EXit MACHINA Part 1: Origins With the Creative Team

EXit MACHINA Part 1: Origins

Above Exclusive Image: Tony Harris's unused Ex Machina "Great Machine" logo.

”This is the story of my four years in office, from the beginning of 2002 through the godforsaken 2005.

“It may look like a comic, but it’s really a tragedy.”

-- From Ex Machina#1

What would really happen if a superhero went into politics?  In 2004, comic fans found out.

Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris’ Ex Machina took us to a New York City separated from our own by the presence of one very unique individual – Mitchell Hundred, a civil engineer granted the ability to communicate with machines in a strange accident.  

Initially becoming a jetpack-wearing hero known as the Great Machine, Hundred decided he’d be more effective in politics – and won the election for Mayor by a landslide.

Over 50 issues and four Specials, we watched Hundred’s term as Mayor unfold in a decade turned sideways – from the changed aftermath of the city’s greatest tragedy to the would-be successors to the Great Machine to the mysterious beings with powers of their own.  And we watched as Hundred dealt with everything from jury duty to gay marriage to legalizing marijuana to the terrible secret behind his powers, and their horrifying purpose.

With the final issue of Ex Machina hitting the stands this week, Newsarama is about to take you deeper inside the Great Machine than you’ve ever been before.  In a special three-part series, we talked with Brian K. Vaughan, Tony Harris, colorist JD Mettler and editor Ben Abernathy about Ex Machina’s run, from the characters to what the book meant to them.

Ex Machina’s themes and ideas are right there on the page – if you want to know what inspired the book, just read issue #40, where Vaughan (literally) explains it to us.  But the creators offered some unique insights into what it took to put the book together – including a ton of behind-the-scenes artwork, much of it never before seen, that shows the process that went into putting Mitchell Hundred’s world together.

And as a special treat for the creators and fans, we put together a few quick tributes of our own for this three-part series.  First up is a special art piece by an artist named Pia Guerra, who did a little book with Vaughan called Y: The Last Man a few years ago.  People seemed to like it.  So we thought, “What would it look like if Pia Guerra drew the Great Machine?”

Exclusive Art: Pia Guerra Draws The Great Machine

See for yourself.

We’ve got more surprises coming at you – so strap on your jetpack and get ready to enter the finale of Ex Machina with the men who made the Great Machine run.

Newsarama Note: The following interview contains some mild spoilers and highly entertaining profanity.

Newsarama: Brian, you've talked about, in the actual series, how the impetus came from watching the towers fall from the roof of your apartment building.  Did the idea emerge full-blown, or did you have any similar ideas in the past that redeveloped in the wake of the tragedy?

Brian K. Vaughan: Yeah, it definitely didn't emerge full-blown.  I knew I wanted to write about 9/11, but much as I love superheroes, they seemed like a pretty crappy delivery system to talk about something that important.  

Which was dumb of me, obviously, since superhero stories are as malleable as any genre, and have already been talking seriously about about politics and power and identity since well before Watchmen.

 But it wasn't until a few months after September 11th that I saw a way to use a modern superhero story to explore why our country suddenly seemed to crave leaders who were also quote-unquote heroes.

I've rambled about this before, but stuff like Bush putting on that flightsuit, or John Kerry running largely on his war record, or Schwartzenegger getting elected governor of California, all seemed to suggest a coming convergence of American politics and mythical hero worship...

…but I don't think Tony or I ever would have guessed that this would culminate with the election of a new President who grew up reading comic books before he ended up on the covers of them.  It's kind of a weird validation of what we set out to explore.

Nrama: Ben, what stood out for you about Brian's pitch?

Ben Abernathy: I was hooked on the concept immediately-it was such a refreshingly original idea that from the opening line of the proposal I knew it was going to be brilliant...and here, so many years later, it proved to be just that!

Nrama: Brian, what made you want to focus on this as an ongoing series, as opposed to a mini or graphic novel?  And why 50 issues, if the character is “Hundred?” (laughs)

Black and White of Ex Machina Deluxe HC 4

Vaughan: Well, I really wanted to follow Mayor Hundred over the course of his first four-year term in office, seeing him grow and change in more or less “real time” over roughly 48 months, rounded up to 50 issues (not counting our specials) just because that number felt right when I pitched the series to Jim Lee over Korean barbecue a million years ago.  

And while I apologize for how hilariously we blew the “real time” aspect here in the home stretch, it was only ever in service of making sure that our story was always all killer, no filler.      

 Nrama: What made you think of Tony for this series?

Vaughan: Since it's a story about New York City, I knew Ex Machina was going to be an ongoing mix of the mundane and the fantastic, and very few artists can handle those opposites as well as Tony.  

He's obviously a wiz at creating photo-realistic characters and environments, but I don't think Tony gets enough credit for his other gift, which is a batshit insane imagination that's constantly birthing imagery that couldn't (and probably shouldn't!) exist in the real world.    

Much as I love Tony, the unsung hero of the book is definitely colorist JD Mettler.  Color is so important to our story, and JD has perfected that singular dark-but-vibrant palette that defines every scene.  

I can't imagine doing this series without him, and though he's too much of a gentleman to ever say it himself, I think he's a one-man argument that colorists deserve to enjoy the same generous royalties that DC/Wildstorm is awesome enough to offer its other creators, even if that means shaving off some percentage points from the spoiled writer.     

Nrama: JD, tell us about how you worked with Tony in creating the look of the book – what was unique about the process of developing the look of the book?

JD Mettler: The color direction for Ex Machina was something that we wanted to push the envelope on. Tony was really wanting to take what we did with JSA: The Unholy Three to the next step.

Cinematic wide screen type panels, open line art, with most of the shading done in color instead of with ink (compared to the heavy blacks Tony was well known for using), heavy grit and splatter, textured brushes, and SFX. All line art colored, with true blacks only painted into key places for added depth (adds time to the production schedule).

It was all ambitious for a monthly, I didn't know how I was gonna do what was in my head for the series when we started. And quite frankly-- I didn't pull it off on a monthly schedule. But I'm still really glad that we began this one by thinking outside of the box, instead of just approaching the color as a “business as usual” comic book.

Nrama: Brian, why the power to control all machines?  Contextually, this leads to the big revelation in the climactic arc, but I’m curious about what inspired this power in your mind in the first place.

Full Color Ex Machina Deluxe HC Vol 4 Cover

Vaughan: The cool answer is that I wanted to take a shot at creating the first great superhero of the new millennium, and it felt like the most powerful people of the 21st century were going to be those who could effectively communicate with and through the new technologies that now bind us all.  

But the real answer is that I just always wanted to write a conversation between a guy and his blender.

Nrama: For that matter, did your perspective on writing the series change after you moved to LA, and if so, how?

Vaughan: Well, I was certainly more passionate about the book after I moved to Los Angeles, just because I missed New York so much, and writing Ex Machina once a month felt like getting to teleport back home for a week or so.  

But yeah, there's also the added benefit of perspective, of being able to see things about the forest that I took for granted or just missed entirely when I was living in the trees.  I don't know how guys like Brian Wood are able to write about the city so beautifully while also being residents, but they're lucky, since the pizza's for shit out here.  

Nrama: The series is established as a paraellel timeline from page one of issue #1.  What’s fun about using a parallel Earth to comment on our own society?

Mettler: W. with a goatee!

Nrama: Brian, you’ve said that while the central arc of the book has stayed consistent from your original vision, you’ve made some swerves based on real-world events. What were some of the challenges having a year or two “blank” as you started the book, and what were some of the adjustments you made, both in terms of what led to 2005 in Ex Machina and what’s happened since 2005 in “our” world?  

I imagine to an extent it has to be like writing a show like Treme, only with, you know, talking machines and parallel worlds and stuff.

Vaughan: We were just really, really lucky.  I first pitched the book in late 2001, knowing that it would cover Mitchell's first term through 2005, but obviously without the benefit of knowing what real-world events we might eventually have to incorporate.

So when I originally plotted out the series, for example, I knew that some large event would contribute to Mitchell briefly losing his powers sometime in 2003, but I had no idea that there was going to be a massive blackout in NYC that same year to beautifully dovetail with that storyline (and without doing too much harm to the real friends I left behind in Manhattan, thankfully).  

So yeah, the real world always seemed to cooperate with our fictional plans, right up to and including the final pages of this last issue.  I always knew what Mitchell's ultimate fate was going to be, but I couldn't have guessed how “true” the specific details of it would end up feeling.       

Nrama: What, in your opinion, was the most interesting reaction to book?  I'm quite curious about the cartoon you did for one of the NYC publications – sorry, but I can’t remember which one at the moment.

Vaughan: Thanks!  It was actually for New York Magazine, whose editors asked Tony and me to contribute to an issue about “What if 9/11 never happened?”  We came up with a somber little single-panel comic, which you can still read online here: http://nymag.com/news/features/19147/index18.html

And the most interesting reactions to the book for me have been from readers in countries like Brazil, where our reprints are inexplicably popular.  I thought a book about local NYC politics would be way too inside baseball for most Americans, much less for international readers.  But I also thought my run on Swamp Thing was going to be beloved, so I clearly never have any idea what the hell I'm doing.       

The final page pencils for Ex Machina #1

Tony Harris:  The reactions have been all over the place. They have been as simple as a pretty girl at a convention saying, “ HUNDRED IS SOOOOO HOT!” to the other end of the spectrum, with someone saying online that we had no business rewriting history, and by making a fictional story where one tower still stood, it conjures to many thoughts about all the people that died in that tower.

You know like in our story, they would still be around. Some people thought we did it too soon. Others thought that we were right on time. But the general, overall reaction to Ex Machina has been amazing. Everyone has thought that we  handle the subject matter with great respect.

I will tell you that every time I had to draw that tower still there, it was strange. I felt a little of all those things I just mentioned. Every time. It never got an easier than the time before. Especially after Brian and I did an interview together in person, on location at Ground Zero. That brought everything home, where it needed to be to deal with the work we had ahead of us.

Also, at one point during the production of issue #2, the completed issue one was circulating around Wildstorm, and DC. And at one point we were in real danger of being cancelled before the book was ever released.  (Newsarma note: Harris declined to further comment on this)

Mettler: I'll give you an interesting reaction that really surprised me, because it was my own. It was when Brian killed Journal. I'm not one to usually get so attached to characters that their death affects me, but B wrecked me with that script.

I had trouble coloring that sequence, because I hadn't known that it was coming in the story, and I just wasn't expecting her to die. Yeah, these were characters who were a part of my daily life, but they were still fictional characters, and it was just a freakin' comic book fer chrisakes. But it wrecked me.

It was the moment in the series, for me, when I realized that this wasn't just a really cool job anymore, but that these people were actually a part of my life.

Still haven't completely forgiven B for that one. (laughs)

Next: More insights, and a special tribute from a famous fan…

What's your favorite Ex Machina memory?

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