him a jet pack and suit and mask and he goes out trying to help solve crimes. After awhile Hundred decides he wants to help people without being a superhero and unmasks in Central Park, where he announces his candidacy for the mayor of New York. So the entire run of Ex Machina takes place during Hundred’s term as mayor of New York and shows the ins and outs of his political life while it also flashbacks to his time as The Great Machine.

So I’ve only read book one and just started book two last night, but I can tell you that with just one book down I’m completely blown away. What Vaughan has done is create a comic book story that can tackle both the science fiction world and the ultra scary world of US politics. You have mayor Hundred marrying a gay couple in a grand ceremony, trying to stop a serial killer that’s leaving mutilated bodies as clues, saving lives on 9/11, and dealing with an activist mom as a kid. There’s also the whole stigma of being a former superhero. Vaughan never gets overtly political in this tale. It’s really just this genius character study, with a quirky protagonist that was just a mild-mannered civil engineer who ends up becoming a superhero by happenstance. His personal relationships with his staff, journalists, the police chief, his campaign manager, and his oldest friend open doors to all of these other amazing side stories.

The fact that this came out in 2004, just three years after 9/11, is also very telling. Not that it’s a recurring theme, but you get a sense that Vaughan created Mitchell Hundred out of a certain feeling of helplessness. Helplessness and hopefulness. Helpless in that we were helpless in stopping those attacks and saving 3000+ lives that were lost on that day, but hopeful in seeing regular people step up during that time of horror and give of themselves. Firemen, policemen, and regular Joes and Janes that traveled far and wide to come to the big apple and help clear ground zero. Some of those folks became permanently ill from working in that cloud of soot and pulverized concrete, just to help out and give a hand. Mitchell Hundred seems to be a stand-in for the everyday people that did what they could in New York City. Hundred was a normal guy working a job until he wasn’t. He wasn’t wearing a cape and brightly colored tights. He’s a clumsy hero that sometimes makes things worse. But he’s trying anyhow.

He’s flawed, just like us.

This is a lot to write for a book I’ve only just begun, but I’m excited about this one. When I can find a writer that I connect with so intently I stick with ’em and seek out all their work. I know Brian K. Vaughan has written the usual cape and tights kind of comics(he’s behind the Marvel Runaways series), but the guy excels at original characters. He has that unique ability to take these huge ideas and concepts and ground them so that some guy in the Midwest reading in his La-Z-Boy at 9:45pm on a Thursday night can relate to it. Not only relate to it, but get pulled into that world. Vaughan’s work is the kind of stuff that pulled me into the world of comic books and makes me excited about them.

So no, I won’t be camping under Montana skies or riding a kayak down some wild stream in the dense Virginia mountainside with Burt Reynolds. Nor will I be jumping out of an airplane or swimming with dolphins. But I might hike the Beyer trail after work and maybe jog a mile or two over in Hawthorn addition. Afterwards I’ll spin some vinyl, crack open an imperial IPA, and delve into some more Ex Machina.

12 thoughts on “The Great Machine : Brian K. Vaughan’s ‘Ex Machina’

      1. I consulted my handy TBR-A page on the KMA, and got a buncha titles of his I’ve read! And I’ve only done back to 2010, though I know my list goes back to 2005…

        Saga (I love them all, so weird)
        Paper Girls Vol.1
        We Stand On Guard
        Runaways: Pride And Joy
        Y: The Last Man – Unmanned

        Aaaaaaaand it turns out that in 2010 I read Ex Machina: The First Hundred Days! Clearly I need to read it again! Off to the library…

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I know I read that one too – it must be in a year pre-2010. Man, I really need to finish that list!

        I should say, the lady in charge of buying the graphic novels for our library ROCKS. She gets in all the good stuff.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. She’s really got an incredible knack. Young lady who’s totally into comics, and only the good stuff (though she does run a manga club, so maybe that’s one strike against her). But we’ve lived here almost 11 years and she has consistently added to quite an impressive comics collection. I’m lovin’ it!

        Liked by 1 person

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