Written by Peter Milligan
Art by Ted McKeever
Review by Mike Duke
“The Extremist is not a person. The Extremist is not a state of mind. The Extremist is a state of life.”
The first issue of The Extremist was originally released in September of 1993. I was 15 years old, a freshman in high school and just coming into myself as a young goth. My best friend and I had been collecting comics for a couple of years and already declared ourselves too sophisticated for traditional superhero books. The comic shop we loved the most had an area that wasn’t so much a back room as it was a back corner where they kept the “adult” books. I remember several titles featuring sex with demons, all sorts of titles featuring naked women for no real reason, and the entire line of Vertigo comics. Vertigo was where we decided to spend most of our time and money, and I still own many of the stories that I bought during that time. One of those was The Extremist and, as a young non-conformist trying to find himself, it was everything I wanted in a comic book. The art was so odd as to be standoffish, the story riddled with kinky sex, murder, and philosophy, and I loved it. Now, looking back, I wonder if I only loved it because of it’s weirdness, but in reading it again 20 years later I’ve found something not only familiar but fresh and full of meaning that my younger self could not have understood.
In a nutshell, the story focuses the most on Judy Tanner, a woman who has recently had her husband die in her arms after being stabbed on the street. After his death, she discovers his other life as The Extremist–the enforcer for an enigmatic group called The Order. The Order seems to own and operate sex clubs, and The Extremist deals with rogue elements within The Order–child-killers, rapists, etc. The description of the book on Comixology describes it as “…[taking] super heroics to their most risqué.” This is true as the story deals with concepts of identity, inside and outside of a costume. The question of whether Judy is still Judy or whether she has wholly become The Extremist is central to the book, and is similar to the question of whether Superman is Superman or Clark Kent. But there is quite a bit more going on in this book than that. There are questions about the nature of gender, of morality, of sex and sexuality, and what is actually real and what is fantasy. Peter Milligan’s sometimes plain, sometimes poetic but utterly believable dialog grounds the story in reality, while the art is expressive and almost dream-like in its odd simplicity.
Ted McKeever’s art in The Extremist is as challenging as the subject matter–it’s angular and thick and at times the faces and figures are almost cubist. The colors are very simple, with none of the high-tech flash that you see in current comics. I would recommend that anyone interested in picking up the book flip through it first to see if you can handle the art. But if you can, there is a beauty to it and a kind of simplicity that both contrasts and compliments the story perfectly. The faces and bodies of the characters take on this strange, utterly unique quality that almost makes it feel more real than if the art was more true-to-life.
McKeever’s art is what I remember most from reading The Extremist all those years ago. I remember almost every page and panel. I found that there were some contextual panels that I understand better now, as an older person, but all-in-all the pictures are as I remember them. The story changed the most for me. Most of the events were as I remember them, but the deeper meanings, the hidden subtexts, and the greater implications of the story are much more evident to me now than when I was in high school.
Buy it. Honestly, this book isn’t for everyone. The story is sexual, philosophical, and can be quite extreme (pun intended.) The art is challenging and unconventional. However, if you are looking for something new, something different, and something that can truly show what the medium is capable of, then look this way. The $7.99 volume that you will find on the shelves right now includes the entire story, all four issues of the original series. My only misgiving with this volume is that it doesn’t include the other three regular covers to the series, which were all excellent. But, for eight bucks, take a chance on an old story that is just as relevant and just as fascinating as it was when it was new.