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Raging for the Machine

In Brian K. Vaughan's 'Ex Machina,' the comic book hero paradigm is turned upside down – a gay mayor of New York dealing with rather more real – but no less heroic – situations.
 
 
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As mayor of a sprawling, embattled metropolis, the boyish new jack with a knack for ruffling feathers and throwing establishment politicos into disarray decides to perform gay marriages, hurling caution into an oncoming storm of criticism and conventional decline-of-Western-civilization paranoia. But this brazen figure isn't San Francisco's flashbulb-friendly Gavin Newsom – who recently declared the battle over gay marriage America's "last civil rights struggle" in an interview with the San Francisco Examiner – but rather a humble engineering whiz by the name of Mitchell Hundred, who has shed his superhero persona as the Great Machine to become mayor of New York City.

It's not your run-of-the-mill comic book narrative, but then again writer Brian K. Vaughan isn't your usual DC Comics graphic novel scribe, nor is his latest dialogue-centric series Ex Machina conventional in the slightest. In fact, rather than spending his continuing series explaining at length how his hero the Great Machine can talk to any mechanical object and bend it to his will, Vaughan prefers to investigate the corruption, competition and, yes, mundanity that passes for civic politics in the city that real-life mayor Michael Bloomberg recently proposed nicknaming "The World's Second Home." That is, in a world that's looking more and more like a comic book every day, Vaughan would rather deal with issues and concerns that are more, to used an oft-abused term in all media, real. And that focus – on the real – has garnered Vaughan's Ex Machina a prestigious nod from the GLBT community.

Vaughan, of course, doesn't stop at gay marriage. His protagonist in Ex Machina is forced to navigate his way through everything from attempted bribes and murders to more tedious matters like too few snowplows and too many free-speech showdowns. In one scenario reminiscent of the Giuliani-era outcry over Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ" or the unapologetic photography of Robert Mapplethorpe, Vaughan spends as much page time, if not more, on a conflict over a controversial portrait of Lincoln with the word "Nigger" scrawled across it than he does the Great Machine's various exploits, although he is the hero on which the comic is based. Which suits the writer just fine, thanks.

"I don't have anything against a classic superhero book," Vaughan says. "Right now, I'm doing Ultimate X-Men , for example. But the word 'hero' really does make me uncomfortable, and that is what Ex Machina is all about. Heroes are just these fictions that we create and impose on people. Everyone has flaws. That's what drama is to me. I just couldn't picture myself writing a Superman comic, although they are so many Superman characters and storylines that I love. But it just doesn't seem human to me."

"Local politics has always interested me deeply," Vaughan confides, "especially after living in New York for ten years. It's a lot sexier than politics at the national level. It is less that I have issues that I want to explore than the fact that politics carries so much good drama, and I love a good story. And there were so many of them to be told, when it came to New York's political scene. There are hundreds of superhero books on the markets, but few comics that are political thrillers."

Plus, gay marriage is an attention-grabber, to say the least. The hot-button topic has done more than garner disapproving press and rabid condemnation; it has fully galvanized the country and forced it to divide along ideological lines. Which is perhaps why GLAAD recently nominated Ex Machina as Best Outstanding Comic for the organization's Media Awards, which will commence over the course of three ceremonies in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco in late March, April and June, respectively. Recognizing various segments of the media for their fair portrayal of alternative lifestyles and communities, GLAAD's Media Awards usually net the LGBT-friendly organization millions of dollars – and high-profile donors like Absolut Vodka, IBM, Wells Fargo and, believe it or not, Coors Brewing Company – all for the purpose of eliminating homophobia on the wires and airwaves.

And the soft-spoken comic book writer's work has gone to great lengths to help make that happen. "With Ex Machina, Vaughn takes a realistic look at the political pressures facing mayors who choose to take a stand for marriage equality," said Nick Adams, GLAAD's Media Awards communications manager. "The fact that he also shows us an openly gay African-American firefighter is an added bonus!"

That might not sit too well with parts of the nation-at-large that wish to make gay marriage the 21st-century's watered-down Salem witch hunt, but the genesis for Vaughan's Ex Machina is the same tragic event that motivated Bush 43's administration to update Bush 41's desire for a New World Order.

"The whole thing started on 9/11," Vaughan explains. "I was living in Brooklyn at the time and watched the towers fall from the roof of my building. I just felt utterly useless, and I wanted an outlet to talk about New York, the world, and how the two had changed. And that's more or less where the seed of Ex Machina was planted."

That the graphic novel blossomed into such a talk-heavy, action-light production focused on the internal tensions and external pressures of the political machine – pardon the pun – had as much to do with 9/11 as it did with the American culture's increasingly proactive myth-making. The fact that this national longing was aided in no small part by a presidential administration intent on cashing in on a superhero mythology is not lost on Vaughan.

"I mean, after 9/11 I watched Bush show up on that aircraft carrier in his flight suit," Vaughan says. "Then I moved to California, only to find out that Arnold Schwarzenegger, an action hero from the movies, had become governor of the state. Then, during last year's election, you had Kerry running more on his war record than his political record. It just seemed that the public was hungry for heroes, real or imagined, and that was what all these men were desperate to portray, and the public seemed to accept it. So to me the idea of a costumed hero becoming mayor was the perfect parable for discussing politics in a post-9/11 world."

Whether or not Vaughan's narrative can continue to sample the national nervous system to craft his compelling tales of virtue, vice and sociopolitical intrigue in a real-time environment growing more and more hostile to anything left-of-center still remains to be seen. But judging by the fact that three out of the five comics nominated for GLAAD's award are DC Comics productions, he can at least claim job security. Right now, he's just happy that someone, anyone, is giving comic books their long-deserved due.

"It's flattering when any institution recognizes comics in any capacity. DC Comics was discussing many things before TV and movies could. Because they've always had a relatively smaller audience, they have had more room to experiment and push the envelope. It's nice that GLAAD recognizes any comics at all, especially one that I'm lucky enough to work on."

Scott Thill runs the online mag Morphizm.com, while finding the time to rant for Salon, XLR8R, All Music Guide, AOL and others. His first novel, The Dangerous Perhaps, should be done by the time the War on Terrorism is over.