THIS WEEK: Tom King & Greg Smallwood’s DC Black Label series, The Human Target, reaches its conclusion.
Note: the review below contains spoilers. If you want a quick, spoiler-free buy/pass recommendation on the comic in question, check out the bottom of the article for our final verdict.
The Human Target #12
Writer: Tom King
Artist: Greg Smallwood
Letterer: Clayton Cowles
Cover Artist: Greg Smallwood
From the first issue of Tom King, Greg Smallwood, and Clayton Cowles’s The Human Target, readers have known how it would end – or, at least how it would end for its titular character. Christopher Chance was doomed from the moment he drank poison intended for Lex Luthor, and the investigation into just who his killer is has driven the series forward, each issue covering the span of one day left in Chance’s life. With the killer question answered as of last issue, all that’s left for The Human Target #12 is for Chance to die.
This final issue of the series could have lingered on Chance’s final day on Earth, and it would probably have made for a relatively satisfying ending to the series. But it’s here that King and Smallwood choose to break format from the rest of the series, instead presenting not just the final moments of Chance’s life but the days and weeks that followed for the woman who has been his companion and lover throughout the series, Tora Olafsdotter, aka Ice of the Justice League International.
The format change-up is a smart way to give readers what they’ve known was coming all along in an unexpected way, and in a way that feels like getting more story than originally anticipated. The issue also nicely builds on what readers learned about Ice in the series’ penultimate issue, both in terms of her actions and her personality. This may be the most fascinating presentation ever for Ice, and hopefully some (though I would imagine not all) aspects of her characterization here will translate from Black Label into the mainline version of the character.
The conclusion of The Human Target is a bittersweet one, and not just in terms of the story or the characters. Over the course of eleven issues Greg Smallwood has put on a masterclass in visual storytelling, and his work on this final issue of the series is no different. Even when working within the confines of a nine-panel grid, one of the now-staples of King’s work, Smallwood’s panel composition is deft. Characters and objects creep artfully in and out of frame, Smallwood concisely giving the reader enough to know what they need to know while still keeping things visually interesting. The series is an incredible achievement for the artist, and with no word yet on what his next project will be it’s also sad to think that there won’t be another comic from Smallwood for at least a few months. Hopefully that wait won’t be too long.
I’m the first to admit that The Human Target didn’t immediately hook me. I’ve seen 1950’s D.O.A., and I’d never felt the desire to read a superhero-infused remake of that story. Happily, though, King, Smallwood, and Cowles won me over through sharp, interesting characterization, a few solid twists, Smallwood’s striking artwork, and a resolution that’s supremely satisfying. It’s been a slow burn of a series, and one that I look forward to revisiting in hopefully a handsome hardcover collection now that it’s over.
Final Verdict: BUY.
- It’s a week of endings and debuts from DC. Back in the mainline universe, Batman vs. Robin #5 wraps up both the miniseries from Mark Waid, Mahmud Asrar, Jordie Bellaire, and Steve Wands, and the recently-concluded Lazarus Planet event-within-the-event. This series has been wildly entertaining, and the finale is no different, a perfect blend of big superhero action and all the heart one expects from a Waid-written story. Batman’s revival is sure to split readers, but this reviewer loved it as a perfect example of Waid blending old-school concepts with modern storytelling sensibilities. #WeAreBatman
- Writer Stephanie Phillips wraps her run on Harley Quinn with this week’s issue #27. As someone who’s never been a huge fan of the character, Phillips’s work on the series turned me around, presenting Harley as a well-rounded individual and building out her supporting cast with interesting friends and foes. Phillips’s final arc has seen Harley team with other Harleys from across the multiverse, and this issue wraps things up nicely, with all the humor and heart that Phillips has brought to the series from the beginning. There’s also a nice thread throughout about endings that feels almost Grant Morrisonian in its execution.
- And now for something completely different, DC/RWBY #1 kicks off a crossover between the DC Universe and the titular team from the RWBY animated series. I’ll be completely honest: I had no idea what RWBY was until I just googled it. If you’d told me it was a video game or mascots for cereal I would probably have believed you. But the fact that I don’t know anything about the characters or the concept is a testament to the strength of Marguerite Bennett, Meghan Hetrick, Marissa Louise, and Morgan Martinez‘s work on this issue. The team presents a story that’s both a ripping good Batman comic and that’s accessible for RWBY newbies, introducing each member of the team clearly and interestingly. I look forward to learning more about them as this series progresses.
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I just don’t get the Tom King love. From “Adam Strange” to “Mister Miracle” to “Human Target” to the just-launched new series starring The Warlord and other 1970s characters, King just seems intent on taking really great DC characters/concepts and not just de-constructing them like he’s Alan Moore and this is the 1980s, but insisting they or other characters in the books are anything but heroic and dragging them through the mud for the sake of some sort of realism/drama. And I get this is all Black Label so it’s not the MAIN DC line and the versions of these characters that I like are still, technically, around/viable. But it’s a shame that King seems to have a “lock” on utilizing DC’s lesser-used characters. I’d much rather have a really cool sci-fi series starring Adam Strange, or an Ed Brubaker-style noir with Human Target in DC’s main line. In a way these are all Elseworlds-style books, but the line between Black Label and DC’s main books doesn’t seem as stark as it was when Elseworlds was a thing. And I think that means, unfortunately, that King’s work on these characters leaves too strong an impression on readers who now won’t accept a heroic Adam Strange book, for example. Or prevents DC from even considering reviving Adam Strange or Mister Miracle or the Warlord in its main line anytime soon.
I couldn’t agree with Brian more. To me, King is a perfect example of The Emperor’s New Comics. He’s like Aaron Sorkin (and I do not mean this as a compliment to either man) in that he’s glib and facile and gives the impression that what he’s writing has meaning and substance but is ultimately empty. He’s a terrible writer who gets by on high concepts. His series all grow weaker, repetitive, and more incoherent as they progress, and all ultimately add up to nothing. Beyond the fantastic — and ultimately distracting — artwork by Smallwood, this series is mediocre at best and terrible at worst. Why DC continues to let him crap all over its characters is more a tribute to King’s ability to sweet talk editors than it is to his facility (I cannot call it a talent) for writing.
“The emperor’s new clothes” is possibly the laziest criticism ever— it’s fine to dislike something but suggesting that people who do like it are only pretending to like it for social acceptance is super insulting.
The fact is that King keeps getting these gigs because they receive critical acclaim and sell decently. Nobody says that means you have to like it, but stop insulting folks who do.
Another vote for the emperor’s new clothes.
Tom King often utilizes interesting DC characters. I am intrigued so I jump on. The stories often start out well. Then King seems to not have enough story to fill out the allocated issues. The stories drag or become repetitive. The openings of his story arcs are always stronger than his endings. I end up excited for the ride in the beginning, enjoying the ride in the middle and then bored and disappointed by the end. Such was the case with the Human Target. The series had so much unmined potential, but King had the Human Target spend a great deal of the series drinking or in bed with Ice. I’m not saying I would have handled my impending death differently, but it became boring after a while. Greg Smallwood’s art was great especially given the 9-panel constraints that King seems to have put on him! But Tom King isn’t going to fool me again. This series, like the Human Target in this issue, died an unnecessary, meaningless death.
Hm, I’m curious about the unmined potential in the premise. What did the story seem like it was going to be about that it didn’t follow through on?
From Lyle’s Movie Files’ review: “What’s been the biggest issue with this entire maxi-series was King’s desire to drag the Justice League International into this messy storyline. Sure, sure it’s a Black Label story and doesn’t count, but why bother using characters that look and occasionally act like the JLI just to make such reprehensible versions of them?”
BOOM. What IS the point? I have a hard time understanding how anyone who loves the original Giffen/DeMatteis/Macguire JLI and was drawn to this book for that reason would come away impressed.
And that’s what perplexes me about why critics/readers still gravitate to King. My assumption is in some way/shape/form those who read his work are fans of the characters – The Human Target, the JLI, Adam Strange, Mister Miracle, Warlord, etc.
But when those characters are written SO unappealingly, WHAT is the draw? Why is that worthy of critical praise and of your time and money? Do you come at this as a fancy and expensive “What If” experience?
When the right creator is matched with the right character(s), it can be magic. Grant Morrison on the Doom Patrol and Animal Man, John Ostrander on the Spectre and Suicide Squad, Jerry Ordway on Shazam, etc. Heck, I thought Peter Mulligan did a great job on the Human Target back in the early 2000s.
I’m not afraid of change or of challenging storylines. But keep some semblance of the character at the heart of your stories intact.
You just described most books I read from Brian K. Vaughan, Mark Waid, Grant Morrison, Mark Millar and a bunch of supposedly modern and hip writers.
Problem is, high concepts are easy, it’s all in the execution.
Boy do I miss Edmond Hamilton, Gardner Fox, John Broome and yes, even Bob Haney ;)
Sadly, it’s human nature that as adults we come to despise the things that we loved as kids.
Now it’s DC’s corporate responsibility as IP owners to tolerate it or not.
Sometimes, rarely, it’s done right (the current Harley Quinn cartoon comes to mind, or the Saved By the Bell sequel), most of the time it isn’t.
I’m probably not a great example here because I’m a fan of all of those characters and a fan of King’s writing, so both are factors, plus the fact that King books are drawn by the best in the business, bring me to a title like Human Target in the first place.
I do think the juxtaposition of reader’s expectations of how the JLI should be written and the kind of narrative King created in this book is part of the appeal, or at least the game. Taking the basic concept from the film D.O.A. and skinning it with the JLI lets King and Smallwood heighten and exaggerate the characters we know from the comics to see how they play in a noir-ish setting, but without really changing too much. So, Ice, the character every reader had a crush on, becomes the femme fatale that the noir hero falls for. Guy Gardner become the loutish boyfriend/hardcase…a different shade of his older characterization. Booster is the dupe, Martian Manhunter is the compromised cop, etc. I like seeing them in this story because they’re both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. I guess I’d say I don’t read the characters here as unappealing – troubled and flawed, yes, but ultimately trying to do the right thing. Or the wrong thing, for the right reasons.
But that also points to a larger publishing issue, I think. Human Target is the only book you can go to for a fix of the JLI characters right now – Guy is kind of in Green Lantern and sometimes pops up in event books, Booster shows up here and there and will probably get a a new series to go along with the new movie, J’onn is relegated to cameo status even in the Justice League book (when there is a Justice League book…) So if the slightly exaggerated take doesn’t click for you (which I totally understand) there isn’t another outlet for a different kind of take. Modern DC gives you a whole lot of Batman and the supporting cast, dribs and drabs of the rest. At least in a comic like Danger Street you get to see the Creeper and Warlord doing more than just standing in the background of a group shot during a crossover.
@AB. Thanks for the thoughtful response! I was thinking exactly that – fans of Batman/Superman/Wonder Woman often have several different books/projects to choose from on the shelves during a given month. So if one particular story/writer/creative team doesn’t fit their taste, they will likely have (or soon have) another option, even if it’s a limited series or a stand alone special project.
I resent how much work King gets because, although he had a long run on Batman, his current MO seems to be doing deep dives and building stories around exactly the lesser known DC characters that I love, but stories that are a real turn off to me.
It’s very frustrating to be, say, a big fan of Adam Strange, only to have the one meaty mini-series about that character that has come along in years be, in my opinion, so dark and lousy and off-putting.
I can appreciate that readers like yourself enjoy a different spin on these characters.
But you’re right that I would rather have another outlet besides King.
And, as I said in my first post, I also worry that, given these characters are not DC’s top ones, that it will be YEARS before another writer touches them/the publisher green lights a new project involving them once King has done – again in my opinion – his damage.
I also contrast King with someone like James Robinson. Although he hasn’t been writing comics for some time, I still think of Robinson as one of the best creators for taking a little-used/known character and putting a modern spin on them WITHOUT jettisoning the “soul” of that character.
His “Starman” run did such a wonderful job mining DC’s continuity and, even if it was a brief one panel or couple page cameo, reviving all sorts of forgotten heroes from the past.
Morrison and Waid also do a great job of that.
Those are the kinds of stories I so badly want to see written about the characters King has been focusing on, but King has proven to me at least that he has no interest or is not the author to do that.
You all make some really points. I was hoping this book would be a sophisticated mystery involving a nuanced look at characters that I enjoy reading about. For about the first 8 issues, Human Target was at the top of my reading pile. The last 4, not so much. I thought the resolution of the mystery was weak. The easy part is setting up a mystery (locked room, etc.). The hard part is writing the mystery’s conclusion and this is where I felt let down by King, as I felt with Heroes in Crisis. I also didn’t see any nuance to the JLI characters. King just gave us a less likeable PG13-rated version of what we already had. I am interested in many of the characters King writes about and hope DC gives someone else a shot a them. Taking a cue from JC above, maybe I’ll go read a classic Bob Haney tale!
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