Ben Peek (benpeek) wrote,
Ben Peek

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Ex Machina, Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris.

It is not surprising that in American fiction there is an emerging movement that will (and perhaps already is) defined as Post September 11th Literature.

September 11th is described in American politics as the day the world changed. I'm not sure how accurate such a statement is, but it was the day that America changed, certainly. Perhaps it was even a change in the Western World, as a new language was learnt by politicians, and freedom became something that should be limited, checked, but also defended against by unseen enemies who, presumably, sat around and realised that they too wanted to live in a world where television had fifty channels and mimes had been driven quietly from the streets to protest in cells of their own construction. However, in the world of text and film, September 11th did hold changes, with authors and directors taking the emotional pain and channeling it into various forms of fiction and non-fiction. I mentioned the nine short films about September 11th a couple of posts back, and there is, obviously, Michael Moore's anti-Bush documentary Fahrenheit 9/11. In American literature there is, it appears, a strong showing of children's books and in adult literature such as the awful sounding Jonathan Safron Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and the excellent Pattern Recognition by William Gibson. The first of those books deals with a child, Oskar, searching for a lock that matches the key that his recently deceased father, who died in the World Trade Tower Attacks, owned. I never did read the book, however. In Pattern Recognition, however, the loss of Case's father in the attacks is used to explain the characters ennui existence. For Case to have a resolution, for her life to change, details of her father's final moments must be given to her, and there, with a narrative fulfillment offered for her loss, the reader also experiences closure in the form of the book ending. This, coupled with the other Post 9/11 literature I've reading, is one of important factors in defining it. There must, it appears, be a sense of narrative closure for family and friends who lost loved ones and who will never truly know the final moments, and for a public caught in the seemingly endless propaganda war (also known as the War on Terrorism) that has eaten up their daily lives since, and which also offers no closure. The work is about giving point, purpose, place, and perhaps prominence.

The American comic industry responded, originally, with a series of short story collections dealing with the attacks, and since then has produced very little. Superman and Spiderman don't fit well into the real world, though you can argue that the images of destruction have found their way into the imagery of American comics, but as of dealing with the attacks itself, it was been limited. The most prominent of these releases, however, has been Art Spielgelman's In the Shadows of No Towers, but as this has been outside the mainstream comic press, it can be argued that it belongs closer to Foer and Gibson's efforts.

That leaves Ex Machina.

Ex Machina is firmly placed in the comic mainstream: there is a superhero, infected by what is possibly weird alien technology (it is one of the mysteries in the book) and is published in issue format. It might be that this is a simplistic definition of mainstream comic publication, but I rather think that it sums it up neatly. Still, if that is not enough to convince you, then the fact that it is written by Brian K. Vaughan, who is responsible for Y: The Last Man and is currently writing Ultimate X-Men, and is penciled by Tony Harris, whose was responsible for the first half of Starman. In addition to this, it is published through Wildstorm, a subdivision of DC Comics, which, of course, owns Superman and Batman. I don't think there's any doubt in Ex Machina's place in the comic press.

Ex Machina is an interesting creature, however. Mainstream comics are filled with latex and simplistic moralisation and the big explosion that you would be forgiven, upon hearing that this was a primarily political comic, for thinking it involved the mayor of New York dressing up in a strange costume and flying around rescuing people. Which is exactly what does happen, but on in flashback. The Mayor, Mitchell Hundred, once known as the Great Machine, and caught in an explosion that left him with the ability to talk to machinery, has given up his costume and rescuing of men and women to take up the position of mayor, where he can actually make a difference. He decided on this before September 11th, and was running as a candidate when the first plane plowed into Tower One... and it was there, in his costume, racing through the sky, he stopped the second place. He was elected shortly after.

As I noted earlier, Post 9/11 literature, to me, feels as if it is about navigating the new world that the character finds itself in. This is essentially the narrative in the first collection, The First Hundred Days, where Hundred and his party try to make sense of a new world, one where the world terrorist sends people into panic, and anyone not American falls under the immediate light of suspicion. At the same time, Hundred must deal with giving up the Great Machine, which is perhaps Vaughan's own tip of the war machine that America unleashed shortly after. Hundred is constantly reminded of his failures as the Great Machine, and how the little things he thought he was doing, such as stopping a bank robbery, had larger ramifications, for when he told the engine to stop, cars piled up throughout the city. The Great Machine, like all great machinery, had no finesse, and innocents suffered.

It is, however, a political book, and here Vaughan does not approach 9/11 head on. Instead, it hangs in the background, a lingering presence that defines the main character, that forces him to search for meaning, while at the same time dealing with snow plows exploding, and art shows that will cause the media to swoop on his administration. Here, Vaughan's writing tends to fall into nice, simplistic answers, and in the first trade, these plots are tied up just a little too nicely. Given, however, the serial format he is publishing in, however, there's nothing to suggest that this will remain the case, and that he won't put in the screws, so to say. Outside this, however, his characterisation is sharp, even if Mitchell Hundred feels and looks a lot like Yorick Brown from Y: The Last Man, and his dialogue is quite good. Everything he does seeks to bring a sense of realism to the book, and here he is aided by Tony Harris' photo referenced artwork, which doesn't, for a moment, slip. Harris has always been a fine sequential artist, capable of being grounded and flashy when needed.

The mystery plot of The First Hundred Days is probably the weakest element of the book, as it is overwhelmed by the politics and the characters. There's a sense of, who cares, but it's serviceable, and as the weakest element of the book, hardly a weakness at all. Anyhow, I'm at the end of this thing, and I've run out of things to say, so if you've got an urge to check out Ex Machina, you'll be spending your money wisely. Gets the recommendation.

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