Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Miracle Pictographs
    Graphic Novel Reviews by Spencer Ellsworth
September 2011

Many masterpieces have not yet been discovered. Like my abs. I'm sure they're in there somewhere.

Ex Machina (Wildstorm), Y: The Last Man (Vertigo)

What makes a work of art? What is that quality that ensures a piece shall be read, dissected, read again, and dissected far into the future by English teachers grasping for tenure?

Some comics have passed into hallowed halls. Alan Moore gets a lot of credit for even his mediocre work, but there is no doubt that From Hell and Watchmen will last for ages; same for Spiegelman's Maus, Gaiman's Sandman, Sartrapi's Persepolis, and Yang's American Born Chinese.

These comics strike resonant chords. Fear. The certainty that you are alien. The question of what exactly love is, whether it be a bond, a choice, or a biological imperative. The making, meaning and telling of myth.

In this here column, its very own self, we will examine two comics by the same author that, given their current accomplishments and praise, could be the next entries into these hallowed hallegories. Ex Machina and Y: The Last Man, the two magnum opuses of Brian K. Vaughan, aided by the amazing Tony Harris and Pia Guerra, are, maybe, just maybe, Art with a capital A.

Or not. There is also a special graveyard for Hot New Things, full of Beatles who turned out to be Oasises. Will Vaughan's work go there after all? We shall see . . .

Ex Machina is a comic about a former superhero who becomes the mayor of New York City after he retires. The conventional wisdom among comic-book-creators is that "you can't do anything else with superheroes." Marvel and DC readers will keep treading the same waters, but except for a few flukes like Invincible, there's not a lot of life left in independent tights. Watchmen did dark superheroes in the real world, then every other 90s comic tried to, then Kingdom Come got it right, and then Astro City had fun with a retro pastiche of superheroes through the eyes of the everyday man, and after that The Authority showed superheroes as semi-despots, and then there was Irredeemable in which Superman is evil and so on . . .

Warren Ellis recently attempted to do something else with superheroes in the series Black Horizon, and for all that it was a pretty cool concept (a superhero murders the President out of political motives) it fell flat. Too many capes, man.

So Brian K. Vaughan's Ex Machina must be lauded for its central conceit first, but lauded moreso for the fact that it is so dang well-written. Vaughan writes a meditation on the nature of power, and the nature of protection, and the difference between what we perceive to be a selfless form of service (superheroing) and the selfish (politics).

In Ex Machina, a third-rate superhero retires and becomes the mayor of New York. He wasn't much as a superhero, and wasn't popular among either the police or the citizens, and his strange ability to talk to machines seems kind of useless, even if he did have a jetpack.

I'm not going to give it away . . . but suffice it to say that thirty pages into this comic, you will know exactly how a dork with a jetpack becomes the mayor of New York, and takes on an even more ambitious political career.

This isn't the Marvel kind of superheroing where ridiculous things happen, and something like 9/11 would seem like another day at the office. Mitchell Hundred, as The Great Machine, spent a lot of time screwing up. He chased carjackers across roofs, but more often than not he seriously injured them or himself, and the police commissioner sought to bring him in.

Brian K. Vaughan writes a superhero so convincingly that you really start to think that this is exactly what would happen if said heroes existed. They would make stupid fools of themselves and be footnotes to the news, unless the right circumstances came along.

And Mitchell Hundred may not have been much as a superhero, but he makes a fantastic mayor of New York, fearlessly taking stances on issues from tunneling to gay marriage to abortion to car alarms, defying any political pigeonholing and fluidly moving from issue to issue.

He never fails to take a stand, but he often portrays a different face to the world than he does to his close friends and family. It's clear that he is keeping some things from the world. He doesn't like to use his powers, but often it is the only way to save himself or others. When he receives a few threatening visits from government officials. He isn't above pointing out that he can knock out a pacemaker or two, and no tape recorders or security cameras will stop while he's around.

Tony Harris goes to great lengths to make his art photorealistic and detailed, yet uniquely comic-booky. In the back of each book, he provides pictures of "models" who pose for the different scenes in the comic. There's an expressive realism in this comic, under a stained-glass finish that perfectly matches the sense of realism and the improbability of the premise.

Ex Machina is, at its core, questioning the nature of power. Mitchell Hundred is protecting the world from something. At first it seems to be the usual bad guys, but as we go through the series it becomes more and more clear that Hundred has a bigger mission in mind, protecting the world from the forces that unintentionally gave him his powers.

It becomes clear that politics are a new kind of protection -- and a new kind of egotism. And Vaughan parleys that into the constant compromises of Hundred's political career. He is a fantastic mayor. He is genuinely good at his job.

And he's a scheming snake. The people who are closest to him are usually protecting him from some crazy threat, but Hundred is a notoriously difficult figure to understand. His sexuality is a point of contention among the minor characters, who seem to think the man is gay, but damned if he'll reveal it and compromise his political career. One character in particular takes repeated falls in order to save Hundred's reputation, but Hundred's gratefulness seems more and more fake each time.

Ex Machina has some pronounced flaws. It is episodic, which sometimes works in its favor -- for instance, in the story when Hundred is invited to the Vatican to be exorcised -- and against it, in stories that seem like major distractions, like when a local comic-store clerk takes up a similar costumed persona.

It's full of odd non sequiturs, some of them embarrassingly juvenile, like the extended scenes of passersby who discuss porn or long, off-putting sex from the point of view of NYC's prostitutes.

Still, at the end of Ex Machina, Vaughan paints his most complex portrait of power yet, as the stakes of Hundred's powers are made clear at the same time we question whether or not he has retained the basic human goodness that led him to put on a costume and fight crime.

The final grace note is amazing, and leaves us more mystified than ever at the way Hundred's personality and his addiction to power raised the question of whether or not true power can ever be just.

Y: The Last Man is drawn from what seems to be an idea even more awful than a superhero becoming the mayor of New York. A plague has wiped out every single creature with a Y chromosome, inexplicably at the same time, except for Yorick Brown. Yorick is a neurotic, jobless amateur magician who is trying to train an untrainable monkey named Ampersand. When we meet Yorick, he is trying to propose to his girlfriend by phone as she wanders through the Australian Outback.

Promptly, every male on earth dies at once, except Yorick and the monkey Ampersand, and Yorick is cut off at the moment he pops the question.

Vaughan does great things with lousy premises, and it couldn't be lousier than this. "A superhero becomes the mayor of New York" sounds like a half-decent Marvel comic. "The last living male on earth with only women" sounds like . . . well, if a particular genre of story springs to mind, maybe you should spend more time away from the computer.

Not only is this not the story you expected -- Yorick does not spend the rest of his life sexing his way through the world -- it plays beautifully with our expectations, changing from chapter to chapter. Ex Machina works very well as an episodic series. Mayor Hundred runs into one problem; he overcomes it, and then again, and then again.

Y is very different in that each problem feeds into the great mystery of what killed all the men. At the same time, the thematic material seems to point another way: that there will be no solution and no restoration of the male sex. Humanity (womanity?) has to figure out a way to survive.

Yorick makes contact with his mother, one of the remaining US State Senators, who puts him under the care of a secret military agent known only as 355, who takes Yorick and a cloning expert halfway around the world in search of the right equipment and research to make human cloning a viable option.

The story is post-apocalyptic in a rather strange way. Because half the population is gone, nothing works for a while, and a paramilitary group called the Amazons takes over the streets, burning sperm banks and terrorizing women who don't seem happy enough that the men are gone. But after a while, life settles back in, and almost becomes normal.

In one way, this is a story about evolution. Every female character looks into the face of extinction and reacts differently, whether with fear, hopelessness, or determination to keep their race alive.

But this isn't really a story about women, even if women make up most of the cast. Yorick is a boy becoming a man, as cheesy as that sounds. It is a classic hero's journey, with a rather odd twist on Joseph Campbell's observation that the hero-shaping landscape is often an archetype of the female.

The story works on several levels, although not always seamlessly. Again, Vaughan has a weakness for sexual non sequiturs. An extended bondage-to-near-death scene in the third volume makes sense, given the specters of death and sex that hang over this tale, but will throw you out of the story nonetheless.

On the other hand, sometimes there are stunning moments of resonance, as when Yorick goes into a church to beg forgiveness of God for his self-defense kill of a young girl about to shoot him. The only person who can hear his confession is a former stewardess who survived her plane crash. She and Yorick end up in bed together, and her subsequent pregnancy serves as a kind of living motif for the tale: atonement, sin, man and woman as confessor and hearer, adolescence and consequence.

In the end, it's difficult to say whether or not Vaughan pulls off some of his biggest challenges in the series. He keeps a lot of mystique around his apocalyptic event, while bringing the question of its cause to a reasonable conclusion. That is handled skillfully.

The sheer amount of romantic fuddling, though, tends to distract from the viciousness of the world around Yorick. At times it feels as though Vaughan has misplaced his priorities; this is a story about how a boy becomes a man and comes to know and respect women as part of that, but the women are more interesting!

Pia Guerra's art is stunningly good in its humble simplicity. It's not overly stylized, and it's hardly "comic-book" at all. She manages to imbue every drawing with warmth and humanity and character, even in the action sequences, of which there are many.

The quality which marks Y and Ex Machina aside, and may even mark them as the elusive High Art we have spoken of, is their ability to induce serious thought. At the same time, I've had some serious thoughts inspired by Transformers comics, and I wouldn't characterize them as High Art. (Well, okay, I'd put Last Stand of the Wreckers up there.)

But is that enough?

I dunno. In order for art to become Art, it has to not just reflect our culture, but shape it. Our perception of superheroes and of power comes from Watchmen, and that informs Ex Machina. It's hard to say whether or not Ex Machina and Y will shape our perceptions despite their flaws.

But when I finished each, I questioned the very nature of the world around me. So I would bet on it.

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