The Extremist reissue and Greek Street TPB vol. 2: Cassandra Complex

by on Nov.24, 2010, under Comics

Two books written by Peter Milligan came out last week from Vertigo. Both are entertaining in ways that gesture at big ideas without saying anything actually profound. Still, in both cases I like the gestures.

The better of the two is a reprint of a four-issue minicomic Milligan wrote in 1993 called The Extremist. It tells the interlocking stories of three people: a woman, her husband, and a neighbor to the husband’s secret apartment. One after another they take over the narration and are drawn to an underground S&M society called The Order, as first the husband and then after his death his wife become the group’s leather-clad enforcers, murdering outsiders who learn its secrets and insiders who try to quit.

There’s a lot of talk about the seductiveness of “extremism” that pushes past all society’s normal boundaries. The actual contours and practices of The Order are kept vague. Instead we focus on ideas that are roughly a cross of Sadean libertinism and Nietzschean antimorality.

A few things make it the better Milligan offering. First, as a limited series it doesn’t get a chance to overstay its welcome, and can employ much more innovative storytelling techniques. It develops its ideas quickly and closes its intersecting tales with a click. Second, its art, by legendary underground writer/artist Ted McKeever, gives the narrative a stylized buoyancy that allows its murders to hover on the border of reality. These are brightly colored tableaux of violence and sex that look more like Gauguin paintings than comics. Bodies are all drawn in the usual McKeever style that uses more straight lines than curves.

In Greek Street: Cassandra Complex, on the other hand, artist Davide Gianfelice uses a more traditionally cartoonish style, one that reminds me of The Little Mermaid/Aladdin–era Disney posters. Bodies are curved and fleshy, and wounds bleed a lot.

Cassandra Complex is the second trade paperback collection of Greek Street, in which Milligan has been throwing together characters based in name and loosely in temperament on the heroes of classical Greek drama. There’s an Eddie who sleeps with his mother, a Lord Menon and his wife Esther, their daughter Sandy who has visions no one believes, a street gang called the Fureys, a police detective named Dedalus, and so on.

And in this one as in the first volume the conceit works okay. Milligan has to explain his references a lot (as when he has characters describe the plots of Medea and Hippolytus in expository dialogue), but I get why that’s necessary. The device of Greek drama allows him to use a chorus character to do a lot of resetting at the beginning of each new issue with “the story so far.”

The main problem is that the self-contained conflicts of Greek tragedies don’t translate well to an ongoing series. In a Greek tragedy the hero’s fatal flaw preordains his doom. Oedipus has already married Jocasta at the start of the play, but doesn’t yet know she’s his mother, and has to figure it out. We know what the end will be, though he doesn’t. Eddie sleeps with his mother in the first issue (knowingly), and then proceeds to be traumatized about it for many, many pages. It feels messy to have the story dragged through permutation after permutation with nothing finally resolved.

Like I said, I respect the gesture of bringing all these classic characters into modern-day conflicts. Even if Milligan is merely trying to replicate the success of Fables (of which I have absolutely zero evidence, by the way).

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