Why Vaughan and Harris’s ‘Ex Machina’ Was Among the Most Important Comics of the 2000s
On this date in 2004, Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris's Ex Machina #1 debuted, beginning a fifty-issue run that is widely considered one of the best comics of the 2000s. More specifically than that, though, it's the most real-world relevant superhero comic... ever?
In the days immediately following 9/11, one frustrating comment echoed over and over on comics-related message boards: "If only superheroes were real." A portion of comics readers were dealing with the chaos and uncertaintyof this attack by settling back into the wish-fulfillment that superhero comics historically provide. "If only superheroes were real, everything would be different."
Within a few years, Vaughan and Harris's Ex Machina came along to show them how incredibly wrong they really were.
In Ex Machina, Mitchell Hundred has the ability to speak to and control machines as The Great Machine, the first superhero in the world. His career as a hero is spotty, but he comes through on 9/11, saving the second tower and thousands of lives. Feeling that he can do more good in politics than in playing superhero, Hundred runs in the New York Mayoral Election and wins.
In the fifty issues that follow, Vaughan and Harris explore politics and politicians, citizenry's over-reliance on government, and our willingness to put so much power into the hands of so few.
Debuting just before the presidential elections of 2004, Ex Machina articulated the chaos of the political climate in a period when it was impossible not to be affected. The constancy of the news cycle, two wars, and ongoing terror attacks did away with the apolitical. Everything was political, everything was about 9/11, and anybody in a position of power to gain something capitalized on that as soon as they could, and it worked. Voter turnout in 2004 was the highest it had been since 1968. Bush got re-elected, Rudy Giuliani tripled his speaking fees, and chances are some comptroller in Idaho probably got a few votes for invoking 9/11 in his campaign speech.
Vaughan and Harris responded to the climate of the day with a treatise on power, corruption, and belief; a political drama subverting our ideas of superheroes in order to subvert our ideas of real world heroes. Mitchell Hundred has all the best and worst attributes of our hero politicians: He truly wants to help people, but he believes so strongly in his own morals that he's willing to compromise ethical boundaries.
Like any good politician, though, he's difficult to figure out.
With subtle and measured character work on both sides of the process, Vaughan and Harris explore Hundred so painstakingly that you don't truly have a complete picture of him until the conclusion. Hundred is defined by his failures. He fails at being a superhero, fails to save the first building from going down, fails as a son and a friend and a bureaucrat, and those failures make him interesting.
Using two timelines --- one following his present as mayor, and one devoted to his past as The Great Machine --- Ex Machina slowly reveals both Hundred's true failures and our own.
Because it was so present and of its time, Ex Machina will always be particularly linked with its era, but its themes are timeless. Politicians will always try to take advantage of disaster, and power will always be abused, and no mainstream comic explores those dynamics as thoroughly and entertainingly. If you were around for the early 2000s and you never read it, there's no better day to rectify that than its anniversary.
If you're too young to remember the frenzy and think you won't appreciate it, wait until the next election and then read it. You'll get it.