Way back in the dead days beyond recall, when I was a teacher, I remember once having a stand-up argument with a colleague from the drama department. We were talking about story, and she said that thing about there only being two subjects for story: love and death. So every narrative that was ever written since the world began has to be about one or both of these two things.
We argued it backwards and forwards for a long time, before I finally came up with my clinching point. “What about politics?”
Okay, you can twist some political stories to make them fit: Hamlet is about politics and death, and so is Lorenzaccio, Mrs. Brown is about politics and love, and so on. But political narratives are mostly about the uses and abuses of power, the responsibilities of office, the gulf between the desirable and the possible. That’s a third big topic on a par with the other two – the third leg of a tripod on which a whole great towering heap of world literature rests quite comfortably.
Ex Machina is about all three, of course: if you had to plot its position in the three-dimensional space defined by the axes of love, death and politics, you’d probably want to put it somewhere fairly central, somewhere where the three colossal themes intersect to the detriment of none and the enrichment of all.
It’s not a heavily populated zone, when you think about it – not as far as comic books are concerned. Warren Ellis’s Transmetropolitan is there, and so (whatever you may think of Dave Sim’s politics) is Cerebus. After that, unless you cheat and allow in documentary works like Joe Sacco’s Palestine, or newspaper strips like the magnificent Doonesbury, you’re probably already struggling to think of suitable candidates. The Sandman often touches on politics, albeit in a fantastic and metaphysical context, and it’s very big on love and death, so you could make a case for adding it to the list. Gilbert Hernandez’s Palomar stories, maybe (and Poison River certainly). Some of Will Eisner’s later works…
I’m not raising this issue in a dry, abstract, taxonomic way. I think it matters when you start trying to define why Ex Machina is special and why it’s always supplied such a powerful narrative hit. People bandy around the term “mature comics” very readily, sometimes to describe very immature works, but if it means anything, it should mean something like this: a mature comic is one that’s able (if it wants to) to deal with any of the themes, topics and issues that other forms of storytelling such as novels or plays address – without simplifying or falsifying them, or fudging them to make them fit.
And that’s what Ex Machina does. To steal a phrase from the News of the World’s old masthead, “all human life is here.” In issue after issue, it goes wherever its breathtakingly broad remit takes it – into the core tropes of superhero stories, the hinterlands of paranoid sci-fi, the briar patches of political compromise, and beyond.
When was there ever a comic that journeyed so far, so enthrallingly, and through such varied terrain?
And what will we do when it’s gone?
And now, on to Part III, with some final thoughts and special behind-the-scenes photo reference from issue one from Tony Harris.Newsarama: Brian, this will be the first time in nearly a decade that you don’t have an ongoing series on the racks. You’ve had a little time since you finished writing this, and doubtlessly you’re still busy, but how does this feel?
Brian K. Vaughan: Yeah, I just sent super-letterer Jared K. Fletcher my final balloon placements for Ex Machina #50, and I realized that this is the first time since I scripted an issue of Cable way back in 1996 that I haven't been under some kind of deadline at DC and/or Marvel.
It's definitely strange, but I'm really looking forward to having some new adventures, both in comics and out.
Stay tuned, more soon.
Nrama: What’s best about working at WildStorm and/or doing a creator-owned book?
Vaughan: WildStorm has been beyond incredible, from the moment I first pitched the idea all the way up to the company giving us 48 ad-free pages of story for our big finale.
I never like to pull the curtain back too much, but there was a time when it looked like our first two issues were going to get pulped over concerns about content, and the series was going to be cancelled before the first issue was ever released. (Vaughan declined to comment further on this)
But Jim Lee, Scott Dunbier, and Ben Abernathy really went to the mattresses for our book, literally putting their jobs on the line, and it's a testament to the patience and thoughtfulness of Paul Levitz and everyone else at DC at the time that we were ultimately able to release those issues, and the rest of the series, without ever changing a single line.Ben Abernathy: Having worked at other companies, I think there's a special creative energy and enthusiasm that WildStorm maintains even under difficult circumstances and that begins with the core of the studio-Jim Lee-and goes right down the line.
JD Mettler: I've been very fortunate in my 10 years in the biz – 95% of my dealings with all of the companies and editors have been extremely positive. But whenever I'm looking for that next project on the calendar-- I check in with Ben first.
He understands how to get the best out of an artist, and he knows how to keep it both business and fun. Ben, Kristy, Claudia, Hank, Jim, and everyone else at WS are simply excellent to work with.
And man-- working on a creator-owned series with Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris-- I mean, come on-- I did 50 issues (plus the Specials) of a collaborative creator-owned effort between Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris. It's been one hell of a learning experience!
These guys are the best in the industry. And I got to work with them on a political drama/sci-fi/horror series for six years. Awesome.Tony Harris: Shit, that’s easy. Ben Abernathy, Hank Kanalz, Jim Lee, Kristy Quinn, Sarah Gaydos, Jared Fletcher, and all the folks over there. They “get” what Creator Owned , means. They leave you alone to create.
Plus Ben Abernathy is the rightful successor to Archie Goodwins Crown of , “ Best-Editor-Ever.”
Nrama: Who were your favorite character(s), and which was the hardest character to write/draw/grasp?
Vaughan: I really loved writing Mitchell, Bradbury and Kremlin, especially when I got to write those three pals together. Every other series I've ever written has had a very female-centric cast, so it was a fun change to get to write a story about “brotherhood,” for lack of a better term.
The hardest character to grasp was probably Deputy Mayor Dave Wylie, as I think he's the only fundamentally decent human being in the entire series, whether or not you agree with his particular politics. Fundamentally decent people are great to hang out with, but a pain in the ass to write.Harris: God, that is an impossible question. It really is. That is like picking your favorite child. Can’t do it. But, the hardest character to draw? I would say the Great Machine.
I designed that sonuvabitch, and I curse myself every time I draw him. I did get easier as I went along , but his costume had to be Utilitarian in nature. So in my mind all the components you see, are all integral.
He is so complicated in fact, that I do not sketch him at conventions. Until now that is. Now that the book is over, I think I will take on Great Machine commissions at shows. Bring it on!
Mettler: Krem is my hands down favorite to color. Wrinkles in the face, smoke pouring off the cig, attitude in his expressions, etc. Always fun!
Hardest character on a regular basis was TGM. If T ever designs a character's costume as complicated as GM's again-- I'll be forced to strangle him. That costume was a bitch for 50 issues. Having said that-- I loved it, and am so glad T didn't cop out and just put him in spandex. It would have been easier to draw and color each issue, but it wouldn't have been as good.
Hardest character in a smaller role was maybe Zeller's suit or even BKV as himself in # 40. There was something about the bald head, the 12 year old boy young looks on a grown man, and the meta-weirdness of actually coloring BKV in a room speaking to Mitch, that made that character maddening to color. Couldn't go too soft, couldn't make him all wrinkled and ugly like that Ol' Man Harris-- B was tough!Nrama: Brian, I know you did a draft of an Ex Machina screenplay – what’s the status of the film project at this point? What are the challenges in doing the series as a stand-alone film, and do you feel it would work better as a TV series?
Vaughan: Actually, Ex Machina is the one comic I've worked on where the movie rights finally reverted back to us, so Tony and I again own the thing. We've been approached by a few cool filmmakers recently, but Tony and I both want to wait until the final issue is out before we make any decisions.
And I'm totally open to it being a movie or a television series or whatever, but truthfully, if no one wants to do it right, I'm also very, very happy for Ex Machina to only ever exist as a comic book.Harris: I think it would be better served in a serialized format on television. And not in an R- rated format. For the masses.
Nrama: Anyone want to talk about what’s next for you?
Mettler: A few mini-series and one-shots here and there, and a couple things with WS coming next year. One of them is with Tony, set in WWII torn London. Gonna be very cool.
Nrama: How does it feel to be leaving this world and these characters behind?
Harris: Sad. Very, very sad. Imagine leaving close friends that you saw and hung out with day after day, that you were so close with, after six years. It’s heartbreaking. But, it is exciting to look to the future to other work. To something different, something new.
I am also looking forward to reading Ex Machina for the first time. I have been far too close to read it without bias. So after some time has passed, I look forward to sitting down with the hardcovers, and taking it all in. Objectively.Mettler: Man, I dunno. It's strange. I'm sad we're done. I'm really going to miss these characters and working with this team. But ending it makes it stronger, and I'm already having a great time working on the next gigs, so it's cool to be moving on.
Abernathy: It hasn't totally hit yet, to be honest...to much going on in getting the last issue to the printer, but it's going to be a sad day when I'm holding that last printed issue in my hand. Sniff...
Vaughan: I'm gonna miss these characters, but not nearly as much as I'm going to miss working with Tony, JD, Ben, Kristy, and Jared, all of whom have been with the book since day one. I've been fortunate to work with some awesome collaborators over the years, but I've never worked so closely for so long with a single group of creators who cared so much about every aspect of our story.
If that's not a great machine, I don't know what the hell is.
Ex Machina is over, but check out the trades and hardcovers. And thanks to everyone for 50 great issues and four great specials.Creative team, power down.