EXit MACHINA Part 2: Villains, Favorites, & The Future

EXit MACHINA Part 2: Villains, Favorites

Read Part one by clicking here

Part II of our special three-part tribute to Wildstorm’s Ex Machina with writer Brian K. Vaughan, artist Tony Harris, colorist JD Mettler and editor Ben Abernathy continues today, with more insights into the book’s creation and a ton of behind-the-scenes art from Tony Harris.

But first, a quick tribute from one of the book’s fans:

Ex Machina brilliantly juxtaposes the worlds of super-heroics and politics and — scarily — shows how similar they are.   Hey, if Superman sneezed at the wrong time, he could destroy a city block.   If a mayor misuses a single word, there could be rioting in the streets.”

Patton Oswalt

The actor/writer/comedian recently wrote Serenity: Float Out for the fine folks at Dark Horse Comics, who provided us with this line and who also published Brian K. Vaughan’s The Escapists, which if you haven’t read, is well worth your time.

Jetpack 3D Modeling Tests

And now, on to Part II…

Newsarama Note: A few portions of this interview spoil plot details from issue #50, but we’ve helpfully marked them for you.  Also, there’s some swearing, cause that’s just how these guys roll.

 Newsarama: Brian, why did you have Jack Pherson as a character in the specials, as opposed to the main series?  Also, curious about the use of the specials; was it just to give Tony some breathing room, or was there a reason you wanted these stories by other artists?

Brian K. Vaughan: Tony desperately wanted to have a long, unbroken run on a creator-owned series, which is an amazingly admirable goal for someone of his stature. 

But there aren't many artists working today who can maintain a monthly schedule for years on end (especially when they eventually start inking themselves), so Wildstorm asked if I'd be willing to write some “specials” to help give Tony a little more breathing room. 

I said I'd love to, but only if the specials could be drawn by A-plus guys like Chris Sprouse and John Paul Leon, and only if those specials were actually Special, introducing vitally important parts of our story like Hundred's archenemy Pherson.  

Nrama: Though Hundred is deliberately enigmatic in many aspects – and not having a solid grasp on things such as his sexual orientation leads the reader to wonder how he’d react to certain issues, or how the reader feels on such issues themselves. 

But one thing that's curious is how he sometimes seems willfully ignorant of what people such as Zeller or the Georges are telling him about the looming threat.  Why does he have this Scully-like perspective, despite what he's seen and experienced in his adventures?

Vaughan: What's that George W. Bush quote?  “I really do not feel comfortable in the role of analyzing myself.”  I can actually identify with that! 

A lack of navel-gazing isn't always a terrible thing, as it might mean that you're too busy worrying about helping other people to be overly introspective... but there's also the darker alternative, which is that you just might not want to turn inward because you're afraid of what you'll find.       

Nrama: Brian, how closely did you follow politics before you began the series?  How did your opinion of it change as you were working on it?  Given that you’ve admitted to having an aversion to authority, what were some of the challenges of writing from the POV of a figure in an authoritative position?

Vaughan: I think I'm a pretty typical ugly American, in that I was not nearly interested enough in politics before 9/11, overly obsessed with it in the following years, and then hopelessly exhausted by it more recently. 

But while my opinions of politics are constantly in flux, I've always felt the exact same way about politicians.  Good or bad, they're fascinating weirdos who usually make for great drama.   

Nrama: On that note, what were some of the challenges of incorporating real-world elements/trivia into the story in a way that felt organic?

Ben Abernathy: Well, one of the “challenges” on my end was learning the ins-and-outs of the legality of using landmarks, people, logos, etc. It was eye-opening and more than a few times I had to be the “bad guy” in having to police what we could use.

One upside:  I now know which buildings in the Manhattan skyline are trademarked! Ha!

Nrama: JD, what was more challenging, illustrating the “real-world” material or the more fantastic material?

JD Mettler: What kept this series so fresh to work on was the way Brian challenged us with both worlds. The sci-fi/horror pages were always difficult but fun, because I was able to cut loose with all of the SFX bells and whistles.

But the challenge of the real-world pages (and there were a lot of them) was to keep it all looking interesting without the use of the eerie lighting and SFX.  Both had their share of difficulties, but bouncing back and forth while working on an issue always kept it interesting.

Nrama: Brian, one thing I’ve noticed in your scripts is that you frequently use the term “biggest panel of the page.”  How do you visualize pages, and Tony – how often did you actually pay attention to this stage direction? (laughs)

Vaughan: Yeah, my first script for Tony was insanely detailed, but after working together for years and years, we've developed a real shorthand.  I'll sometimes suggest what I think the “anchor image” of the page should be, but beyond that, I never told Tony how to tell the story, just like he never told me how to write it. 

We have very different approaches to storytelling, but because Tony and I gave each other a lot of trust and space, I like to think our styles ended up complimenting much more often than they clashed.

Tony Harris: I paid attention about as often as I thought it was necessary. Ha! I didn’t mean that in a negative way.

Let me be clear. Brian has always said that if I had a better idea for a way to present a panel, or how to layout the page to run with it. His only request was that if I wanted to cut a panel, to talk to him first, to make sure it wouldn’t mess with the beats of the page, or the scene even. And he is right.

There is a rhythm to good storytelling. A very clear rhythm. And it can be disrupted, and fucked up when you mess with emphasis. Storytelling is supremely important to me. It is my job to place characters, or objects, or actions in certain order to lead your eye where I want it to go.   To flow, to direct your attention in such a way as to flow into the next panel, while keeping aware that there will be word balloons in and around the art.

Mettler: And didn't the Great Machine have the cape and tights costume in the pitch and 1st script, or am I remembering incorrectly? I could swear I remember GM being more spandex before T got going on the costume design. No Capes!

Nrama:  Any favorite moments, be they storyline or small bits with the characters?

Abernathy: Of the many amazing moments and beats in this series, the one that always comes back to me is the scene in issue three where Kremlin confronts Mitchell in his bedroom...it really sums up their complicated relationship for the entire series and when Mitchell commands the lights “FADE TO BLACK” and we're left with Kremlin, head bowed in darkness...just powerful.

Vaughan: I'm kind of partial to the last two pages of Issue #40, just because I like Garth Ennis' writing a lot more than my own.  And I think it's cool that DC let us put out an issue with original Jim Lee sequential art in it without ever telling anyone. 

We probably could have doubled our sales if we had promoted that, but we really wanted to give readers a genuine surprise, all too rare in comics these days.  

Mettler: One of my favorites was at the Vatican. Bradbury wants Mitch to take him along to meet The Pope. I think the dialog was something like “Come on Mitch, take me with you. I swear to fuckin' Christ I won't embarrass you!”  Just a perfect in character moment of Bradbury dialog.

Harris: Newsarama Note: contains Spoilers for issue #50

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The last time Mitchell and Kremlin see each other. Hands down. Brian was so on fire there. I was so inspired by what he put down in words, I feel like it pushed me to do what I think is my best storytelling in 50 issues.

Also, the last time Mitchell and Bradbury see each other. Really powerful. We had talked about a totally different ending to Bradbury’s role in the series, but I think knowing what I do, that NOBODY saw this coming. Not even me.  SPOILER HERE!!!!!!!!!!

I don’t think Bradbury is Gay. Not by any stretch of the imagination. I think he fell in love with who he thought Mitchell was. The man, the Hero, the Politician. All of that. They spent so much time together, so many small moments just between them, that Bradbury just fell in love with who he THOUGHT Mitchell Hundred was. Boy was he wrong.

Nrama: Well, there’s one issue to go, and this could still be proven, but what were your thoughts on the fan theories that Hundred and Bradbury were dating?

Mettler: Well-- they never dated. That's pretty certain. But I don't wanna downplay what Bradbury dealt with over those years. I think it was pretty clear by the end that he loved Mitch. And I'm sure those feelings really messed with the headspace of a guy like Rick.

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Nrama: Okay, for all you guys: What do you feel is the appeal of jetpacks?  Avoid the obvious “if you have to ask, you’re never going to know.”

Abernathy: For me, it centers around the ability to fly and all the magic and freedom that goes along with it.

Vaughan: I love jetpacks because they represent a future that will always be frustratingly just out of reach.  Actual jetpacks already exist, obviously, but they're all pretty sucky. 

The badass Rocketeer backpack versions we all fantasize about are no closer to being a reality today than when they first started appearing on the covers of pulp magazines back in the 1920s.  On one level, it seems so simple, but so did plugging a leaky oil well, I suppose. 

Harris: I know what the appeal of jetpacks were to me, regarding this particular project. It was that I thought since Mitch controlled machines, that he should surround himself with machines.

All he did as a hero should involve machines of some kind. It was logical. So I took one of the most-used and most obvious abilities used by creators over the years concerning the characters they create, and applied it to that logic: Flight.

So a jetpack was a no-brainer for me. Plus I love the old serial The Rocketmen, and the character that they spawned: The Rocketeer! Too cool.

Nrama: Brian, you’ve done three extended runs on ongoing series at this point in your career.  Do you see yourself doing more?  While you’ve talked about always wanting to keep one foot in comics, do you see yourself taking on a project as elaborate as this, Y or Runaways again?

For that matter, how would you compare the reception of Ex Machina to those other runs?  Newsarama Note: Vaughan did not respond to other questions regarding his run on the TV series Lost, or feature screenplays he’d written

Vaughan: Yeah, ongoing monthly series are definitely a young writer's game, and now that I'm so much older and balder and sleepier, I swore that all of my future comics work would be shorter, more self-contained projects, but the second I wrote the last page of Ex Machina, I came up with an idea for another godforsaken multi-year epic, so we'll see. 

And so far, Ex Machina hasn't been quite as popular as Y or Runaways, but the people who like Ex Machina really seem to like it, which is enormously gratifying.  I thought I was the only person alive who wanted to read stories that often feature 15% raygun fights and 85% guys arguing about school vouchers, but apparently, I am not alone.

Plus, most readers didn't discover Y or Runaways until after I ended my runs, and similarly, I'm sure a lot of people are waiting to hear whether or not we stick the landing with this final issue of Ex Machina before committing to taking the whole journey through the collected editions. 

But for what it's worth, I think this is the best conclusion to any story I've ever written.  We warned you on the first page of the first issue that this thing wasn't gonna end happily, but I do think we reach Hundred's inevitable fate in an unexpected but hopefully satisfying way. 

In the conclusion: A special essay by a current Vertigo writer, and BKV and friends wish the Great Machine a fond farewell.

What was your favorite Ex Machina moment?

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