The Heart of a New Machine

“He is no more than the chief officer of the people, appointed by the laws, and circumscribed with definite powers, to assist in working the great machine of government erected for their use, and consequently subject to their superintendence.”

Thomas Jefferson

“Welcome to the ten-day anniversary of my first 100 days.”
President Barack Obama, May8, 2009, addressing the Washington Correspondents’ Dinner

I picked up a copy of the first chapter of the graphic novel Ex Machina at Paperbacks Unlimited on Sunday. The book won—and I’m quoting from the cover—“numerous Eisner awards,” including Best New Series, in 2005.

Current events have given the book a psychic, symbolic weight it didn’t necessarily earn, but still, the premise is intriguing.

In 2002, Mitchell Hundred is the newly elected mayor of New York City and an out-of-the-closet superhero, a weirdo who can communicate with machines. When someone tries to shoot him at a speech, Hundred yells, “Jam!” disabling the assailant’s weapon, later explaining to his exasperated security detail, “It was a semi-automatic—I could talk to it!” A bit later he destroys the recording device worn by an Albany-based political bully who plans to gather blackmail material.

Hundred deals with political chicanery, the serial murders of snow-plow operators during the worst snow storm of the year, and the PR problem of an offensive work of art that was subsidized by the city. Through flashbacks we see how Mitchell, a civil engineer, developed his mysterious power, when a glowing green object attached to the Brooklyn Bridge exploded in his face. We also see his attempts, with his two mentors, Bradbury and Kremlin, to be a genuine masked crime-fighter. He is on his way to being a footnote in the vigilante hall of fame—until September 11, 2001, when he manages to stop one of the hijacked airliners, and saves the second World Trade Tower.

In Chapter One, the authors introduce an interesting array of characters. The “mystery” of the snowplow murders is a little thin, bolstered primarily by the stunning artwork deployed in this part of the book. The most interesting plot is the flap about state-sponsored art, and the resolution, while a bit too neat, delivers some insights into the character of the artist.

Mitchell Hundred is something more rare than a tights-and-cape crime-fighter. He’s a citizen. His mother raised him to get involved with the governance of his own society, and he chose the name Great Machine from the words of Thomas Jefferson about the role of the president.

This opening chapter, while not perfect, is compelling. Plenty of hints are nicely laid down for future development, such as a reference to Hundred’s past enemy Pherson, who is believed to be dead, (and we all know what that means); or the fracturing alliance between Kremlin, Hundred’s strange Russian father-figure, and Bradbury. The colors of the panels drew me in, from the underwater greens and blues, to yellows and oranges that are nearly luminous, to harsh browns and purples where needed. Individual panels, such as a close-up of Police Commissioner Amy Angotti, are dramatic.

Sitting in 2009, it’s strange to read a comic book about an intelligent, strong, almost messianic dark-horse candidate who is swept into power as a reaction to a societal catastrophe. It’s interesting to watch that character struggle with the completely unrealistic expectations and demands. And it’s even a little more eerie when the title of the book is The First Hundred Days.

Ex Machina; the First Hundred Days
Brian K Vaughan et al
Windstorm Press

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