“Anyone who can appease a man’s conscience can take his freedom away from him.”
– Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Grand Inquisitor
When people ask me what comic book I would recommend to anyone – lapsed comic book fan, new reader, veteran aficionado – there are a few series that always hover on the tip of my tongue. Watchmen, of course. The Sandman. Stray Bullets, for certain, and The Death-Ray. Daredevil by Bendis and Maleev. Swamp Thing by Moore. Sweet Tooth. Paul Pope’s Batman Year 100. The Question by O’Neil and Cowyn. These words wait with anticipation, ready to burst forward from my lips, but there’s almost always one series that leaps out ahead of them, no matter what the day, the hour, or what’s going on around me in the world.
It’s a comic for everyone once they get to a certain place in their life, that moment when you realize that, as Shakespeare would say, conscience does make cowards of us all, and that good intentions are fine and dandy but mean absolutely nothing when you’re tasked with fulfilling said intentions after you’ve been pushed down and broken by the world around you and the horrifying system we’ve put in place to check and balance not just our government, but ourselves as individuals.
I, of course, refer to the political parable Ex Machina by Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris, an absolutely essential read that owes as much to Mary Shelley and Nikos Kazantzakis as it does to Jack Kirby and Will Eisner. A fifty issue series (plus intermittent specials) now reprinted in five paperbacks, Ex Machina told the story of Mitchell Hundred, a former New York City civil engineer who, after an explosion, winds up with an incredible ability to control machines. For a little while, he becomes the world’s first superhero, The Great Machine, but due to political and legal pressure eventually puts away his jetpack and laser pistol.
So, of course, after a brief retirement, he puts his superhero suit on once more, and saves one of the World Trade towers on September 11th, catapulting his newfound public respect into a successful bid for Mayor.
Told through flashback in a dark basement sometime after 2008, Ex Machina weaves its narrative in two-fold fashion, much like ABC’s hit TV show Lost (which Vaughan himself contributed to). Mitchell, recording his memoirs, tells the story of his political career with relevant flashbacks to his childhood, youth and, yes, his brief career as The Great Machine. Vaughan expertly takes us on a journey through Mitchell Hundred’s strange life and stranger rise to power, telling us everything we need to know about our “hero”, but keeping just enough about him from us, just out of arm’s reach.
You know, just like a real politician.
And while fans of Ex Machina may want to know everything they can about the unsolved questions of the series – all left intentionally vague, and none of which will be discussed here – it’s better that they don’t. Firm answers about the deepest questions about Mitchell, Kremlin, Suzanne, Bradbury, January, Pherson, Wylie and even the actuality of Mitchell’s powers, all unanswered, shouldn’t be. That would defeat the purpose (Which, I guess, is the one thing that separates Ex Machina from real world politicking).
We learn, over time, the stories of Mitchell’s closest friendships and work relationships; his complicated relationship with his mother, his only living relative; his inherently contradictory personal convictions and his office’s firm political stances.
We see the series grapple with still-relevant political issues, including marriage equality, Islamophobia (as well as related and unrelated terrorism fears), the legalization of medicinal marijuana, artistic censorship, rigged elections, and, most tellingly, advanced knowledge of attacks and invasions, coupled with the ability to stop them and the uncertainty or even desire to do so.
Within the series itself, Mitchell, himself a fan of the art form he’s depicted in, muses on the term “comic books”: they’re called such, he supposes, because so many of the characters – Superman, the X-Men, Batman, Captain America, Bloodshot, Spawn – continue on and on into eternity, gaining new readers as time goes on, never really ending at the logical closure point – the point that would make them tragedies. But that’s the difference between The Great Machine and Wonder Woman, between Mitchell Hundred and Tony Stark – Mitchell Hundred knows he isn’t the hero of his own story. He knows he’s in a tragedy, a story where everybody loses and nobody gets what they want.
In a way, that makes it the perfect series to revisit every election year, which, of course, I do. Every four years, I revisit the world of The Great Machine. I uncover new truths in Ex Machina every time I take the plunge into Vaughan and Harris’s epic tragedy, and this year is no different, although it is, for sure, far more horrifying.
The scenes that are playing out now on the American stage are like one of the more horrific sequences from Ex Machina, and sadly, not one of the more grounded sequences. We’re in it now, in the horrific interdimensional nightmares and Papal visions, and we have to trust that the great machine of the electoral college will, in the end, guide us into a world that a young, idealistic Mitchell Hundred would have wanted to live in.
Or, like his conscience and the series itself, we risk fading to black.
By Kevin M. Brettauer