In the first grade, I would write “Sherlock Holmes” on tests and assignments rather than “Jimmy Gaspero”. I wasn’t having an identity crisis, it was just that from a young age, I was fond of a good mystery. Whether it was Sherlock Holmes, Scooby-Doo, Clue, or The Hardy Boys Casefiles I read it all. More than the mystery though, I was fond of being able to solve it, to possess that secret knowledge that came with elucidation.
I suppose that love of mystery is what I’ve found so intriguing about Tom King’s recent work in Strange Adventures, Rorschach, and now The Human Target. All three start with a mystery. Strange Adventures and Rorschach expanded far beyond that initial mystery. Strange Adventures became a character study of Adam Strange, hero of two worlds, and expanded further still to fully become Alanna Strange’s story, a bit of The Good Wife in space. Rorschach started with an assassination attempt. As the detective at the heart of it works to piece together what happened through conspiracy theories and duplicitous government agents, he confronts the idea of Rorschach to find that while some see their fears when they look at that mask, some see themselves.
Tom King has now teamed with Greg Smallwood for The Human Target to tackle the most compelling mystery of all. Christopher Chance has to solve his own murder. He has 12 days to do it. I wonder where the mystery will lead us this time.
Although King’s involvement in this series started as a joke on Twitter, he is completely suited for writing a noir. His Christopher Chance is collected and calm, or perhaps resigned, as he narrates the last moments of his last day, repeating once the phrase “There’re only so many fights you can win.’ It’s built into Chance’s character that he’s quite literally self-destructive by virtue of taking a bullet for those he is working to protect, and what good noir protagonist isn’t at least a little prone to self-destructive behavior. Chance mentions a woman in his narration and it’s just enough to deepen the mystery of the man, if not the murder. The narration is not heavy-handed, and I appreciate the small details that King focuses on in the opening pages.
The narrative is then thrust back in time 12 days with a dynamic 10-panel page with bright retro 80s colors uncharacteristic of any other part of the comic, a small snapshot of one moment per day back in time and it’s here where I must discuss the incomparable Greg Smallwood. Each panel of this comic is a gorgeous ad showcasing a product that you desperately need. The comic opens with Chance in a motel room, a Gideon’s bible, a rotary phone, it’s not clear at first when this comic is set and it works to set the mood and the tone for the story that follows.
The first full reveal of Chance by Smallwood on the second page is indescribably perfect. The look in his eyes, the hand on his suit coat, the way he adjusts his tie. He’s handsome, confident, and intense. This comic starts at the top in terms of the artwork and gets even better from there. The sickly, green glow of the LexCorp display, the warm gold color of Lex’s office, the midnight blue of a certain doctor’s office. Smallwood excels at close-ups of faces or objects, like whiskey in a glass, a recurring image, rendered with such realistic detail, to tell its own story of that moment in time.
The third member of this creative team is letterer Clayton Cowles whose role is vital to the pace of the comic and, as always, he excels. The font is straightforward, not flashy, contained in boxes that lead the eye along the panel in an almost haphazard pattern imperceptibly designed to tell you where he wants you to look, like the expert magician he is. There aren’t many SFX throughout, but there are a few worthy of taking up the entire panel, which they do, and the impact is felt rather than merely seen.
Mysteries abound in The Human Target #1 and it’s a great entry point for fans of DC Comics generally, especially the Black Label books, and fans of mystery/detective/noir stories specifically. I’m not well versed in the history of the character Christopher Chance/Human Target and am interested to discover who this version is and what’s important to him. Additionally, fans of Greg Smallwood or fans of excellent comic book art are going to want to make sure they have this comic in their collection.