Saturday, June 7, 2008

Another Insidious Plot from the Dharma Initiative

Vaughan is part of the conspiracy. 4 8 15 16 23 42

from issue 1, volume 2

Ex Machina Vol. 6: Power Down

Written by: Brian K. Vaughan
Drawn by: Tony Harris

To be honest, sometimes I get sick of Brian K. Vaughan.

This month, the last issue of his acclaimed Vertigo comic Y: The Last Man came out. Y is going to be up there with Preacher and Sandman in another couple of years as one of the greats of DC’s mature-readers imprint. Before that, he ended his run on the hit Marvel young adults series Runaways, which managed to surprise me at the end of every story arc, and he got none other than Joss “genius or pedophile?” Whedon to take the reins after him.

With every issue of Ex Machina he once again proves himself a master of snappy dialogue and a devious, torturing son of a bitch when it comes to plot. You read the first few issues, you come to like the characters and enjoy their banter, and then after awhile you want to know what on Odin’s green Midgard is going on, and he won’t tell you. And when he finally does give up some information, you don’t believe it because everything else he told you was just an elaborate series of ambiguous statements, so how is this time different? It’s kind of like having a boyfriend who’s cheating on you but he’s really, really good at it. Is it any wonder that at the beginning of the third season, he was hired on as a story editor for Lost? J.J. Abrams is set to make another buttload of money from his new monster movie Cloverfield, which I actually enjoyed watching— there’s no surplus of explanation surrounding the monster, but at least you get a good look at it by the end. And in that “do I get to see the monster?” way, Abrams and Vaughan are perfectly matched for slamming out the last three seasons of Lost before fans fly to Hawaii and start beheading gaffers and production assistants. They’re experts at stringing people along in the hopes of finally being told—I nearly wrote “of finally figuring out,” but that’s an overestimation of the viewing public’s and my intelligence—what the hell is going on. And actually, the similarities in style and execution are close enough between Lost and Ex Machina that I can see an alternate world where the former is a runaway hit graphic novel from Wildstorm and the latter is a frustratingly good, drawn-out series on ABC. And speaking of alternate timelines, that takes me to volume 6 of Ex Machina, titled “Power Down.”

The title refers to a real-life event, the New York City power outage of summer 2003. It also, dur hurr, refers to the coinciding loss of main character Mitchell Hundred’s superpower. At first I thought it was just that everything was off and that’s why he couldn’t talk to machines, but upon rereading I saw that he couldn’t boss around any battery-operated phones or radios or flashlights, either. Hundred has one of my favorite underused superpowers—technopathy, the ability to communicate with and control machines (in his case it’s not just electronics, because he can order automatic firearms to not shoot him). For those of you unfamiliar with the series, though, that’s only half of the power at his disposal: the rest was vested in him by the people of New York City when Giuliani left office. After using his abilities to save the second World Trade tower from collapsing on 9/11, Mitch, a former civil engineer running as an Independent, won the… mayorship? Mayoralty? I’m not sure of the right term corresponding to “presidency”… in a landslide.

Since then, he’s dealt with issues like Iraq, funding for the arts, gay marriage and marijuana decriminalization (holy crap is that a hard word to spell when drunk), all while trying to piece together the mystery of where his powers come from and why he got them instead of just dying in the strange accident beneath the Brooklyn Bridge in 1999. There’s also a lot of (always denied or played off) insinuation that Hundred is gay, although for the page count Vaughan has spent nudging us with his elbow, he’d better turn out to be neutered or a transsexual or something more interesting than another Morrissey or Michael Stipe case. For now, though, Mitchell’s only out of the closet as a super-hero. In a world not very different from ours, he tried to use his powers to save lives and stop crime, calling himself “The Great Machine,” in reference to Thomas Jefferson’s mention of “the great machine of government” (dork). But that bottomed out and he was about to be sued within an inch of his life for his vigilante activities before he announced his candidacy.

Anyway (I can’t even count the number of times I’ve written that in the pages of this publication), in “Power Down” we don’t see Mitchell all that much. Much of our time is spent with a man named Augustyn Zeller, who looks like the result of Lex Luthor and Mumm-Ra sharing the editorship of Men’s Vogue for a year, and who you’d think was an alien, or a time-traveler, or both, if he didn’t tell you that he certainly isn’t. “No, I’m from the same second as you, down to the very time zone… I’m on a bit of an exploratory mission from… well, I suppose you would say another world.” Combined with his mention of “The Brane Trust” and his knowledge of the Cold War and Wikipedia, you’d really have to be a moron to not figure out exactly where he’s from: an alternate universe (my use of “moron” here equates to “person who doesn’t occasionally flip through an issue of Discover magazine in the grocery store like I do a few times a year,” so I don’t really mean any offense). I’m not a physicist, and in fact due singly to my adoration of the Flash, all physicists everywhere probably hate me for contributing to the world’s children getting dumber, but I do know that “brane” is short for “membrane,” meaning the membranes separating different, theoretical higher-up dimensions that are involved in string theory. Zeller’s crossing over into our reality caused the power outage, apparently, and now that he’s here he’s got a warning for Hizzoner the Mayor:


“This is about… Mexicans?”

No, Mitch. Sometimes dramatic irony (Ha-ha! Ninth-grade English knowledge activate!) can be excruciating. “They are a brutal multitude, and when their huddled masses come crashing against your shores, they will destroy everything you hold dear!” Unless Zeller’s talking about another alternate reality—which is also very possible—well, my guess is that Hundred got his powers from an alien artifact, and that sooner or later his so-called benefactors are going to come back to tie up some loose ends. Chripes, I almost hope the ending to Lost is that simple and painless. Except I don’t. For all the heartbreak my friends and I have gone through for that show, the end of season six had better be really fucking complicated. Like, Metal Gear Solid complicated. It’d better necessitate the introduction of new words and concepts into the English language.

Anyway. We know that things are going to end somewhat poorly for Mitch, since issue one opens with him clutching a glass of booze and telling us about his four years in office, ending with “godforsaken 2005.” Since “Power Down” happens in August 2003, I guess we’re about halfway there. Maybe this is what it felt like when Neil Gaiman was still writing The Sandman, or, to use TV again, when the UK was only five episodes into The Prisoner. Maybe I’m an impatient bastard. Regardless of any of that, I will be collecting this extremely well-written, beautifully drawn, ridiculously frustrating book, trade by trade, until the series is over or UNTIL I SEE SOME GODDAMNED ALIENS!

Rating: Four Whiskey Sours.

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