Monday, June 20, 2005

Ground Hero

For the first time in years, I made the trip to Manhattan by public trans last Saturday.

Usually I make the trip by car, but since this was kind of a “get-in-and-get-out” trip, I thought I’d save myself the aggravation of driving. It’s a good deal, especially when you leave early and you’re half asleep: you close your eyes and then you’re in NY like magic, no tolls, no long wait at the Lincoln Tunnel, no parking worries, etc. It’s great. You do have to be awake enough to change trains twice, but otherwise it’s a breeze.

Upon exiting Penn Station I turned around and was struck by the sight of the Empire State Building, something I hadn’t seen in person in ages. My trips to NY usually center around the Village and Times Square, so I’m always surprised when one of these landmarks swims into view. All of a sudden I think, “Oh, right…New York.” I still haven’t made the trip to Ground Zero, something I’m reminded of every time I drive into the city and I’m met by that famous, but crippled, skyline.

All of which seemed appropriate, as I was there to celebrate a very New York comic book that’s filled with such iconography.

To be honest, I’m not the comic geek of my childhood. I try to keep tabs on what’s going on and keep an eye on a handful of favorites, and sometimes I get lucky and discover something great.

In this case, it’s Ex Machina, a monthly book brought to you by one Brian K. Vaughan (writer) and Tony Harris (illustrator). I had known and loved Harris’s work since I started buying Starman years ago, and Vaughan I only knew from his Y: The Last Man, a story of what happens when a plague wipes out all the males on the planet…save one.

Ex Machina tells the story of Mitchell Hundred, a civil engineer who’s caught in a mysterious explosion (which may or may not have been engineered by beings from an alternate universe) which gives him the ability to communicate with machines. Still with me?

Spurred on by a childhood friend, Mitchell uses these abilities to become a superhero called “The Great Machine,” a name derived from a quote by Thomas Jefferson about society. Unfortunately, “The Great Machine” seems to create as many problems as he solves and Hundred decides to retire his superhero togs and run for Mayor of New York City.

Still with me?

His campaign seems doomed, until the events of 9/11 force him to become “The Great Machine” one last time to do what he can to help. And he does. In Mitchell’s world, which resembles ours in most other respects, he prevents the second plane from hitting the Tower.

He’s elected by a landslide.

From these elements and others, Vaughan and Harris weave a subtle and compelling meditation on politics, the nature of heroes and our need for them, and comic books themselves. It’s probably the best written and most beautifully drawn comic book being published at the moment. And it’s not just me saying that: they’ve gotten a bucketload of Eisner nominations for their trouble, so I’m not a loony in the wilderness here (as is so often the case).

I don’t often do the Comic Con thing, but I couldn’t pass up the chance to meet them in person at the Big Apple Con, not to mention getting to indulge my passion for autographs. Both of them are modest to a fault about what they’re doing, often shifting any praise they get onto the other one. Their creative relationship is truly collaborative, and the artistic benefits are there for anyone to see.

They’re not working in a vacuum, thank goodness. Ex Machina seems to attract more readers and kudos every day. The next paperback collection will sport an introduction by The Wachowski Brothers, for heaven’s sake. So don’t wait to be told how great it was when it’s over (it comes to an end when Hundred’s first term does). Enjoy it now and spread the word.


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