Monday, October 5, 2015

The Fairer Sex, Part VI, The Extremist #1

Sadly, not a story based on the Joe Satriani song

In 1992, DC comics launched the Vertigo imprint to handle its more mature themed titles. Even though DC had been publishing adult storylines since the 80’s, the Vertigo imprint solidified their stake in the niche market. Each issue emblazoned with the “Suggested for mature readers” language, Vertigo carried a surprising breadth of titles offering more than just standard superhero fair. It was also home to some astounding, award-winning limited series. Unfortunately none of this praise can be directed at The Extremist limited series.

Written by Peter Milligan and based on a story idea by fellow European Brendan McCarthy with art by Ted McKeever, The Extremist is an uneven book at best. Milligan might be best known for his revamp of X-Force that turned into the parody team X-Statix. McKeever has been all over the place when it comes to offbeat titles for both the majors and several of the independents. Together this threesome cobbles up a story that reads like a soft-core porn novel gone wrong.

Our protagonist for this first issue is Judy, a young hair stylist who has recently lost her husband Jack. By lost, I mean she doesn’t know where he is. Her only clue is that after his disappearance she discovers he was living a double life as The Extremist, a leather-clad vigilante who took orders from a secret society. Judy has become The Extremist in an effort to find Jack’s killer, taking orders from the society’s mouthpiece Patrick. However, the thrill of killing criminals appears to be eroding her sanity.

We begin the issue with an unknown someone listening to Judy’s cassette tape diary of the past few days. It begins with The Extremist confronting a man in a steamy Turkish bathhouse. The man is a killer who murdered two young girls. Prepare yourself, as Mckeever’s art is edgy and stylized. He reminds me a lot of Bill Sienkiewicz blended with Kyle Baker. I don’t have a problem with stylized art. Usually. In this case I do, because of the character design of The Extremist. Take a look at this panel and see if you can guess why:

The mask of The Extremist is suppose to be a giant silver metal ring held in place by three straps. Not a bad design in theory, except when you see it rendered as it looks in about 90% of the panels in this book. Panels like the one above, where it looks like The Extremist is wearing some kind of goofy “smiley face” mask. Which, given the graphically violent and sexual content of this book is completely inappropriate.

Also, it makes me giggle uncontrollably, a factor that has me discounting the entire seriousness of the storyline. The Extremist seems to be shooting for an adult tale of seduction and madness. The story tracks a descent into a world where hidden illuminati play games with peoples lives for their vicarious carnal amusement. And the main character is drawn like Mr. Happy Face.

And you look like an emoticon!

Enough. I’ll try to not let this silly mask sully the rest of The Extremist. Note that this scene comes right after Judy has gutted the killer and is examining her thoughts. It’s hard not to chuckle at that face in scenes such as this one, and most of those other panels are trying very hard to be dark and erotic.

Unfortunately this dark erotic vibe is my next problem with The Extremist. Not with the execution, because Milligan almost succeeds there. More because it plays to the exact stereotyping of women vigilantes everywhere. I hate to come off as some kind of feminist sympathizer, but The Extremist includes every female vigilante cliché taken to such length that you can’t help but start drawing some damning conclusions about how the comic industry portrays heroines.

Take for instant these scenes here, where Judy is changing back into her civilian identity.

First off the thirteen-year-old in me has to say “Two nipples! Score!” Now that he’s out of the way, let’s illuminate problem number one: a female superhero has to in some way sexualize fighting crime. Here it’s blatantly stated that Judy thinks that doing “The Extremist” thing mirrors sexual gratification and even transcends it. The link here is the costume and what it symbolizes. In most cases, the female heroine is made up like a glorified strumpet with the implication that, to her, fighting crime is similar to bedroom gratification. Heroines are often displayed in costumes that amount to little more than sections of the Victoria’s Secret catalog. Some examples of this can be found in the outfits of popular icons like Zatanna, Black Canary, She-Hulk and Vampirella.

Some will no doubt discount this all as playing to the target market, which happened to be young teenage boys at the time most of these characters were minted. In essence, if you want to capture the dollars of a target market with raging hormones, you play to their weakness whenever you can. While I can agree to a certain extent with this business theory, I believe that the answer can cut both ways. It’s both a marketing ploy and a underlying social commentary. It might even be so subtle that those making the books are unaware of the statement. I surely never envision Batman or Spiderman making the types of statements seen here. The same can’t be said of someone like Vampirella or other female characters.

The book plows on ahead showing Judy is rapidly losing control of herself because of her dual identity.

This makes for a great point number two: female characters are often shown as less in control of themselves than their male male counterparts. Jean Grey in the original Phoenix arc is the poster child for “I can’t handle great power.” The Huntress is constantly chided by Batman for going too far when dealing with criminals. Apparently if a female character is given/attains power equal to that of a male, she has to be weakened. The best way to do that is to confirm that she can’t handle the gift while a corresponding male rival can do so with ease.

In Judy’s case, she’s slowly losing her identity and becoming just an extension of The Extremist. Her mission to find out what happened to his husband is becoming less important. It’s right at this time she gets a call from Patrick, who asks her to come over dressed as The Extremist. Judy complies to everything Patrick asks even to the point of not showering before leaving.

While the point of all this is to make Patrick out to be some Svengali who has Judy trapped in his power, this actually brings up point number three about the fairer sex in comics: women are usually shown as subservient to male leadership. While we have seen teams like the Avengers, Justice League and JSA lead by women, most of the time in most books, ladies are content to sit in the back of the bus while men drive. A few exceptions existed, such as Storm taking command of the X-Men in the late ‘80s and Captain Marvel doing the same for the Avengers, but their presence only made the absence of women leaders all the more noticeable.

It isn’t until we meet Patrick that I throw out this last theory. Here he is in all his hedonist glory.

Yes, Patrick acts queerer than a four dollar bill. There’s no way that someone this fey could ever come off as macho and masculine. So much for theory number three. No way it fits this weirdo. Plus who in their right mind lounges around in briefs in the same room as two live black panthers? He’s a kook, although we find out later he’s not a harmless one.

But first, Patrick lets drop another plot point: Jack is dead and Judy is searching for his killer. Patrick seems to know who it is, but is using Judy (willingly, I might add) as The Extremist as his personal assassin. Also as his personal…

The implication to me is that Judy is stuping Patrick, which I find odd since I didn’t think he’d swing that way. Maybe they have sex with the panthers instead? It’s all a mystery that I never, ever want solved. Let’s just leave it at “Patrick and Judy take this Extremist thing way too far.” 

In addition to feeling disgusted, Judy lets a few things drop in her narration the next day: she’s a democrat, she doesn’t like black people very much and again she finds herself more comfortable in the identity of The Extremist than she does being herself. As the story continues she meets with Patrick that evening at a deviant fetish sex club where her inner monologues give away that she is a hair dresser who dyes her hair and that when Jack died in her arms, all she could tell him was “I dye my hair. I dye my hair.” Odd that Jack didn’t unburden his secrets at that point. I guess he was too shocked to find out he married a brunette to explain that he was a leather-clad vigilante working for a secret society and he was having an extra-martial affair. Plus it kind of one-ups her.

A little about our club scene with Patrick is warranted here. As he drones on and on about how an English ancestor of his openly declared in the House of Lords that it was alright for Noblemen to individually subsidize housing and food for pre-pubescent girls in exchange for sexual favors, we are treated to an orgy unlike any I’ve seen in comics. Most is strongly suggested, but it takes no stretch of the imagination to notice women with strap-ons ramming it home while men are licking and humping women on the floor. It’s all too extreme for me! Especially when you juxtapose it with that goofy smile from The Extremist’s mask. (giggles)

A few days later and Judy is out as The Extremist doing extreme things like planting a suicide note on a guy that died while autoerotically hanging himself, when Patrick shows up. And yeah, the puffy pirate shirt look is definitely gay.

Patrick’s little surprise turns out to be a snuff party where everyone pony’s up two grand for the chance to play Russian roulette with a pile of “Saturday night specials”, only one of which is loaded. He informs Judy that he’s already paid her way into the game and that it’s her turn. What a PAL! So under the mental control of this fruit basket, Judy dutifully picks up a gun, but hesitates until Patrick mentions that they are all watching her and she’s suppose to be The Extremist. Geeze Patrick, what’s next? Unprotected sex with HIV-positive lepers? Listening to every Celine Dion album back-to-back?

Guess we’ll never find out now. Patrick biting it can only make my appreciation for the book go up. His annoying effeminate manner will not be missed. Not only that, but his exit looks to have benefited Judy as well, putting her face-to-face with a woman who is possibly Jack’s killer.

 So Judy abandon’s Patrick’s rapidly cooling body to follow this mystery woman home. When she confronts her inside her apartment, the lady admits to not only killing him, but also of doing it because he could no longer sexually satisfy her. Judy thanks her kindly and then leaves. Sorry, just wanted to check and see if you were still listening. Really, Judy stabs her repeatedly till she’s dead. And then feels bad about it and tells her diary the next day while planning on ditching The Extremist outfit and lifestyle.

Story over? Right? No, we are not that lucky.

We pick right back up as Judy tries to go back to life as a simple cutter of hair. Scenes like this make me think she’s going to have some issues adjusting.

If she were my hair stylist, no tip! It’s not long before she’s thinking of donning the Extremist outfit again. Not, long? Heck, it’s that same day. After she’s suited up again she receives a mysterious phone call to meet someone in the square. Who could it be?

Aww, crap! I thought we were done with that butt munch. But we aren’t. He faked his own death and then created a new identity for himself. After congratulating Judy on killing Jack’s mistress and murder, Patrick – err, Pierre presents her with an sealed envelope containing a letter to be read in private, then leaves to await her response to it. Judy is confused, but allows him to go.

After reading the letter, she bursts in on Pierre, who appears to be having sex with a couple named Paul and Paula. Judy seems a bit peeved at Pierre, and well she should. The letter apparently explains that Patrick a/k/a Pierre was Jack’s killer all along. The woman Judy killed just wanted to die while inflicting mental anguish on her killer by exposing secrets about her dead husband’s sex life. And people say I have weird hang-ups.

None of this explains why the P-man killed Jack, except that he wanted Judy to be the Extremist all along. Judy is less that forgiving and after smacking Pierre around, looks ready to administer the final stroke.

And that’s where issue one ends, with the audience wishing that both characters would kill each other and put the book out of our misery.

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