If you read comics, you’ve probably heard of “Saga”, written by Brian K. Vaugh with art by the extraordinary Fiona Stables. Fine work. Awards won. Fan base from beyond the normal comic shop rabble. Can’t go wrong.
I’m not going to talk about it just now.
I’m going to talk about “Ex-Machina”, a slightly lesser known series by the same writer, with art by the great Tony Harris
In the other corner this week on VS, we have the sleeper hit, (at least amongst the typical comic shop rabble) from the “low budget but doesn’t look it” genre, “Upgrade”.
If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve spent a good amount of time wishing for super powers. No need to feel embarrassed. I tried to trick my mom into making me a Spider-Man costume, so I could fight crime in small town upstate New York, when I was eight. I kind of figured powers would follow. It did not work. “Upgrade” is one of those movies that will give you those powers you’ve longed for since childhood in a way that seems a little believable, or rather, lets you watch someone else get the powers you always wanted. That’s fun too, right? Either way, watch “Upgrade”, and you can go back to fantasizing about SUPER-POWERS in a legit adult fashion. (I know you never stopped, but we’ll pretend you did.)
“Upgrade” is a straight up superhero origin. Man loses wife to thugs who leave him quadriplegic. Brilliant scientist implants him with an artificial intelligence chip that runs his body for him and, also, talks to him in a friendly, soothing voice. (Wouldn’t that be nice? Having an inner voice that was friendly and soothing? Yeah, I know your inner voice is a jerk. Mine too.) Best of all, better than having a calm, gentle, almost loving inner voice, he can let the AI take over all functions. When that happens, his body becomes a hyper-analytical combat machine that talks him calmly through horrific violence. He’s just along for the ride.
For me, the whole thing felt a little reminiscent of Iron Man at first.
Except this isn’t a superhero story. It’s a science fiction/body horror movie. Say’s so right on the box
Ever notice the first third of both sci-fi/body horror and superhero movies are pretty much identical? I didn’t, until now. If you go in cold, knowing nothing about a movie, it’d be quite a surprise to see which way one went. Peter Parker could have turned into a Spider-Man that webbed people up, liquified their insides and drank them. Captain America could have become a soulless killing machine. Frankenstein could have been about the creation of a super-human who becomes a hero for the ages.
“Upgrade” could have been a superhero movie. It has a certain humor to it that tricks you into thinking everything will be okay. You know it’s a trick from the start, and you still feel tricked at the end. Like, when that way-out-of-your-league person takes an interest in you, you go along with it against you better judgement, and you wake up in a bathtub with a fresh incision. You knew it all along, but you took the drink they handed you anyway, because damn, that smile.
Meanwhile, “Ex-Machina” (A comic which has the exact same title as Upgrade’s director’s previous film…um…”Ex Machina”) is the story of Mitchell Hundred. Guess what! He gets super powers, too! This time they’re from a mysterious alien object though. Hey, that could happen to you, too. Do not give up hope. He has conversations with machines. Maybe you do , too, but for him the machines listen. That’s his super-power.
Hundred becomes the real-world style super-hero, the Great Machine. He has a whole, awkward superhero career, with the help of a couple weird friends he’s known for years. He kind of peaks when he saves the 2nd tower on 9/11, which is a pretty extraordinary scene. The whole notion of saving that tower somehow cements the story as being connected to our world. It’s hard not to feel a visceral connection to the moment.
That all happens before the series starts, mentioned only in flashback. The series itself is about him after becoming the Mayor of New York. Honest.
So, it turns out “Ex-Machina” isn’t a superhero story, either. It tries even harder to trick you into believing it’s got the best intentions. Mostly, it’s about running New York, which is a lot more interesting than it sounds. Hundred is a political independent who strives to do maintain an administration that is focused on problem solving. He faces bombers, protesters and plenty of no-win situations. Loads of intrigue. I imagine those political drama I never watch are kind of like this.
Beneath it all though, there’s a fifty-issue long question of where his powers came from, and what are they really for. Which is where “Upgrade” and “Ex-Machina” begin to share some common territory.
Both stories are about what a decent, pragmatic person does when they are faced with having, what they believe, is the power to make a change for the good.
So, why does the Super-hero formula turn toward horror in these things? We have the same set up as a “hero’s journey”, but we get “cautionary tale”. I think the intent is to show power given to someone with just a little too much arrogance to see themselves failing. They believe they’re the center of their own story and are proven horribly wrong to the detriment of pretty much everyone. That’s how hero’s work too, though. It’s just that their assessment of their place in the world turns out to be right.
I’d like to be able to point some defining trait the main characters of these two amazing body horror pieces have that separates them form the Peter Parkers of superhero stories. If there were some particular aspect of Pete that kept him off the horror path, I’d love to know what it is. I just don’t see it, though. It seems the only difference is the writers whim.
How terrifying for poor Peter Parker.
How terrifying for all you guys and your childish wish for super-powers, which I definitely do not have myself.
As always, I tried hard to keep my spoilers minimal enough not to impact your enjoyment too awfully much here. In the first issue of “Ex Machina” Hundred tells you that something has gone terribly wrong and then begins his fifty issue tale of woe. The marketing material for Upgrade screams horror.
So, do go track this stuff down. You’ll be glad you did.
No idea what I’ll be writing about next week, but something will be here.