Metafiction in comics is something that tends to divide people. I’ve already spoken a few times on this site about my own feelings on the subject, and specifically Grant Morrison’s masterful use of the technique; but by the same token, there are people who find such devices as writers having themselves appear in a book, or simply making knowing references to the fact that you’re reading a comic, as gauche, or smart-arsed, and they don’t like to see it show its face in their carefully-constructed comics universe. Such people would be highly unlikely to get on with the latest issue of Ex Machina. Which is fine, you know, different strokes and everything. But it would be a shame to miss out on a late entry into the reckoning for one of the most enjoyable single issues of the year.
Admittedly, it’s an issue that’s firmly aimed at pleasing longtime Ex Machina fans more than anything else. The book’s had a habit of disappointing over the last fifteen issues or so – still an immaculately crafted comic, but something about the story has been rather less than gripping, and the slow publishing schedule has meant it’s struggled for momentum. What’s clear, though, is that Vaughan still has the ability to turn out good stories when he wants to – indeed, he’s proven that already with some excellent single issue vignettes inbetween longer arcs – and it’s only to be hoped that, with the series now standing as the only comic he’s currently working on, an increased level of focus will see the interest levels ramp up as it hurtles towards its conclusion. In the meantime, in telling an almost throwaway little story that’s apparently been kicking around his head since the start, he effectively captures some of the atmosphere of the more impressive early issues – even as he’s being playful and self-referential.
The basic thrust is that Hundred – already established as a one-time comics nut even before taking on a career as a superhero – is looking to tell a memoir of his time in office (while still in office), and to do so in the form that he loved as a child. We follow a writer and artist pairing auditioning for the job – and, of course, it’s Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris. This is largely an excuse for a bunch of light-hearted, self-aware gags (Vaughan responding to Harris’ suggestion that they appear in the book with “I’m not big into the whole Grant Morrison ‘meta’ thing”, Harris grumbling about the writer’s name coming first in the credits, Hundred mistaking BKV for Brian Michael Bendis) and references to the likes of Brad Meltzer and Starman. It treads a fine line alongside seeming too pleased with itself, but gets away with it because there’s something quite earnest about it. Vaughan seems to lack cynicism (in this, at least), showing a capacity for self-deprecation, and so there’s something quite charming about the whole thing.
In a series that follows the adventures of the mayor from his own perspective, meanwhile, we rarely get a chance to see how others perceive him. We know Hundred as a fairly ordinary (aside from that whole superpowers thing), basically decent but also fallible individual – and the plot is driven by his character (and, sometimes, his mistakes). It’s easy to forget, therefore, that he is a powerful man who holds a great deal of authority and commands respect – but here, our “eyes” are not Hundred, but Vaughan, and so the mayor is a more commanding, almost towering figure. Vaughan is intimidated by him – not because he’s mean, although he is a little brusque at times, but just because of who he is – and consequently, for possibly the first time in the series, so are we. It’s genuinely satisfying to see such a different perspective on a character we’ve come to take for granted.
That’s not to say the book would only appeal to longstanding fans, however. Although I’d never suggest starting to read a planned 50-issue series with issue #40, it’s nevertheless quite accessible as a standalone tale – it’s not really rooted in the book’s current storyline, and it’s worth reading as a fun piece of metafiction if nothing else. Of course, someone who isn’t a fan of the book probably isn’t as interested in the “characters” of Vaughan and Harris themselves – and an entire page of Vaughan rambling on about New York restaurants may not particularly appeal. It’s also probably going to strike less of a chord for those of us who aren’t New Yorkers, so rooted is it in that particular pet theme of the book’s. But there’s something engaging about these two wildly different characters whose distinct creative talents come together to make something special – and much of that has to do with the personality imbued in them not just by Vaughan’s dialogue, but by Harris’ art. He’s described by the “character” Vaughan as “a certifiable genius”, and while he’s also had his ups and downs on the book of late, he shows here why on his day he’s still one of the best in the business. He seems to particularly enjoy drawing himself, and there’s a brilliantly expressive sequence in which he’s sketching in his pad and running through the gamut of “concentration” faces.
All in all, it’s hardly the most significant chapter in the Ex Machina canon – a fact emphasised by the jokey nature of the “twist” at the end; and no, I’m not going to spoil the identities of the big-name writer and artist who show up for a couple of pages, but if you know anything about Wildstorm they’re not hard to figure out – but as a nice encapsulation of some of the book’s themes, a “breather” of an issue before the final storyarcs, a gentle piece of metatextual fun and a reward for those of us loyal to the series, it ticks all the boxes, and is a joy for it. Above all else, it shows that when it comes to finely-crafted comics, there are still few better going.