by The Masked Bookwyrm

Miscellaneous (non-Superhero) - "E" (Page 2)

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cover by Harris Ex Machina: Fact v. Fiction 2005 (SC TPB) 150 pages

Written by Brian K. Vaughan. Pencils by Tony Harris. Inks by Tom Feister.
Colours: JD Mettler. Letters: Jared K. Fletcher. Editor: Ben Abernathy, Kristy Quinn.

Reprinting: Ex Machina #11-16 (2005)

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Suggested for Mature Readers

Reviewed Feb. 1, 2010

Published by Wildstorm (and imprint of DC Comics)

Cheap boxes are a terrible temptation for me. Despite having read the issues that comprised the first Ex Machina collection (The First Hundred Days - reviewed below), and being left unenthused, I came upon the next batch of issues, cheap, and decided to give the series another try. Enjoying the second collection a little better (Tag - reviewed even further below), and still with issues in those dang cheap boxes, I decided to give it one more try by reading the issues that comprise the third TPB collection.

And I seem to be back where I started, finding my reaction to the third collection is more on a par with my reaction to the first.

This collection is comprised of three different stories, all following Mitchell Hundred, mayor of New York and ex-super hero, in stories mixing elements of social drama, crime thriller, and comedy. And just kind of leaves me a bit blah. The problem is writer Brian K. Vaughan -- arguably -- is trying to present a comic that is a little smarter, more sophisticated, more adult than the average super hero comic. And the problem is: I just don't feel he really succeeds. Though there are crime elements, this isn't meant to be some splashy, super hero action series...without the drama, intrigue and characterization really stepping up their game to fill the void.

There's a kind of superficiality to a series which, after all, would seem as though it wants to be anything but superficial. Take the two part "Off the Grid" in which Mitchell gets a call from his estranged mother and learns some secrets about his father's death. For a character drama...I'm not sure we previously knew he was estranged from his mother, or anything at all about his father -- whether he was alive or dead or what. I may be wrong. There may have been a passing reference in one of the previous 14 issues, but nothing that stood out...odd given that in these issues we are suddenly told that Mitchell's entire life motivation has been to live up to the memory of his dead dad! The result is a two-part tale with a dramatic "revelation"...that has very little resonance with anything that went before. Worse, that's all the issues amount to: a revelation. An expository conversation stretched over two issues. Not exactly a "drama", per se. There's also a diversionary encounter with some loan sharking hillbillies -- but that's all it is. A minor diversion.

In the three part "Fact v. Fiction", Mitchell -- eventually -- ends up in a hostage situation with a guy who claims to have similar powers to Mitchell, only in his case, they're driving him crazy. But, again, it also seems a tad superficial...a concept waiting to gel into a story. Surely this would be an intriguing character exploration, as Mitchell is confronted with a kindred soul...a "there but for the grace of god" doppleganger. But it's not really until the end, when Mitchell is drawn with his head bowed in one panel, that we get much sense there was supposed to be any great inner turmoil for him. This arc follows Vaughan's usual formula of threading through the background a secondary crime sub-plot in which, like in his previous arcs, characters blindly accept completely unsubstantiated red herrings -- presumably so he can "surprise" when he reveals they were completely unsubstantiated red herrings.

The one issue "Fortune Favours" (I seem to be going backwards in my reviews) doesn't even throw in a diversionary crime element...and so is, in a way, even more blatant in its loose approach to plot and character, as Mitchell decides to crack down on fortune tellers, who he considers charlatans...yet then acts all incensed when a fortune teller tells him she predicted the Sept. 11th attacks but didn't warn the authorities. And would the profanity spewing, unapologetically politically incorrect Mitchell suddenly act all chastened when this woman (whom he considers a crook and liar) tells him he's using racially insensitive language? Admittedly, maybe I just missed all the nuances and undercurrents in this issue (which amounts to one long conversation), but by the end, Mitchell's emotions have ping ponged all over the place and I just wasn't sure what I was supposed to take from it. Nor was it at all clear why that guy tried to warn Mitchell away with a taser! Other than, yeah, as a diversionary "action" scene.

And so we get back to my general feelings about the series, which is just my personal reaction. But as I've said before, I don't really find Mitchell (or the other characters) that endearing, interesting...or even consistent. Part of that is because (as I've detailed in the last few paragraphs) I do think there tends to be an inherent superficiality to Vaughan's handling of both the personalities and the politics. And also because, the kind of character Vaughan is writing, that he obviously considers cool -- just doesn't click with me. Mitchell comes across as just kind of smug and self-satisfied...and Vaughan's approach to the issues is rather similar. And Vaughan's incessant use of four letter words kind of makes you wish an editor would sit him down and say, just because you can use profanity in a "mature readers" comic...doesn't mean you always have to. On. Every, Page.

Again, in my reviews of the previous TPBs I've mentioned my mixed feelings about Tony Harris' art. It's hyper realistic in a photoreferenced way...but doesn't fully grab me. I think part of that is because although Harris is a perfectly capable storyteller...there's nothing especially captivating or exciting about his use of angles, framing, shadows, etc. As well, the colourist for some reason uses a really washed out, colourless pallet. You've got drawings that are supposed to be hyper realistic...clashing with colours that sap the reality out of them (at one point we see some blood...and it's a light pink -- what? is the guy anemic?)

Ex Machina continued to trundle along for a number of issues, even picking up some awards along the way. So I don't expect -- nor intend -- my review to change someone's mind if they're digging it. But after sixteen issues, with some good elements and some weaker elements, the series has ultimately failed to connect with me. Either on a "read the story arcs for themselves" basis, or to see where the series as a whole is going.

This is a review of the story as it was serialized in the monthly comics.

Cover price: $__ CDN./$9.95 USA.

cover by Harris Ex Machina: The First Hundred Days 2004 (SC TPB) 140 pages

Written by Brian K. Vaughan. Pencils by Tony Harris. Inks by Tom Feister.
Colours: JD Mettler. Letters: Jared K. Fletcher. Editor: Ben Abernathy, Kristy Quinn.

Reprinting: Ex Machina #1-5 (2004)

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Suggested for Mature Readers

Published by Wildstorm (and imprint of DC Comics)

For decades, super heroes have dominanted mainstream comics. So much so that when creators develop non-super hero projects, they often try and work in some sort of loose super hero aspect...or maybe it's that, when creating yet another super hero comic, they try to find some off beat variation on the theme.

Which brings us to Ex Machina (and this collection of the first five issues) -- a comic that could be likened to TV's The West Wing meets a super hero. Set in a, more or less, "real" world (ie: not part of a "super hero universe"), Ex Machina is about Mitchell Hundred, who acquired super powers -- the ability to "talk" to machinery and control them just with his voice -- and engaged in a brief career as the world's first and only super hero: The Great Machine. Then he decided to hang up his costume and, instead, get himself elected Mayor of New York City.

It's an intriguing premise, one in which the "super hero" aspect is subordinate as Mitchell must deal with normal municipal crises -- and not-so normal ones (someone is murddering snowplough operators), while we also flashback to Mitchell's days as The Great Machine. (Though The West Wing analogy has been used by others, a closer relative might be the Canadian TV series Da Vinci's City Hall -- about an ex-cop turned mayor where some plot threads were crime oriented).

Unfortunately the execution didn't quite come together for me.

Part of that, I suppose, is with a project like this, you can go into it with certain assumptions about what it's supposed to be that may not have been the creator's intent.

But for a "political" doesn't really seem like writer Vaughan has spent much time thinking about issues or the realities of being Mayor of a big city. At one point, Mitchell comments it costs the city a "million dollars to shovel an inch of snow" -- sure, it's a tossed off quip, but what's the point of a series like this if you don't believe the creators have researched their milieu? (Now maybe it really does cost that much -- but I doubt it).

And it's a political comic...that seems to avoid being too political. Mitchell is a self-described "independent" whose aides include a Democrat deputy mayor and a Republican police commissioner, and in a scene where he disses the ACLU, he disses the NRA as well. Okay, I realize that's always the dilemma with this sort of project: it's entertainment, it's not supposed to be propaganda. But even a central sub-plot here, involving a potentially offensive piece of art work, is odd. The "controversial" art seems kind of meaningless...and a character in the story says the same thing! So Vaughan wanted to tackle the idea of a controversy...without getting too controversial.

Actually, there are times Vaughan seems to get political -- with seeming swipes at the anti-smokingg crowd and environmentalists!

The series fails to entirely have that ring of verisimilitude I kind of expected. It's a "mature readers" comic, so the characters swear up a blue streak...but in a way that seems more like Vaughan is more interested in working in a four letter word than because this is really how these people would talk (would a mayor swear casually while talking to a reporter?) In true comic book fashion -- ala Batman's Jim Gordon -- the police commissioner seems to be hands on, investigating every crime. Even the whole notion of a "normal" world with a lone super hero is not convincingly evoked. Okay, that's been one of the hardest things super hero comics have struggled with for decades -- how do you "realistically" depict something, and society's reaction to this thing, which has never happened in real life and, in all probability, never will?

The nature of Mitchell's super power is interesting and fairly unique, but not very flashy...even as the premise of the comic might demand more archetypal abilities (ie: "What if Superman became mayor?") Vaughan seems to want to go for the revisionist quirk -- having Mitchell's Great Machine costume look thrown together, and indications his brief super hero career could border on misadventures -- on the other hand, it's his super hero mystique, we infer, that got him elected. Although, in the backstory, obliquely alluded to, we learn Mitchell was able to save one of the Trade Towers during the 2001 terrorist attacks, which alone might be enough to make him an icon among voters.

Mitchell somewhat bland, uninteresting and unendearing. The latter could be fine, if that was the intent...but I don't think it is. And we get little sense of why he wanted to be mayor. We learn his mother encouraged people (women) to vote. And he has a (sort of) friend, nicknamed Kremlin. But no sense of what issues drive him, what social concerns are paramount on his agenda. Frankly the fact that he would use his celebrity as a spring board into political office seems more opportunistic than civic minded.

The art by Tony Harris also puts me in a bit of a tizzy of conflicting emotions. It's realist art -- almost photo-realist (not painted photo-realist, but realist). It's very good and accurate...but it didn't entirely blow me over. Even though I often prefer realist art over more stylized comic book art, it can seem almost too photo-referenced. So the people can look a bit stiff, the choice of angles and presentation nothing exceptional. Maybe it's that in an unreal story (ie: a Superman story where he's battling dinosaurs) realist art can make it all the more cooler...but in a more realist story, with a lot of scenes of people sitting around discussing municipal politics, hyper-realist art doesn't bring anything extra to the scenes.

After an opening issue that establishes the basic idea and background, we move into a four part tale...that, I'll admit, is just one more indication of what's wrong with modern comics. It's a thin -- and thinly developed story -- stretched out over multiple issues. Basically, it's comprised of two plot threads, the B-plot -- the one involving the offensive work of art, which is the more realistic, but also more mundane -- and the A-plot -- involving someone murrdering city snow plough operators (I designate it the "A" plot as, dealing with murder, it is the more "dramatic"). Neither warrant the pages devoted to them...certainly not as plotted. And, as mentioned, I can't say the corners were filled out with a lot of character development and brooding. Perhaps because of the TV influence of the West Wing/Da Vinci's City Hall, Vaughan is more interested in talky-for-talk sake scenes than introspection.

Now I mentioned earlier that sometimes the problem is not with the work, but your expectation of the work. I suggest I didn't find it very realistic...Vaughan might argue, duh, it's a comic about an ex-super hero! I also realized that it may be intended to be more light hearted and humorous than I "read" it as (just as The West Wing, though a drama, could be quite funny) -- at the same time, if I'm saying it "may" be intended to be humorous, clearly it wasn't quite hitting my funny bone that squarely.

The serial killer plot builds to a kind of anti-climactic denouement -- deliberately so, and the sort of twist that many a story have worked successfully. But it works best capping off a complex, Byzantine tale full of red herrings that seems to take us in a bigger direction...not a story that barely gets past an outline. Nor does it really create any sense of tension. At one point it is suggested the killer might be an old enemy of Mitchell's, back from the dead...except we had no knowledge of this arch foe and, given Mitchell's brief super hero career, it's hard to imagine how he could've acquired an arch foe anyway.

Now some of that may be unfair, as obviously this is part of a bigger series -- perhaps that foe will be detailed in later flashbacks. Certainly the series opens with Mitchell darkly reflecting back on his time in politics, intimating some bad days lie ahead and the whole comic is to be viewed as a massive mini-series. But hints and foreshadowing are all very fine, but I'm reading this for itself. How much I enjoyed and was involved in what happened in these pages will decide whether I stick around to see such cryptic remarks unfold.

And I just didn't enjoy it that much.

This is a review of the story as it was serialized in the monthly comics.

Cover price: $__ CDN./$9.95 USA.

cover by Harris Ex Machina: Tag 2005 (SC TPB) 120 pages

Written by Brian K. Vaughan. Pencils by Tony Harris. Inks by Tom Feister.
Colours: JD Mettler. Letters: Jared K. Fletcher. Editor: Ben Abernathy, Kristy Quinn.

Reprinting: Ex Machina #6-10 (2004-2005)

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Suggested for Mature Readers

Reviewed Feb. 1, 2010

Published by Wildstorm (and imprint of DC Comics)

Ex Machina is a slightly off beat series mixing super heroes and crime elements...with municipal politics! The premise is that a one time super hero Mitchell Hundred -- The Great Machine -- and the only super being in this reality (that we know of) hung up his costume, and got elected mayor of New York city. And the plot veers from Mitchell dealing with relatively realist issues -- reforming the education system, tackling same sex marriage and its accompanying side issues (someone pointing out that being a bachelor, Mitchell's support of same sex marriage might lead to assumptions that he himself is gay) -- with a sinister building sub plot involving a series of brutal murders...murders that seem to have a connection to a graffiti symbol connected to the origin of Mitchell's own super ability (which is the ability to control electronic devices with his voice).

I had read the issues that comprised the first TPB collection (The First Hundred Days - reviewed above)...and was left rather ambivalent, leaning toward unimpressed. Yet I picked up the next batch of issues for the simple reason that I decided to give it a second chance...and they were in the discount bin! (The nature of comics is that they're dictated by the local market...a series can be a critical darling in one city, and in another city, the store can't give the issues away!)

And strangely, I did seem to enjoy this collection a bit more than the first. But whether that's because it is better, or whether I'm just now used to it, is hard to say (I'll have to re-read the original issues). Or maybe simply the fact that I read it all in one sitting, so it didn't have to sustain my interest over a number of days, affected my enjoyment. Certainly I think Vaughan may have a better grasp on the mix of elements. Both collections use an identical formula: focused mainly on the mundane/realist municipal politics, liberally interrupted by flashbacks to Mitchell's pre-mayor life, and laced with a background plot involving murders -- with a similar red herring. But here it all seems more of a cohesive whole (including the background murders seeming more pertinent because of the hints they will relate to Mitchell's own origin -- where even he isn't sure how he acquired his abilities).

At the same time, I'm still not to the point where I'm quite loving the series. It all seems a little smoother, a little surer, but still suffers from the same problems. For one, Vaughan seems a little too in love with his style over his substance. Not that the series is trying to be particularly edgy in its presentation. But I mean he's in love with his prose, with his talking head scenes...without necessarily making them anything more than surface. When tackling "issues", like education, or same sex marriage, we're treated to what seem more like talking head debates...rather than human dramas that illuminate an issue through the personalities. It can seem more academic than emotional. And maybe as a result Mitchell (and indeed most of the cast) remain fairly bland. Maybe the fact that Mitchell seems to have an opinion on these issues from the beginning makes it less interesting than if we see him forming an opinion. Of course part of that is maybe just the different ways Vaughan and I view characters, and sympathetic ones, to boot. Vaughan tends to write every one the same, as kind of brash and cocky, liberally peppering their language with four letter words, and where we're supposed to see how liberal and tolerant they are because they playfully use offensive slurs with each other. No doubt this is the world -- and people -- Vaughan hangs out with (or at least likes to pretend he does). But in my circles, if someone uses, say, a homophobic usually means they're a homophobe!

The problem with Ex Machina is that it kind of demands to be regarded as more thoughtful and sophisticated than a regular (super hero) comic...without fully pulling it off. The plotting can seem a bit loose and lax (at one point some FBI agents break into Mitchell's house for a secret tell him they are investigating something...but won't let him get involved and swear him to secrecy -- so, um, why tell him about it at all? Presumably so that when the plot does end up involving him, he knows what's going on. But that doesn't really justify such a contrived scene). And, of course, in true comic book fashion, being an on going series, the promises that the plot will answer some of the mysteries of Mitchell's origin go largely unfulfilled.

Vaughan tries to veer back and forth between comedy and drama at times, which can be good, as often the best dramas are energized by clever wit and humour. But his handling of it isn't always deft. A scene where some city works stumble upon a dog's mutilated corpse just ends up clumsy as Vaughan tries to throw in quirky dialogue between the two when, in reality, I don't think that's how guys would react.

The art by Tony Harris is of a hyper realist style -- presumably photo referenced -- albeit in a hard lined, pencil and ink way, lacking shadows and texture (that is, the figures still look like drawings, just well referenced drawings). Like the story arc itself, I grooved to the art more this time than in the first arc, though I still wonder if there's a paradox. I normally like realist art, but maybe I enjoy realist art the more unreal the scenario (ie: Superman flying through space) while in a series that is generally more realistic, realist illustrations don't really bring anything extra to the narrative. Still...I liked it, and that's enough.

Ex Machina is a "Mature Readers" comic, and though initially that seems to relate mainly to language and profanity, and vulgar conversations, this story also can be visually quite gory in spots dealing as it does with some brutal murders.

So I'm still mixed on Ex Machina. Tag is a stronger arc than the first TPB, and maybe would be a better place to "sample" the series for those curious to try it -- it feels more of a cohesive whole. But I still remain unexcited about the series as a whole, with Mitchell not really involving me as the character I want to follow through his trials and tribulations, and with the "real world" plotting more about the talking head points than the human drama (I mean, the same sex marriage plot never really gels into a "plot" per se, y'know, where there are twists or turns or developments).

Still, I did moderately enjoy Tag...and my local comic shop still has some more issues in the discount boxes...(see my review of Ex Machina: Fact v. Fiction, above)

This is a review of the story as it was serialized in the monthly comics.

Cover price: $__ CDN./$9.95 USA.

cover by Moline Exit Wounds 2007 (HC GN) 174 pages

Written and illustrated and coloured by Rutu Modan.
Letters: Rich Tomasso. Editor: Noah Stollman.

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Recommended for Mature Readers

Published by Drawn & Quarterly

Exit Wounds is the English-language publication of an Israeli graphic novel. The story focuses on Kobi, a young Tel Aviv taxi driver who, out of the blue, receives a message from Numi, a young woman who claims that she fears Kobi's father may've been killed in a suicide bombing attack. A victim was unidentified and Kobi, who is estranged from his father, hadn't heard from the man in months, so had no inking he might even be missing. With reluctance and mixed emotions, Kobi teams with the enigmatic Numi to try and discover if the dead body is, indeed, that of his father.

Exit Wounds is a deliberately paced character drama -- it's worth noting, because, though the high-minded, character/relationship aspects are clearly paramount, at first I assumed there was also an undercurrent of a suspense story, as characters make cryptic remarks ("What would you have been doing in Hadera?" -- "It doesn't matter.") and you assume Kobi's search for the truth will lead him to some unexpected, sinister revelations. About half way through, I realized that wasn't the case, per se -- nor do I think author Modan was intending to mislead the reader. I was just reading meaning into lines that were just supposed to be off the cuff.

Of course, to some, if the story had slowly crept into a thriller direction, they would've felt it cheapened the story. To me, a little tension or suspense wouldn't have been unwelcome.

But, regardless, it works for what it is as well.

Although I'm the first to decry comics that try too hard to lose their "comic book" identity in favour of aping another medium, nonetheless there's an effective cinematic-ness to Exit Wounds, in the pacing, the dialogue. You could imagine a filmmaker lifting the whole thing onto the screen without changing a line of a dialogue or a reaction shot. And though it is deliberately paced, it avoids seeming too slow or plodding. That's its flavour, and it suits it. There's an effective mood, and believability and nuance to the characters; there's drama, but also quirky humour, and a naturalism to the exchanges.

Although the story is set against the backdrop of urban terrorism, where Modan reminds us (those in the insulated west) of the mundane realities of such an environment by having the characters initially get confused about which bombing might've killed Kobi's father (there were two on the same day!), the "Exit Wounds" of the title refers less to scars of conflict and more to emotional scars as both Kobi and Numi are dealing with the emotional repercussions of their familial relationships -- Kobi, estranged from his dad, Numi, more smothered by her family. Each is emotionally confused, and their tentative, developing relationship is the main heart of the much as the search for whether Kobi's father is the unclaimed body or not.

Modan's art is quite effective (too often I've read literary/independent comics where the art is (cough) deliberately crude or not very good) . She affects a Spartan simplicity at times, with characters and backgrounds drawn in bold, open lines, with dots for eyes. almost like an adult-aimed Tintin. Yet, despite that, there's an enthralling realism to it, too, as Modan's body positions and facial expressions beautifully evoke an almost photographic realism.

Ultimately, there are ways Exit Wounds can seem a bit like a Shaggy Dog story, with the central "mystery" never quite gelling into anything more than, well, a plot contrivance. At the same time, as a "human drama" it works well, as Kobi and Numi grow into textured, believable figures who we can care about. And the Israeli setting -- though obviously not exotic to creator Modan -- adds to its appeal to a Western reader, even as it's not belaboured. In fact, what's intriguing about the setting is how so very similar to our everyday experiences it is, even as we are also reminded of its strangeness (a country where terrorist attacks are so common, there's actually an established protocol for family members trying to identify victims).

In the end, Exit Wounds satisfies as a leisurely paced, but involving drama.

Cover price: $19.95 CDN.

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