Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Tony Harris, and the issue is Ex Machina #10, which was published by DC/Wildstorm and is cover dated June 2005. Enjoy!
Ex Machina was always one of the best series of any year when it was being published, and I’m not positive how much credit Harris gets for making it so. It’s very much a talky book, as Brian K. Vaughan books have tended to be, and too often, Harris just got to draw a bunch of characters talking. I wanted to show an issue with some action, and issue #10 has that, so it made the cut. This series, I think, was where Harris got a negative reputation as someone who didn’t draw action as well, which I think is unwarranted. We’ll see, won’t we?
First, though, we see some of Harris’s versatility. On the television, we see a very cartoony drawing of a man (Mayor Mitchell Hundred?) and an anthropomorphic animal of some sort. As we’ve seen over the past few days, for someone who is often talked about as a heavily photo referencing artist, Harris’s cartooning skills are underrated, and on the television, we see a literal cartoon, done in a style that makes it stand out nicely with the more realistic world in which the book is set. It’s nifty.
The television is trying to tell Connie something, and that something is “Cut your own arm off,” which she proceeds to do. This scene culminates here, and while the drawing is nice, the storytelling is a bit strange. Connie is telling Jackson that she knows how to fix their broken marriage (by, you know, cutting off the hand that has the wedding ring on it), but it’s clear she’s not quite right in the head when she says it. Harris draws two very interesting figures here, as he makes Connie completely insane and Jackson totally terrified. In Panel 1, he gives Connie the one thin eye and the one wide eye, which is universal shorthand for “insane,” and while her hair always looks like that, the loose lines he and inker Tom Feister use on it makes it seem wilder. Jackson’s face in Panels 2 and 5 are well done, too – Harris narrows his eyes, scrunches up his forehead, and puts his hands in front of his mouth in Panel 2, and stretches his face a bit when he opens his mouth in horror in Panel 5. As we’ve seen, Harris likes thick, bold lines, and one thing we get in Ex Machina is more delicacy in the line work, as we’ll see below. Here, however, it’s manifested in the blood, which doesn’t look drawn in, but simply colored in by JD Mettler. Anyway, the big problem with this page is it’s unclear if Connie attacks Jackson or not. She cuts her arm off (nice frayed skin there in Panel 5), and in Panel 3, it appears that she’s stabbing him, as her positioning and his sound effect imply, and in Panel 4, it’s clear that she’s stabbing downward (certainly not westward!). But look at Panel 5. Jackson appears to be unharmed. The blood obscuring his torso is Connie’s, not his, and while she’s standing over him, there doesn’t appear to be a mark on him. Did Vaughan want there to be a mark on him? Is this an oversight by Harris? Or is Connie more interested in chopping off her own arm and is just being dramatic by doing it while standing over her husband? We don’t know, because we never see Jackson again. Connie implies that she killed him, but it’s just an implication, nothing more.
This is an example of what I mentioned above, with the delicacy of the lines. No, this isn’t a delicate image by any means, but Harris and Feister are obviously trying different things with the artwork, which includes using differently weighed lines. In the background, Connie (dressed in a hazmat suit) is inked fairly heavily, with the black folds on her arm a fairly standard way to show thickness. In the foreground, Mitchell is also inked sturdily, although not as heavily as Connie is. Harris has either toned down his angularity or Feister is able to smooth it out, because we see some vestiges of the harsher hatching of earlier Harris work, but that’s all it is. Meanwhile, the shattered glass does not appear to be inked at all – the borders are white, and it makes me wonder if Harris drew them in at all or if Mettler added them in post. It’s a very dramatic drawing, to be sure, and shows that Harris is still quite good at dynamic work. The mixture of heavy and light lines adds some nice nuance to Harris’s art, which is fairly important in this comic.
Despite Harris’s strong artwork, he still uses motion lines, which seem to go out of vogue as artists get older. I love ’em, but I can understand why artists would feel they can be a crutch. Here, though, it adds some urgency to the panel, as we’ve gone through a few pages of Connie posturing as she talks about killing Mitch. Mitch can’t control her with his voice thing, but he can control his jetpack, which slams into her. Notice that in Panel 1, we get plenty of nice details in Connie’s robot arm, and Feister’s inking of Mitch’s face is well done, showing the stress he’s under. As we’ve seen in other examples, Mettler adds shading, which tends to soften artwork a little, so while Harris’s work doesn’t suffer with modern coloring techniques as we’ve seen with some other artists, it does blunt his harder edges a bit. The spot blacks in Panels 2 and 3, for instance, aren’t quite as blocky as we’ve seen from Harris in the past – they twist and turn a bit more, implying the folds of the outfit Connie is wearing much better, but also smoothing out the pencil work a little, which may or may not be to your taste. Mettler, using a lot of tricks, can also add that luminescence to the coloring, which, as we see in Panel 3, can overwhelm the pencil work just a little. It’s interesting to see the effects of new technology on artists, and we certainly see it here.
Mitch orders his jetpack to explode, causing Connie some trauma. This splash page is a nice example of “new” techniques colliding with old-school pencil and ink. It’s not the greatest perspective – Connie was holding the jet pack over her head, so this is basically us looking down at her, but Harris wants to get Mitch into the scene too, so the view is a bit wonky – but let’s not worry about that. Harris is always attentive to details, so Connie’s robot arm is drawn very precisely, with coils and springs and bolts making it look very real, even though it’s in the service of a sci-fi conceit. In the same way, the innards of the jetpack are fairly precise, with gears and springs flying in every direction as it explodes. Connie’s face is anguished as she takes the full brunt of the explosion, while Mitch’s face is what we’d expect from a man trying to shield himself from flying debris. Combine this all with Mettler’s colors, which are digitally painted without any border lines, and I can understand a bit more why I used to read some people complain about the art on the book, as it’s a bit dichotomous. We have seen Harris draw explosions into his work using heavy lines which the colorist then colored in, but on Ex Machina, the creative team tried something different, partly, I would imagine, to allow Harris to stay on schedule (technically, he drew every issue of the series, but it certainly didn’t come out in 50 consecutive months and Vaughan wrote “specials” with guest artists to tide readers over), but partly, I imagine, because Vaughan and Harris wanted to make this as naturalistic as possible, as it’s another iteration of a “superhero in the real world” story that we’ve become accustomed to. The explosion doesn’t have jagged, thick border lines because explosions in the real world don’t. It creates a bit of a disconnect because, slyly, Harris’s style remains somewhat cartoony, but it does help ground the book a bit more, I think. I could be wrong about why Vaughan, Harris, and Mettler did it this way, but it’s a good theory, isn’t it?
As I noted, Ex Machina is a very talky book, and Harris does a very good job making the conversations visually interesting. The characters in Ex Machina run the gamut of races, genders, and body types, and Harris does fine work with all of them. He gets Dave’s somewhat sheepish admission that he’s both in trouble with his wife and a hero to his kids, as he pushes back his hair and twists his mouth a little. Mitchell is stern with him because he doesn’t want to be the source of marital strife, and Harris is able to match his pensive look in Panel 5 to Vaughan’s penchant for ending a page with a synecdoche-ish bon mot (oh, how Vaughan loves his bon mots!). The way Dave collapses on the sofa in Panel 2 is well done, too, as he’s had a long day and he just wants to relax. Harris does this kind of thing throughout the series, and it’s impressive how easy he makes it all look.
For whatever reason, in recent years Harris has decided to move back toward a much more cartoony style, so for our last day, I’ll take a look at one of his latest project, a long-delayed book that has a lot of potential, so it would be nice if it showed up more often! But we have some examples of it, so come back and see what’s what! In the interim, here are the archives!