The Comic Book Club: “Batman” x 2 and “The Extremist”

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EVAN: On to Vertigo Resurrected: The Extremist. Special to the new DC Powers-That-Be: Here’s the legacy and should-be future of Vertigo, in this beautifully transgressive piece of work. I remember seeing house ads for The Extremist when it came out, and I was in a big Ted McKeever love-in at that time. But I never picked it up. Something about it was just too pervy for 21-year-old Evan.

And pervy it is. It’s the story of a leather-clad enforcer who polices a secret society of sexual deviants and kills anyone who steps out of line. It’s not exactly a welcoming concept. But the thing that struck me was how solidly constructed The Extremist is. Reveals, exposition, betrayals, reversals and too many swerves for me to recount, which is all laid on top of some truly outlier sexual behavior (which is mostly implied). Yet the story never falls apart.

It’s funny that two of our picks this week bubble over with sex and violence. The Extremist takes the psychosexual subtext of superhero spandex and vigilante action and moves it to the front. It’s just this side of pretentious, but all that tawdry writhing makes you forget all that. Patrick/Pierre feels like a clichéd omnisexual fop at first, but the stakes just keep going up, and you’re left to wonder if it’s really a pose at all.

I had to check the original pub date on this book to make sure when it came out, because it felt so of the moment for 2010. Milligan was really ahead of his time, with the portrayal of the Extremist identity as a viral meme. Speaking of memes, I will admit to falling prey to “Get Outta There, Brother”-itis with the Tony part of the book. It’s only then that The Extremist felt like a horror comic, and true to form, the black man doesn’t make it out alive. I did like that Tony was the only one to resist the Extremist seduction, not that it mattered much.

GRAEME: It’s funny that you talk about Morrison’s Batman and this both bubbling over with sex and violence. They do, but Morrison’s does so from such a place of fun and camp, whereas this reminds me of another Morrison book, contemporary with the mid-’90s release of The Extremist: Morrison’s Invisibles, and particularly the Marquis de Sade episodes. It’s not just the S&M imagery of both books, but the feeling of characters leaving “society” and becoming something else, either by joining the Invisible army or this book’s Order.

Weirdly enough, I think the choice of McKeever as artist is what makes this book work; his work is ugly enough to fit the subject matter, but also to not get lost in the sex clubs or fetishwear that Milligan is writing about, if that makes sense. If someone like a JG Jones or whoever was drawing this, it’d read differently somehow, be less of a character piece, and it’d be a much lesser story for that. McKeever is really the star of this book, for me.

(More on Techland: The Comic Book Club: Thor #615)

Writingwise, this was classic Milligan, and feels like the underside of something like his Enigma (which is out of print, appallingly – If you haven’t read it, it’s one of the best superhero books of the ’90s); both books toy with sexuality and superheroics in similar ways, but to different ends. The Extremist may not have super powers or even do good, as such, but it feels like a superhero story to me, for some reason, filled with secret identities from costumes that get passed from person to person and become weirdly inspirational because of what they stand for (Tony got sucked in, even if he eventually saw through it. Jack saw through it all, as well, eventually – I wonder if Milligan was making some point about Judy, or some point about women’s sexual fantasies and identities in general, in that she was the one who didn’t abandon the identity, but surrendered to it). But where Enigma was joyous and joyful, this is Milligan as cynic about the human condition, mixing superheroes and sex with noir logic, all double-crosses and the worst in people. It’s funny; I feel like I may be too jaded, because there was something weirdly not shocking about all the sex and S&M on show here… it felt like the window dressing for the exploration of identity and morality that Milligan really wanted to write about, and it’s those themes – and the fact that it felt as if Milligan had a story to tell more than just a desire to shock and/or titillate – that make this worth reading.

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