THIS WEEK: Writer Tom King and artist Greg Smallwood deliver Human Target #1, an impossibly-stylish comic book that delivers some of the best DC Comics artwork of the year, wrapped in an intriguing mystery. Plus, Dark Knights of Steel #1 brings superheroes to high fantasy.
Note: This piece contains spoilers. If you want a quick, spoiler-free buy/pass recommendation on the comics in question, check out the bottom of the article for our final verdicts.
Writer: Tom King
Artist: Greg Smallwood
Letterer: Clayton Cowles
I’ll just get right to the point here: I really enjoyed Human Target #1, which is great because now I can write “this comic hits the bullseye!” and “this really is a book that doesn’t miss!” Anyway, thank you for bearing with me while I got that out of my system. The point here is that this really is a strong first issue, driven primarily by artist Greg Smallwood delivering a set of sequential art that is among the best to appear in any monthly comic this year, right up there with another recent DC book, Cliff Chiang’s recent Catwoman – Lonely City #1.
Smallwood, of course, does not deliver bad comics art. His recent work — be it the intriguing run of Moon Knight penned by Jeff Lemire (which is an interesting comp to this book, albeit one best left to discussion on a future day…) or the pulpy horror romp Vampironica — has been as interesting as it is assured. Yet, somehow the Smallwood artwork in this book still feels like a level up, and it’s always special when an artist who has seemingly been operating at the top-tier of their craft finds another gear.
With that in mind, my thought process after finishing this comic was certainly dominated by wondering just what made this book feel so elevated, and I think it has to do with risk. What Smallwood does in this book is bold and unexpected throughout. These audacious choices start with the aesthetic, which feels a bit untethered in time. It’s certainly an homage to bygone eras of comics and American fashions, yet it doesn’t box itself in to any one period. Smallwood’s stylistic choices in this comic borrow some of the best bits of 1950s menswear, some of the most forward-facing design work of the 1970s, and some touches from both comics’ Silver and Bronze Ages.
And all of that is just my own crude guessing at the recipe (Smallwood himself has shared plenty of additional visual inspirations on Twitter, from aged mystery paperback covers to the backgrounds from 101 Dalmatians). Smallwood borrows from so many rich traditions, finding connections between them that aren’t readily apparent and ultimately using them all to fashion a sort of immersive pop art sheen that never once sacrifices sequential storytelling to the point it beings to feel static. It’s truly stunning work, and it upraises every last page of this comic.
I could write 500 more words about the art and coloring in this comic, but there is of course a script and story in this book, too. Put simply, Human Target #1 is my favorite debut issue by writer Tom King in ages. I’ve taken issue in the past with the way some of his mystery stories are structured, specifically the way that both Heroes in Crisis and Strange Adventures deliver mysteries that withhold crucial basic information and rely on extreme audience disorientation, rather than giving readers a set of facts and a main character through which to follow them as they unravel.
In Human Target #1, King’s script gives us a close first-person perspective that puts the audience right alongside his main character. We know what the titular Human Target, Christopher Chance, knows. When Chance is confused about something, so are we. It’s straightforward and clear, allowing the intrigue around the actual mystery to do the work of compelling us forward (that mystery being who tried to kill Lex Luthor). On top of that, King leans into a spare, noir-influenced voice in this book that bounces playfully back and forth with the aesthetic. Even when the captions repeat beat for beat what we’re seeing on the page, it’s rendered in hard-boiled quick hits that add to the tone, much like the voiceover in a smoky detective noir film.
So yes, I enjoyed Human Target #1 quite a bit. This is, however, an introductory chapter, and it remains to be scene what the true scope and thematic interests of this 12-part series actually are. The hook here felt nigh-perfect, though, and I’m curious to see where it’s all headed. The end of the book starts to move more toward what the series seems to really be about — one of the Justice League International is the likely culprit — and we so far know very little past that. Still, if the artwork for the rest of the series remains this strong, the floor here is a very solid one
- The ongoing Fear State event, driven by the main Batman title, remains excellent, as do some of the auxiliary comics coming out of that. This week, for example, we have Arkham City: The Order of the World #2, which is an experimental take on Gotham City rooted in quality direct market indie comics of the highest order. Yes, DC Comics publishes a ton of Batman, but those Batman (and Batman-adjacent books) are rewarding and varied.
- Have you ever wished that the DC Comics Universe was actually a high fantasy story that drew loosely from existing mythos? Well friend, your ship has finally (and improbably!) come in with this week’s Dark Knights of Steel #1, which is exactly what that is. If you’re not interested in that as a concept, this book is probably not for you. Whatever your predisposition, interior art and colors by Yasmine Putri are a wonderful thing.
- The other book I quite enjoyed this week was the Batman/Superman and the Authority Special #1. The recently-concluded Superman and the Authority miniseries (penned by the great Grant Morrison) was predictably excellent, but with this book the concept passes to other creators, who do it justice. And while I can’t yet talk about the story arc launching next week in Action Comics with many of these same characters minus Batman due to an embargo, I will conclude here by saying I am very excited about all things Superman and the (new) Authority right now.
- Finally, we’re five issues out of six into Batman Reptilian, and I still don’t really know what this book’s deal is, which maybe that’s on me but that’s just where I’m at with this one.
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