Jul 3, 2006

The Great Machine v. The Walking Dead

Brian K. Vaughn’s Ex Machina (Wildstorm) and Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead (Image) are two of the most popular comics on the shelves these days. They both come from writers who are probably better known for other work: Vaughn on Runaways (Marvel) and Y: The Last Man (Vertigo), Kirkman on Marvel Team-Up and Invincible (Image).

Although these books inhabit two ends of the graphic fiction spectrum, they employ similar narrative techniques. Both books follow a central character using no narration, occasionally cutting to scenes involving interesting supporting characters. Ex Machina follows New York’s Mayor Hundred, formerly known as The Great Machine, a superhero with the power to talk to anything mechanical. Rick, a cop who survived a zombie outbreak because he was in a coma, leads us through The Walking Dead.

In both cases, the reader isn’t allowed to easily see the story through the eyes of the character he or she might identify with most easily. Instead, we’re asked to empathize with the alpha-male, who has been placed in a position of power and given responsibility in a setting few of us could tolerate, let alone make important decisions in. Through both of these comics, we learn how hard it is to be a true leader.

The most recent Ex Machina trade paperback is Fact v. Fiction, the third volume in the series. In this arch Mayor Hundred checks in for jury duty, cracks down on fortune tellers, and hunts for his mother. Meanwhile, his associates hunt down a robot vigilante claiming to have been built by The Great Machine. Vaughn weaves the storylines seamlessly, along with flashbacks to Hundred’s past as a comic-shop regular, giving the book a made-for-TV-drama feel, similar to 100 Bullets or 52.

Although volume five of The Walking Dead is out now, I haven’t had a chance to read it. In the past week or so, I have read everything from the beginning of Miles Behind Us (volume two) until the end of volume four, The Heart’s Desire. Most of Miles Behind Us takes place on a farm that the main characters find on their journey. The next two volumes are set in the mostly-abandoned prison they claim as their new home. There’s lots of death, action, and sex along the way.

Finding the prison marks a turning point in the storyline, allowing the character’s to become slightly more settled and develop their own conflicts. Extreme times force extreme people and almost everyone evolved becomes polarized by some driving force in their life, whether it be grief, love, lust, or stress.

Charlie Adlard and Cliff Rathburn, who took over for original artist Tony Moore, have done a spectacular job with the gray-scaled Walking Dead. There was a day when I’d overlook non-color books; Adlard and Rathburn illustrate why that attitude has changed. Rus Wooten’s lettering rarely draws attention to itself unless required, the hallmark of a quality letterer. My only real complaint is the overuse of splash pages throughout the series, especially at the end of volume four.

Tony Harris and Tom Feister illustrate a vivid, animated world in Ex Machina. Their heavily-photo-referenced work stands out among the cartoony and/or stylized work of many comic artists. Occasionally shots feel hyper-realistic, like Harris has frozen the characters and their most awkward moments, a reoccurring weakness in the series. I occasionally feel like I’m watching an episode of Tom Goes to the Mayor. As another minor gripe, many of Harris’s large-bosomed females appear to be clones. In volume three alone, an unnamed victim, a fortune-teller, a prostitute, and a juror appear to be the same person. I’m never sure if this is a side-effect of the photo-refing or intentional. Jared K. Fletcher is a fantastic letterer.

Vaughn’s gift for writing shines in Fact v. Fiction. He’s one of the best in the business when it comes to drawing you into the story with an engrossing story and crafting realistic dialogue. Conversely, while Kirkman’s plot is effective, it often feels fluffed up with mundane details, such as where the character’s new clothes come from (a fact I would have assumed without the big meeting and speech). His dialogue often sounds over-constructed, like each character writes a note card of speaking points. Against the backdrop of probable-worldwide chaos, their highly organized speech rings false. However, I can give Kirkman the benefit of the doubt, since he’s writing scenarios born purely of imagination and Hollywood.

While Vaughn has created a hybrid of political thriller, slice-of-life realism, and post-modern superheroism, Kirkman has achieved what I previously thought improbable: he has architected a zombie story with truly interesting characters and novel situations. It’s seems easier to remain interesting and relevant when you’re dealing with a contemporary New York City, the NSA, and talking to toasters, but I’m impressed by Kirkman’s maturation of the zombie genre. That’s not to downplay Vaughn’s achievement. Ex Machina is one of the best comics you’ll ever read: guaranteed.

My Walking Dead/Ex Machina Soundtrack

  1. Depeche Mode – The Dead of Night

  2. The Crowd – Modern Machine

  3. Johnny Cash – God’s Gonna Cut You Down

  4. Death From Above 1979 – You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine

  5. Rasputina – Herb Girls of Birkenau

  6. Queens of the Stone Age – Burn the Witch

  7. Mogwai – Robot Chant

  8. Duke Ellington – Mendoza

  9. Sam Cooke – Chain Gang

  10. Pixies – Wave of Mutilation

  11. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – Weight of the World

  12. José González – Love Will Tear Us Apart

Liner Notes

  1. On many of these, it’s obvious which book they go with. I wasn’t too creative with a lot of them. I like the lyrics of the songs to add to story, not just the music. All the even numbers to with Ex Machina, the odds with Walking Dead.

  2. I think this is good opener, something to bring you into the city.

  3. This is a total traveling song. Use this anytime some one is driving down a car-littered backroad.

  4. This is kinda the Automaton’s theme song.

  5. I think this track would work well as atmosphere for the darker parts of the prison. The strings here are fairly dramatic.

  6. I want the doorman at the fortune teller’s to be listening to this. It would also work when Hundred’s in the desert.

  7. This is the zombie march!

  8. I wanted something jazzy for the earliest comic store scenes. It could also work for the courthouse.

  9. This would be great for scenes where they’re working at the prison.

  10. I tried to think of what might be playing in a comic store in the late 80s/early 90s for one of the flashbacks.

  11. This is Rick’s theme, mainly for when he takes the bike back to the old campsite.

  12. I like this for the final confrontation with the Automaton and the every end of the story.

Today’s Links

Get a great deal on the first four or five Walking Dead trades at Amazon.
Buy Ex Machina: Fact v. Fiction on Amazon.

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