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.

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