Eye on Comics

Comics criticism and commentary from Don MacPherson

There’s No Place Like Rome

Posted by Don MacPherson on October 22nd, 2007

Ex Machina #31
“Ex Cathedra, Chapter Two”
Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Artist: Tony Harris
Inks: Jim Clark
Colors: J.D. Mettler
Letters: Jared K. Fletcher
Editor: Ben Abernathy
Publisher: DC Comics/Wildstorm Productions
Price: $2.99 US/$3.65 CAN

With the advent of the conclusion of Y: The Last Man upon us, as well as talk of a movie adaptation of the series, it’s easy to forget that Y isn’t the only ongoing series with challenging, thought-provoking plots and themes currently being offered up writer Brian K. Vaughan. Ex Machina is always at its strongest when it focuses on the political and personal plotlines over the science-fiction/super-hero elements, Vaughan’s manages to bring credibility to those incredible concepts. This particular issue of the series is just as entertaining as those that came before, but the theological cliffhanger here made this episode stand out as particularly compelling. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Vaughan’s imaginative and provocative ideas are brought to life via Tony Harris’s convincing, detailed illustrations. At this point, if you’re not reading Ex Machina, you’ve likely dismissed it and believe it’s too far along in the continuing narrative. But Vaughan’s script is thoroughly accessible, not only in terms of plot information but in how it crosses genres.

New York Mayor Mitchell Hundred, accompanied by his best friend and security chief, travels to the Vatican for an audience with Pope John Paul II. As it’s his first time overseas, Hundred soon discovers that culture shock can extend into the technological realm. As terrorists hiding out in Rome continue their plans to use Hundred as an assassin, the Big Apple mayor learns the real reason for his invite into the heart of the Catholic Church.

The opening scene, featuring one of the Great Machine’s pre-politics adventures, boasts a couple of cool, action-oriented moments, allowing Tony Harris to really dazzle the reader. But his work is just as impressive and attractive in the more mundane moments in the story. I was taken by the level of the detail in the flight scene. It’s just two guys sitting in first class and having a conversation, but Harris’s detailed linework and unusual POVs grab the reader’s attention and never let go. The observatory scene, the most pivotal in the issue, is visually grand, making for an interesting balance with the surprisingly grounded tone of Hundred’s encounter with a scientist/priest.

The cover image, though impressive, is a bit puzzling, given how little the scene and characters have to do with the main story. I realize the flashback scene with Pherson and the ape is meant to parallel elements and developments in the main plot, but focusing on the Pherson angle on the cover is unfortunately misleading.

The astronomer priest, Father Chetwas, introduced in this issue is a thoroughly likeable character — grounded, thoughtful and witty. But he’s also a provocateur. As we meet him, he makes the Vatican seem more inviting, but by the end of the issue, he represents the political peril it represents for Hundred as well. Father Chetwas is a fascinating figure; I really hope his role in this series isn’t limited to the “Ex Cathedra” story arc, but I suspect it will be.

Hundred’s sci-fi power makes for an interesting contrast with the spirituality of the Vatican and the classic architecture that serves as the backdrop for this story. Also intriguing is the fact that such different entities have a powerful commonality: are both beings of great political power and responsibility. Really, this story arc is about the fundamental differences between the secular and spiritual worlds and how they hide common ground. Serving as a symbol of that approach to the storytelling is the story arc’s title — “Ex Cathedra” — which is a religious play on the title of this series; it’s different but similar. Vaughan’s script achieves an excellent balance between the theological theory exposed at the end of the issue and more everyday, down-to-earth concerns. Hundred’s banter with Bradbury early on in the story enables us to see the hero as an everyman, and his awestruck reactions to physical structure of the Vatican and its inner workings allows the reader to walk in his shoes. 9/10

3 Responses to “There’s No Place Like Rome”

  1. Robert Reeves Says:

    Don!

    Another extremely thorough review. I read the comic before reading your post. You make some great connections and communicate them effortlessly. The book takes on a better meaning due to this.

    Where the hell do you come up with it all? This is the work of a “comic book reviewer pultizer prize winner”!!!

    Bravo!

  2. Don MacPherson Says:

    Thanks for the kind words, Robert. There are many other reviewers out there far more perceptive and able to critique the medium than myself, but I’m glad you enjoyed this review.

  3. Dan Says:

    Don-

    Thanks for reviewing Ex Machina. It sometimes seems forgotten and I know that I just put it in the pile as well. But this past weekend, due to 31 coming out, I decided to re-read the entire run and it’s amazing how good this book is. If nothing else, it’s nothing like anything else I can think of on the shelves.

    And as always, a great review and I agree with Robert. I love to read your reviews after the book to enhance the experience and to usually see things that I may have missed.