The Human Target #1 review

Christopher Chance puts a target on his own back for a living, taking the place of men others would send to the grave.

His latest client is businessman Lex Luthor, a man not short of enemies. So it’s an armour-padded suit and bald cap for Chance.

While he survives the assassination attempt from a disgruntled Lexcorp employee, Chance learns that earlier in the day, he was poisoned.

Superhero surgeon Dr Mid-Nite tells him he has around 12 days to live. Less than a fortnight to solve his own murder. And the suspects are…

Writer Tom King does love his old films. Over in Supergirl: Woman of Tomorrow he’s riffing on True Grit, here it’s Dead on Arrival. The twist is the list of suspects, linked to the poisoning via extradimensional dust they picked up on a mission.

So, 12 issues, 12 suspects… well, 11 issues now for a dozen heroes to be cleared of wanting to murder the Human Target (I’m assuming that while the stage shooting was a genuine attempted hit on Luthor, Lex wasn’t the target of the poisoning). On the one hand, this is the Bwaa-Ha-Ha Justice League, no one here, as previously characterised, could possibly have deadly intent towards Chance. On the other, this is a Tom King book, previous personalities do not apply. King is the heir to Bronze Age legends Bob Haney and Murray Boltinoff in that he’ll happily twist heroes to serve his story. Beatriz da Costa has returned to her spy ways and has a grudge against Chance? Fine. G’nort is actually an alien assassin? OK. Heck, in a Tom King comic Batman could pick up a gun and shoot Chance in his ridiculously handsome head and I’d not be surprised. I wouldn’t like it, but I could walk away from the series, muttering ‘Black Label, not canon’.

Regardless, I have another suspect.

It’s the Atom. Or someone with size-changing powers, wandering around Chance’s body, for reasons unknown.

Why would any superhero want Chance dead? He’s not a member of the metahuman community – the fact he gets a consultation with Dr Mid-Nite is a surprise in itself. Hopefully King has twists and turns in store.

The script is clever throughout, less gloomy than other recent King opening chapters. King establishes Chance’s voice – sophisticated hardboiled – in a deliberately paced opening sequence that may or may not be the end of Chance’s story. Then it’s back to the beginning of the poison problem, stopping en route for one-frame vignettes involving obscured or off-panel JL folk.

In the just-ended Strange Adventures, JSA member Mr Terrific received a surprise spotlight; here, it seems Dr Mid-Nite (oddly spelt ‘Midnight’, the one time he’s something other than ‘Doc’) may be the supporting player du jour. There’s a new aspect of his nature unveiled, as McNider offers to take Chance to church after giving his diagnosis/death sentence.

Complementing the words is the stunning full-colour artwork of Greg Smallwood. The soft good looks of Chance, a perfectly on-model Luthor, the Mike Brady drabness of the Metropolis motel where our hero lays his weary head and pained body, the DayGlo colours of that staccato flashback sequence… it’s like Smallwood is making love to our eyes.

Too much? But look at it! Clever touches such as a bedside drawer evoking a coffin in close-up shows real visual intelligence, as does the choice of colours – as well as the wilder ends of the spectrum, we get the naturalism of morning in Lex Luthor’s office, and the countryside outside Metropolis. There’s even a bit of Saul Bass in there. The only artistic choice that doesn’t quite work for me is a panel that’s broken into two for no good reason. I’ll leave it to you to spot it – if you don’t, I’m probably wrong!

The story title and credits don’t appear until the final page, and they’re really worth the wait, with Smallwood stylishly incorporating them into the panels.

The letters of Clayton Cowles sit nicely on the pages, and in those odd moments when the script requires extra imagination Cowles always comes through – when Chance is passing out, for example, there’s a bounce to the words.

And the cover is a trade paperback-worthy gem.

I was a tad wary coming to this debut issue after my reaction to recent Tom King series, but his script here grabbed me. Add in the artwork and we have a superb comic. Human Target achieved!

21 thoughts on “The Human Target #1 review

  1. I haven’t read the book yet — and plan to! — but I trusted that you wouldn’t be divulging any important spoilers. So I wonder if the Dr. Mid-Night involved is not McNider but instead Pieter Cross? If I recall correctly, he was a devout Catholic.

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  2. Aw heck another book I wasn’t going to get and then broke down and bought, after learning this wasn’t just a plainclothes hardboiled detective story but also included the JLI – and after catching wind of the art. And I did like it a lot.

    Tom King gets the best artists on his work, that’s for sure. Strange Adventures may have ruined Adam Strange forever, but we got the most amazing looking book from Mitch Gerads and Doc Shaner. I don’t love Bilquis Evely on Supergirl but I realize I’m alone on that. And now Greg Smallwood’s art is just magnificent.

    Yes, that split panel with Luthor is odd, and I noticed it but didn’t think much about it until you brought it to my attention. When artists do that, as far as I’ve observed, it’s because they place the same character(s) in the different panels, and I take it to indicate motion. Here – there is no obvious reason, but Smallwood seems quite deliberate, so one can speculate.

    Here’s a few thoughts:

    Maybe it has something to do with Luthor lying here, so it illustrates his duplicity.

    Or it’s to split the portrait of him on the wall One hand points up, one points down, cut off at just about the same spot on each arm. Perhaps like at the end of a bout among gladiators, the king’s decision over life and death – thumbs up or thumbs down.

    Or maybe it’s just a visual pun: the script reads “everyone is on the same page” and Smallwood answers “But not in the same panel – lol!”

    I looked into what else Smallwood has done that I might have read, and it turns out he’s contributed a number of short stories lately – including the last story in Batman: Black & White #1, the ONLY story in that issue that I could stand, and I thought it was quite good. It was the only one that looked anything like I was expecting – the noir story about Clayface and his complicit girlfriend. I think you said you bought that issue.

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    1. I had no desire to read King’s Strange Adventures after the first issue, and I know how it ended, but I don’t think Adam is ruined – too many people remember and love the old science hero. When he told John Siuntres no one cared about Adam he was talking utter bollocks. Give it a few years and this series will be as forgotten as the prestige format mini that killed off Alanna.

      Cheers for the excellent thoughts on the Luthor framing! I do have Batman: Black and White #5, bought it because I heard there was a good Riddler story, but couldn’t get into it; the book remains unread. I don’t seem to have #1 for download.

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      1. King was wrong to think no one cares about Adam Strange and that he could make any lasting changes. I think Adam might be the DC character most resistant to change. That mini you reference was ignored and we got classic later. Moore’s unpleasant ‘everything you knew was wrong’ was untouched. Black Terran Alanna and her Adam gave way to Bendis’ classic portrayal. People might enjoy these ‘dirty up Adam’ as a good story or thought experiment but then they want Classic Adam in the next appearance. With King’s MO of coming up with story and letting editorial plug in the characters means he’s not even invested in this. He just knocked the round peg of Adam Strange into the square hole of the story he wanted to tell. BTW, what does it say about DC and Marvel’s differing editorial approaches that Marvel’s Vision series was in character and has had major elements followed up in the years since and none of his DC work has anyone, including himself, referencing them again. Did Marvel constrain him to the point where his output was more amenable to a shared universe?

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      2. Maybe Marvel did, the Vision was plugged into the Marvel Universe for the start and now Viv Vision is a thing. I wonder whether it was King’s idea to be tied to the MU, as a relatively unknown writer then it would have been smart to make his Vision Marvel canon, to get all the completists on side.

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      3. We’ve really yet to see whether Strange Adventures is followed up on; it’s just been a month. I think it might be. I think the pairing of Mr. Terrific and Aleea could be interesting; we might see the two of them pop up in Flash once Kevin Adams gets up to speed with what happened in the series. And whatever you think of Supergirl, I remember King saying that he was writing it to make her a more popular character for someone to continue on with. And we’ll see what happens next with Chance and the JLI once this wraps.

        That said, his Batman/Catwoman has already become an Elseworlds, it seems.

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      4. I dunno Rob, Mr Terrific keeps popping up on books but things that happen in one never seem to come up again… how many issues of The Terrifics was he in, and I don’t think the team has been mentioned anywhere.

        No way is King’s Supergirl going to become the gold standard. It’s just too depressing.

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      5. Omega Men was ignored and Heroes In Crisis retconned almost as quick as Magneto secretly being Xorn so I dunno. The Flash writer says he wants a more fun Flash series so I don’t see him touching King’s Haneyesque view on character and continuity, especially as it’s intrinsically dark and joyless.

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      6. I don’t think the tone of King’s Supergirl will be replicated, per se… I just think he’s intending to leave her in a spot (plot-wise and sales-wise) that other people will follow up on. (Again, though, I’m not reading it; I’m just guessing from what he said in interviews.)

        As for Mr. Terrific, I wouldn’t read too much into the non-appearance of the Terrifics, as it was a Didio idea, and those are out of favor right now. But I think there’s potential in Mr. Terrific having a young protegee in Aleea Strange, and if Kevin Adams sees that potential too, we’ll see some mention of it. She’s also a peer for Jai and Iris to interact with — there’s good reasons to include her if he wants to.

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      7. Has Omega Men been ignored? I don’t think I’ve read many Kyle Rayner appearances since then. Maybe it has, but they’re off in their own corner of the universe, so it’s hard to see. They only appear once a decade.

        As for Heroes in Crisis, it’s a mixed bag. Much of it — the journalistic revelations, etc — has been ignored. But with Wally in particular, it’s been anything but ignored. DC’s spent years grappling with it, finally getting Wally back to a manageable place. Yes, it’s a retcon…but that’s very different from pretending it never happened.

        And I think there’s a lot of fun to be had with Aleea in the picture! I don’t think Adams will replicate King’s tone, just use the playing pieces where he left them. If he likes. (It’s Black Label, and certainly can be ignored if he wants to. But I think there’s opportunity there.)

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      8. Great point about the ever-popular (he said, sarcastically) being off in their own corner.
        The last I saw of Kyle he’d supposedly been killed in GL, but I don’t recall any Omega Men mention before that. Mind, I’m hardly a devoted reader of GL books these days!

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    2. I’m reading Green Lantern now (for the first time in forever, aside from Far Sector and Morrison’s run, which seemed like outliers), but I honestly can’t think of what happened to Kyle. He hasn’t been a focus, that’s for sure… but I don’t think he’s dead, either.

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      1. My apologies, Kyle was listed as Missing after the power battery explosion in #4… I think that’s where I packed in due to no longer enjoying the main strip.

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  3. Oh, I loved this issue. Can’t wait to read more.

    I’m enjoying King’s story — I love a whodunnit! — but Smallwood’s art is the big draw. I love the 50’s style geometrical lighting, particularly. Your Saul Bass comparison is great. The whole look reminds me most of Darwyn Cooke’s excellent Parker adaptations. So I’m sold.

    And considering the cast, my thought to the mystery so far is: Why does Luthor want to frame the JLI for killing Chance? What does he gain from sending Chance to poke around in their business? Everything in Luthor’s office has been under his control — down to his own assassination attempt — so I’ve got to assume the tainted coffee was, too. How he got the radiation signature isn’t all that hard, also — just steal one of Blue Beetle’s gloves, and voila!

    As for the split Luthor panel? The two facing pages look better that way, IMO. It’s not complete reverse-symmetry with the following page–four verticals on the bottom, four (instead of 3) horizontals on the top–but it’s closer. A big middle panel would have diluted that effect (which you probably didn’t see, as you’re likely reading page-by-page on digital). Now, why Smallwood didn’t just show two different things in those two different panels? I can’t say for sure, but the scene called for us to linger on Luthor. And breaking the panel plays with time.

    And here’s one more metaphor to add to T.N.’s speculation: In the top Luthor panel, you can just see a bit of his bald head. Like an iceberg, there’s a LOT more beneath the surface, and it’s all dangerous.

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    1. The geometrical lighting, that’s a great description. It really is attractive.

      Thanks for you thoughts on Luthor, it is interesting that he may have picked Chance to investigate them… he’s not actually a detective, is he? I can’t imagine how King is going to stretch this out for 12 issues and still have it be a Human Target story – who will he be impersonating?

      Rob, such brilliant ideas on the painting and framing. You lads are so sharp!

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