Review: ‘Ex Machina 7’ and ‘Fables 11’
DC has long been the home of a certain kind of story – at least moderately hip, and equally popular, usually with some elements derived from the superhero mainstream but with its own high-concept premise ripped from the Zeitgeist. First there was [[[Sandman]]], then [[[Preacher]]] and [[[Transmetropolitan]]] and so on – but, these days, since [[[Y: The Last Man]]] ended, the two thoroughbreds left in that particular stable are [[[Fables]]] and [[[Ex Machina]]]. As it happens, both of those series had new collections this fall…
Ex Machina, Vol. 7: Ex Cathedra
By Brian K. Vaughan, Tony Harris & Jim Clark
DC Comics/Wildstorm, October 2008, $12.99
[[[Ex Machina]]] has been piling up the cheap trade paperbacks, keeping its storylines to four or five issues and pumping out the reprints as quickly as possible. And so this seventh volume collects issues #30-34, the last of which hit stores as a floppy only in February. (I reviewed the sixth volume back in April, for those who want some background.)
Ex Machina, as you might know by now, is a science-fiction story about Mitchell Hundred, the Mayor of New York City, in a slightly alternate world. Hundred has some kind of alien (or other-dimensional) gizmo embedded in his face, which allows him to understand and command machines – since this is a comic book, he used that at first to dress up in a funny costume (as “The Great Machine”) and fight crime. Since this is a smart comic book, he then ran for mayor, and won after he stopped the second 9/11 plane from hitting the World Trade Center.
[[[Ex Cathedra]]] is a four-part story set in December of 2003; it’s still not quite the midpoint of Hundred’s first term. The series has bounced back and forth in time between Hundred’s mayoral and superhero days; in these issues we do get a few scenes in 2000-2001 for spice, but it’s mostly about a visit to the Vatican.
You see, the Pope has asked Hundred to come for an audience and the mayor of a city with millions of Catholics can’t say no to a request like that. Of course John Paul II – who is never shown full-face, in a very coy and odd fashion – has an ulterior motive. And, not quite as obviously, there are other forces with their own aims.
Ex Machina doesn’t drive the overall story forward much; there is a possible major bit of foreshadowing at the end – and those “other forces” I alluded to may become more important later – but it’s mostly a “how would this fictional character bounce off real-world people” story, with a side order of a long conversation about religion and politics with the Vatican’s official astronomer. Presumably, this is setting some pieces in position for later use, but, all by itself, it doesn’t do much.
This volume also reprints a single-issue story, which is almost a solo story about Hundred’s police commissioner, Amy Angotti. There’s a brief scene with Hundred’s “supervillain nemesis” – Jack Pherson, the man who can talk to animals – but it’s really about Angotti’s relationship with Hundred, and with her job. It’s a tone piece, and works well on that level.
At this point in Ex Machina, the overall plot needs to move forward: Vaughan has revealed that Hundred’s gizmo came from an alternate world, and that travel between the worlds isn’t as difficult as it could be. A lot of short tales about this or that event are nice, but the series really needs to stretch now, to tell longer stories that take the ball closer to the goal.
Fables, Vol. 11: War and Pieces
Written by Bill Willingham; Art by Mark Buckingham and others
DC Comics/Vertigo, November 2008, $17.99
[[[Fables]]], on the other hand, is spiking the ball in the goal at the end of this volume – but this isn’t the end of the series. For quite a while – arguably, since the very beginning of the series – it’s been about the building tensions and coming conflict between the rebel Fables in our world and The Adversary back in the Homelands. (I reviewed the last volume of this one as well.)
[[[War and Pieces]]] is the story of the invasion of the Homelands – though, first, we get a one-issue set-up story at the upstate New York farm, and then a two-issue tale of spycraft and danger starring [[[Cinderella]]]. Then the war starts in earnest, with a magic-carpet-powered airship floating over the Homelands and carpet-bombing the gates to and from the Adversary’s throneworld.
(One might suspect Willingham – who tends to the right of the political spectrum and has mentioned more than once that Fabletown has analogs with Israel – is rewriting some recent wars here, with overwhelming air power being quite notably successful in its aims. On the other hand, the ending narration is unsubtle in its hints of problems yet to come, so the parallel may continue, closer to the real-world model.)
The war ends as wars generally do: with one side defeated and leaderless, and the other damaged but strong enough to go on. Not all of the major characters of the series make it to the end, and several others are shuffled off in a way that will probably put them out of the story indefinitely, if not permanently.
But the series isn’t done – Willingham wants to tell more stories in this world, and it looks like the next set of stories will be set in the aftermath. Like a certain real-world conflict, though, the next volume of Fables won’t be dénouement as much as recomplication. That’s fine; Willingham has shown that he’s willing to end stories as well as begin them, which is rare in comics. I do still hope that Fables itself will eventually end – every story needs an end to give it shape – but that doesn’t have to happen yet.
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He’s been reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal, mostly book-oriented blog at antickmusings.blogspot.com.
Publishers who would like their books to be reviewed should contact ComicMix through the usual channels or email Andrew Wheeler directly at acwheele (at) optonline (dot) net.