<em>Ex Machina</em>: An Interview With Brian K. Vaughan

Brian Vaughan's recent comic is perhaps the most overt marriage of comics and politics to date. For anyone with even a passing interest in either, this is the book to read.
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Ex Machina is perhaps the most overt marriage of comics and politics in the medium to date. Centered around a former super-hero, Mitchell "The Great Machine" Hundred, who decides to run for Mayor of New York after he saves one of the Twin Towers during the 9/11 attack, Ex Machina shows what it takes to be superhero both in tights and as an elected official.

The comic wrapped up a couple of months ago with its fiftieth issue and the final collected edition hits the stands this month.

For anyone with even a passing interest in comic books and politics, this is the book to read. It's a finite story, the characters are rich and well considered, the art is incredible, and it feels like Brian K. Vaughan (who was a producer of Lost and writer of Y: The Last Man) spent time in city hall to capture both the drama and minutia of local politics.

I've spent plenty of time around the mayor of Salt Lake City's office, and seeing the drama play out in a comic book is tremendously exhilarating. The book is also a treatise on serving a constituency. The lead character has the post-partisan desire that we all looked for in Obama, but also the courage to move things forward aggressively. Sure, it may be a comic book, but has real lessons for both politicians and constituents to learn.

And it has guys with jetpacks and super-villains. What more could anyone want?

This has been one of my favorite books over the last five years and Brian K. Vaughan was kind enough to do an interview with me commemorating the end of the book:

Bryan Young: How did you go about creating the tone for inside the Mayor's office? I've spent a lot of time around Mayoral offices and you portrayed it very believably. Did you spend a lot of time at City Hall?

BKV: Thanks! I actually did spend some time at City Hall with Tony Harris, the book's artist and co-creator. We both did a great deal of research, but truthfully, we also made up a lot of stuff. Still, whenever Tony and I hear from readers who work in government, they usually tell us that the crazy elements we imagined are the parts that feel the most authentic. Fiction is just as strange as fact, I guess.

It's said that part of your inspiration for the book was your dismay with the political leadership of the day, did the book help you come to a different understanding about the nature of the American political system? And could you elaborate on that?

BKV: After 9/11, I knew I wanted to write about power and identity and the way Americans on all sides of the political spectrum often mythologize our leaders, which are themes that the superhero genre has always handled really well. Whether it was Bush putting on that flightsuit or John Kerry running largely on his war record or an action star getting elected governor of California, it felt like American politics and mythical hero worship were starting to converge in fascinating ways. I had way more questions than answers, and whenever that happens, I type. What came out was Ex Machina, a story about a retired superhero turned mayor who hopes to do more good inside New York's City Hall than he ever did in costume.

What do you think politicians could learn from Mitchell Hundreds governing style?

BKV: From the very first page of our story, Hundred warns us that even though his story looks like a comic, it's really a tragedy. So I hope any politicians would go into Ex Machina reading it as more of a cautionary tale than a manual for success.

Who is the intended audience of this comic outside of regular comic book readers? What do you hope that the various stakeholders in our political system take from the book.

BKV: Well, if any HuffPost readers have been looking for a few more jetpack chase scenes mixed in with their tales of municipal government, I flatter myself to think Ex Machina is a pretty good gateway drug to the ever-expanding world of graphic novels aimed at adults. I used to worry that a book about local NYC politics would be way too inside baseball for most Americans, much less for international readers, but our book has already been translated into several languages around the globe, so I'm heartened to know people from all walks of life have connected with these characters.

As for what people should take away from the book, I hope Ex Machina doesn't have a single "message." If I had some sort of moral I wanted to impart, I'd just write an op-ed piece or whatever. There are a lot of things that frustrate me about contemporary politicians, but with Ex Machina, I was always more interested in telling a compelling story about an interesting protagonist than I was in using these characters as mouthpieces for my own boring political beliefs.

Though the book has a lot of overt political themes and situations to it, at its heart, it's still a comic book with a hero and a villain and supervillains, but it weaves them all together so believably. Were you ever tempted to go further into the direction you parodied with your cameo in the book?

BKV: Because it's in and about New York City, I knew Ex Machina was going to have to continually mix the mundane and the fantastic. Very few artists can walk that tightrope, but Tony Harris is amazing at creating photo-realistic characters and environments, and then balancing those elements with visually spectacular figments of his imagination. The story didn't come alive for me until I saw Tony's first pencils, so I just tried to follow his lead.

I get the feeling that the reason you so ambiguously portray Mitchell's sexuality was to make the reader question why they care so much about something so innocuous as his sexual orientation because it's something that really doesn't matter. I know I got caught up in wondering way more than I should have... Could you elaborate on that aspect of the story and your reasoning behind it?

BKV: Sorry to evade like a politician, but I think a reader's interpretation is much more important than my intent, so I should probably let that aspect of the story speak for itself.

I'm a little bit curious about your opinion of the 2008 Presidential race since you so drastically changed it in your alternative history in the book. I don't mean to put you on the spot for specifics, but if you could speak in generalities about your opinion of the race, I think people who've read the entirety of the series would be fascinated on your perspective on it.

BKV: I never like to talk about my own politics, but whether you're left, right or center, the 2008 race was definitely good drama. When we started working on a comic about politics and heroism back in 2002, I don't think Tony or I ever would have guessed that we'd eventually see the election of a new President who grew up reading comic books before he ended up appearing on the covers of them. It's kind of a bizarre validation of the ideas we set out to explore.

It's rumoured that you've written a screenplay adaptation of Ex Machina. Would that be for television or film? And was that on spec, or is there actually movement on having this done?

BKV: Actually, Ex Machina is the one comic I've worked on where the movie rights finally reverted back to the creators, so Tony and I again own the thing. We've been approached by a few cool producers recently, so we'll see what happens. 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 happy for Ex Machina to only ever exist as a comic book. We didn't spend six years of our lives working on glorified storyboards for some other medium. For us, the comic was the ultimate goal.

What's next for you in the comic world?

BKV: More original, creator-owned work with some amazing artists. Stay tuned!

You can pick up Ex Machina on Amazon or your local comic book store.

Bryan Young is the producer of Killer at Large and the editor of the geek news site Big Shiny Robot!

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