In comic books, government officials tend to be beleaguered characters—three of Gotham City’s five Batman-era mayors have died from archvillain-related injuries—who rely on superheroes in times of crisis. In Brian K. Vaughan’s comic Ex Machina, beleaguered official and superhero are one and the same. The winner of this year’s 2005 Eisner (i.e., the comic-book Oscar) for Best New Series, Ex Machina chronicles the turbulent public career of telekinetic crime fighter turned New York City mayor Mitchell Hundred. And Vaughan, a 29-year-old NYU grad, might soon be even more widely appreciated: New Line is developing Ex Machina (and another Vaughan creation called Y: The Last Man on Earth) for the silver screen. He spoke to New York from his studio in San Diego.
Mayoral politics in a comic book. Why?
After 9/11, I wanted to do a story about how people were looking for heroes more than they were looking for leaders. You saw that with Bush in his flight suit and Kerry running on his war record. I live in California now, and I moved out here right as Schwarzenegger, the action hero, was being elected governor.
The last page of the first issue of Ex Machina features a striking illustration of one of the Twin Towers still standing, with the implication that Mitchell saved it. Did you worry about that upsetting people?
It was really hard. Everyone kept saying it’s too soon to talk about it, but as a writer, you’d always rather be too soon than too late, I think.
Despite that act of fictional heroism, Mitchell is far from universally popular as mayor.
I think that if Giuliani had been allowed to have another term, his approval rating would be back down to what it was pre-9/11. People’s memories are short, and rightfully so, when you’re running a city.
You’ve said before that you’ve never had a single word published in any of your comics that you didn’t want there.
That’s the same with most of the other writers I know, and I think it’s one of the big reasons why guys like Joss Whedon and Kevin Smith come to comics. In visual mediums, it’s a rarity. I always say we are a bit like movies were in the seventies, when people were staying home and so the movies turned the keys to the kingdom over to a bunch of reckless young creators and were like, “We don’t know what to do, just go to town.” That’s where comics are right now. We’re not at a commercial high point, but we’re in an artistic golden age.
Have you been tempted to write for movies?
They’re letting me write the first draft of Ex Machina [the movie], and I’m sort of enjoying it as an exercise. [But] I’ve never thought of comics as just a stepping-stone, or of my comics as a glorified screenplay. Look at a guy like Alan Moore, who’s probably the most important guy in our field, who’s written some of the best comics of all time—From Hell, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen—that have been turned into not-very-good movies.
What’s interesting to you about the current mayoral race?
I was surprised by the Times’ endorsement of Bloomberg. Ex Machina takes place a few years in the past—it’s as if my mayor got elected instead of Bloomberg. I don’t know if my mayor is as good as Bloomberg, but I like to think he’s more entertaining.
Your characters are always mentioning bits of New York trivia—like the fact that Mayor La Guardia read daily newspaper comics over the radio to kids during a newspaper-delivery-workers’ strike. Where do you get that stuff?
It’s a little from watching too much Jeopardy! and a little from having a spongy brain for weird, irrelevant factoids. Plus, a lot of research.
You once volunteered as an auxiliary NYPD officer to research another series, right?
I thought it would be a good way to get out of the house and get some real-world experience. I was writing a lot of books that had police officers in them, and I realized I knew nothing about them.
What did you learn?
The NYPD guys get paid such shitty wages that they spend a lot of time sitting around talking about opening up a laundromat once they retire. I know more about laundromats now than I do about police work.
By Brian K. Vaughan.