Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's…the mayor of New York City? What if the mayor of the Big Apple was also the world's only honest-to-goodness superhero? For the last six years, that's been the question driving Brian K. Vaughan's politically charged serial, Ex Machina. As comic book adventures go, Vaughan's deftly scripted 50-issue comic book series, which published its final issue last week, offered an unexpectedly clever mix of high-flying action and city-management melodrama. But as political fiction, Ex Machina offered something far more subtle—a slow-burning portrait of the corrupting fallibility of political systems, and a warning about how, eventually, those systems demean and diminish even those who believe in their powers the most.
From the outset, Ex Machina seemed determine to both use the cliches of superhero comics and deconstruct them. The tale starts in classic four-color fashion when city-engineer Mitchell Hundred has an eerie run-in with a mysterious artifact and gains the power to hear machines "speak"—as well as to give them orders that they must obey. At the urging of a friend, Hundred, a lifelong comic fan obsessed with childhood notions of heroism, decides to don a homemade jetpack and costume and use his powers for good.
Suddenly, Hundred is a superhero, a fact he's all too proud of. "When people ask who saved you, tell them it was The Great Machine," he says to two teenagers he pulls from a train-top joyride. "Tell them everything's going to be all right." Except that it's not. Out of work and untrained, Hundred pursues his fantasy of saving lives and stopping crime with decidedly mixed results: The first person he rescues ends up with a broken arm; later missions result in hospitalized cops and worse. Eventually, Hundred is shocked to realize that, as often as not, his superhero antics do no more than maintain the status quo—and frequently end up doing more harm than good.
But rather than give up on public service, he drops his jetpack and picks up a suit and tie in order to run for mayor. As with so many independent candidacies, it's as much an opportunity to talk about issues as a serious campaign. But it proves unexpectedly successful when, in a brief return to heroing, Hundred saves one of the towers at the World Trade Center on September 11th.
From this setup, the series split its pages between flashbacks to The Great Machine's costumed hero days and Hundred's ongoing adventures in politics at City Hall—making for an implicit comparison between his time as a hero and his time as a politician.
The dual framework also means that in addition to the usual comic-book fisticuffs, the series frequently revolved around political and policy conflicts. Vaughan's scripts were often self-consciously wonky, at least by comic-book standards; in a recent interview, he joked that the series consisted of "15 percent raygun fights and 85 percent guys arguing about school vouchers." That may not quite be true, especially towards the series' action-heavy final issues. But over the years, Ex Machina played host to a series of hot-topic debates about everything from abortion and gay marriage to education reform and smoking bans—and the forcefully argued policy slugfests between City Hall staffers often turned out to be as gripping as the series' grandest super-battles.
Part of the reason why those debates were so consistently satisfying may be because they tended to avoid many of the cliches of politically themed pop culture. Indeed, throughout the series' run, Vaughan's political arguments took forms that were surprisingly amenable to libertarian thought. Credible arguments, for example, get made in favor of gay marriage and school vouchers as well against city-enforced smoking bans. Early on, the city's police chief gets caught griping about the overcriminalization of petty offenses; by the series' mid-point, Hundred is even seen smoking pot—medicinally, one could argue—in order to drown out the never-ending chatter of the city's many machines.
Where does Vaughan fall on the political spectrum? It's not entirely clear. The author has kept his personal politics mostly under wraps. But he has said that the idea for the comic was "born out of [his] anger with what passes for our current political leadership (on both sides of the aisle)."
Yet Vaughan never let his frustrations lure him into the trap of fictional idealism. In his alternate New York, as in our world, the business of politics is often messy, unpleasant, and all-consuming, a system of necessary compromises rather than a path toward curing society's ills. Politicians, like superheroes, have extraordinary powers, and yet neither reliably save the world.
Hundred's career, as both The Great Machine and the mayor, offers parallel parables of unintended consequences. In one guise, he is a hapless superhero; in the other, a hapless politician. A lack of good intentions is not the problem in either role; quite the opposite is true. No, the trouble is that his good intentions are not enough. Rather than finding his natural human flaws mitigated by extraordinary levels of power and authority, Hundred discovers they are amplified instead.
When the series begins, Hundred informs the reader that what they are about to read "may look like a comic, but it's really a tragedy." The next-to-last few issues chronicle a wave of otherworldly destruction that sweeps across New York, but the true tragedy is in the series' more intimate final issue, when Hundred finally commits himself fully to politics—and destroys all that he loves and believes in the process.
At the heart of Vaughan's series is a cautionary tale about the limits—and downsides—of power, and a retort to the all-too-common idealism of both superhero comics and fanboy politics. In Mitchell Hundred's world, superheroes can't always save you—and neither can politicians.
Peter Suderman is an associate editor at Reason magazine.