A long-standing tradition in superhero comic books since Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's days with the Fantastic Four gets a 21st Century twist this week when writer Brian K Vaughan and artist Tony Harris appear as themselves in the pages of Wildstorm's "Ex Machina" #40, kicking off the planned 50-issue series' final year's worth of stories. And according to the writer, he held off on the appearance for as long as he could, to great effect.
"It's really one of the first stories I thought of when I came up with the concept of the book, and it's something I've been putting off forever because I didn't want to do it because it involves me. And I really dislike myself," Vaughan told CBR News. "The last thing I want to do is something that puts myself at the center of the story, and I put it off for as many years as I could, and then it just felt like in a weird way - not because of my presence in the story but because of what the story is - it became incredibly central to what happens next in an odd way. So, it's a story that 'had to be told.'"
The plot of the stand-alone story involves fictional superpowered New York City mayor Mitchell Hundred commissioning comics creators to help him draft a memoir of his administration while he's still in office, which is something that Ed Koch also did when he was the real-life mayor of New York. "So I thought it would be interesting for a guy who grew up loving comics that Mitchell would decide to give something back to the medium he grew up loving. So he's auditioning people for 'Who's going to help me write my memoirs in the form of a graphic novel?' Tony Harris and I are two of many people who will stop by."
As for the other comics creators up for the job, Vaughan remarked, "We've been very secretive about what that means and whether that means we'll be seeing other people, but I think we've got probably the most popular artist in comics working with who I think is the best writer working in the medium today. They'll be doing a bit of a collaboration for this issue. It's hard to describe without spoiling anything. But there was some talk about if we announced who they were and what they were doing, we probably could have tripled orders for the book, but we liked that it was a surprise and a small gift for the readers who had been with the book from the very beginning. Without saying anything more than that, hopefully the payoff will be satisfactory when you finally see it."
And while the writer played light about his own appearance, Vaughan said the cameos remain a secondary part of the story. "The most important thing is that ['Ex Machina' is] always a book about my New York and my experiences living in New York and 'growing up' as much as much as anyone grows up in arriving in New York and going to college. And it's about the real world," Vaughan said. "To have a mayor whose passion is comic books, I think for that to have been an important part of his development, it just seemed weird to not address just how this guy would look at comic books and what they mean to his administration and to his way of thinking.
"It is furthering the narrative. We're entering the final year of 'Ex Machina,' and we only have so many issues. I didn't want to burn off an issue with a novelty story and go 'We've run out of ideas, so let's do this.' It's vitally important to understanding Mitchell Hundred and the way he's changed over the last four years. The way that he's thought about New York has changed. It's a story about him and not about us."
As for Hundred's story, recent issues of "Ex Machina" pushed forward competing threads involving some of the mayor's closest advisors plotting against his political career in favor of his return to heroing, as well as Hundred's own aspirations for the White House. And readers who have followed the series from its memorable first issue know that nothing good can lie ahead on either front.
"We've made no secret from the very first page of the series when Mitchell says, 'This may look like a comic, but it's really a tragedy.' We've done more than hint at what's going to happen in the fourth year of what may be his only term in office, and that things are not going to go very well," Vaughan confirmed. "Tony Harris and I wanted to tell a tragedy, and even though we've revealed that much, I think hopefully it will be extraordinarily surprising. I think it will be tragic in ways that people had not anticipated, and still be a rollicking good time."
Part of the fun of that story for Vaughan and Harris comes out of the elements of their book that remain unknown even to them, as "Ex Machina" changed in many ways from its conception to its final year, unlike Vaughan's other acclaimed series. "With 'Y: The Last Man,' I literally always knew the final page of the final issue from the moment I set out," he said. "It took a few side trips along the way, but the broad road map, Pia Guerra and I very rarely deviated from it. With 'Ex Machina,' I knew the broadest strokes of what the tragedy was going to be, but I had Mitchell say in that very first issue, 'This is the story of my time in office all the way through God forsaken 2005,' and when I was writing that, 2005 hadn't even happened yet. We didn't even know, if God forbid, there was going to be another terrorist attack in New York.
"And because this was reflecting the 'real world,' we wanted to leave ourselves the flexibility to incorporate real world events. So the story has remained the same, and Mitchell's tragedy will end up the way that we always intended, but events over the last couple of years have changed things in interesting ways that I think will become apparent over the next couple of issues. We had made small adaptations as we've gone along."
But from here on out, Vaughan and Harris will be full speed ahead on crafting the end of their tale with one stop along the way. "I don't think that this has been said anywhere yet, but I know that Tony has been finishing up 'War Heroes' which I think has been terrific. And as he's doing that, just to keep the book out there and because I had another story that I was looking for a place to tell and wanted to work with John Paul Leon again, we're doing another 'Ex Machina' special that's going to be coming out after issue #40," Vaughan revealed. "It's going to be called 'The Ex Machina Green Special,' and it will have to do with the environment amongst other things. But it will also have to do with laying the ground work for the ultimate revelation of where Mitchell's powers came from and what is the nature of them. And it's terrific. John Paul Leon is kind of the opposite of Tony Harris in a lot of ways, but he's equal and opposite. His stuff is totally unbelievable, and it feels very different. I really needed him for this story.
"After that, there's going to be an arc called 'Ring Out the Old,' and as I said, that will be the ultimate revelation of the book's mythology and what was behind the strange device that exploded and gave Mitchell his proverbial strange powers. Then there's one final arc after that called 'Pro Life,' which I think will be as controversial as the title suggests. That's all leading up to an extra-sized 50th issue, and then that's all she wrote."
Some fans are worried that the end of "Ex Machina" will also be all she wrote for Brian K. Vaughan's comics career, as he now works as a staff writer on ABC's hit drama "Lost." Those readers can rest at ease, as Vaughan's promised that's not the case. "I have not abandoned comic books at all, but before I moved on to what's next, I wanted to give 'Ex Machina' as much attention at the end as I gave 'Runaways' during its final issue and 'Y: The Last Man,'" Vaughan explained. "And Tony's insane. For him to have drawn every single panel of the regular series has been extraordinary. So I've been grateful that everyone's been patient with the art. I hope it will be worth the wait. We're really excited about what comes next."
As for what comes next for Brian K. Vaughan, he remains tight-lipped about future comics projects, but promised that word would be on the way soon. "'Ex Machina' has been the only thing I've been writing, but it's certainly not the only thing I've been thinking about," he teased. "You will not see anything on stands before 'Ex Machina' is finished. That's probably unlikely, but there may be something announced before 'Ex Machina' is done, and ever since 'Y' ended, I've been looking for ways to fill that void. So yes, I have several things, and I've been talking with potential collaborators. So there's new stuff coming. And I hate to be vague, but I can say that it will all be creator-owned. As much as I love all the Marvel and DC characters, it's great to have the luxury to have found enough of an audience for my original work."
"Ex-Machina" #40 is on sale this week from Wildstorm.