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  • Writer's pictureC.M.Knopf

The Political Dais et Machina (a backblog)

| NY's political machine stars in EX MACHINA. |

No, Ex Machina by Brian K. Vaughn with artist Tony Harris is not a new comic. Its omnibus was released in 2018. It is, however, new to me, having just discovered it through Comixology's current free and Unlimited-access titles. I am dismayed that I didn't encounter it earlier to have included amongst the superheroic and supervillainous mayors highlighted in Politics in the Gutters. (Maybe if 2020 hadn't been so filled with other distractions, I might have caught the news that Legendary Entertainment was developing it into a movie.) So, this marks what will be the first of an irregularly occurring "backblog" entry in the Gutter Politics SPLASH PAGE: a moment when I discuss an older comic that I belatedly discovered.

Ex Machina debuted in 2004, running for 50+ issues from the DC Comics imprint Wildstorm. It focused on Mitchell Hundred: a civil engineer who mysteriously gains the ability to talk to, and control, machines. After a brief stint as an unpopular superhero called "the Great Machine," he runs as an independent, non-partisan, candidate for mayor of New York City - and wins... in the election following 9/11. The comic involves monstrous mysteries and concerns of terrorism, but Hundred is more concerned with issues of government and political leadership: campaigning, image management, damage control, and trying to do the right thing surrounding a range of issues from domestic security to gay rights.

Basically, it's The X-Files meets Spin City. And if that reference is too dated, Supernatural meets Mr. Mayor also works (but not quite as well).

The Eisner Award-winning series is by now well reviewed, and re-reviewed. It's considered a complex sci-fi series with compelling character development that makes strong emotional ties to real-world situations and persons, not the least of which is the Great Machine's trauma trying to rescue people from the first Tower on 9/11. This makes it notable among superhero comics, to be sure.

What makes it notable in political comics is its earnest optimism. As discussed at length in the forthcoming Politics in the Gutters, many overtly political (as in politicians and government and campaigns) comics capture the cynicism, distrust, apathy, and bemusement that permeate public sentiment surrounding modern politics-as-usual. Though these comics also frequently suggest that The People have the power to make a change, they rarely seem to find the will to do so. But, Ex Machina is surprisingly different.

It opens with a candid acknowledgement of the pandering pageantry of the political spectacle, as the narrator takes the blame for creating the image of the superheroic politician replicated by President George W. Bush's flight-suited "mission accomplished" message and elected through Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Governator.

Of course, we back in the real world, know that the Great Machine's turn to politics has nothing to do with the myth of superheroic presidency, which actually goes back to the Cold War (see The American Monomyth, by Robert Jewett & John Shelton Lawrence). But the comic's development during the disenchanted second term of Bush into the hopeful first term of Obama is reflective of Green Lanternism - a term coined by Matthew Yglesias during the Bush years to criticize conservatives who believed that "the only thing limiting us is a lack of willpower" in foreign policy.

Though Ex Machina repeatedly acknowledges the reality of political, ahem, machinations as each story arc unfolds, but Mayor Hundred, no matter his tactics, remains dedicated to doing the right thing - or, at least, what he believes is the right thing. He sincerely wants to help people. And, unlike other superheroic mayors (I'm looking at you, Mayor Queen), he [mostly] gives up his masked vigilante alter-ego in order to do it.

Mayor Hundred tackles gay rights, the war in Iraq, political corruption, freedom of the press, governmental transparency, terrorism and homeland security - issues that continue to resonate, albeit in different ways, in the present day. (For example, the gay marriage issue raised in the book has now been supplanted by transgender rights.) Perhaps the one aspect that didn't age so well was the Mayor calling in a favor with Donald Trump to borrow his private jet for personal business...

Many comics with political storylines tend to advocate for echo the vox populi, believing the people, united, using their voices and their votes, will improve the system and society. But not this one. Here, the people are shown as fickle, as partisan, and as perpetually dissatisfied. Hundred is criticized for being a conservative and for being a liberal, just as his Great Machine alter ego was both entreated to offer salvation and condemned for doing so.

No, Ex Machina does not put The People on a pedestal. Instead, in true superhero fashion, it celebrates the power of the individual, arguing that one person can make a difference. Mayor Hundred, with his inner circle of friends, advisors, and friendly adversaries, set out to change NYC one moment, one issue, one citizen, at a time. Basically, if a comic book were written premised on Margaret Mead's quote, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has," this would be it... for part of its run, at least.

And yet it manages to be compelling and real rather than saccharine and trite because it doesn't offer a Schoolhouse Rock version of democracy at work. Hundred's administration doesn't win every battle and it wins none of them easily or without cost. Nor does it completely shy away from acknowledging the reality of public dissatisfaction with real-world politics.

Hundred's mother was an activist and advocate with the League of Women Voters in the late 1960s and 1970s, who eventually drops out of the public scene because of personal demons and political disappointments. In a scene diegetically dated November 2002, she complains,

Who cares about women voting anymore? Who cares about anyone voting? Felt important back in '74 after we got Dick kicked out and took this country back. But now we've got that thief in office. Why should anyone care about democracy when the bastards just steal elections?

And it is precisely this blending of the fictional world of Ex Machina with the real world, fictional characters and real figures, that makes it work so well. Newer political comics like Vote Loki (2016) and I Pledge Allegiance to the Mask (2020) -both of which are discussed in Politics in the Gutters- tackle real politics through allegory, allusion, and satire. Ex Machina doesn't use homonyms or vague physical similarities to entangle it's world with ours, it simply blends reality and fantasy into a gripping political drama, offering a little commentary with a side of civic advice.

Perhaps one of the most interesting and truly unique ways that Ex Machina employs real-world touches to tell its story is through its use and discussion of political cartoons in issues 17 and 20. At one point, Hundred complains about the political cartoons that always depict him as a former superhero, caricatured wearing a cape - though he never wore one as The Great Machine.

Hundred considers these cartoons in light of NY Governor William Tweed's career:

It was the funny pages that took down Boss Tweed, you know? His constituents couldn't read the news, but they knew how to read the comics. Comics! Talk about being hoisted by my own goddamn petard!

Later, when the cartoons opt to praise rather than mock Hundred as a hero, his journalist friend sees it as a win.

Hundred, however, is more skeptical and he reflects on Herbert Block:

Political cartoonist for the Washington Post. He was one of the first guys to recognize Nixon as shady, always drew him with a Five O'Clock Shadow. But when Nixon got elected, Herblock drew him clean-faced for the first time. Caption read, "Everybody gets one free shave." Guess how long that lasted...?

Hundred is right. Usually, to be featured in an editorial cartoons is to be the butt of a joke, the target of barbs, the object of ridicule. And, he is right that these cartoons - these comics - have an influential role in political communication. For more on political cartoons and comics, be sure to check out chapter five in Politics in the Gutters. You can also watch a short conference presentation I gave in November 2020, "Light comedy or reality TV? Political cartoonists frame the 2020 Democratic primary debates."

~Christina M. Knopf

27 May 2021


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