Deux Ex Part 1 0f 3: Brian K Vaughan talks "Ex Machina"

Tue, May 18th, 2004 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Arune Singh, Staff Writer

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[Ex-Machina]Look, up in the sky!

It's a bird! It's a plane!

Actually, it's the new DC Comics/Wildstorm series "Ex Machina," a creator owned project from writer Brian K Vaughan and artist Tony Harris, which details the exploits of the world's first superhero and first superhero politician. CBR News is presenting a two day event to let readers know about this exciting new project and to kick things off, Vaughan explained the premise of the series.

"Set in our modern-day real world, 'Ex Machina' tells the story of civil engineer and lifelong comics fan Mitchell Hundred, who becomes America's first living, breathing superhero after a strange accident gives him those proverbial 'amazing powers.' Eventually tiring of risking his life merely to help maintain the status quo, Mitchell retires from masked crimefighting and runs for Mayor of New York City, winning by a landslide. And that's just the first few pages of Issue #1…

Three stages of cover development for "Ex Machina" #1.
"As for where I got the idea from, I've always wanted to do a superhero book that wasn't necessarily about superheroes. There are enough postmodern, self-reflexive, deconstructionist comics out there already. I'd rather use superheroes as a parable to explore our world, especially contemporary local politics, which is way more sexy, fast-paced and dangerous than the boring crap that goes on in Washington."

The main character of the series, Mitchell Hundred, is an enigmatic figure and Vaughan was happy to explain a bit about Hundred, but doesn't want to reveal too much just yet. "Mitchell Hundred (a thirteenth-generation American whose name comes from Brandywine Hundred, the division of Delaware where his ancestors settled) grew up reading DC Comics like most of us did, but he opted to use his considerable imagination and artistic skills to design bridges rather than draw JLA comics. A mysterious event turns Mitchell into something resembling one of the superheroes he grew up reading, a high-flying hero named 'The Great Machine.' You'll have to read the book to find out the shocking reason he removed his helmet and threw his hat into a crowded NYC mayoral race..."

With the critical acclaim on Marvel Comics' "Runaways" and stellar sales on DC Comics/Vertigo's "Y- The Last man," Vaughan found that pitching the series to Wildstorm wasn't difficult. "Pitching was a breeze," he admits. "I sent a one-page proposal to Jim Lee, and he wrote back almost immediately to say that he wanted WildStorm to do the book. I'm sure the relative success of 'Y' helped get the pitch read, but I like to think the strength of my ideas sold it. But who knows...?"

A handfull of concept sketches by Tony Harris.
Since the series is set in an entirely new universe, Vaughan would seem to have had a multitude of options for where to take the book- from Vertigo to Image Comics- but he says there's a good reason why Wildstorm is the only home for this book. "What other company would do a monthly, ongoing, full-color, totally creator-owned, superhero book for mature readers, and pay a superstar artist like Tony Harris what he deserves to draw it? WildStorm is a great, great company, with some of the best editors I've ever worked with, too."

The term "mature readers comic" makes some wary, with images of excess swearing and naked (mostly female) bodies cluttering pages. As readers of "Y" have seen, that isn't the way Vaughan writes, though he admits to being a bit more "realistic" with the language. "There's my typical excessive amount of obscenities in Issue #1. Some nudity on the way, too. But seriously, tits and swearing obviously don't make a book 'mature.' It's all about the subject matter, and Tony and I are definitely exploring some topics that we'd never be able to touch in an all-ages series."

The first issue of "Ex Machina" is an extra 8 pages long, at no extra cost to the reader, and has been lauded for the amount of story put into the issue. Bucking the trend, it is also a single issue story, something Vaughan says, "Was all me. WildStorm has been totally supportive of everything I've wanted to do so far. You'll always get your $2.95 out of our book."

With words like "realistic" and "grittier" being used to describe "Ex Machina," as well as the somewhat lack of a "proper" superhero costume, some might think that the series is a criticism of popular superhero conventions. Then again, if you are thinking that, you don't know Brian K Vaughan. "I love superhero comics!" he exclaims. "I write, like, six of them. Again, 'Ex Machina' isn't a criticism or examination of the superhero, something that's been criticized and examined to death of recent. It's a fast-paced political thriller that uses superheroes as a metaphor."

Especially stirring, the first issue of the series is punctuated by a discussion of responsibility, as well as the idea of adapting your dreams to reality; Vaughan wants to tackle serious matters in "Ex Machina" but isn't prepared to discuss those quite yet. "I hate explaining what I'm trying to accomplish thematically with my stories. Everyone's interpretation is equally valid, and I'm much more interested in hearing what you got out of the book then telling you what I tried to put into it."

Artist Tony Harris is also listed as co-creator of "Ex Machina" and Vaughan is adamant about the fact that Harris is a major contributor to this book. "Tony is the book's co-creator, and that's not just an honorary title. I've turned minor characters into important members of the supporting cast just because of how brilliantly Tony brought them to life on the page, and his New York City looks and feels like our New York City, which is obviously critical for a book like this one. Working with Tony, inker Tom Feister, and colorist JD Mettler has been one of the coolest, happiest experiences of my career, and I just hope our sickening love-in will be evident in the finished product."

Pencilled pages by Tony Harris
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Vaughan's excitement over Harris' involvement isn't just for the press- it's because Harris is his dream creative partner for this project. "It took so long to get 'Ex Machina' off the ground because I only wanted to do the book with a certain kind of collaborator. Tony Harris has been one of my favorite artists since 'Starman,' and I desperately wanted someone with his design sense and realistic style for this series. We looked and looked for months and months, until editor Ben Abernathy came up with the brilliant idea of actually asking Tony Harris! It's been years since Tony worked on an ongoing series, and he's been offered every major character at Marvel and DC, but much to my amazement, he signed up for 'Ex Machina' about thirty minutes after we sent him the proposal."

On "Y- The Last Man," Vaughan works with talented Canadian artist Pia Guerra, and the bald scribe says his experience with Harris thus far on "Ex Machina" is similar. "We're five or six issues in now, and Tony and I are such a well-oiled machine, I honestly don't remember where his contributions to the story begin and mine end. We talk on the phone almost every day, and Tony supplies way more than just the look of the characters and the city. The book is his, much like 'Y: The Last Man' really belongs to the genius that is Pia Guerra. I'm really fortunate to get to work with such smart, giving partners-in-crime."

As previously mentioned, there's been a lot of buzz for "Ex Machina," from the lengthy write up at the Previews Review website or the many comments from Ed Brubaker, and while some might be tempted to worry about sales, Vaughan is just hoping he can keep doing the project as long as possible. "Well, I hope the book makes money for WildStorm so we can keep doing it, but beyond that, I just write books that I want to read. It would be nice if people dig it, but trying to second-guess your audience is madness. I was pretty sure that 'Y: The Last Man' would be canceled at Issue #6, and 'The Hood' would be Marvel's best-selling new ongoing series, so what the fuck do I know? All I can do is work really hard on things that I care about."

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Since Wildstorm tends to be a reliable company in terms of collecting single-issue series into trade paperback collections, there's already a sense that some readers may be "waiting for the trade." Some creators have spoken up loudly against this and while Vaughan understands concerns about sales, he feels that readers have the right to choose and that as a creator, he has to do all he can to keep the buyers coming back each month. "Readers have a right to buy books in whatever format they like. Who am I to tell them otherwise? Creators have to accept that a growing percentage of readers will always wait for a trade, even if that waiting could help kill the book. If writers and artists want their series to survive, they have to write/draw something that's so goddamn good, a much larger percentage of readers will be totally incapable of waiting several months to get their next fix."

If you're not sure about "Ex Machina," Vaughan has one final thing to say about the comic and why you should give it a try. "The money-back guarantee that creators sometimes offer for their new debuts has been a little played-out of recent, and while I'll always make that offer to anyone who buys any of my books, we're going to be doing something very different with the first issue of 'Ex Machina,' which like 'Y #1,' will be an extra-sized 40-page issue for the price of a regular comic.

"Retailers have always been hugely supportive of my stuff, but I'm afraid a lot of people are going to underestimate just how great the demand will be for Tony Harris' return to monthly comics. I also worry that everyone who picks up my second 'Ultimate X-Men' issue with Brandon Peterson in June is also going to want to check out 'Ex Machina #1,' and I'm concerned that supply won't be there to meet demand.

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"So to make sure that only the most deserving people get a copy of our first issue, it will only be sold to readers who are registered to vote. Our protagonist is independent, but Tony and I don't care which party you choose to affiliate yourself with (if any), as long as you're registered. It only takes a few minutes of Googling to find out how to do this in your area, and you've got a whole month before our first issue comes out to make it happen, so I don't want to hear any crying. And yes, this is open to residents of all democratic, socialist, U.S.-occupied, whatever, countries, as long as you do whatever it takes to become a voter where you live.

"I realize this means that most people under 18, as well as many convicted felons, won't be able to buy our first issue, but as a Mature Readers series, teenagers probably aren't ready for some of the stuff that happens in our first story, and felons will just shoplift the damn book anyway, so I'm comfortable with our restrictions.

"Retailers and readers with any questions about this policy and/or its enforcement are welcome to contact me anytime at: BrianKVaughan@aol.com"

Tomorrow, look for an interview with Tony Harris with additional prevew art, to be posted after noon PST.

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Photo reference used by Tony Harris.

 
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