There’s an ongoing joke about DC Comics being Dismemberment Comics because of the publisher’s obsession with severing characters’ limbs to prove how Mature comics are now. It’s an easy trick since we tend to have a pretty visceral reaction to any injury that gets in the way of our mobility and cleverness. We rely so much on our hands in particular, and doubly so if you’re a superhero whose powers are centered around a magical space ring or trick arrows or even just punching people in the face real hard. But DC dismembers characters so often it threatens the impact of that kind of imagery in mainstream comics in general. Once you’ve seen one muscly metahuman lose a limb, do you really need to see it again, let alone hundreds more times? So props to Daniel Warren Johnson for having the chutzpah to put limb loss at the heart of his aptly named new Skybound comic Extremity and props for– dare I say it– making dismemberment mean something again?
What makes Extremity more than your garden variety dismemberment comic is its focus on limb loss as not merely a shocking image, but a blow to creativity itself, an attempt to strike at someone via what means the most to them. Johnson sets Extremity in a sci-fi/fantasy hybrid environment, where small clans live on floating island territories and pillage each other’s castles and towns while riding speeder bikes and wielding super sharp machete spears. The comic opens with the siege of our protagonist Thea’s home, as a rival clan of spaceship riding knights strike down her mother and cut off her hand in front of her grieving father, seemingly because “all of the floating plains” knew of her great talent. Though Johnson’s immediate fridging of the protagonist’s mother is unfortunate, the direction the comic goes in from there is notable for its careful and considered exploration of family obligation and expectation as well as the scrutiny it places on tradition.
That aspect of Extremity aligns it with Horizon Zero Dawn, a PS4 game that coincidentally also came out this week and also focuses on a lost and lonely warrior woman trying to make sense of her own place in a dangerous, magi-tech world. Both works are focused on young women who have to embrace dangerous elements of their lives in order to bring back some semblance of home, but Extremity has an interesting twist on this trope in its dual explorations of loss, with the more common literary loss of a loved one paired with the literal loss of a physical aspect that the protagonist had previously viewed as an extension of her very identity.
Amidst the brutal gore and frenetic action, Extremity is a story about believing you know what your destiny is, only to have that pulled out from underneath you, revealing your true, far less palatable fate. That’s true not just for Thea but for her brother Rollo, who is meant to be the future “Abba,” the leader of their clan and successor to their stereotypically stoic and volatile father. Where Thea has dealt with her grief by embracing anger as an energy, Rollo is more paralyzed by it, and has developed a distaste for violence and death. Thea used to create beauty for her clan as a way of freeing them from the brutality of their everyday lives, and now she seeks to destroy those who stole that from her and her clan. It’s not that she wants to supplant Rollo as a leader, she just wants to fill a void, even as she realizes the violent cycle she has been forced into won’t solve or improve anything.
Johnson deserves acclaim for communicating much of this not through exposition but through character acting and symbolism. Thea’s clan, for instance, rallies behind what appears to be the expression “an eye for an eye,” shouting on their leader while covering one of their eyes before they head into battle:
What strikes me most about that sequence is how sad everyone seems to be about this cycle. Thea’s father appears despondent by the chant and expression, it’s not your standard pre-battle morale boosting, chest thumping braggadocio. Everyone looks resigned and not just out of an awareness of their looming mortality. Like Thea, they seem to feel they’ve been plucked out of the life they believed they were going to lead and dropped into something far more depressing. Not too dissimilar from what many of us are currently feeling.
There’s a weight in general to Johnson’s character designs, even the villains. The world of rising plains isn’t exactly spiritually uplifted, and while there seem to be some major differences in tone and power between the rival clans (which I’m sure we’ll see more of soon), there are also hints that they’re all desperate for an escape from futile existences. Thea’s nemesis in the first issue is a mirror of her, an artist in his own right who channels suffering to make music. He’s greedier with his art, pretentiously wanting to only share it in the right (luxurious) circumstances, perhaps a sly bit of commentary by Johnson on the art vs pop comic divide. That heaviness is there in Mike Spicer’s coloring too, the sensual, warm colors of the pre-invasion start giving way to a dreary medieval England grey and green and purple palette.
Spicer notably only switches that up in the build up to Thea’s triumphant rescue of her brother, which happens parallel to the battle her clan is fighting against their enemies. Johnson draws back to back slicing sequences, with Kill Bill-esque torrents of blood and vivisections, but as striking as those are what stands out the most is the immediate cool down as Thea realizes she just took a life and then promptly pukes her guts up.
Though there’s a more obvious “no turning back” moment for Thea later, Spicer’s coloring and Johnson’s moody linework indicate this is the real moment where Thea stops being who she originally was and heads into her new life. It’s in this scene that she acts as a vengeful warrior and lashes out and then immediately reckons with the repercussions of that, and the emotional climax of the first issue functions as more of a punctuation mark on that new identity. That this violent scene is rendered with such beauty and poise also serves as a statement about the intertwining of her two lives, an artistic expression painted in blood and sword strokes rather than pencil and ink.
This also means that, true to its nature, every real emotional beat of Extremity is paired with a dismemberment. Indeed, even Rollo’s own no turning back point involves the painful extraction of teeth and hands. And yet even though Extremity rivals an especially grim DC work for the sheer number of dismemberments per panel, it rises above cheapness and shock and forces us to consider the impact and vileness of the violence in front of us. Extremity is that rare violent work that asks its characters and readers to recognize the sadness of the cycle of violence without giving them the hope of escaping it, turning that too into a statement about the dangerous precipice we are on right now in history.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover