Posted by Don MacPherson on March 15th, 2009
Ex Machina Special #4
Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Artist: John Paul Leon
Colors: J.D. Mettler
Letters: Jared K. Fletcher
Cover artists: Tony Harris (regular)/John Paul Leon & Jonny Rench (variant)
Editor: Ben Abernathy
Publisher: DC Comics/Wildstorm Productions
Price: $3.99 US
We’ve seen far too few comics from writer Brian K. Vaughan since the conclusion of his landmark series Y: The Last Man. Of course, he’s been busy as a writer/producer on TV’s Lost, so his recent absence from the comicscape is understandable. It’s for that reason that any new offering from him should pique the interest of anyone interesting in quality writing in comics. This Ex Machina Special offers him the opportunity to explore an as-yet unexplored facet of his fictional New York mayor’s agenda: environmentalism. Specifically, Vaughan looks at newspapers, how that struggling industry has contributed to environmental problems and how it has addressed the issue as well. But more interestingly, Vaughan turns his attention to the environmental sins of another mass-print medium: comic books. It’s a surprising and thought-provoking notion, and driving the debate forward is a plot that involved ideological conflict and a murder plot.
As he announces an ambitious but not-too sexy new efficient-energy initiative, New York Mayor Mitchell Hundred ends up butting heads with an opponent of sorts: the publisher of a right-leaning newspaper who opposes legislation requiring publications such as his to employ greener methods for printing. When said media baron is murdered, it attracts Hundred’s attention, but especially so when the man caught literally red-handed says it was the mayor himself who told him to carry out the killing.
John Paul Leon’s style is quite different from that of Ex Machina‘s usual penciller, co-creator Tony Harris. Leon’s style is much looser and a bit darker in tone, but nevertheless, he handles the characters and concepts incredibly well. While their styles differ, Leon’s layouts are quite reminiscent of what we’ve seen from Harris in the main series. Though Leon’s style is somewhat sketchy in nature, he has a remarkable eye for natural anatomy and movement; he achieves just as realistic and convincing a look here as Harris has, albeit in a different way. Mettler’s colors are brighter than usual here, but he employs darker, muted tones appropriately for the murder scene. Furthermore, he bathes the interrogation scene in an eerie green, at first in keeping with the antagonist’s claims of power and then serving as a cue about his psychological state.
The Gardener comes off as an effective villain here, in part thanks to Vaughan’s script but also due to his past stories. The hero of the book can control machines, and we’ve also met a counterpart who can control the actions of the animal kingdom. Introducing a new character communicates with plant life is therefore easy for the reader to accept, and Vaughan uses that acceptance to turn his audience’s expectations on their ear.
As I read this comic book, I was struck by the fortuitousness of real-world events and how they’ve brought some legitimacy to the fiction that is Mitchell Hundred. Here we have a politician who was inspired by comic-book heroes as a youth, working now to bring about real change, apparently unconcerned about public perceptions and the typical political status quo. There are parallels to be found with Barack Obama, certainly unintentional ones, given that Vaughan began his story years ago. But one could argue that Vaughan chose to write about the kind of politician he and other Americans wanted to see rise to the forefront. If so, it seems that wish has come true.
The most interesting aspect of the book is the commentary about the environmentally unfriendly nature of collectible comics. Here’s a key excerpt from the script: “But comics are virgin paper going into virgin hands that tuck them away into poisonous plastic. Forever.”
In reaction, Hundred goes on to question why he — and by extension, the establishment in general — have given a pass to some forms of periodical publishing while making environmental demands of others. One character offers that the argument is moot, that there’s no future for newspapers or comics. Perhaps that’s Vaughan’s final word on the subject, I don’t know. I don’t entirely agree with it, but it’s wonderful fodder for debate and discussion. Anyone who an interest in comics, the responsibilities of those in publishing and the future of print ought to give this collection of dead plant matter a look, whether or not he or she’s familiar with Ex Machina. 10/10