The Book of the Celestial Cow - Is Your Ex Machina Mess?

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May 1st, 2008


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01:16 pm - Is Your Ex Machina Mess?
Brian K. Vaughan, of Y: The Last Man fame, has another award-winning comic as well: Ex Machina.

Ex Machina is the story of Mitchell Hundred. Given the power to talk to machines in a freak accident, he became a superhero called the Great Machine. That was years ago, however: now, he's the mayor of New York. But his past doesn't just leave him behind...

I only read the first seven issues back when they first came out, so I was excited to catch up on the series and see what it had become. Unfortunately, it didn't exactly live up to my expectations of what I thought it would be. This is not to say it's bad; it's just very different from Y.

Some of Vaughan's trademarks are evident. First of all, the judicious use of non-linear storytelling. Every single issue weaves multiple stories together. There's the current story, which is very politically oriented, and then there's a story about Mitchell's past, which could take place in one of three times: before he became the Great Machine, during his stint as the Great Machine, and the interim between his retirement from superherodom and his rise to the office of mayor. Then there's Hundred himself, who, like Yorick, is fairly idealistic and prone to making obscure references. Instead of pop culture, he busts out with obscure political and legal trivia, and it seems unrealistic at times (because, seriously, WHY would anyone know that sort of thing off the top of their head?), but what's great is he often gets called on it and even corrected when he has something wrong.

The storytelling overall, though, is somewhat maddening. It's not the high adventure of Y, and the stories seem to be more focused on Mitchell-as-mayor than Mitchell-as-dude-who-can-talk-to-machines. I have no doubt that that this might actually appeal to some people, and I think it's an interesting thing for Vaughan to do, but I like more superhero in my superhero comics. This is like 80% West Wing, 20% Alias (the Bendis comic, no relation...of course, Jessica Jones didn't go around using her powers either, but the mysteries were more engaging than political crises). Vaughan tackles all kinds off issues like racism, censorship, 9/11, anti-war protests, terrorism, marijuana regulation, the Blackout, and religion, among other things. He wisely makes Hundred an Independent so that he's allowed to play both sides, not beholden to a particular party's views. The political business is interesting rather than annoying and mouthpiece-y, but it's not really what I read comics for, you know? I want a little more action and excitement. The cliffhangers usually lack the oomph that Y's did, and they have a tendency to be sort of off-kilter, ending on a downbeat.

The actual Great Machine stuff, however, is pretty, er, great. Because, hilariously, he kind of sucks as a superhero. He has trouble using his jetpack, and he's not very strong or in shape, and people aren't superdupergrateful for what he's doing. It's a neat perspective on how a superhero like that might be received in the real world. And the different ways he uses his powers are way cool, of course. There is still the continuing question of where those powers came from, but it's hanging around in the background most of the time (when I wish it were more at the forefront). Also, Mitch even has an archnemesis. Or had, anyway. There are all sorts of intriguing bits of information dropped in everywhere, and they don't entirely connect just yet, but I trust that Vaughan knows what he's doing and where it's all going.

A word on Tony Harris's art: it's rather strange and unlike anything I've seen. Because it's simultaneously unreal, surreal, and too real. I think what strikes me most is that characters have facial expressions. Like, honest-to-God facial expressions. He uses actors for photoreferences, which explains why the characters look like real people. And yet, the art is still stylized. It's an odd mix, but, hey, people love it and give him awards.

I don't think I'll be able to fully evaluate my feelings on Ex Machina until it's over. The first couple trades were really cool, and then the next few didn't capture my interest as greatly. But the last ten issues or so have stepped it up a bit, which is good, since he's passed the halfway point (issue #36 came out yesterday, and it's slated to be fifty issues). One of the trades touts the fact that it was named one of the "best comic books for adults," and I think that's a pretty good description. It's definitely for an older audience, given the political content, and it's also good for an older audience that might not give a superhero comic the time of day. A rowdy teenager would probably get bored of the story of a man who's trying his damnedest to run New York City.

Read the first issue, which has, to paraphrase my friend Angelo, a way more powerful last page than any first issue deserves to have. That final page really informs the rest of the series in many ways. If you're interested, six trades are out, with the next coming in November.

Goddamn you, Brian K. Vaughan, you talented bastard.
Current Mood: jealousjealous
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(22 memoirs | Describe me as "inscrutable")

Comments:


[User Picture]
From:rachelmanija
Date:May 1st, 2008 08:24 pm (UTC)
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That last page was one of only two works of art I've encountered dealing with that particular issue that I thought were moving and honest, rather than making me want to hurl them across the room. (The other was by Bruce Springsteen.)

I like the focus on politics more than you do (I think my favorite was the one about the offensive government-funded work of art-- Mitchell's horror at being stuck with dealing with it cracked me up) but the last few trades seemed... I don't know... not that gripping, not that focused. I'm glad it's picked up.

I find the horror elements really horrifying and disturbing, by the way. Especially since I wasn't expecting them.

I love, love, love the realistic art. The people look like real people! It's great.



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From:spectralbovine
Date:May 1st, 2008 08:38 pm (UTC)
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Oh, neat! I had no idea you read Ex Machina.

I think my favorite was the one about the offensive government-funded work of art-- Mitchell's horror at being stuck with dealing with it cracked me up)
Oh, yeah, I agree that was pretty funny. I like seeing the struggles between what he wants to do and what his advisers think he needs to do, politically.

the last few trades seemed... I don't know... not that gripping, not that focused. I'm glad it's picked up.
How current are you? I really liked Power Down, although it teased us with answers and left only more questions. And the "Ex Cathedra" arc also expanded the possible scope of what's going on. And there was a really nice Angiotti one-shot.

I find the horror elements really horrifying and disturbing, by the way. Especially since I wasn't expecting them.
Yeah, because the setting is so real-world, you sort of feel like all this is the sort of thing that could really happen. And, when it doesn't involve the powers directly, it really does.

I love, love, love the realistic art. The people look like real people! It's great.
I love the bit in the back of the trades where you can see how the photoreference goes to pencil and then ink and then color. It's impressive.
[User Picture]
From:daynr
Date:May 1st, 2008 10:11 pm (UTC)
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"nstead of pop culture, he busts out with obscure political and legal trivia, and it seems unrealistic at times (because, seriously, WHY would anyone know that sort of thing off the top of their head?"
so so many people do, and I can almost grasp why, for some of them ...
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From:niteflite
Date:May 1st, 2008 10:44 pm (UTC)
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since you're covering so much of BKV, have you read any Runaways yet? I'd love to hear your take on it.

Also, I highly recommend Pride of Baghdad, and then once you run out of reading material, the Scott Pilgrim series by Brian Lee O'Malley.
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:May 1st, 2008 10:54 pm (UTC)
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I read some of Runaways back in the day and really liked it, even though it was Volume 2 and I didn't really know what was going on.

I am skeptical of Pride of Baghdad, though I would be willing to give it a try because of BKV, and I've heard the Scott Pilgrim series is great. I've still got a lot of reading material left, though. Heh.
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From:niteflite
Date:May 1st, 2008 11:26 pm (UTC)
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Oh man. You probably spoiled yourself for the big reveal in Volume 1, then. Nonetheless, I think that this superpowered "Breakfast Club" would be your cup of tea. Also, Molly is an adorable girl who will most definitely need psychiatric help when all is said and done. (Or not. Her coping mechanisms are choice.)

Give PoB a chance, I used it to introduce some non-comics readers to comics as literature, and they liked it.
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:May 1st, 2008 11:41 pm (UTC)
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You probably spoiled yourself for the big reveal in Volume 1, then.
I probably did, but, luckily, I don't really remember what it would have been. Because the biggest thing I remember from Volume 2 is the appearance of Doctor Doom for some reason. Aren't all their parents supervillains or something like that? Was that what I wasn't supposed to know yet? Oops.

Nonetheless, I think that this superpowered "Breakfast Club" would be your cup of tea.
Oh, I know it would be my cup of tea.

Give PoB a chance, I used it to introduce some non-comics readers to comics as literature, and they liked it.
Cool. I'm just confused as to what it's about. Because...the lions don't talk, right?
[User Picture]
From:niteflite
Date:May 1st, 2008 11:45 pm (UTC)
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Pretend I didn't say anything, but by the time you get to Volume 1, you'll see that you unwittingly are already spoiled, and not because of the reasons you listed. (ooh suspense!)

They do use speech bubbles, and they do talk to one another, but they don't understand human concepts at all, and their conception of family is not the same as it was in The Lion King, for example.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:May 1st, 2008 11:51 pm (UTC)
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Pretend I didn't say anything, but by the time you get to Volume 1, you'll see that you unwittingly are already spoiled, and not because of the reasons you listed. (ooh suspense!)
Ha! Well, I don't remember many details, so I hope that my poor memory works in my favor. Hell, in re-reading Y and Fables, I realized I had forgotten about several characters who died, so I was still surprised.

They do use speech bubbles, and they do talk to one another, but they don't understand human concepts at all, and their conception of family is not the same as it was in The Lion King, for example.
Ah, okay, interesting.
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From:the_narration
Date:May 2nd, 2008 01:02 am (UTC)
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Ex Machina is a great book. I'm glad you're all caught up. I'm eager to see how the little mysteries and hints play out, and now I can bounce theories off you.

And yes, you need to read Runaways with a promptness. It's excellent.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:May 2nd, 2008 01:13 am (UTC)
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I'm eager to see how the little mysteries and hints play out, and now I can bounce theories off you.
It's pretty much assumed by this point that Mitch's story about the Nirvana song "The Stars Are Down" was actually true, right? I'm really freaked out by the way that phrase keeps creeping up. The little mysteries and hints are all like that; they're just...freaky, which is why I find it maddening that there's never any direct follow-up to any of it. I know Vaughan will tie it all up at the end somehow, but it's still frustrating.

Power Down really opened up some possibilities as to what's going on. The symbols definitely look alien, and that seems like the most obvious answer, but I don't know whether that means it's wrong or it's right because BKV assumes we'll think it's wrong. I'm intrigued by the way that the symbols affect different people in different ways.
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From:the_narration
Date:May 2nd, 2008 05:17 am (UTC)
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It's pretty much assumed by this point that Mitch's story about the Nirvana song "The Stars Are Down" was actually true, right?
Pretty much, as far as I know. That fact that the phrase is repeated later int he same arc pretty much cemented it in my mind.

The symbols definitely look alien, and that seems like the most obvious answer, but I don't know whether that means it's wrong or it's right because BKV assumes we'll think it's wrong.
That's the thing with BKV... he's great at having his twists make perfect sense with the hints dropped before and still catching you off guard.

There definitely seems to me to be something with alternate universes going on, but as for where the device came from.... Was it aliens? Time-travellers? An alternate universe? God? Did Phearson really know, or was he just crazy? I'm not even sure where to begin trying to guess.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:May 2nd, 2008 05:40 am (UTC)
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There's also this weird thing with "branes" that I...holy shit. It's a real word.
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From:the_narration
Date:May 2nd, 2008 06:18 am (UTC)
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[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:May 2nd, 2008 06:24 am (UTC)
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So Brian K. Vaughan knows political/legal trivia AND quantum physics?

That bastard.
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From:the_narration
Date:May 2nd, 2008 06:42 am (UTC)
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There are many reasons why he's my favorite comic book writer, and his willingness to do thorough research about his subjects is one of them.

His willingness to take advantage of the written medium to hide a clue in an apparent mispelling that's actually a homophone? Also way up there.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:May 2nd, 2008 07:04 am (UTC)
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He also took advantage of the written medium in Y: early on, I came to the realization that if you didn't see who was talking, you didn't know what GENDER the person was. Of course, I was still surprised. Maybe I came to that realization retroactively. Er. Either way: major fucking props for that one, Vaughan.
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From:the_narration
Date:May 2nd, 2008 07:10 am (UTC)
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Yeah, that's an extension of a handy thing about comics that doesn't work in film: you don't hear the voice when there's dialogue, so you can show what somebody's saying without revealing who they are.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:May 2nd, 2008 07:15 am (UTC)
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That also works in books, too. And I'm sorry, but the example I am thinking of is The Da Vinci Code.
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From:the_narration
Date:May 2nd, 2008 07:24 am (UTC)
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Never read it. That trick is done all the time in lots of books. (I recall an Ed McBain book that really went to town with it for laughs.) I just think it really stands out in comics because they're a visual medium that translates to film or animation well... except for little tricks like that that work because it's not also an auditory medium.
From:wee_warrior
Date:May 2nd, 2008 06:29 pm (UTC)
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I have no doubt that that this might actually appeal to some people

It does. :) And actually, I found it got too superhero/fantasy-like lately, so I'm currently not that happy with the series. But we'll see where it goes.

(Also, the fact that Vaughan uses the BND as minor (actually dangerous!) villains never fails to crack me up.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:May 2nd, 2008 06:40 pm (UTC)
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The BND?

*Wikipedias*

Oh. Were they the ones in the latest arc?

It does. :) And actually, I found it got too superhero/fantasy-like lately, so I'm currently not that happy with the series. But we'll see where it goes.
Ha, whereas I have the opposite feelings.

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