When you’re dealing with finite, long form comics like “Ex Machina,” when surrounded by a sea of tightly plotted multi-part arcs, the single issue story carries an especially tangible weight. While they are stand alone, they often say just as much about the many issues that have preceded it. This issue is no exception.
Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris’ comic has always been primarily about three things: Superheroes, Politics, and New York City. For the life of me, I can’t think of another 22 pages that so deftly, wittily, and poignantly captured all three the way this story has.
It goes without saying that “Ex Machina” is an exceptional comic book, and in subtle ways, its existence as such is part of the focus of this issue. It centers mainly around Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris, two comic creators in 2004, and their audition to be Mayor Mitchell Hundred’s comic book biographers. (Paul Levitz cornered the Mayor and talked him into doing it for charity.)
Far from a po-faced, cerebral meditation on the creative act and the omnipotent hand of the creator, Vaughan writes himself as just another New Yorker, and therein lays the book’s resonance. The story he tells is a simple one, but he represents, like the rest of the series, the joining of the exceptional and the mundane. Hundred is a character with almost limitless power, but all too often he deals with the most mundane and bureaucratic problems. Vaughan embodies the same idea by taking such a daring creative choice, inserting himself into his own comic, and using the opportunity to simply tell the story about a guy, a girl, and the post-9/11 city he lives in.
Tony Harris, Jim Clark, and JD Mettler are at their usual top form, and Harris particularly has a great deal of fun in the issue drawing himself and his collaborator, fitting in perfectly with Hundred and his supporting cast. They’ve defined the style of the book so concretely that when you reach the end of the book, the issue’s final scene lands with even greater impact.
The way all these things come together is a bit intangible, but I can’t help but feel that that’s where the issue’s beauty really lies. I can’t specifically point to a particular scene or line of dialogue that properly encapsulates why I was so impressed by it. Perhaps it was simply the fact that I read it on the N Train underneath New York City, and on a Wednesday, with a bag full of new comics over my shoulder. Maybe it was my own circumstance that led to such a remarkable experience.
Because in so many ways, this issue was directly about comics and the city that so many of its stories have taken place in. And the final pages, as clever, truly surprising, and beautiful as they are, nail that convergence in so many ways. They illustrate so many things in such a small span of time. How fantastic a creative space modern comics is, how simple and singular a character Mayor Hundred is, what an extraordinary city Manhattan is; and how fundamentally captivated by all three Brian K. Vaughan remains.
It’s just a brilliant story, one of the most memorable single issues I’ve ever read. And I don’t think it would work in any other medium, or to any other audience. This is not to say that “Ex Machina” as a whole is not a work that can be read and enjoyed by anyone, because it absolutely is. But this particular issue, this one is special. This one is for us. It’s the story of one of our own (well, two, if you count Mitchell Hundred, and you probably ought to). It’s about why people still write and draw comics and why, specifically, we read them. What, specifically, they can capture.
And “Ex Machina” is in the enviable position of saying so much about the city that pretty much gave birth to the medium as we know it today. To be sure, its creators span the globe and its products can be found in practically every culture and language that exist. But modern comics would be nowhere if it wasn’t for this city, and all the people who found their way there decades ago.
Like I said, it’s hard to put into words. Luckily, we all share in the appreciation of a medium that can use more than just those.