Superb Heroes is a semi-regular column celebrating comics that are exemplary and/or exceptional in their treatment of superoheroism.
I have been meaning to finish and publish this for the better part of a month, and it keeps eluding me. After that long, I typically admit defeat and delete a work-in-progress for the sake of clearing mental space for new things that might be written more quickly or naturally. And in this case, it made extra sense because just a couple months ago, Jeffrey Gustafson finished his story-by-story review of Ex Machina. And it was great. But I just took so many notes and did such a fast and furious reread of this series in preparation for this post that I can't quite bring myself to dispose of it entirely. So instead, I'm just going to put up what I have so far and call it a day. So if anyone's interested enough in what I have to say about Ex Machina to read 2,800 words on the subject—beginning with the first few paragraphs of a "real" draft, followed by a loose bold-text outline for the rest of the piece, following by a long section of italicized notes I wrote to myself as I was reading the comic and fleshing out this column—now is your chance to do so. It's kind of repetitious, but basically all the points I would've made if I'd written a whole real thing get made somewhere in there, I think. Enjoy!
Every politician claims to be doing what they believe is best for whatever chunk of the world they represent, whether it's a single neighborhood or an entire nation. And while some of them are probably outright, knowingly lying, I give most of them the benefit of the doubt that they're genuinely doing what they think will make the most people most happy. To intentionally piss off the public by making bad, wrong decisions on purpose would just be working against one's own political future, right? Yet with all their supposed good intentions, it's rare that any politician does everything they promise, or even most of it. And even if they do reach some ambitious goals, it typically comes at the cost of something else. Politics is a game of compromise and combat, where people who want opposite outcomes have to either find common ground or viciously go after one another, and neither of those options is seen as ideal by either side. The end result is that, no matter how hard any individual politician tries, they're going to end up making some mistakes, screwing up some choices, and making some enemies during their career.
The same is true of superheroes. For all their impressive powers and earnest efforts to wipe out the forces of evil, no superhero is ever active for long without some major blunder. Villains get away, innocents die, the hero inadvertently causes one disaster while trying to prevent another, etc. Superheroism a high-risk activity, and nobody avoids the fallout forever. Even the greatest superheroes have had their hands in some tremendous tragedies, and while they might ultimately make up for it with the good they do, it's still an inescapable part of the lifestyle.
This shared inability between politicians and superheroes to ever quite be as good as they or their public wants them to be is the strongest unifying theme in Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris' Ex Machina. The book's main character is Mitchell Hundred, an engineer-turned-superhero thanks to a freak accident, and subsequently a superhero-turned-mayor-of-New-York because he manages to save the second tower of the World Trade Center during 9/11. I haven't spoiled anything for you, by the way, because all of that information is covered in the debut issue, where we also get the first glimpse of Hundred's struggle to be the kind of hero and the kind of mayor he wants to (and believes he can) be. For the rest of the fifty-issues-plus-four-specials that make up this excellent series, that struggle is Hundred's whole world, as his superpowered past keeps bubbling up to screw with his political present, which is already full of its own complex problems with no obvious solutions. He never quite achieves the kind of greatness he wants in either of the roles he plays, nor does he blossom into the supervillain which the forces who gave him his powers originally intended him to be. Hundred's life is one of always coming up short, and in the end, the question of whether he's done more harm than good overall is not easy to answer.
Hundred gets his superhuman abilities while investigating a strange, glowing device that was discovered in the water attached to the Brooklyn Bridge. The object explodes when Hundred touches it, and the blast does some serious damage to his face. It also gives him the power to communicate with machines, to "speak" with them and "hear" what they're saying. Exactly what that sounds like or how it works are never entirely explained, but they don't need to be, since we see the practical applications of Hundred's powers many times. By using his special voice, he can control machines, giving them instructions that they are somehow compelled to obey. Everything from dimming the lights in his bedroom to jamming the gun of a would-be assassin to taking control of a hijacked airplane and landing it safely on the streets of New York. It's a remarkable power to have, and the theoretical influence or control it could give him if he chose to abuse it is terrifying, but Hundred is too altruistic to let himself be so corrupted. As a lifelong fan of superhero comics, he decides to model himself after the stars of those books, becoming a masked, jetpack-wearing vigilante called The Great Machine.
Hundred learns pretty quickly how misguided his plan to become a real-world costumed crimefighter is. For one thing, he's never very good at it.
Talk about all the ways he sucks as a hero: unfit, impulsive, nobody trusts him or wants his help, cops hate him, he creates a villain he can barely handle and then has to kill, etc. Basically, for every step forward, there are one or more steps back. Give examples, of course.
So he decides he can do more good as mayor, but it's not truly any better once he gets there. It's still all about doing as much as he can, and he still upsets somebody no matter what. He lies a lot, or tells half-truths, because he has to in order to stay in the game. He's popular and smart, and he definitely does some good stuff, but it's always got a dark side. The fact that he sometimes has to step out of the mayor suit and into the superhero one is no help, but that's not really the heart of it. Even the all-politics stuff (Lincoln, gay marriage, letting the protest march happen, etc.) often leaves him no good choices.
At this point, conflating the two as much as possible. What would a truly good politician look like? Or a truly SUPER hero? Probably not possible, and a big part of that is the short-term solution problem. Fighting the crooks one at a time doesn't end crime, and working within a fucked up political system isn't changing the way the world works. Also, there is an inherent dishonesty. Superheroes have fake names and costumes. Politicians need to bend truths or lie outright to stay afloat. That lack of transparency taints things necessarily.
However, for all his failure, he succeeds in not bending to the will of his creators. Whoever sent the beacon that made him what he is wanted him to use his powers as the first step in prepping for a full-out invasion. One that still looms. But he has disappointed those forces at every turn, and continues to determinedly do so. A worse villain, then, than good guy, but not great as either.
In the end, he's alone and only the VP. He never gets there all the way, but instead comes up just short always. And maybe that's the condition of all superheroes and all politicians. Certainly Ex Machina seems to think so, or at least strongly suggests the possibility.
In the first issue, we see that he was a hero on 9/11, but ALSO that he sucked as a hero at first and/or in general. He's a win/loser from the beginning.
Lincoln: nobody likes it, and the person who created it has to go villain in order to undo her villainy. Also she totally assaults that dude and it gets brushed off annoyingly.
Snow murders: A very funny and sad conclusion to have the killer be a teenager. But really this story is about Hundred's past and current relationships with Kremlin and Bradbury. And this arc as a whole is about how he is with everyone: Wylie, Journal, Angotti, and his chief of staff whose name I forget now. It's about seeing that he wants to do good, but he doesn't really know how. And maybe no one does, which is what Kremlin and Bradbury talk about in their last convo as Hundred walks away.
It's not that he's a villain, it's that he's not the guy to be a hero. And maybe nobody really is. I think this is kind of a question about the whole genre, because what are the chances that a kid with Superman's powers gets the Kents or that Bruce Wayne reacts that way to his parents' murder or that a genuinely earnest kid with Uncle Ben and Aunt May raising him is the one the spider picks or what have you? Maybe those folks exist, but most of us are not that good, and Hundred is no superhero. He's not even heroic, he's just a flawed, mostly well-meaning but ultimately vain guy who happened to be the one to get these insane powers. He's a fluke.
Also, you can't really be a GOOD politician like you can't really be a SUPERhero.
Gay marriage/NSA: Right off the bat, I noticed how when Jackson's wife tries to compliment Hundred for saving someone once, he tells her it was actually a person he'd put at risk who hated him now. Also, the whole thing of different people reacting differently to the glyph that made Hundred what he is fits in with this idea of "who would REALLY get powers?" The gay marriage issue is another case of Hundred trying to be a good politician and coming up short (in the long run). His whole thing is short-term solutions, right? That becomes apparent here, not just with the marriage, but his approach to school vouchers as a patch while fixing the system. And that is the problem with superheroism, too: it's not a long-term way to deal with crime/evil. It's violence and might squashing things on a case-by-case basis. So maybe the biggest flaw in Hundred's character is that tactical attitude.
Leto as Automaton/jury duty: Things that never happened, or that were MADE not to count, is the common theme in the end. Easy lied, Leto is erased. Hundred is surrounded by lies and secrets, some he knows about and others not. Again, this is the life of any superhero or any politician. Maybe THAT is the hook of this column that being a politician and being a superhero are the same in so many ways, because you can't really be GOOD in the strictest sense to succeed as either, let alone both.
Mitch's mom: Again, the big point is that lies are necessary, ok, and inevitable. His mom says everyone lies TWICE in one issue, and then at the end of that issue, Hundred tries to bring transparency by letting film students into a water tunnel, but basically lies to those same kids about his dad.
Pherson: again, bringing up the death penalty is a big example of the impossibility of true goodness as a politician or vigilante. What do you do with the evils as powerful (or more) than your good can ever be? Also, there's a dishonesty aspect in that the host lies or at least misleads Hundred about the topic of the interview. The Pherson story itself is about Hundred being called out as not doing enough or not doing it right. It's an open challenging of his cause and behavior, which does't happen too often, really. People push back against it, but I don't know if it gets questioned in this way.
Protest: Angotti and Hundred lie about how they find the terrorist. Hundred let the protestors march because how could he tell them they can't, but also lots of folks tell him it is a bad idea. Again, lies and the impossibility of doing this politician job right. Doesn't get into his history as much, but that's the point because he thinks (nay, assumes) that the attack is about him personally.
Weed: Hundred avoids the topic of his current weed usage. Meanwhile, being bad about arresting a pot dealer as a superhero sneaks up on him as a politician when the kid's mom kills herself. Then he can't even use that suicide to make a stance, because it'll make him look like he bends to terrorism. So, once again, not able to do a truly got job in either role.
Zeller: Mitch is so fucking stubborn about not wanting to know about his powers. It's frustrating. Everything Zeller says is so interesting, and he is the epitome of honesty, and he is a good guy, as he self-identifies and demonstrates all along. He causes some damage, but he is there to issue a warning and he tries his hardest and all the pain is accidental. Hundred, meanwhile, gets ragey and punches the dude with the butt of his gun. And threatens him and refuses to listen and stuff. It's villain-y for sure. In the end, he gets credit for something he maybe doesn't deserve, as pointed out by Lilith. So here, he's a BAD hero and a BAD politician but he comes across as a hero. And without trying to lie, he has to, which is another reversal. So all the same themes, but looked at a little differently by going heavy in the hero direction of things, as far as the central problem.
The Pope: Doesn't really fit these themes, but it's also maybe the worst arc. The mind control thing is SO dumb and weird. Weak, archetypal villains so disposable one of them kills the other and it's meaningless. The antichrist thing is sort of foreshadowing what Hundred is supposed to be, I guess, but only barely and not directly. That part can't be pointed out because the Vatican guy doesn't know about it (and neither does Hundred). But yeah I'm not wild about him seeing God and seeing himself as president. It's not that I'm offended, just bored. He DOESN'T become that, and there's no difference to me if he really saw God or didn't, so...wah wah.
Trouble: Similar to the Pope story, I'm not sure how this fits. Certainly it has to do with the struggle to be a good hero, but...this isn't Hundred's fault. This is a crazy woman being crazy, and it's the worst kind of crazy woman character, too: sexed up and love crazed. I hate her look and her personality, so to hell with this.
New Years: Hundred dons his other, previously-foreshadowed superhero duds to go underground, expecting Pherson and instead finding the first thing he ever listens to. Because it looks like Zeller, basically (who's the only real hero in the book I reckon). Point is, he has to be willing to give up being a politician at all, while at the same time his original political sin, the white box, is threatened and then gets out of control. This is his darkest hour as a politician, his lowest and worst. BUT. He also learns that he has failed to make way for an invasion, and in that, we see that as bad as he is a superhero, he failed WAY worse at being the villain he was actually, technically meant to be. That's kind of cool, and in some ways his highest moment as a hero. Not as the Great Machine, but this other, nameless persona that is willing to hear out his enemies, admit his mistakes, and sacrifice things because it's the right thing to do.
Suzanne: In the midst of trying to deal with the abortion thing and how to handle it, whether or not to screw over Wylie, etc., Hundred has to go full-on hero for a full-on villain. And he defeats Suzanne, but less through superheroics and more through politics. It is his lie about the nullifier that wins the day, ultimately, more than his powers. And it is Bradbury covering his ass that saves his career, which is also totally politics.
Finale: Here, we see Hundred at the height of his political career, and the absolute furthest he's ever been from being a superhero or even a decent person. He abandons Bradbury for politics, he kills Kremlin to cover up his big huge lie about stealing the election, etc. Everybody else loses, just like he says. And even after all that, he ends up playing second fiddle to Cheney. Not that good a politician, even when he gives up heroism entirely. This is sort of the inverse of the New Years story, which was lowest politics but highest heroism. Here we get highest politics and lowest heroism, but the results are still decidedly middling. No matter which way he swings or how far, being truly great at either is beyond him perpetually.
He ends up alone, having failed as a hero, failed to become president, and failed as the harbinger of an invasion he was intended to be. This is a book about a man's earnest but ultimately unsuccessful attempts to be a good guy in several arenas, and the futility of that kind of idealism in general. Nobody can solve all the problems, and those who try will compromise and lie out of necessity until they become destroyers instead of builders. It ties into what Hundred says in the Suzanne story about how the gas and 9/11 terrorists were engineers. Fine line between builder and destroyer, and he crosses it often.