WARNING: This review contains spoilers for the final issue of “Ex Machina”. Which is weird for a critical appraisal of a comic book, I know, but please bear with me.
“Ex Machina,” when it started six years ago, was touted as a clever melding of ground level superhero stories and West Wing level political conversationalism. Suprisingly, Ex Machina has stayed very rooted in the superhero genre throughout its run. We’ve had supervillains throughout, mind control, and all kinds of other crazy stuff flanking the heavily researched debates over municipal funds and the New York City Subway System. The final issue, though, puts most of that aside and considers it resolved as we take a Last-Ten-Minutes-Of-Six-Feet-Under-Speed look at the next few years of Mitchell Hundred’s life and, by extension, his friends.
On the first page, Hundred muses, “Happy endings are bull$#!%. There are only happy pauses.” This issue, almost overwhelming with pretty dire and sad circumstances certainly bears him out. Even its finish, which is almost Doonesburian in its political content and context, isn’t really enough to double back and erase the betrayal and murder Hundred perpetrates to get to it. It’s a fairly unrelentingly grim finale, and that tends to compel the reader to come away with it disappointed. But being disappointed (bitterly so) in Mitchell Hundred doesn’t necessarily mean that Vaughn and Harris have failed in their appointed tasks. Hundred has, since he was a child, wanted to do good in the world and as he got older and the stakes got higher, the cost of that life rose until finally, in this issue, he murders the last man who still believed in his capacity for good. It’s clear that Hundred believes that what he’s done was for the greater good, and the story ends before showing us whether or not, ultimately, he was right. The entire series led to the revelation that the same entities that gave him his powers were also a tremendous threat to the planet. Hundred believes that the only way to protect the free world is to, basically, become its leader. We’ll never know if the world really was in danger, as his story ends on one of the most brutally cutting political gags in the series’ history, the kind of epic feat of splash page stunnery that only a comic book could pull off. As much as I warned you I’d be spoiling this book, I could never in good conscience give this one away. I will say this, it’s pretty hard to believe that he came up with this ending in 2004.
While Tony Harris and JD Mettler always do and have always done great work on this book, this particular issue is a fantastic showcase of their skills, shifting from low key conversation to parallel realities exploding blood and cybernetics everywhere. It’s also one of those rare comics that looks and feels “lit” like a professional cinematographer was involved. The colors, detail, and framing are exquisite throughout.
As much as the ending satisfies (for his sins, I’d be hard pressed to think of a worse punishment for Mitchell Hundred), the issue as a whole does feel slightly rushed as far as circumstance goes. There could be entire storylines dedicated to Hundred’s run for president. However, he told us on page 1 of issue 1, this was the story of his terms as Mayor. Consider everything here, running all the way up to 2008, a bonus. But it’s still a tall order to condense three years into a 48 page story, especially when there’s like five (wholly necessary and effective) splash pages in there.
Overall, though, it’s hard not to come away from the issue feeling the weight of the story that preceded it. It never stopped being as funny as it was smart, but as Hundred himself warns us at the beginning of the issue, it was going to be plenty sad too. “Ex Machina” was a story, literally, about powers and their cost. And, like pretty much every politician does eventually, its protagonist ends up a punch line.