Politics and Panels
Ex Machina, written by Brian K. Vaughan, will soon be ending with its 50th issue. I am in the dark about how the series will end, and naturally there are few spoilers in this posting for those familiar with the series. Instead, I am wont to discuss how Ex Machina acts as a mechanism to illustrate the possibility of comics for social commentary.
For those unfamiliar with the basics, Ex Machina follows the life of Mitchell Hundred, an ex-superhero and current Mayor of New York City, with snippets of Hundred’s past as the Great Machine and current political troubles facing him intertwined to tell the series’ primary story. When he acquired his powers, Hundred gained the ability to speak and command machines, from a toaster up to an airplane. However, he since revealing his identity and becoming mayor, Hundred is supposed to refrain from using his powers. For those seeking greater detail in both these regards, I highly recommend catching up on it. What Ex Machina provides for me is a means to examine political and social commentary through the medium of comics.
The way that Ex Machina presents these issues actually uses Hundred’s superhero past as a backdrop for the discussion of the issue, rather than the other way around. The life and adventures of the Great Machine do not necessarily mirror the issue or threat facing the City in the story arc, but these experiences as New York’s only superhero due serve to inform Hundred’s actions as mayor and some of his political views. Hundred himself is also a fan of comics, enjoying Superman and Spider-Man as well as seeking out a writer and artist to tell his biography as a graphic novel.
When facing the issue of gay marriage, Hundred uses his past action as a hero during the 9/11 terrorist attacks (which happened, but in a slightly different way in the Ex Machina universe) to turn the issue on its head. Instead of holding referenda or forcing the city council to vote on granting the marriages, Hundred simply marries two gay men (one of whom happens to be his Deputy Mayor’s brother and a firefighter), all while strange symbols are appearing around the city, driving people insane.
Vaughan has stated that Ex Machina was used as a means to explore contemporary politics, and he covers gay marriage, terrorism, drug policy in the US, and other issues. I particularly enjoyed that Mitchell Hundred is a political independent and as such is often seen striking a path between the two American political poles, or simply making his choice and sticking to it. If the views expressed by Hundred are those of Vaughan, he has provided a unique method to express displeasure with the American status quo and offer his own views on how politics should be and he certainly doesn’t shy away from controversial topics.
The use of comics to explore politics in not necessarily new. V for Vendetta is often pointed to as a commentary on Britain in the 80s; however its tone is much darker and possesses a singular focus on anarchism that Ex Machina does not. With Ex Machina, the focus shifts between ideologies, but always with a backdrop of the events that shaped who Hundred is as a person and those supernatural events that are necessary in the life of a former superhero.
Marvel and DC have been able to handle racism and drug addiction, as well as other societal problems, as serious issues in their ongoing series, however, the opportunity for comics to say something about how issues are affecting people has been sidelined. Given the open space for true social commentary, I find the choice of politics a particularly interesting one to explore controversial issues. I enjoy Vaughan’s ability to blend strong character development with equally good art (primarily Tony Harris, but the special issues have different ones), which serves to complement themes and stories.
Ex Machina may be ending shortly, but the ability for comics to explore complex issues facing society has not ended. While the focus of this post has been the ability of Vaughan to express complex issues in a thoughtful manner in the pages of his books, they are also, I think, beautifully drawn. The scenes with Mitchell flying as the Great Machine are particularly well done and capture his speed and power. Yes, there are scenes that are pure comic book, lots of action with stunning visual, but that doesn’t take away from Ex Machina’s ability to clearly address an issue and give it the proper weight and candor.