SPOILER WARNING: This interview contains spoilers for “Ex Machina” #1 through #50.
This week, 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 fueled 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 one issue to go.
This is the second part of their conversation. The first part can be found here.
Brad Meltzer: For a while, pop culture references were like a gang sign. They were like shorthand to the reader to show, “We’re in this together.” Lately, I’ve been on this kick of hating pop culture references because they feel so awful. Or even worse, they’d become a mask for showing real feelings on the page, but you pull them off to great effect. I don’t know if there is a question there; I guess this is the moment in the Chris Farley Show where I go, “Why are you so awesome?”
Brian K. Vaughan: I realize it, and it’s a complaint I see all of the time. I know that people are aware of it, especially when you get sort of pigeonholed as the pop culture guy. It is a terrible feeling. Immediately, when I went off to write “Pride of Baghdad,” I was like, “I’m just going to have animals in a foreign country.” [Laughs] No pop culture references there.
But the complaint I hear most about pop culture references is how it really dates the work. I always thought that it was so presumptuous that you would think without these references, this would be a timeless piece of work that would last the ages. We don’t get to decide what is timeless. One of the things I grew up loving was the Warner Bros. “Bugs Bunny” cartoons with wall-to-wall pop culture references that I don’t understand because I don’t even know what Edward G. Robinson movie they’re making a reference to. But it’s great because it’s funny. Stan Lee did the same thing with early “Spider-Man” issues with references to “The Beverly Hillbillies.” If you remove those things, we would still know that this a “Spider-Man” comic from the 1960s because of the way people dressed.
This is what I was trying to get at. It’s not about using them – I don’t mind people using them. I just don’t want them using them as a crutch. What they do is, instead of showing the real moment, and having the real feeling for the character, they say, “Oh I get it. This is just like the one in ‘Joanie Loves Chachi’ where…” Instead, what you did, and I see it over and over, is you actually let us have that little moment, but then you get to show the emotion. It’s something I saw in the book over and over again. Obviously, you’re using superheroes as the shorthand here, but I thought it was presented perfectly.
You only have to be honest to the characters and talk the way they would. How many pop culture references have we made over the course of this conversation? It just feels honest to me, that’s our contemporary life.
I was just being honest with you. [Laughs]
I like it. [Laughs]
On that note, do you think steeping so much of the story in the tropes of what it means to be a superhero, makes it “more genre” and therefore scares readers, or is it more accessible since we’ve been inundated with superheroes movie since the first “Spider-Man” opened?
No. I have to say, I’m humbled but very surprised the book lasted as long as it did. It just felt like a really hard sell to me. It feels like, “Well, if you like politics, this book has way too much jet pack in it for you. And if you like raygun fights, this book has way too much talk about potholes in it.” I really have no idea what kind of audience this book has. I certainly don’t hear as much about “Ex Machina” as I do about “Y” or “Runaways,” but it does feel like the people that do like “Ex Machina,” like it a lot. It’s flattering. I have no idea why the hell anyone would want to read about this stuff.
It’s funny. I like “Ex Machina” better than “Y” or “Runaways,” and I’ve told you that before.
That’s nice to hear.
OK. Let me ask this one, and it’s just a total writing question. We all know what you’re good at is making us love new characters. That’s a hard task. It’s one thing to make us love Spider-Man again or Green Lantern again, but you actually have us loving a new character. I’ve heard you say, and I know your knee-jerk response will be, writers just aren’t trying to create new characters. But they are, [though] very few have broken through. Even The Hood is there. The Hood is out and fighting The Avengers. I love that! So, what is it? I don’t want this to turn into something totally obnoxious and say, “What is it that people are doing wrong,” but how do you do it, to do it so right?
Well, thanks. I’m just going to give the asshole answer that you anticipated and just say, “Do it.” I don’t know what the secret is, especially with Mitchell Hundred. I think a lot of my protagonists are not usually entirely likable people.
I disagree. I think your protagonists are usually super likable. I think Mitchell Hundred is the one that is the least likable, but you also make us love him because you show us his childhood. The childhood and the flashbacks are why we love Mitchell. At least I think that was the trick, a little bit. I also think the hard decisions that he makes now make him likable. Decisions that we know are not so good for him. But I still like him. I actually think you tend to write likable characters because you’re a likable guy, no matter what you say right now.
But I think in this one you really said, “You know what? I’m going to take a bastard and see if I can make you love the bastard.” And I think you made us love the bastard.
Well, again, thanks. I remember when I was pitching “Y,” someone said Yorick really shouldn’t be an English major or an escape artist because it’s hard to relate to. If he’s supposed to be the last man, he should really be more of an everyman. But I really think the more specific you make characters, the more weirdly people tend to identify with them. So, I guess if I benefited from anything, I guess it’s from having highly specific characters. Yes, I guess I thought too much about what they were like as kids.
It’s not too much, because I actually thought that if all the men don’t die, Mitchell Hundred is what Yorick grows up to be.
[Pauses] I think I would have to disagree with that. I don’t think those two would get along. But it’s a terrifying thought.
But it’s not pure pessimism. When you show those flashbacks of Mitchell, he’s as lovable and as happy in a comic book store as any one could be.
You’re just a sucker for comic fans.
I am sure there are some asshole kids that like comic books.
Well, you hit the hammer right on the head. If you like comics…that’s my codeword.
I know, and I think I exploited that. I recognized in “Pride of Baghdad,” that we have a natural shorthand with animals that we sadly maybe don’t have for people of different nationalities. That is the same way that I am preying on our innate love for fellow comic geeks by maybe showing us all a house mirror reflection of ourselves in Mitchell. I hope people see a bit of themselves in Mitchell and I hope they see a whole lot of not themselves in him too.
The one thing I always felt, and I liked every part of it, but I always wondered why you felt like you didn’t need to show that kind of “Elseworlds” Mitchell. In a strange way, and perhaps that’s the beautiful part of the story, I don’t even think you needed it. It never mattered to me, as much as what happened in the here and now, where the powers came from. I know that is always supposed to be the part that people beg for the most – “Show us the adventure.” “Tell us what the Island is, damn it!” – and this is one of the few things where I didn’t care at all. It didn’t matter. I enjoyed what I read, but it really didn’t matter. I was that engaged in the present and how he dealt with it that I didn’t care what was in the golden suitcase.
Well, thanks. It’s a weird compliment. I think that was frustrating for a lot of people. Again, he didn’t say, “This is my cross to bear and I’m going to move forward with it. I’m not going to dwell on where this came from or let it define me.” But I agree with you, it’s only interesting to me in how it affects Mitchell emotionally and how it changes the decisions he makes as Mayor. I knew I never wanted it to end with – and sadly for Tony, because he would have drawn the shit out of it – an ultimate clash between two invading dimensions or something.
You mean like with one Mitchell on one side with his fist pumped in the air and another one in the exact opposite direction with flash lines racing back and forth?
That would have been the ultimate cover for the finale.
It would be epic. With foil. You should have actually done a foil cover for the last one.
The issue hasn’t come out yet, so give us time. We’ll see what we can do.
Quickly to the obvious stuff that I know people want to know about. What’s the “Ex Machina” movie status?
That’s the one thing of mine that I’m actually involved in where the rights reverted back to Tony and me, so we own it completely. We’ve had some people come up to us recently and ask about its availability, but I think we just wanted to wait until the book was over, I guess, so people could see what they were getting into. I can’t believe this is something anyone would want to make a movie of after they see the ending, but maybe I’m wrong. Maybe a TV show? So we’ll see. I think Tony and I are open to it, but again, we spent several years of our lives doing this and I think we feel we did it right in this way, so we’re not in a hurry to sell just to sell it.
Did you get your script back, or does the script stay with them?
No, apparently, that’s back to me.
OK, good. So what did you change from the comic to the script? Does the whole thing take place as one thing from the beginning to your end in the comic, or is actually just a section of the series and you planned on, knowing your crass commercial brain, 50 million sequels?
It’s been so long since I’ve written it. I guess I’ll just plead the fifth. I don’t want people to think that there is another, better, more official version of “Ex Machina” out there. Anything that I liked was stripped, mined and cannibalized back into the comic. A good comic is what I care about.
Good. Just to wrap up with the two most obvious questions. What else are you working on?
I wish I could share but everything is secret, so, I just have to say an annoying: “Stay Tuned.”
OK. And to steal from my favorite interview ever: Zombie versus robots, who wins?
Robots. That’s easy, right?