Friday, November 28, 2008

Ex Machina: God is dead. Or maybe he's just, like, a big computer, dude

Other stuff from me: I've got a review of Pax Romana #4 up at Comics Bulletin.  That's the final issue of Jonathan Hickman's latest series, and I thought it was pretty good.

Links:  The Fortress of Fortitude posted scans of this cool issue of an old Harvey horror anthology called Alarming Tales, in which all the stories within were done by Jack Kirby.  It's not at the level of his later awesomeness, but it's still some pretty neat stuff.  Check it out.

I'll also recommend Lucy Knisley's blog, in which she posts regular comics she drew.  I especially dug this one, in which she and her boyfriend go to an incredibly expensive Chicago restaurant and have their minds blown by the crazy, delicious food.  She has been getting some attention lately for her book French Milk, and it definitely looks like she's a talent to watch.

Ex Machina, volume 7: Ex Cathedra
Written by Brian K. Vaughan
Art by Tony Harris

I've been reading this series since the beginning, but I decided to switch to waiting for the trade collections at the end of the storyline before the one collected here.  Maybe my tastes have changed, because while I have been curious about the series, I haven't missed it as much as I thought I would, considering that it used to be one of my favorite ongoing series.  Maybe it's my ever-increasing antipathy toward superheroics, or maybe the lack of a regular dose of Brian K. Vaughan-written comics (now that Y: The Last Man has ended and he's not writing Runaways anymore) has decreased my affection for his style, but apparently I'm not chomping at the bit to read more about everybody's favorite superhero mayor.  Still, I did enjoy this volume quite a bit, but the distance from the material does allow me to take a more clear-headed look at it, seeing some flaws and prompting examination of what I do or don't like about the series.

Really, if there is anything that I might find myself liking less, it's Tony Harris's artwork.  He's not a bad artist, but as I focus on more non-mainstream comics, it seems closer to superhero standards than to the stuff I'm liking more these days, like the Hernandez brothers, Eddie Campbell, or Sean Phillips.  It might be the kind-of-garish coloring that does it, or maybe just the poses that characters often take, but it's a bit stiff-looking and not as nice as I used to think it was.  I do like that Harris makes some idiosyncratic choices though; he often seems to capture characters in mid-motion, with their lips curling into odd configurations, and their hands making odd gestures:

For a dialogue-heavy book, it adds some interest to scenes that could easily end up being little more than talking heads.  The expressions and body language aren't unrealistic, but rather like photographs of people having a conversation, capturing non-posed, unglamorous movements that do a good job of conveying the emotions they are experiencing.  It's a good match for the series, since so much of the best material sees characters discussing politics and such, rather than big action scenes.  But when the action does show up, Harris definitely doesn't disappoint, making it exciting and often brutal.  One climactic bit of nastiness had me cringing; it's pretty effective stuff.

Harris also delivers some great imagery in the form of the trippy visions that Mitchell Hundred experiences, including one in which he envisions decaying, zombie versions of all the people near him who have died, and another that sees him have some sort of possible divine contact.  And this storyline sees some of his niftiest covers, too (although the cover of the trade collection itself is kind of bland, if you ask me).  So really, any complaint about the art is kind of silly, now that I think about it.

I guess that means complaints should be leveled at the writing.  The story here is an interesting one, although it does seem a bit slight.  It might be the switch to reading a whole arc at once rather than in monthly installments, but Vaughan's technique of jumping around in time leads to some nice moments and a bit of an unsatisfying whole.  Some of that is by design, intended to leave the reader with questions about where everything is going, but intentionally unsatisfying is still unsatisfying, isn't it?  

So, mayor Hundred gets summoned to Rome to meet with the Pope (that would be John Paul II, since this takes place in 2003).  What exactly is the purpose of the visit?  Is it a good political move?  What does the Pope stand to gain?  Will being on foreign soil open Hundred up to an attack of some sort?  And heck, why not throw some discussion of the existence of God into the mix?  It ends up being pretty compelling, with plenty of Vaughan's sharp, engaging dialogue and quick plotting.  In the flashback scenes that open each issue, we see how belief in God has informed some of the events in The Great Machine's superhero career, but now that Hundred has left that behind, what is he going to gain from this brush with "holiness"?

Again, it's interesting, but having experienced much of the series in single-issue format, I'm starting to think that that might be a superior way of reading it.  Vaughan does a great job of structuring each issue for maximum effect, with flashbacks to Hundred's pre-mayoral days that inform the current story, and scene transitions that comment upon each other, as if characters in one scene are continuing a conversation from the previous scene, even though they are often not connected by time, space, or relationship.  But while this works great as a 22-page story, it can get maddening when read all in a row, ending up as a bunch of references to unseen scenes, foreshadowing of events that we might or might not get to witness, and cliffhangers that are less compelling when they get resolved on the following page.  In an age of stories "written for the trade", it's nice that Vaughan is going in the opposite direction, but when that hinders the enjoyability of the trade that gets collected anyway, it's not necessarily a virtue.

But enough complaining; I feel like I'm nitpicking here, when I actually liked the story quite a bit.  The frustration comes from seeing all these hints and prophecies about the future of the series while knowing that it will probably be at least six months before I read any more of it.  I'm sure Vaughan has a plan for where things are going, but the constant raising of more questions can get aggravating.  I want to learn more about Pherson, Hundred's arch-nemesis.  I want to know what happens to eventually cause Hundred to fall, as we saw would happen in a flash-forward in the first issue (or was that misdirection?).  I want to know more about the origin of Hundred's powers, and how this is going to help or hinder him in the future.  I find the cliffhanger prophecy at the end of this storyline hard to believe, but it's still kind of maddening, because I want to know how it will pan out now!  

Luckily, there's a bit of a respite from all these questions in the final issue collected here, which tells the story of police commissioner Angotti in a series of flashbacks.  Vaughan has done this before with other supporting characters, and it's a good breather, offering some nice character development in between the major plot disruptions.  It's a good example of his writing skill, and a probable reason as to why the series remains bearable when the plotting gets tiresome.  Nicely done.

So, while I still like the series, I'm not feeling that it's one of my big favorites anymore, for various reasons.  It seems to be a rare case in which reading the issues as they come out is actually preferable to picking up the collections; I'll have to consider whether I want to switch back to that more-frequent format.  But I don't plan to stop reading anytime soon; even with some minor frustrations, this is still an incredibly enjoyable, entertaining series, and barring a disastrous turn in the storytelling, I don't plan to give it up before finding out how it ends.

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