SPOILER WARNING: This interview contains minor spoilers for "Ex Machina" #1 through #50.
This month, Wildstorm's "Ex Machina" comes to a close with the release of its 50th and final issue. Conceived and written by Brian K. Vaughan ("Y: The Last Man") and featuring art by Tony Harris ("Starman") for all 50 issues, "Ex Machina" #1 was released six years ago in August 2004.
Critically acclaimed from the outset, "Ex Machina" captured the Eisner Award for Best New Series in 2005 and in part, fuelled Vaughan's win as Best Writer that same year, as well.
"Ex Machina" tells the story of Mitchell Hundred, a civil engineer, who after a strange accident becomes America's first living, breathing superhero: The Great Machine. Eventually tiring of risking his life to maintain the status quo, Hundred retires from masked crime fighting and runs for Mayor of New York, winning by a landslide. And so, as it's said, the real adventure begins.
One of the title's biggest fans, dating back to Hundred's first days in office, is novelist Brad Meltzer, who in 2006 became the first writer in history to top The New York Times Bestseller List ("The Book of Fate") and the Diamond Comic Distributors Top 100 Sales Chart ("Justice League of America" #1) simultaneously.
Meltzer penned the introduction to the deluxe edition of "Ex Machina" Vol. 1 and was also mentioned in "Ex Machina" #40 as a possible writer of Hundred's comic book biography.
To mark the end of one of the finest comic book series of the past decade, CBR News asked Vaughan and Meltzer if they'd be interested in having a conversation about "Ex Machina," not only to explore some of the series overarching themes and principles but also to dive into some of the questions Mayor Hundred and his staff have left us asking with only 22 pages to go.
They agreed and CBR News sat back and listened as the two modern masters discussed the inner workings of The Great Machine.
Brad Meltzer: I started looking at your original interviews for "Ex Machina," the very first ones you ever gave, and the one thing I saw and kept on seeing was that you kept mentioning the pitch that you wrote for Wildstorm all these years ago. And so, you know I love research, I found the pitch. I tracked it down, and I thought the best way to start was to start where the pitch started. Amazingly, it opens with this quote: "One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors," which is a great Plato quote. It's a beautiful quote, but Plato is really being kind of a snob asshole, here. I want to know how much of the snob asshole, the fact he thinks he knows better than other people, is vital to Mitchell's character?
Brian K. Vaughan: This is so humbling to hear that you have tracked down these pitches, but it's kind of horrifying because pitches are like these sales documents, so you have to throw-in the arty-farty quotes off the top to sell everyone, so I am really daunted now that I have to compare Mitchell Hundred to Plato. I don't think he's going to fare very well in that comparison.
Yeah, no. He's not. But I was amazed – and I can appreciate what you have to do in the pitch, because it is the Barnum show – but really, when I looked at that quote, it struck me as the character. That Plato quote isn't just, "Hey, I put in the word "government" into ThinkExist and got a good quote." I just felt like that idea of knowing better than other people, is that Mitchell or is that just your view of politics?
Hmm, boy. I guess I'm always reluctant to speak about my own view on politics. It's frustrating. If I had an eloquent answer for it, I wouldn't have written the book. I guess I didn't know going in to this, and I guess I knew precious little about politics, so I always choose to write something when I need to educate myself. I guess this series will be the answer to this question better than anything I could give. That's an auspicious beginning to this interview. It's like saying, "Just read the book and leave me alone."
So let's go back to the original pitch. Are you up for playing a game?
OK. So, here's the deal. All these years later, eight years later, let's see how you feel the series dealt with the issue versus how you pitched it eight years ago.
This is one of the quotes from the pitch: "While Mitch is able to do more good as mayor than he ever was as a superhero, he now has to overcome sex scandals, assassination attempts and a $5-billion deficit."
So, first off, do you really think Mitchell Hundred accomplished more as the mayor than he did as a superhero?
[Pauses] Yeah, I do. I'd say, for good or bad, by the end of the series, he has accomplished more as a civilian than he ever did as a costumed adventurer.
I thought it was interesting that sex scandals were in [the pitch]. Was that something that got away as the story went elsewhere? Or is it just there because it was a good pitch?
It's interesting. Mitchell's sexuality and nature of sex has come up a lot, and there is a lot of behind-the-scenes discussion that went on, but I wouldn't say it went away. I think it evolved. I think it definitely came up. It wasn't so much that Mitch got embroiled in a sex scandal, but when his own sexual orientation came into question, that was always going to be a part of the series from the very beginning.
Were the behind-the-scenes questions about whether or not you should keep it secret the way you kept it?
Yeah, I'm always reluctant to pull the curtain back too much, but I will say yes. Needless to say, there was a great deal of discussion early on about whether it should be revealed, whether there was anything to be revealed, but...
Did they want you to reveal more? I'm actually curious now.
Yeah, I know you're curious [Laughs].
I'm guessing where you come down, but I'm curious - did they actually really push for that as a way to kind of liven up the series?
No, no, no. Never. There was never anything from DC to put this in. There only ever concern was about what we're trying to accomplish. I think Tony [Harris] and I were both able to do everything we wanted to do.
I read all of #50 with script and pages separately, which was a wild thing because I was able to read your description with the art, because there was no lettering on the art yet. So I had about two-thirds of the art done, and got to read both sides of it. I got to read Tony's interpretation but also your original intention, which is also interesting.
And I'll say that you'll read the book a third time, and I think when it's finished, Tony, more than any other artist…it's not that I've given him license, but he's earned license to tell the story exactly the way he wants to. More than any other book I've done, I definitely go back and the book changes a lot ,and in the sort of scripting phase. I'm sorry you haven't seen the final version.
No, but I think that's what it is. I think it is this trust exercise and it was just clear to me when I read the script how much you trusted Tony. I could tell, because I could see in the changes that were made, that it wasn't twenty sentences of a description of a panel. It was what to do here.
Definitely. I think if you go back, and I'm sure you've been through this too, but my first script was probably 60 pages long and so much description, and then now, I think when you work with a guy for so many years, we're just at this point where we have such a shorthand.
It was just fun to read that way, because your script became this DVD commentary, but without the ridiculousness that comes with a DVD commentary, because you actually meant it because you wrote it.
Anyways, back to my little faux plan here. This is the other thing that was in the original pitch eight years ago: "The West Wing" meets "Unbreakable." Does that make you proud now or cringe now?
I think it's always cringe-y to compare yourself to someone else, but again, in these pitch documents, the goal is always to shorthand things so people know what it is they are getting into bed with, I suppose. I don't know how I would compare it to either of those things, but for a shorthand description you want to say, "Superheroes and politics" and you wanted to pick two things that dated fairly well.
I was with you on the "West Wing" thing. But I think you killed "Unbreakable," in terms of, and you know what I think of this book. This is my favorite book that's published every month and I only hate you because it's ending. But "Unbreakable" will never rank up there like "West Wing."
"Unbreakable" was great, but I think it was more trying to let people know that this is something that's ostensibly grounded in the real world. This isn't the "Dick Tracy" pop-imaginary world. This is going to be something grounded in the mundane, for good, bad and indifferent.
But I think what I like more is that you embrace more what "Unbreakable" never embraced, which was itself. "Unbreakable" never loved itself like you love "Ex Machina."
Like I love myself [Laughs].
No, no, but the genre. Just that superhero genre, that's what I thought. You let it be the parable that it was.
Well, I appreciate that. I definitely didn't enter into this with looking to take superhero comics down a peg or to deconstruct them. I love superhero comics. That's what I was raised on and it's what I made a living writing, so I definitely had something to say but I hope we at least didn't exploit it.
The weird thing is, I actually think you had something to say, and this is just my little analysis of you, but I think you also know how to communicate in that way because it's what you love the most. If you were a total sports nut, you would be doing a sports documentary. People who love sports do it through sports. But I just think, the nice part is, you got to a point in time where you could use the genre you love so much to tell – and be the basis for – that parable.
I felt ill-equipped to deal with something of this magnitude, even as a metaphor. I really didn't know how to use superhero comics to talk about this. But as the years went on, and I'm sure I discussed in that pitch, whether it was [George] Bush in his flight suit or Arnold Schwarzenegger getting elected governor or [John] Kerry running on his war record, it was really all about heroism, all of a sudden. [Barack] Obama, interestingly, kind of feels like the culmination and collision of this idea of heroism and politics, in the sense that Obama ended up on the cover a comic book. It's not something that I would have imagined when I first pitched "Ex Machina," but it does feel like a weird validation of what I guess we set out to talk about in the beginning that has come to pass.
Actually, I want to talk about that, because I think history played right into your clutches. One of the other things I saw - and again, I think it's just interesting to see how an idea develops - one of the adversaries in the pitch is a jealous governor, which I know, throughout the series, there are hints as to what the governor thinks and what the governor does, but is that one of the things that you're glad you left mostly aside?
Oh, yeah. I realized by not addressing it, I could kind of get away with, is this the current governor of New York, or is this an actual person? I always imagined the governor being more of a specter and then sort of his assistant that we get to see from time to time, as more that type of presence.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I was trying to remember if we ever saw him, or if kind of played the role of Carlton on "Rhoda."
Yes [Laughs]. That's exactly right.
I didn't want to do Charlie from "Charlie's Angels."
I'm impressed that you have two references for disembodied voices in fiction. That's hardcore.
Well, I won't even go beyond the list of three that I'm now thinking of. OK. Here's another thought. In the original pitch - I thought this was fascinating. You mentioned that even those who hated [Rudy] Giuliani's politics when 9/11 hit, they had to be impressed with his calm and his coolness [during the crisis]. In your words: "For the first time in ages, a politician was seen as a hero." And eight years later, again, all things that I was going to mention, that you just mentioned with Giuliani, with Schwarzenegger, with Obama and with [John] McCain running as a hero…I know that heroes, kind of historically have played into this book very well, or history has played into heroism very well, but do you think that a politician can actually be a hero?
[Pauses] Yes. And I realize I'm talking to a guy who has a new book about heroism, so I'm choosing my words carefully. I think it's a dangerous thing to impose on human beings, certainly in their lifetime. Maybe that's the rub. That heroism should be a posthumous honor. Because I think it's a really terrible thing to pose on human beings, who are inherently flawed. I think it sets the rest of us up for disappointment to put these unreasonable expectations on people. Maybe we should try being our own heroes, I think, before we try and force men and women to be something they can't be. So yeah, I don't think it's a great idea to look to politicians as heroes, but I don't think it's probably a great idea to look to many people for that.
I love that. You're hitting right into what I wanted to ask you next, which is, can you remain a hero without dying?
It's difficult, I think. Because heroism requires a degree of mythology and it's kind of a lie, I think. It's easier for the lie to stick after you're gone. But while you're here, inevitably you're going to reveal yourself to be all too human.
When you talk about "hero" there, I feel like heroism, and maybe this just shows the beautiful way you see heroes, you're answering the question in a way that almost equates heroism with perfection. Almost if you have a flaw in you, you kind of lose hero status.
I don't think it's so much perfection. It's just something more than human, it's superhuman. It's the suggestion that you are somehow operating on a different level than the rest of us, and I think that's a dangerous game to play.
I think that's right, but I think it's interesting because, in my own small world view, to me, heroism is a moment. I don't see it as a lower case "g" god. Where to me, you can have a moment of bravery and be a coward the next day, but for that moment, you were still a hero. It's just interesting, because I agree with everything that you are saying, but again, with both you and I growing up with comics for so long, we want to see it last forever. Superman is a hero and he's always a hero. And nobody is ever anything [forever] in this world.
I think you're exactly right. And maybe if it's impossible to be a hero, it's not impossible to have moments of heroism. But it's good to remind ourselves that, haven't those people given us enough in that moment of heroism?
It's been interesting to see Sully [Capt. Chesley Sullenberger], the plane pilot [who landed US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River]. You can set your watch by, "OK, now. Here's the acceptance and adulation and now, when will it turn?" When will the pilots start coming out who say, "Maybe he should have just landed it here? Maybe, he did this wrong." The deconstruction of these people seems an unnecessary and unfortunate part of the process.
It's the T-shirt vendors who alerted the police to the Times Square bomber and the next week are arguing over which one got to the police first.
Which I thought was a great metaphor for where heroism is today. But I do think for Sullenberger, in his defense, I think he was actually one of the ones who survived it somehow. It will be a matter of time. You'll be right, I'll be wrong. But I love talking to the pessimist when I get to be the optimist. It's much more fun to be the pessimist, but this is the fun part because you get to play that role.
I guess I sound douche-y and cynical, but I really do love politicians, especiall great politicians but I think great politicians are very rarely great human beings. I think I am just able to make that distinction.
And to me, I think that is what "Ex Machina" is about. Again, I think in the last issue, you do a number on Churchill that shows all your love for him and all your venom for what you think politicians are. And I think that's OK. To me, that's the beauty of the book. I guess there's not really a question there. But eight years ago, you called "Ex Machina," a parable about the power, fame, honor and disgrace that comes with serving the public in the 21st century." I just really felt like the end desire was really achieved.
Well, thank you.
I felt like that's what it really was. I felt like it was the one time when I read a pitch and it was exactly what you put out there eight years later. I thought it was interesting that the Great Machine is how Jefferson once described American society.
Well, thanks. We didn't make up too much as we went along. I tried to let everyone know what they were getting into early to avoid problems later down the line.
Well, I remember talking to you years ago at dinner and you just said to me, "Oh. It's going to be heart-breaking. It's going to be sad." You were just so adamant about it so early on. When you get to an ending, you somehow always just get a little nostalgic for the start just by the mere fact that you're ending. But I love that, right at the start, you were like, "No. Fuck it. Hearts are going to break."
I always thought the ending of "Y: The Last Man" was kind of hopeful and upbeat but people told me that it was a "wrist-slitter," so I don't know what they'll make of this finale.
You mention Hundred in the original pitch as having deeply held political beliefs. But I feel like after all of these issues…does Hundred actually have deeply held beliefs?
Hmm. That's an interesting question.
I know he had belief in himself, but I felt like, what I kept coming back to as I looked at each one of them, you tried to straddle this elusive fairness, whatever fairness is. But I felt like, in a strange, odd way. like someone who is not married to any of those beliefs is not married to anything, and maybe that was the point. Or maybe that was just how you wanted to portray Mitchell.
It is almost like saying, "His core belief system is that there is no core belief system."
There was never really an agenda for...well, let me say I always get angry at writers, I guess, when they say, "This character really spoke to me." It really feels hard to me. That's difficult work, to pull words out of characters, but it was very intuitive to sort think about how Mitchell would feel about those, and not because they almost never reflected my own views. I really wish I had a better answer, but it was instinctive.
I thought it was just fascinating that you made an allegory that he was an engineer. Because, I constantly always wanted to know when I was reading the book, did you actually know anything about engineering, or did you just bluff through it because it was such a good metaphor for the book.
It was a great metaphor, but I flunked out of math. I can't build anything to save my life, but I did love the idea of an engineer, because I guess there seems to be a degree of theatricality in politics. I like just getting a sort of wonk in there. And not even a political wonk, but just someone who was really hands-on and how this city is run. For Mitchell, it was always a numbers game. How can I help the most people and what's the best way?
That's funny. The cynic in me says the numbers game can be looked at in different way. I still see Dick Morris, pre-toe sucking, in the White House, running numbers for Clinton and being the man deciding how we should feel.
Sure. And I think you can sort of see the evolution of Mitchell. I really wanted to do 48 issues, originally, because I wanted to cover one full term. I wanted you to see, almost in real time, a politician and how he changes over the course of four years. It's awesome to meet people now who are reading "Ex Machnia" sort of in one sitting in preparation for the finale, but I think it's a different experience having read it over the course of, well, now more than four years.
I'm trying to think now, having heard you say that, but I don't think he's changed that much. But maybe that's because it opens with his ending, so it's not like we see the evolution. Even though we get glimpses of the young, idealistic Mitchell and we see the great flashbacks and we see the old comic book store. We see all the good stuff and we even see when he starts as a superhero, [but] you still tell us what the ending is on page 1 of the first issue.
It should feel inevitable where he's at come the end. It should feel like a natural progression, but I hope that it's been sort of a slow, incremental journey where we're headed now.
That's what I always loved about the book, and that's the Hitchcock quote: "There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it." I just felt like on page 1 you said, "Here's the bang."
And now give me 50 issues of your money, suckers! And maybe it will go off at the end.
It goes off, don't worry. OK. Last one from the pitch. There's a character in the original pitch named Susan X, and it says, "The city's most eligible bachelor Mitchell Hundred is of great interest to the media, but he likes to keep his private life private and he divulges as little information as possible about his girlfriends – with an 's' – a beautiful woman the tabloids have dubbed, 'Susan X.' Can she be the key to Mitchell's dark secret?" I'm just curious - did she become the reporter?
She did. She became Suzanne, so her name didn't change that much. But it wasn't a complete swerve.
So Suzanne was always there from the start and she was going to be the one that turns and gets infected and all that? You knew that part?
Yes, that was always there. But how it came about did change by the time we made it to the first issue. It changed so much, because I think what you're reading, if I'm right and there is no mention of Tony in the pitch, that was all written before Tony came onboard. The book didn't become the book until Tony was there.
The characters didn't become the characters until he drew them. So a lot of this was all made pre-consulting Tony. I think in that document at the time, I envisioned The Great Machine, Mitchell's alter ego, just being a sort of Superman analog, just a guy in a cape running around.
I'm so glad you didn't do that.
I know - it would have been terrible! [Laughs] And that's why I always say one of the first and best things that Tony did was say, "Look. Your internal struggle has to be reflected externally. If it's this guy who talks to machines, let's make him almost look like one. If it's supposed to be in the real world, let's have it be kind of bulky and clunky and practical, the way that Mitchell is."
I think it's so important when you do creator-owned stuff, at the point the artist comes on, they always have to be 50/50 co-owner of everything, because I would just write a book if I knew how to do this on my own. It really didn't become the comic it was until Tony started penciling it. And J.D. [Mettler]'s colors are the other thing that really sets the book apart.
And I think Tony - and again, I read this last issue with Tony's art on one side of me and your script on the other and lettering wasn't actually done - I could actually see what you intended and what Tony changed, because I had to read it like that. And I can tell you, I worked on one page with Tony [on "Justice League of America" #0], and it was of all the artists that I've worked with, from Jim Lee to everyone else that we did with all those different artists, Tony changed more than anybody else than what it started as and made it far better than what I originally had. I finally got to see, in that moment of reading the last issue that way, there were just little moments, like when you see Mitchell walk away from the podium and all Tony decides to draw is his shoes stepping aside. I just think that's such an elegant, beautiful way to do it, and I just thought, "Man, you got lucky for 50 issues."
I sure did. And it is asking a lot of an artist, especially when Tony came onboard. This is a guy who could have done any DC or Marvel book he wanted, to not only say, "I want to get involved with this obscure writer and do a creator-owned mature reader book, but I want to do every single panel or every single page for however long it takes." And he did. There are not that many artists who would take that kind of chance and would have that much dedication. It's been great.
Come back soon for the second part of this CBR exclusive presentation.