Sunday, October 31, 2010

Human Target #2 (Miniseries)

The second issue of the Human Target miniseries begins with a splash page right where the cliffhanger from issue one left us. Chance, the real Chance (we can tell because he’s wearing the trenchcoat) looks out the hotel window and shouts, “I think she’s gone!” (29) It’s a very effective splash page, with detailed architecture surrounding the area, populated with people enjoying the night. Biukovic brings L.A. to life. And the crescent moon is really well done, well-colored and with a subtle but effective glow effect by miniseries colorist Lee Loughridge.

At the top of the splash, we can see Emerald hiding on a ledge a story above. It’s fairly subtle and I remember the first time I read this, I didn’t notice her at all because my eyes moved too quickly and a I just thumbed to the next page.

The real Chance and Tom McFadden (as fake Chance) have a few moments to talk to each other a bit, and we get our first hint about their true identities. Then Emerald returns through the open window, beginning a well-executed action secquence. She pulls the real Chance out the window and the page where she and Chance tumble out the side of the hotel has a beautifully fractured layout.

I can’t stress enough how impressed I am with Biukovic’s artwork in this miniseries. He really comes through. It’s enough to me that his style appeals to my sensibilities but his storytelling is crisp and his layouts are exciting and actually add to the subtext. His characters are wonderfully expressive, not just in their facial expressions, but with their body language as well. Just look at Emerald in this hotel sequence. Biukovic effortlessly depicts her as sexy, and then pretending to be helpless, and then lethal. Biukovic excels whether it’s two people in a room talking or an explosive action scene. In this issue we get to see Emerald at her “other” life, that of a typical suburbanite mom with a husband and daughter. Biukovic draws a very cute little girl and pet cat.

It’s a shame that the artist passed away some time after illustrating Human Target. But the work he left us is something we can appreciate and enjoy for years to come.

At this point I feel morally obligated to point out a very entertaining line that the real Chance says, as he and Emerald face off in the streets. Wielding a knife he picked up from an outdoor café they stumbled into, Chance says, “In my former unreconstructed days, I might have balked at using a steak knife on a lady. So you can thank the feminist movement for your demise.” (32) I don’t know why, but I find that line very funny.

Later on, Chance and Tom (looking like he naturally looks), meet up and talk. Chance describes how the job of impersonating can eat at one’s soul and how one’s identity becomes “polluted.” (37) Interestingly, we learn through their conversation that Chance doesn’t like being touched during sexual acts. When Tom was impersonating Chance at the hotel, he told Emerald just about the same. Chance, however, never told Tom that dirty little detail. Rather, Tom intuits it himself; it’s a hint for us that Tom may be just as talented as Chance himself, if not moreso.

Another important part of the issue is when we see the real, actual Reverend Earl James. He’s just received a letter from Rhea, a streetwalker with whom he had a secret affair. Apparently, she’s sold out his secret to Dee Noyz (leader of the gang of hoodlums that have been stirring up problems in the community, as seen last issue) just to get another fix.

Again, Biukovic does a masterful job with the layout on the page where Rev. James, ashamed of his transgression, decides to take the coward’s way out and end his own life. Biukovic essentially draws a full-page splash of Rev. James sitting on his bed, holding the letter in his hands. He’s looking right up at us. At the corner of the bed, there’s a suicide note he wrote for his wife, Beth.

What makes this page interesting is how Biukovic adds four more panels: one above Rev. James, one on each side of him, and one below him. The top panel is a picture of his face as he solemnly reads the letter. The left panel is a picture of his right hand holding his glasses, as he’s in obvious shock over the consequences. The right panel is a picture of his left hand crumpling Rhea’s letter in anger and frustration. The bottom panel is a picture of her letter, crumpled into a ball at his feet. The panels form a crucifix, and the original picture of Rev. James is dead in the center of the cross. It’s made all the more poignant because of the way he’s looking right at us. Narrative captions are placed tastefully in the negative space outside of the four panels.

I also want to point out how a page like this can only be done in comics. Each of the four panels shows a different breadth of action, in sequence from top to middle to bottom tier, yet the image of Rev. James in the center of the splash remains static. Our minds understand all the actions that occur in the four panels, but we also comprehend that Rev. James is stuck in the middle of it all. The page effectively captures the psyche of how the character feels boxed in by his own actions, not to mention crucified.

Chance also takes the time to see a shrink in this issue. (I think it’s something of a recurring episode with Milligan’s works, where he has characters visit shrinks. But that could just be because he enjoys writing about psychological stuff.) The shrink’s office has Warhol-like prints on his wall: paintings of the same face only in different shades of color. Again, this reiterates the themes of identity and faces.

I also like this line the shrink says: “You do that a lot, Christopher. Turn something serious into a joke. A pun.” (47) I actually feel that this is something Milligan himself tends to do in many of his works. Is he adding some commentary about himself here? I don’t know, but either way it works.

Afterwards, Chance goes to visit Tom’s wife, Becky. He mentions that he spends two thousand dollars a week seeing a therapist. When she asks him what the shrink says, Chance answers, “He wonders what I think the answer is.” (49) An obvious joke, perhaps, but to me, still a funny one.

At the end of the issue, we learn that the real Rev. James survived his self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. The doctor, however, tells his wife Bethany that even if somehow pulls through, “He might not be the person you knew.” (50) Bethany goes back to the church and her narrative captions discuss how people change themselves to relate to others; “How much,” she asks herself, “do we invent about ourselves?” (51) Again, even at the end of the issue we return again and again to the underlying themes of the series.

The cliffhanger is another interesting one, as Rev. James meets Bethany at the church. The only question is, is this Chance posing as the Reverend, or is it Tom?

Friday, October 22, 2010

An Introduction to the Retrospective Reviews of Chris Claremont

Before I start, I need to make it very clear that I am not a Chris Claremont fan. Like most kids who grew up on comics in the late eighties and early nineties, I was very aware of his contributions; not having direct access to his body of work at the time, I still found his broad plot outlines very appealing. His more notable stories were written before I was born, or before I was old enough to know what a comic book was. All I had to go on were Marvel cards and articles from various magazines depicting how great his various stories were. At best all I have ever been is a theoretical fan of Chris Claremont.

Eventually, I was finally old enough to go out into the world to collect my own comics. With a limited budget, I bought comics that I knew I would like based on the only indicator I had, which was dependent on the superhero featured in the comic. I ended up pretty much sticking to Spider-Man comics. It wasn't until I entered my late pre-teen years that I was finally able to pick up a copy of "The Dark Phoenix Saga". Everything that I had ever known about it made me feel like it was the story to beat all stories, and after reading it I was pumped. Watching as the X-men take on the Imperial Guard, for the fate of their friend and the universe--it was powerful stuff, and I wanted to read more, but I found that as I read more and more of his work, I was less and less impressed. By the time I got to his “Asgardian Wars” storyline, all I could think was, This is stupid.

Since then, I have opened myself up to more comics; from mainstream publishers like Marvel and DC, to the more alternative imprints such as Vertigo. After a decade away from reading Claremont comics, and having given myself some time to mature, I have come back to Chris Claremont to see whether my opinion has changed at all.

The time away from his comics has been a good thing because they have given me a chance to re-read his stories, and hopefully approach them with a blank slate. I won't lie to you when I say that there is some bias there, especially since my last impression of a work by Christopher Claremont was a negative one. I hope now, as I read these stories as an adult, that I can do one of two things: rediscover something about these classic stories that have endeared them to so many comics fans; or solidify my opinion of these stories and articulate what it is about these stories that bother me so much.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Human Target #1 (Miniseries)

[I’m basing my write-up on the original Human Target trade paperback (published in 2000), so page numbers refer to the numbers printed in the trade, not the issues.]

The premise of Human Target is very simple. Christopher Chance is the Human Target, a sort of bodyguard-for-hire who protects his employer by impersonating him and becoming a literal human target. Then, by being a human target, he draws out would-be assassins and eliminates them before they can do their damage. The catch is that Chance isn’t just a master of disguise; no, he impersonates people so well that he becomes them and thinks like them to the point where even their close friends and loved ones couldn’t tell the difference. The downside to Chance’s talents is that constantly switching identities has fractured his own psyche to a degree, and he is a man in search of an identity that he can claim as his own.

(It’s my understanding that the Fox TV series ignores most of this premise entirely and that Chance is just a bodyguard and doesn’t become other people. I have not watched the show, and I have no real desire to go out of my way to do so. It seems like the TV show took away everything that makes Human Target unique, so I don’t see the point of it.)

One of the hallmarks of Peter Milligan’s work is how so ably draws in the reader right from the get-go. Most of his best comics have outstanding first issues, and I would go so far as to say he writes the best first pages in comics. The very first page of the story is, for my money, one of the most striking first pages I’ve ever read, with some memorable narration:

“Who am I? I am a reputation. I am a grainy photograph of a man with dark bullet holes instead of eyes. I am a severed penis stuffed into a dying mouth. I am a person you come to if you want someone dead.” (4)

The imagery of those words stays with me. It’s harsh and matter-of-fact, but not necessarily without some degree of irony.

Edvin Biukovic’s art complements the text by setting the tone. The way the “camera” slowly pans out to reveal the iconic Hollywood sign is a very cinematic trick, and then we quickly jump right into an action movie on paper, with a masked figure swinging into a casino while firing a submachine gun into the crowd. Is Milligan making some sort of comparison between the identity of comics versus the identity of film? I don’t really know if that’s intentional, but I do think, with this first page, he addresses the main theme of identity.

By the time we get to the second page of the story, the narrator turns out not to be Christopher Chance, the titular Human Target, as one might expect. Instead, the gunman narrator turns out to be a woman, a female contract killer named Emerald, as we soon learn.

On page 6, we’re introduced to Christopher Chance for the first time, although it’s not spelled out completely because he is wearing a white facemask and sitting across from someone who looks exactly like Christopher Chance.

What could easily be a simple splash page of his face is instead broken up into six panels, with each panel essentially providing a cross-section of his face. It’s a very nice artistic choice, as it shows a fractured face, an obvious metaphor for a fractured identity, which is one of the things Chance struggles with throughout the entire run of Human Target. Dividing the page up into panels also allows for clarity in terms of the flow of the dialogue and placement of the word balloons. Everything flows so cleanly that it’s easy to read and follow even though there are lots of words on the page. We also see Chance’s eyes very clearly, and you know what they say about eyes being a window to the soul, right?

(The dialogue and imagery in this scene is reminiscent of another Milligan work, Face, which was a Vertigo one-shot illustrated by one of Milligan’s most frequent collaborators, Duncan Fegredo. Human Target and Face are but two of Milligan’s stories that involve some sort of plastic surgery and changing of identities.)

I also really like how Chance’s office is decorated with tribal masks. Biukovic was a good enough artist that the masks are clearly visible elements of subtext but there’s still enough subtlety that we don’t feel like we’re eating hamfisted sandwiches.

In the next scene, we meet Reverend Earl James, a black pastor in a rough neighborhood. We soon surmise that this is Chance impersonating James. As we continue to read this miniseries, we learn that this is a clever trick on Milligan’s part, and that the person we think is Chance is actually a man named Tom McFadden, who was Chance’s protégé. (To clarify: Rev. James in this scene is actually Tom. We only think he’s Chance.)

On page 9, “James” makes a passing remark, saying, “If a little truth gets twisted in order to tell a bigger truth, so be it.” The line is a nice, succinct summation of Milligan’s goals for the series.

The plot’s interesting enough, as Rev. James has been threatened by local gangbangers for trying to clean up the neighborhood. Therefore, the Human Target takes James’ place during a shootout during a Sunday service. There’s a scene where the gangbangers take some of the more older members of the congregation as hostages, only to see the tables turn as the hostages turn out to not be helpless. With the help of “Rev. James” they overcome the gangbangers. It’s another way for Milligan to remind us that appearances are deceiving.

Other things we learn in this first issue: Chance lives in L.A. It’s a nice touch because L.A. is a city associated with artificiality, lies, deception, being fake, and acting in roles. In fact, “Chance” (in quotation marks because we later learn that this is actually Tom McFadden playing the role of Chance in very accurate fashion) even says, in a narration caption, “Besides, L.A. suits me. It has a pleasing devotion to artificiality.” (21)

We also meet Bruno, a restaurant owner and Chance’s good friend and confidante. He’s sort of Chance’s unofficial agent, and in later stories he is often responsible for getting Chance involved in various cases.

I also want to take the time to point out Milligan’s humorous side. One of the reasons he is one of my favorite writers is because I greatly appreciate his wit. There’s an amusing scene when “Chance” is at Bruno’s restaurant and picks up a woman, who is actually Emerald.

“Chance”: Excuse me. I’d like to join you for dinner. Though to be honest I am seeing this as a prelude to a night of sexual intercourse.

Emerald (smiling): Keep your voice down, please. I have my reputation to think of. (22)

The two engage in foreplay in some hotel room before Emerald tries to shoot him in the head. Before she pulls the trigger, the man in the white facemask, the REAL Chance, shoots the gun out of her hand. She escapes out a window to lick her wounds while the real Chance takes off the mask and reveals himself to the fake Chance.

It’s a great cliffhanger because at the end of it, we’re left wondering which Chance is legit. (Of course, I mean that if one were reading the story for the first time. I guess I’m spoiling it a bit.)

This is a great way to end a first issue. The characters, the plots, and the overall storyarc are all introduced in an even fashion, and with a fairly high degree of prestidigitation involved. Though not everything is spelled out plainly, the story is told strongly enough, with a very strong sense of craft, that a first-time reader can have confidence in the creative team to provide the pay off in the end.

Friday, October 8, 2010

A Brief Intro to Peter Milligan

I feel like there isn’t a whole lot I can write about Peter Milligan in terms of providing an introduction to the man. I mean, his Wikipedia entry provides a good overview of his works.

As far was the man himself, I’ve never met the dude. His internet presence isn’t as large as, say, Warren Ellis, and he’s not as famous as guys like Grant Morrison. Still, you can do a Google search and find some interesting interviews and such. Most of his interviews are about his work. I don’t really know much about him, the person; I only know what I can glean from reading his work.

Instead, I’ll just tell you why I enjoy his writing so much that I’ve been inspired to make a blog dedicated to covering as much of his bibliography as I can.

I didn’t discover Peter Milligan until fairly late in the game. When I was a kid, he had a brief run on Detective Comics, one that I’ve since owned, read, enjoyed, and appreciated, but at the time it was current I was oblivious. I was more into Marvel’s comics at the time, and by the time I became interested in Batman he had left DC’s flagship title. It wasn’t until I was in college, probably around 2002 or 2003 when I was getting back full swing into reading comics that I became a huge fan of his work.

The first Milligan comic I consciously remember reading was The Extremist. The Extremist was a four issue Vertigo miniseries which was originally published in 1993. I found it during my college years at the local comics shop in Davis. I picked it up because all four issues were being sold as a two dollar lot. The covers have really striking Ted McKeever artwork, kind of a grimy, subtly sexual image of the Extremist, which to my mind at the time, looked sort of like an offbeat and rather twisted version of a postmodern superhero costume. I bought the comics because the group of them was two bucks. I entered a world of fetishism and psychoanalysis, with revenge and coldness at the very heart of its core.

The Extremist blew my mind, and ever since then, I’ve been doing my best to look out for anything with Peter Milligan’s name on it. (By the way, I understand that DC is reprinting these issues as part of their “Vertigo Resurrected” initiative. Look for it in the coming months!)

From The Extremist, I moved on to his other works such as X-Force/X-Statix, Enigma, Skreemer, Egypt, and, of course, Shade, the Changing Man. I’ve since gone on to track down as much of his comics as I humanly could. A number of his older or more obscure works still elude me; I know I’m missing a lot of his ‘80s British comics, a few random one-shots he did in the ‘90s, and likely some short stories he’s done for various independents or anthologies. I’ve also never read Hewligan’s Haircut, his collaboration with Jamie Hewlett (creator of Tank Girl and Gorillaz). I’m also slightly lagging behind in some of his current output, as I wait to look for cheap deals. (His Hellblazer work, for example, I have yet to fully read as I wait for the trade paperback collections. The same goes for the recently begun After Dark for Radical Comics.)

There’s a whole lot I like about Peter Milligan’s writing. He sort of came to prominence during the British Invasion of the ‘80s. While he certainly doesn’t have the recognition that peers such as Morrison or Neil Gaiman have, he is a writer on par with anyone. I think the reason he doesn’t have the recognition of other famous U.K. writers like Morrison, Ellis, Garth Ennis, et al. is because when he has tackled mainstream superhero properties, they have either somewhat flopped or were totally under the radar.

I won’t deny that his creator-owned work and his Vertigo work put much of his superhero work to shame. However, I also feel that a lot of his superhero stuff is unfairly maligned at times. Even X-Force/X-Statix, which was probably his most acclaimed “mainstream” (in quotation marks because it was sort of a Vertigo-ization of an X-Men franchise book) had its share of foolish detractors. Yet to me, a huge Milligan fan, even his lesser works are fascinating because I view all his comics in the broader context of his entire career. It’s fun to see what sort of themes and ideas crop up time and time again, even in the comics where he could simply be writing to cash a check and pay his rent.

At some point, I’d like to discuss those “unloved” books. Books like Infinity Inc., Toxin: The Devil You Know, Wolverine/Punisher, and his run on the actual X-Men title. I have a few random issues of his Elektra series from the ‘90s lying around somewhere. I even own the comics adaptation of The Punisher movie (the one with Tom Jane and John Travolta) he wrote. (Spoiler: it’s not better than the movie.) (But I hope he enjoyed a month’s rent off of that work.)

But, to begin, I’d like to start off with some write-ups of one of his better-known works: Human Target.

Human Target, like Shade, the Changing Man, was an old DC Comics character that Milligan dusted off and revised in the late ‘90s and early 2000’s. I’ve never read any of the original Human Target comics, so I have no particular loyalty to it, but Milligan’s version of the character is likely the definitive take.

I’ve chosen to begin with Human Target because it’s one of Milligan’s more renowned works, and is currently being reprinted by Vertigo in new trade paperback editions. Though the ongoing series was canceled before it had fully run its course, Milligan had the foresight to prepare for such an eventuality and did wrap up his storylines. Through Christopher Chance, the titular human target, and sundry other characters in the series, Milligan explored the facets of identity and psychological being, probably some of his favorite themes. It’s very strong work all around and his artists throughout were top quality.

Also, there’s a TV show on Fox based on the Human Target, so I figured the time is ripe. With the brand name out there, the title’s profile is about as high as it’s ever been. People might actually be interested in reading Human Target comics, so they might be interested in reading someone write about Human Target comics.