By Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris (Wildstorm, hardcover, $29.99)
Which graphic novel would you hand a curious friend who had never read one but wants to give the medium a try?
A lot of fans automatically say "Watchmen," which makes perfect sense, I suppose, considering the fact that it changed the ambitions of the entire sector with its cinematic sensibility, gravitas and heart-rending emotional nuance. But, really, Alan Moore’s 1986 epic is so steeped in comic-book lore and deconstruction that its greatest appeal is to true believers. If you didn’t grow up reading the tidy escapades of the Justice League, Moore’s flawed mystery men aren’t quite as jolting or disturbing. "Watchmen" may be the perfect graphic novel, I just don’t know if it’s the best first graphic novel. "The Dark Knight Returns," meanwhile, is audacious and unforgettable, but I’d rather not hand a skeptical newcomer a book with Batman and Superman in it. (And if I was going to give them one with the trad capes, I’d go "Batman: Year One," even though Christopher Nolan’s movies have pinched so much from that tale that it’ll never be the revelatory read it was when first published.)
Today, right now, I have no doubt that the very best introductory graphic novel is the one that came in the mail recently and is sitting right here on my desk: the amazing "Ex Machina."
"Ex Machina" is an exercise in sublime storytelling and dialogue by Brian K. Vaughan. There’s a brand-new "deluxe edition," released last month, that is (forgive the term) the perfect gateway drug for anyone wondering what all the fuss is about over on the bookstore aisles where they stock the stories-with-pictures books. (This deluxe edition collects up the first 11 issues of the comic book, from 2004-2005, by the way.)
"Ex Machina" is, oddly, a meld of "The West Wing" and "The Greatest American Hero," with the former’s cloakroom intrigue and political kabuki and the latter’s story of an exasperated everyman stuck with superpowers and feeling ridiculous. That’s the setup, but deep down Vaughan is actually playing with a 21st century variation on a theme; instead of man vs. machine, this is man vis-a-vis machine.
Vaughan gives us a New York City identical to the one we know, right up until the night of Oct. 18, 1999, when a civil engineer named Mitchell Hundred is called out to take a look at something "growing" out of the Brooklyn Bridge. From a harbor patrol boat, he reaches toward the lapping blue-green water and … a piece of his face blows off and a strange energy ebbs through his body. As bad as the wound is, his attention is elsewhere; he can suddenly "hear" all the machines in New York talking to him. And, even more interesting, he can talk back.
Hundred becomes a superhero, sort of. Machines do what he tells them, whether it’s a semiautomatic gun he instructs to jam or an air conditioner he implores to stop its rattling. As superpowers go, it’s not exactly running faster than a speeding locomotive. But author Vaughan uses his cranky and clever protagonist as a metaphor for a wired age, a man who converses with the humming and chirping electronica all around us like some Dr. Dolittle for the DSL era. The people in the boroughs of New York react to him the way they do to anyone special: They alternately revile and adore him, like some rookie slugger for the Yankees who swings for the fence but can’t hit the curveball.
Hundred, who has no clue about the true nature of his ability, calls himself the Great Machine, an awful hero moniker that he plucks from Thomas Jefferson’s writings about the nature of society (there’s a hint in there about Vaughan’s true purposes) but he’s pretty much a washout as a masked man — until Sept. 11, 2001. That’s when he tells one of the hijacked jets bearing down on the World Trade Center to veer away. He is too late to save one of the towers, but he saves the second. In the whirlwind that follows, he is elected mayor (!) and now the story is about the political machine he finds himself in. It’s a true testament to Vaughan’s writing and the graceful, understated art of Harris that "Ex Machina" can pull off that Sept. 11 story pivot without seeming crass or exploitative or just plain dumb.
As mayor, the man who speaks to machines must deal with political foes in Albany, the deeply suspicious press, the city’s entrenched bureaucrats and a serial killer who is apparently targeting the city’s snow-plow drivers. There are no supervillains here, just political crises such as gay marriage, a city-funded art exhibit that features a racially charged portrait of Abraham Lincoln and gossip about the mayor’s love life.
The great strength of Vaughan’s work here is his pacing and structure. The story jumps backward and forward through time to tell the tale of the one wired soul in the world. There is wonderful humor too, that rarest of qualities in graphic novels. How good is "Ex Machina"? Check out this first page: The story’s opening is its ending. It’s a darkened room and our hero is sitting alone, defeated and downcast, staring into his coffee mug. There’s a framed newspaper photograph behind him; it shows him saving one of New York’s towers. His monologue: "You’re probably sick of that picture by now, huh? Christ knows I am. People blame me for Bush in his flight suit and Arnold getting elected governor, but truth is … those things would have happened with or without me. Everyone was scared back then, and when folks are scared they want to be surrounded by heroes. But real heroes are just a fiction we create…."
— Geoff Boucher
(Want to down a free copy of the first issue of "Ex Machina"? Go here)
Art by Tony Harris, courtesy of Wildstorm/DC Comics