Coming to (Literary) Terms: Deus Ex Machina

Part of what makes a graphic novel more novel than novelty is the fact that it can be used to discuss and appreciate the nature of literature in a relatively accessible format. A great graphic novel can be just as challenging, thought provoking, and structured as anything else we consider traditionally as literary canon. One of the consistent contributions to this blog will be an examination of literary techniques, theory and analysis of my humble library of graphic novels, manga and films.

The term of the day is: Deus Ex Machina!

The phrase has it’s origin from Greek plays, and translates as “God from the Machine”. The term is particularly interesting as it comes from a very literal device. To be short, in Euripedes’ play Medea, the resolution of the play is achieved with a chariot from Apollo that comes down to save the eponymous character. The statement now is used to denote stories that achieve their resolutions by previously unknown elements, often suggesting poor planning in the writing, but can be planned.

In recent works, especially the graphic novel genre, there are large amounts of planning that go into creating the scope of the work. However, there are some times in which this device shows it’s face. In Brian Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim & The Infinite Sadness, there are moments in which O’Malley has dialogue that hints at the nature of the device. Now to be specific, this is probably a better example of really terrible foreshadowing or a purple patch (obvious statement that draws attention to its importance). The dialogue below is to focus on Kim and Ramona’s speculation of the importance of Crash and the Boys later in the plot. The fact that Ramona mentions the “hadn’t noticed” aspect, it is to have the readers drawn to a foregone conclusion of a Deus Ex in a meta way;  it sets up the expectation that they will somehow play a role in the defeat of the overpower third ex, Todd Ingram, despite being an ignored factor in their lives.

Pardon the poor picture presentation

The glamorous part of this feint is that they fail to assist Scott properly and he is still left needing a way to defeat Ingram. In a very on the nose way, O’Malley just lays out the term. As strange as it may seem, it ends up being a surprising phrase as it is well positioned in the text; they are the last words before the reader has to turn the page.


And then… boom.


The Vegan Police, which are not mentioned throughout the story, show up to knock Todd down a peg or two. This is more a good example of a deus ex machina serving a humorous purpose, rather than an example of poor writing. While I can’t speak on O’Malley’s choices, I can say that through analysis, the organization best used the technique to serve a proper purpose, and to illustrate the nature of the technique and its function.

This term is now discussed with more complexity now that it has been around for quite some time, and some in defense of the tool’s ability to create more complexity in our examination of our relationship of faith (specifically the Greek tragedies). Sorry I don’t have many more examples, but hopefully this helps with your understanding of the term.



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