With most of the necessary back story covered off in the first Ex Machina volume (man picks up odd machine out of New York’s Hudson River that promptly explodes, blowing off half his face, but leaving him with the ability to converse with machinery), this second outing provides a little more ground for a heavy-weight plot. Despite the fact that this is a superhero comic, albeit a superior one, Vaughan’s style isn’t to rush about building conflicts for his superhero to smash through (though there is a bit of that). Instead he puts the whole superhero thing on a back burner while he continues to develop his characters and add more than a little suspense.
The mysterious circumstances of Mayor Mitchell Hundred’s transition into a superhero are a key element here. A government agent has a fragment of the device that changed him that has a strange symbol on it. When this symbol starts appearing scrawled on walls and seemingly has the power to turn anyone who looks at it into a violent lunatic, Hundred feels some responsibility to help solve the problem. In the mean time his civic duties and real life must also continue, so he presides over New York’s first gay marriage, dates a reporter and survives an assassination attempt.
The flashback is used as deftly here as it was in the first book, to introduce a governmental agent from Hundred’s past and build a long-term relationship between them, without having to squeeze it all into the actual span of the action of the book. If you wanted to get picky, you could feel a bit cheated and complain that Vaughan is simply going to rewrite history every time he wants a new character with some depth. But if it helps Vaughan work around what must be a punishing monthly schedule and still come up with writing of this calibre, we’re not the ones to complain.
Vaughan also adds a speck of tarnish to Hundred’s character, implying that his attitude to his personal life and those around him may not be quite so angelic as the image he portrays in his role as mayor. He remains one of the cleanest-cut, left-leaning superheroes ever, but it’s good to see a glint in his eye and a little humanity in his soul.
Harris and Feister continue to do excellent work in the art department, balancing the horrific (and there are some gory moments) with the comparatively humdrum life of city hall. And it’s this that’s essentially the crux of this highly entertaining book: Mitchell Hundred is an ordinary man, changed by a fluke accident and given the opportunities to make the world a better place. It’s an intelligent mix of politics and sci-fi with a powerful thriller story-line. If you like superhero stories you owe it to yourself to sample this series. If you don’t, you certainly shouldn’t be writing this off just because the main protagonist has unusual powers.
Other titles in the Ex Machina series: