4 out of 5
I flipped through the first issue of Extremity, knowing I had a copy of Daniel Warren Johnson’s Space Mullet on my shelf, waiting to be read, and whilst absolutely in love with the art style – like a frenzied blast of Stokoe-level detailing with James Harren’s unleashed scrabbles – I felt like I had the story figured out in a snap. Okay, brutalist sci-fi / fantasy world, sure, but lead character – an artist – gets her drawin’ hand chopped off in the war, and has to come to grips with her new life: as a soldier, or trying to recapture past glories with her opposite hand. It seemed a bit on the nose for a writer / artist project, and I guessed it would be praised for some kind of deep dive on the creative process, which has been deep-diven in to times before. Oh well. Back on the shelf.
Dead Earth taught me a lesson, and now here I am, dyed-in-the-wool Johnson fan, reading Extremity.
Is the aforementioned concept seeded in here? Sure. Some revelations on the creative process could / may certainly be waiting for me at the story’s conclusion, but there’s so much more in these collected first six issues, both in terms of world-building – which Johnson does in a blink between panels, perfectly, effortlessly (to the reader…) – and in terms of potential emotional depth. Instead of just “boy, I’d be screwed if I couldn’t draw!” Extremity seems to be a contemplation on sacrifice; on the obsession of our pursuits, and the way they cloud our perceptions. While this could be easily as cliched as my assumptive plot summary was, it’s sort of a reverse way of approaching the subject matter – starting with the artistic pursuit, backing in to the story’s tragedy – and allows so much more room to explore.
Which Johnson does. A father; a brother; a sister: the elder has lost his wife to his foes; the son his confidence – not having proven himself as blood-thirsty enough in the battle; and the daughter – our POV – her hand. She seems to pick up the battle axe her brother has dropped, slaying the baddies as the family (and their clan) track them down one by one, but it’s much more nuanced than that, as we come to see, just as it is for the son, and just as it is for the father.
The world-building, as mentioned, is amazing: using visual cues and well-paced terminology, we get an immediate sense of a lower class and an upper class, living on mysteriously floating islands, set aloft by some foul deeds their ancestors (i.e. us modern day-ish humans, likely) committed. And just as the characters are fleshed out beyond “haunted” and “peaceful” cutout emotions, so too is the back-and-forth between these classes / clans explored, all without exposition dumps and all with tons of action. The artistry of which is jaw-dropping, for sure, but Johnson also stays true to his title, and to the themes: the violence is bloody, and it doesn’t “feel” good. This is vicious stuff.
If this sounds like it might be a bit much to bite off for a maxi-series, even at 12 issues… yes. Johnson includes one too many methods of escalating the battle as a way to keep things progressing and on edge, and the cast is, essentially, just the trio I’ve mentioned (and their opposite numbers on their foes’ side), but having to make the reader mindful of the clans backing up these focuses means some scenes feel like we lose an exact sense of place and space.
Thankfully, the writing is so immersive, and the art so impressive, that these are sincerely blips in an otherwise wonderful read. Looking forward to the next volume.
(As a side note, the TPB doesn’t include any covers, and at a pretty normal pricepoint – 17.99 – so that’s kinda sorta balls. I’ll allow it this time, Image, because the content is so danged good.)