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Ex Machina has often been described as a cross between the "West Wing" and the "Greatest American Hero," but while that shorthand gives an idea of the flavor of the series, even that mixed comparison doesn't capture the density of the themes or the complexity of the characters involved. This final deluxe volume contains issues 40-50 of the regular series plus an Ex Machina 'Special' drawn by John Paul Leon which is supposedly intimately connected to the overall plot. In this volume, the final fate of retired superhero, now mayor of New York, Mitchell Hundred is revealed, and we finally get to see what the "tragedy" is that was promised in the very first issue when the series was launched.
To be sure, Ex Machina is a fascinating read that, despite its fantastic elements, manages to remain believably grounded in the real world and also manages to raise some interesting political issues for consideration. What's especially admirable is the way Vaughn manages to do so without being preachy or without hitting the reader over the head with a particular political point of view. In a very smart way, the political backdrop of the series is a good, immediate context for the drama playing out involving the main cast but is not the drama itself, if that makes any sense. The art by Tony Harris is the most detailed, most confident of his career, and perfectly complements the "real-world" feel of the series. Harris' work is also notable due to his decision to use reference photography to do much of his work, so that in many cases, the pictures on the page are translations of photos of Harris' friends modeling or acting out the various parts. This results in a level of realism and emotion not typical in many comics, but on the down side, occasionally results in images that are so evocative of photographs that they sometimes invite you to wonder whether the art was really that necessary to begin with.
In some ways, this final volume is also the most important volume, simply because it is the one in which Vaughn wraps up his storyline and hopefully justifies the investment of time, money and interest readers have made into the series from the beginning. Somewhat unfortunately, Vaughn makes the bold mistake of explicitly telling readers what the yardstick for the measure of the success of the story is, in the opening pages of the first issue of the series; "It's a tragedy," the main character, Mitchell hundred, morosely announces. The problem with this strategy is that the end of the series then gets measured against the promise of that opening story, which sets up certain basic expectations in the reader, and Vaughn has the task of coming through on an ending that really delivers in various ways on those expectations.
He only partly succeeds. While the premise of Ex Machina remains one of the most original in comics and it is undoubtedly one of the most competently executed pieces of writing in modern comicdom, the story of the superhero turned Mayor turned major political contender proves a bit unwieldy for Vaughn and there's some unavoidable fraying at the edges. Many themes come up in the course of the story and not all are confronted with the same honesty as others, and there are some matters where Vaughn blatantly cheats. For a character who is supposed to be a civil engineer and whose reason for being is apparently to create things, and by necessity, first understand how things work, Hundred is a man who displays a total lack of curiosity about the origins of his abilities and about the strange events around him. He displays no measurable intellectual curiosity about how he got his strange powers and, when an almost mirror-like character with similar abilities confronts him as an enemy in a previous volume, his complete disinterest in understanding the reasons for it, strain credibility. This is further magnified when a character clearly tied to Hundred's origins, seemingly from a parallel universe, arrives in Hundred's own world, spouting gibberish and is eventually confronted by Hundred. Our protagonist never appears to even question at least "on camera," the meaning of these strange events and their implications for his own life.
Of course, Vaughn hints at an "in-story" reason for Hundred's apparent lack of intellectual curiosity about incredibly important things; it's not that he's not a self-reflective individual hopefully, but rather that, everything we know about Hundred suggests an individual who is in basic denial of who he really is. This is perhaps best exemplified by his unacknowledged, or perhaps acknowledged but denied, homosexuality. Although clearly homosexual, the character remains celibate apparently throughout the entire series, only acknowledges his love for another character toward the very end of the series, and never acts on the feelings he expresses at any point in time.
If this apparent self-denial is supposed to be a clue to the larger mystery of who Mitchell Hundred is and how he comes about, the audience is never really sure. Vaughn doesn't address the problem directly, but rather relegates the matter of Mitchell's homosexuality, (a potentially huge clue to the wider narrative and character arc Vaughn spends the last five years setting up,) to a game of "let the readers guess," which I feel diminishes the overall importance of the story and the themes Vaughn was raising. Asked if the character is gay, Vaughn the writer responds with the rather weak and pretentious, "why is that important to you that you get a definite answer?" But of course the irony is that, the issue is quite central to the character's relationships in the series and, as I indicated above, quite an important clue to the larger mystery going on in the series.
As to that issue itself, namely, where Mitchell Hundred's powers come from and what their purpose is, shockingly little is revealed about it in the course of the story, which begs the question, why Vaughn set it up as a mystery in the first place, particularly one in which the main protagonist is not remotely interested. At most, we learn that Hundred's abilities were granted possibly be agents in a parallel world, or perhaps even from the future, but then that issue is kept vague enough that it could easily be by agents from Hell or extra-dimensional alien beings plundering realities for resources; the truth is, after finishing the series, I can't be sure, and that appears to have been the writer's deliberate intention, which is why the character's tendency to deny aspects of himself are important - if his stubborn refusal to be curious about where his abilities come from is in fact deliberate on the writer's part, it might indeed suggest a plausible theory that either Hundred, or a version of himself, is in fact the very architect of his situation, and the character is subconsciously aware of this. What is very clear however, is that these powers were never meant for altruistic purposes, but rather for something sinister. At a subconscious level, if Hundred is aware that this is the case, it might explain why he scrupulously avoids seeking answers. We learn that his "Green" power over machines was to have been complemented by others with powers over other human beings, and animals etc, but again the questions about exactly who and for what purpose is a knot Vaughn supposes might be more interesting left to readers speculation than to untie with a clear, compelling narrative.
By far though, the most troubling aspect of the volume is the very last issue, in which we finally learn the fate of Hundred himself and other characters and discover the exact nature of the "tragedy" that befalls him - which is where the series both triumphs and falters all at once. On the one hand, Vaughn manages some interesting misdirection and sleight of hand; the tragedy we assume will befall Hundred doesn't occur at all. In fact, he achieves exactly the success he wanted and is in more or less, precisely the place he wanted to be. If there are any real tragic elements to the story, it's not so much for the main character, but for the supporting characters around him, for whom Hundred's ambitions and existence bring about real pain and loss. In the process, some shocking things occur, with two shocking betrayals by Hundred himself, and it is here that Vaughn's genius, whatever that is, shines through - although all the signs are there from the beginning, we proceed with the story on the basis that Hundred is in fact, the hero of the story. In fact, he turns out to be very much a villain, proving to be a selfish, incredibly ambitious man who stoops to great lengths to achieve those ambitions. In other words, Mitchell Hundred isn't a hero, but a villain, and he's been one all along. We just don't realize how villainous until the very end.
This deft misdirection is certainly shocking; like a movie with a good twist ending, you start off with certain assumptions about the character but realize these assumptions are wrong. It is testament to the deft misdirection of Vaughn that rather than thinking the main protagonist's actions are out of character, they make perfect sense in the confines of what we know. Where Vaughn stumbles though, is in his artificial decision to cast the story as a tragedy when the series began. Since true tragedies result in both enlightenment and the downfall of the main protagonist, Ex Machina is unquestionably a failure in that regard. In fact, if anything, Vaughn completely undercuts his bold declaration, by appearing to reward the very character whose moral corruption drives the tragedy in others' lives.
In sum, it's a mixed bag. It's certainly possible that, as the series developed, Vaughn changed his initial conception or initial plans for how the series would end, which led to the somewhat unsatisfying ending. I think the more likely explanation is that, while clearly a gifted writer, Vaughn clearly isn't very good at ending his stories, as a substantial amount of criticism about the end of Y: The Last Man, appears to bear out. Is Ex Machina truly better than 90% of most comics being published today? Unquestionably. Is it quite as good as those involved think it is? Not quite. But it is very, very good, and makes fascinating reading. Recommended!