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Ex Machina (revisited) —“Try talking to my marbles”

Writer: Brian K. Vaughan

Artists: Tony Harris, Tom Feister

Vertigo Comics, 20042010

BRAINS BOND WITH MACHINERY in a natural texture like grain in wood, fleshing out a living creature beyond us. It looks natural to talk to machines like kin as occurs in EX MACHINA by Brian K. Vaughan, started in 2004, and now collected in bound volumes, and bound for the screen.

The idea of an engineer who talks to machines, and they listen, is a plot maybe as old as humanity, yet the paint here is fresh, with modern themes and tv sitcom art by Tony Harris and Tom Feister, plain but moody. The story flashes back and forth to cover how we got to the present, giving punctuated access to the origins and adventures since, so we can begin in the present, embedded in a big city mayor’s office with lots of policy-wonk political life, threaded with security operatives, mystery, and mad science, and in the background some science-fiction horror seeping into the future.

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The mayor who talks to machines has an admirable animal quality when confronted with danger, he faces it and flares, and does not back down, as we expect in our heroes, and maybe in adult males throughout the animal kingdom. The force of his will and creative use of his power is endlessly fascinating.

The quality of his power to command machines is also fascinating in itself. The story continually reminds us of his limits, like a canister filled with gas is not a machine, a bow and arrow is not a machine, though the machine-talking hero tries with a question mark to desperately manipulate anything that might work when needed. Where does the definition of a machine begin and end exactly?

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Is a plastic helicopter in the trash just a toy, or only waiting for a proper use to be employed? Is a wheel a machine all by itself? When does a tool or a toy rank as a machine? Raindrops accelerate off a roof by gravity long before anyone recognizes a design of words and numbers that might express nature as a great machine.

When did I not live this exalted life? Was there ever a before, unexplored? The stone-age rock was transported far to another land by a traveling trader, who brought it to the chief, and placed it before him, seated at the public fire where all could gaze, and once he lay it on the ground, attached by a clever notch and thong to a shaft of wood, he did not call attention to the stone, nor the thong, nor the shaft of wood; he did not say, chief I bring you a stone from the people of afar, I bring you a stick; no, he stood before the chief glaring in the shadow of the flaring fire in the night, and said only, “They call it an ax.”

The idea, the word, the concept working in the world, the one and the image of the one, the brain and the machine grows seamlessly like grain in wood from our origins onward. The funny part is how we always look on gawking like this present moment is so advanced, or retarded, everything before coming to just this obvious, oblivious moment, which is after all the only one we have, yet always filled all around us with the ancients, talking to us, and we to them.

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