Today, Mark and Ryan M. are discussing Extremity 1, originally released March 1st, 2017. As always, this article contains SPOILERS.
Mark: Extremity 1 is a beautiful pastiche. From Heavy Metal to Star Wars to Mad Max, writer and artist Daniel Warren Johnson works with colorist Mike Spicer to lovingly render the brutal, hostile world of Extremity. So while the plot and characters feel familiar, there’s enough emotion behind the book to believe that this first issue acts as a mere prologue, and that there’s a meatier story to be told in the issues to come.
Extremity is the story of Thea, a young woman and talented artist whose home world is invaded, her mother killed, and her right arm (and with it, her drawing hand) brutally cut off by the invaders. In his letter to readers at the back of the issue, Johnson explains how this loss of limb is a personal reflection of his own worst nightmare:
“My identity as an artist and creator rests very heavily in that singular extremity. If it’s taken away, what is left of me? What is left of Thea?”
Flash forward an indeterminate amount of time, and we learn that Thea’s father is the leader of the resistance movement. They’ve been planning a counter-attack and it’s time to put that plan into action. At the end of the bloody battle, Thea is able to revenge her taken arm by cutting off the hands of her attacker, but can vengeance really heal wounds?
If all of this sounds like well-worn sci-fi territory, that’s because it absolutely is. We’re given little but the broadest sketches of who these characters are outside of their genre-defined roles, but it all works. Tropes are tropes for a reason, and there’s nothing inherently negative in using archtypes to quickly define a fantasy world. What sets Johnson’s use of these familiar ideas apart from the lazy applications is the raw emotion behind it.
I referenced it earlier, but I recommend reading Jonhson’s letter to readers at the conclusion of the issue. It’s a surprisingly honest look at how difficult and deeply personal the birth of this comic was for him. That passion translates onto each lovingly rendered page. This is a startlingly gorgeous issue with beautiful landscapes, engaging characterizations, and a striking color palette.
Johnson is working with familiar themes and ideas, and comics can only coast on presentation for so long (future issues require at least a little explanation of the villains’ motivations, for instance), but there’s just enough substance and plenty of style to sweep readers through this first issue.
What’d you think, Ryan? Am I being too lenient on the issue’s heart-on-it’s-sleeve borrowing of established sci-fi ideas? Or are you taken by the presentation as much as I am?
Ryan M: I am just as engaged by this first issue and though the tropes you identify are evident, the issue presents themes with a universal resonance. The dynamics of Thea’s family hew pretty close to stories that we’ve seen before, but Johnson is able to create a true sense of relationship between these characters. The bonds between father and child, brother and sister, and even husband and fallen wife are well-trod territory because they are somewhat elemental. Johnson creates moments that function both as plot points and character reveals. When Thea finds Rollo in an alley, afraid to fight, she allows her rage to power her to enact what is likely her first kill. Johnson gives us a moment with the siblings directly after.
In the top panel above, Johnson renders their expressions so deftly and effectively. The layout of the hunched over Thea, Rollo still scrambling away, and the headless body between them signals a deeper divide. Thea is moving closer to the world that her father inhabits. Johnson doesn’t give Thea victory with this death, instead Thea falls to her knees and gets sick. The two panels drawn in silhouette show her landing hard on her knees, losing the strength to hold herself upright. Rollo disappears from frame. This moment is about Thea and the distance between her now and the artist Princess she once was.
As mentioned, Thea’s loss comes directly from Johnson’s personal nightmare, but it also plays upon deeper themes of the role of art and the cost of war. Thea had what one could consider a life of privilege, or at least of more comfort than she has now. She had an identity and the approval of her clan. By the end of the issue, Johnson has literally replaced her drawing hand with a blade. Thea’s people are at war. The version of herself that could indulge in and explore her art is gone.
It’s interesting that the villian of this issue is another artist. When Asmund plays his violin, he moves his guests to tears with the power of the music. Johnson doesn’t reserve beauty for his heroes. He gives Asmund a moment with his guests in which Asmund offers the pleasure of his work. Later, we see him playing as Thea is maimed, a perversion of that work. Thea does not hesitate to take his hands and silence his music forever. She is fueled by revenge and seems to relish the opportunity to brutally attack him with a cleaver.
Johnson ends the issue in an emotional cliffhanger. Thea’s expression as she considers whether her revenge is helping her is uncertain but also somewhat ambiguous. We don’t know yet what Johnson wants to say about the effects of battle on this family, but we know he has something to say, and that bodes well for the series.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?
I liked this one a lot. The idea of privilege Ryan mentioned interested me throughout the issue, especially the implication that the “good guys” no longer have time for art in a way that the “bad guys,” painted as the aggressors in this conflict, do is interesting. If this book tackles the place of art in a time of war, I am here for it.