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!