It almost seems as though comics writer Brian K. Vaughan, the writer-creator of such critically acclaimed comics series as Ex Machina, Y The Last Man and Runaways, can do no wrong. He’s also the author of Pride of Baghdad, an equally praised original graphic novel published by Vertigo. Ex Machina (created with artist Tony Harris) is published as a monthly periodical comic in addition to being collected in several trade paperback volumes and the comics series will come to an end this year. This month DC Comics' Wildstorm imprint is releasing a deluxe hardcover edition of Ex Machina. It’s the story of how a New York City civil engineer named Mitchell Hundred mysteriously gained the power to communicate with and control machines, only to give up the life of a superhero in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks and get elected mayor of New York City. Like everything Vaughan does, the series features inventive storylines, sparkling dialogue and vivid characters, but Ex Machina also offers one of the most well wrought literary evocations of New York City that a reader is likely to find in any medium.
The former NYU film student got his break in comics in the late 1990s through Marvel’s Stanhattan Project, a workshop aimed at locating young writers interested in writing for comics. Since that time he’s managed to work for all the major comics publishers and has written stories for every iconic comic book character from Spider-Man to Wonder Woman. He is currently based in Los Angeles and writes for the TV show Lost in addition to his comics projects. Vaughan was back in New York City for a book signing and graciously agreed to meet PWCW at New York University for an interview. Setting up in a student lounge, Vaughan chatted about the new hardcover editon of Ex Machina; what went into creating the series; the possibility of an Ex Machina movie and spoke a bit about his next graphic novel project.
PW Comics Week:Ex Machina is one of the best, one of the most distinctive post-Watchmen superhero series running today. What did it take to create this saga?
Brian K. Vaughan: I lived in New York for a little over 10 years. I was a student here at NYU and I was living in Brooklyn, with my then girlfriend, now wife, during 9/11 and I watched the towers fall from the roof of our apartment in Brooklyn. Like any artist I was desperate to respond to that event in some way. But comics are a really terrible way to do it. There were a lot of well-intentioned charity books that came out afterwards that were sort of cringe-inducing in some ways--my own stories included--and it seemed that comic books just weren’t suited to talk about something so profoundly world shattering. But I guess as time went on and we saw Bush in his flight suit or Kerry running on his war record--after I moved to California, the Terminator became my governor. There was just a rash of so-called “heroes” elected to office and it sort of raised the question of, just what is a hero? Is a hero something real or is a hero just something we create and impose on people. That’s a question that comic books have been asking since Superman and it’s something comics have done well. So maybe comics were not the right place to talk about 9/11, but comics were the right place to talk about politics after 9/11. So that’s how Ex Machina was born.
PWCW: Maybe in more ways than your mayor-hero Mitchell Hundred, New York City, the place, is the real hero of this series. Can you talk about how New York City itself figures in Ex Machina?
BKV: I grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio. I only knew about New York from Marvel comics; so I thought things like Spider-Man sitting on water towers--I didn’t think buildings actually had those old water towers--that seemed so artificial to me. Then when I came to New York for the first time, I rode the F-train over the elevated tracks and I saw all those water towers. It was even better than Marvel Comics’s New York City. I was a little kid at the time but I knew then that this was where I wanted to live. Because this is Gotham City and Metropolis and Marvel Comics’s New York, except it’s better and weirder and stranger. I really wanted to write about New York and even though Ex Machina is about a guy with super powers and a jet pack, the most extraordinary things that happen in the book are the true-to-life little pieces of New York.
PWCW: In Ex Machina the mayor of New York City may be a superhero but he still has deal with the usual municipal crises: snow storms; gay marriage controversies, serial killers--even controversial contemporary art.
BKV: We try to balance the material in the book. There are the major weather catastrophes and serial killers but I also like the seemingly mundane political issues in the book, like the issue of school vouchers. Or I remember reading about the city trying to close down fortune tellers by using obscure laws against them. It’s totally fascinating to me for a book that’s about magic and science fiction to be able to talk about fortune telling in a way in which I get to reference really obscure blue-book municipal laws. It’s something that interests me and probably bores everyone else but I really like that stuff. People ask, ‘why not make the book about a president or a governor,’ but it feels to me like mayors are sort of the beat cops of the political world. The job is not just about passing legislation and sitting behind a desk; it really means getting out on the street and taking care of the day to day business of the city. That makes for good drama, I think.
PWCW: It seems as though it’s a combination of the fantastic and the mundane that makes Ex Machina so different. In the subplot you mention, the mayor is determined to shut down fortune tellers. Why does Mitchell Hundred even care about fortune tellers?
BKV: Mitchell Hundred cares about this kind of stuff because I care; and because I think it’ll make a good story. Now sometimes people ask if these are my politics and are these the issues that I’m interested in. But Mitchell Hundred is not the kind of the guy I would have voted for. He’s not a politician I necessarily admire but he is interesting and I like his choices even if I don’t always agree with them. So for me it’s about whatever will make the best story--not just an opportunity for me to shove my boring politics down the readers’ throats.
PWCW: How do you get away with the incredibly foul language! It works, but even I’m occasionally shocked by the language in this comic book!
BKV: You and my parents both! It’s kind of slipped under Wildstorm’s radar. But anytime you hear Bill Clinton swearing when he thinks he’s off-mike or when you read the Nixon tapes, you realize that politicians are extraordinarily foul-mouthed--even more so than I, and I have a terrible mouth! I think people are used to politicians talking like they do on the West Wing, a show I love but which is almost more science fiction than Ex Machina. Yes, the book is trying to capture the realistic voice of politicians. And any politician I’ve ever met has been extraordinarily foul-mouthed.
PWCW: Mitchell Hundred’s super powers--he can talk to and control machines--seem to work, or don't work, from issue to issue. Do you have some kind of outline or chart that marks the limitations of his powers?
BKV: Even more than his powers, we have a timeline because every issue of the comics series intersects with stories from his superhero past and his present. [In the series Hundred gives up being a superhero to run for Mayor and the book continually flashes back to his superhero period]. You make sure you never step on events in the story or have story elements contradict each other. And because I want things to accurately reflect New York, I have a calendar [of the on-going events in the plot]. Right now, in the periodical series, the GOP convention is about to come to town. One of the nice things about setting Ex Machina a few years in the recent past is that it gives me the luxury of responding to things that happened in the city or I can do entirely different things because of something Mitchell has done.
As for his powers--we know exactly what caused his powers and we’re going to be getting further into that. But his powers are sort of the MacGuffin [plot device] of the story. I tend to like my superheroes with big weaknesses. So I like to have a guy who can talk to machines face an assassin with a bow and arrow and try to define the parameters of what a machine is. Can he talk to a mechanical pencil? The artist, Tony Harris is a gun enthusiast--he prefers that to being called a gun nut--and we have a lot of discussions about this. Is a revolver a machine? Is a blow dart a machine? So we’ve defined his power as being able to communicate with something that is any kind of compound or complex machine. So if you’re using a pulley and add something else to it, it becomes a machine. It’s sort of like Aquaman talking to fish. Maybe he has a better rapport with the whales than he does with a guppy? There are some machines he might communicate with better--that may be the dorkiest thing I’ve ever said. The Aquaman parameters. We think about this stuff way too much.
PWCW: What’s your process working with Tony Harris. He’s got a great style; it’s super-real but expressive.
BKV: Of all my collaborators, Tony and I speak the most often on the phone and he really has a lot of specific thoughts on the visual depiction of the characters. He has had an impact on the scripts very much from the get-go. I always knew the character’s powers but because it’s about this hero and his past, I just pictured him as just an iconic superman-type with a dopey cape. Tony said lets surround him with machines.
PWCW: Even his costume looks homemade. It’s another step toward making the surreality of the contemporary superhero comic book seem somehow more real.
BKV: When people say [Alan Moore's] Watchmen is about what superheroes would be like in the real world, they turn the book into a sort of self-licking ice cream cone--it becomes a story about nothing. But using the real world as a place to draw parallels or to use superheroes as a metaphor is much more effective. But the feeling that Ex Machina is somehow grounded in the real world, no matter how outlandish whatever’s happening--that’s all entirely Tony Harris.
PWCW:Ex Machina seems to get the least media attention of all of the things you do.
BKV: I agree. Although every book I’ve ever created, I’ve done it thinking I’m going to be the only one in the world who likes it. And some times with Ex Machina I think that by our last issue I may be the only one left [laughs]. But that can also be very freeing. After a while with Y the Last Man, by the final issue there was so much hoopla around it, that I kind of felt the weight of the viewership on my back. So it can be so freeing when you feel you can do anything that you want. With Ex Machina there aren’t as many fans but the people who like it, really like it. This year is the last year of the series. Issue 50 will be the end and these final 12 issues contain some of the strangest stuff ever published. In fact, I think even my editors at DC aren’t reading the book anymore [laughs]. Hopefully with the hardcover coming out, we can reach out to some new readers.
The periodical issues sell well, month-to-month, and the trade paperback collections have an evergreen quality where you just see the sales numbers go up every month. I think the first volume of the trade paperback sold more copies in the last year than in the first year it came out. I hope it will grow like the Wire--not to compare Ex Machina to the greatest TV show of all time--something where each season, more and more people discover it.
PWCW: Is there an Ex Machina movie coming?
BKV: There is talk of one. New Line Cinema optioned Ex Machina but New Line is going through a kind of reemergence right now, so it may get lost in the shuffle. But we’ll see. The Y the Last Man movie is on more of a fast track but Ex Machina could be reignited on a moments notice. They even let me take a stab at writing the screenplay. I took the characters and themes from the book but I had to reinvent a whole new story rather than try to cram 18 issues, or whatever, of the comics’ series into it. So we’ll see if a movie happens or not.
PWCW: Are you working on a new book or series?
BKV: I’ve got another standalone graphic novel. It’s something I’ve been working on for awhile. I can’t say too much about it but hopefully it will be as different from Ex Machina as Ex Machina was from Pride of Baghdad and as that was from Runaways. I don’t even have a publishing home for it yet, but I’d love to keep it in the Wildstorm, Vertigo family. I think that’ll be what’s up next. It won’t be until Ex Machina is over before I start another on-going series. You can’t keep me away from ongoing books [series] cause I like them too much. I think there’ll probably be another one. I’m not entirely abandoning the medium--yet.