It’s finally Saturday after a long week of work. It’s raining out, giving you an excuse to maybe sit in for the day. After browsing through your vinyl, you decide to play some old romantic jazz as you make some coffee; not the bitter stuff, something sweeter – it’s the weekend, after all. Mug in hand, you browse the shelf, wondering what you’ll be reading this morning. Fingers trace through the tops of an almost infinite amount of soft and hard covers, until they rest on top of two white spines. “The Human Target, Book One and Book Two”, they say, and you pull both out, taking them with you to the coffee table next to the big window where you can see a steady downfall of rain on the porch.
Then you read it, and have a grand time.
Tom King, Greg Smallwood, and Clayton Cowles’ Eisner Winning The Human Target is a masterpiece. Not perfect, it’s hard to find any art that is – that’s too high an expectation, but it comes pretty damn close, and to me, that’s good enough.
“I think I’m falling in love with you. I’m sorry.”
It’s a murder mystery, following the last twelve days of Christopher Chance, The Human Target’s life as he tries to solve his own murder. It’s got everything you could ask for in a detective book: A good mystery! A complicated romance! Neo-noir vibes occupy every page of this book, not in a way that makes it seem try-hard, but in a way where it absolutely earns and owns it.
Before getting into the story, it’s imperative to talk about the art, because my god, this has to be up there as some of the best comic art ever done. Greg Smallwood is a $&! !@$& legend, and every time I flip through the pages of the book, I can’t help but stare in awe all over again, like magic before my eyes. It’s ethereal, the way every single panel fits in a rectangle, even the ones that utilize the negative space of the page. The sequencing of it all, especially when the camera keeps zooming in until the frame fills with nothing but a character’s face – or lips – creates that sense of intimacy so personal, where even without the words, you know exactly what they’re saying, what they’re feeling.
Everyone here is so gorgeous, especially Fire and Ice. One of Smallwood’s strengths, really. They look like they were taken right out of a pulp magazine cover, except instead of just a cover, here they are, page after page, a treat to your eyes, to the soul. Every time they show up, you’re entranced, in a spell, chained to where you are, bound to keep reading – just so you can take another look at that pretty face. It’s incredibly charming.
The colors! It’s like technicolor, the way he uses warm and cold hues to illuminate every scene. There’s never a moment where the book looks dull or boring by resorting to realistic colors, instead always sticking to what fits the scene more than anything. There’s not a single instance of gradients or the like, instead using rectangles for the shades of colors, uniform in a straight line through a body, just like the rest of the book’s composition. The other technique he uses for shading and to create depth is texture. Every face, every cloth, every item, and every location has a different texture ingrained into it that immediately makes it feel richer as a result. Truly career-defining work from Smallwood.
When it comes to the story, The Human Target is one that grew on me. To this point, I’ve read the book thrice: once, when it was ongoing, I dropped it at issue 3 because I figured, as with every Tom King book, I enjoy it better when I binge it. The second time was when every issue came out. I sat down and read through all twelve issues in one sitting. Upon my initial read, I had gripes, but as I talked about the book and time passed – my love for it grew. My third and most recent read before writing this review allowed me to process those thoughts, see if they actually meant something, and if I do love this book as much as I thought I did, and as it turns out, I do.
At its core, past the drama, past the mystery, this book is deeply romantic. The tragic love story of Chance and Tora. The love Tora has for the Justice League International, for her friends. Chance’s messed up love for being the first line of defense, the guy willing to take the bullet. It’s that love that encapsulates this entire book, that throughline that passes through every single issue from beginning to end, that pulls you in and doesn’t let go until the very end.
Every single issue is a day in the life, leading up to the eventual 12th day, and aside from the first and last issue, focusing on one specific member of the Justice League International. These focuses range from simple conversations to full-blown one-on-ones, all while having the reminder that Chance is living on borrowed time. It’s spectacularly paced, having a mystery that continues to build layers, not in that way of pulling something out of left field and expecting the audience to roll with it, but in a way that makes complete sense once you see the bigger picture. My favorite of the issues is easily the Batman one. It’s a kind of Batman story we never quite get, where it deals with the pressure of his mere idea, and it’s brilliantly executed from beginning to end. I quite love it.
There are so many moving parts in every issue – building up the romance, building up the mystery while also giving us more of an insight into Chance’s life and his backstory and yet King manages to balance all of these aspects expertly, giving everything ample breathing time so no issue ever feels too crowded.
To refer to something a few paragraphs ago, when I mentioned that King’s books are better on a binge, I didn’t mean that these issues – or as the book calls them – chapters – feel incomplete. They all have a coherent story from beginning to end, with their own buildups and payoffs, the way any serialized story should. Within that sense, the pacing of the chapters is perfect too – it just boils down to personal preference for me.
The grawlix used can be detrimental to the book at times. Sometimes it works when the book tries to be comedic and emulate older comics. But there are other moments, especially emotional ones, where the characters are swearing and understand what the swearing is – and you do! But seeing the grawlix still breaks the immersion somewhat, and considering that it is a Black Label title, I don’t see why they couldn’t mix and match. Having the profanity there on the page at times instead would have greatly benefitted the impact of certain moments, and it’s a shame it wasn’t there.
Speaking of lettering, Clayton Cowles kills it here. This book might be his magnum opus too, the same way it is for Smallwood. Narrations and thoughts are in white rectangles, sometimes on the border of panels to blend in with negative spaces. Words spoken are in white bubbles, with sharp trails that connect them back to the speaker. Sound effects, depending on the context, can be of contrasting or complementary colours to the action at hand, but the way they’re just as reminiscent of that old pulp style, the art takes me out in a good way. It’s amazing.
When I sat down for this re-read, every few pages I’d get up, walk around the room a little, squeeze the bridge of my nose, take a deep breath, and go “Damn. This is a real book.” In a lot of ways, it’s unbelievable to me that it exists – such a perfect harmony of writer-artist-letterer in a way that’s very rare in the Big Two space. As a fan of the original JLI fan too, I was sold on the interpretations of these characters by the series’ end. After all, it’s not in the ‘canon’, and it’s an interesting examination of these characters, especially within a more mature tone.
I adore this book, this entire review has been just me hyping it up, but yeah, I truly do. It’s a book that I’d give to someone looking to get into comics. It absolutely deserved the Eisner – what a killer title. Please, give this a chance and go in with an open mind. I promise, even if you don’t love everything here, there’s bound to be at least something you connect with, because that’s what good art does. It makes you feel.