Writer: Tom King
Artist: Greg Smallwood
DC Comics Black Label, December 2021
From 1999 to 2005, creative team Peter Milligan and the late Edvin Buikovic worked on The Human Target, for DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint. It was (and remains) a gripping set of stories about Christopher Chance, a highly capable master of deception, who takes on a variety of roles using extremely elaborate disguises. Chance was an almost abandoned character, polished up for modern times and so capable of both being bloodied up in a fight and using a modern machine gun when necessary. And Vertigo’s The Human Target sat apart from DC Comics’ superhero universe. Batman was never going to show up to arrest Chance after, for example, murdering a Weather Underground terrorist in self defence.
Tom King’s and Greg Smallwood’s new title, The Human Target, is strangely not inconsistent with Messrs Milligan’s and Bulkovic’s title. The main character’s tactical approach, masked by breezy indifference, remains in play. But it explores murders, social issues, and sometimes very intense relationships between some of DC Comics’ cast of superheroes.
The opening lines are an inner monologue for Chance. But instead of the calculating and careful Chase of the Vertigo title, or a man with only nine days to live (and more on that, below), we have here a meandering poet-in-love. Chase waxes in the role of the tough guy who has fallen for the dame, in the parlance of noir detective novels:
I don’t remember dreams.
But when I wake, before I even open my eyes.
I’m thinking of her.
She’s moving towards me.
Whispering something I can’t hear.
Everything in me is dry and burning.
And her lips are…
No, that’s not it. It’s…
It’s… while she’s on you, all the screams you keep hidden inside – they finally quiet.
No, that’s not right either.
I’m a fool. It’s like nothing else.
Hell, the only thing that comes close.
The title is not a superhero story, but instead is a noir story which happens to be populated by superheroes. What does that assessment mean? Chase is dying, and so is a man who has nothing to lose. Someone accidentally poisoned him, in endeavouring to poison Superman’s evergreen adversary, Lex Luthor. Chase has slightly under two weeks (nine days, by this issue) to solve his own murder. Chase braces himself through the journey with a hipflask of whisky. That plot sounds very noir, and very Vertigo Human Target.
But mixing it up with Booster Gold, the obnoxious Green Lantern Guy Gardner, and snow-powered superheroine Ice of the 1980s Justice League International title, is not something previous readers of the Vertigo title will easily digest. Muddling détective noir and superheroes on the face of it seems ridiculous.
But it works, because writer Tom King has firmly embedded within the story the classic noir infrastructure. The superhero suspension of belief does not dominate the title at all.
From beginning to end, Chase out-thinks the hapless Gardner, a spurned lover (unexpectedly imbued with the pathos of crying over his now resurrected girlfriend’s grave). Booster Gold on the other hand is harmless and funny, a silly jock with a bagel franchise and a straight man robot companion. Aside from Mr King’s desire to revisit all of the Justice League International team-members, we wonder if the only reason for Booster Gold’s appearance was create an opportunity for Chase to outwit Gardner. Not obvious on a first read, but looking back through the panels, we can see how Chase purloins Booster Gold’s flight ring. It is extremely clever.
And Ice is decidedly Grace Kelly in appearance and demeanour. Ice is the beautiful blonde femme fatale of the piece. She is cool, stylish, desirable, and ever so slightly seductive. And, in her dealings with Gardner, she is perhaps dangerous. This high octane treatment of Ice is a significant and very welcome elevation beyond every prior treatment of the character.
And the Doo wop art is wonderful. The story is replete with 1950s Populuxe retro styling, down to the diner font. Chase himself is staying in an old ’50s Googie-themed motel. Gardner has the visual presence of a 1950s hothead teenager. The colours are mid-century American vibrant pastels with abrupt contrasts, contained in panels with rigid geometric rectangles. Diagonals, mostly light and shadow contrasts, flood the pages. The aesthetic rejection of the ornate pervades the comic – even the word balloons have no borders, and the sound effects are rendered bold colour with no inked outline. Missing only is an atomic clock and a wooden longboard. Artist Greg Smallwood has done a superb job.
This series, easily one of DC Comics’ best in recent times, lasts for twelve issues. We hate to gush, but what a treat.