Hi, and welcome to Comics You Should Own, a semi-regular series about comics I think you should own. I began writing these a little over fifteen years ago, and I’m still doing it, because I dig writing long-form essays about comics. I republished my early posts, which I originally wrote on my personal blog, at Comics Should Be Good about ten years ago, but since their redesign, most of the images have been lost, so I figured it was about time I published these a third time, here on our new blog. I plan on keeping them exactly the same, which is why my references might be a bit out of date and, early on, I don’t write about art as much as I do now. But I hope you enjoy these, and if you’ve never read them before, I hope they give you something to read that you might have missed. I’m planning on doing these once a week until I have all the old ones here at the blog. Today let’s take a look at a weird comic that managed to spawn a somewhat decent television show. This post was originally published on 8 March 2009. As always, you can click on the images to see them better. Enjoy!
Human Target by Peter Milligan (writer), Edvin Biuković (artist, mini-series), Javier Pulido (artist, graphic novel; issues #1-5, 11-13, 18; colorist, issues #11, 18), Cliff Chiang (artist, issues #6-10, 14-16, 19-21), Cameron Stewart (artist, issue #17), Lee Loughridge (colorist, mini-series; issues #1-3, 6-10, 14-17, 19-21), Dave Stewart (colorist, graphic novel), Javier Rodriguez (colorist, issues #4-5, 12-13), Robert Solanović (letterer, mini-series), Todd Klein (letterer, graphic novel), and Clem Robins (letterer, issues #1-21).
Published by DC/Vertigo, 25 issues (4-issue mini-series, 21-issue ongoing) + 1 graphic novel (Human Target: Final Cut), cover dated April – July 1999 (mini-series), 2002 (Final Cut), October 2003 – June 2005 (ongoing).
In response to a comment or two from the last post, I am going to try to keep the spoilers to a minimum. As Christopher Chance is a DC property and not a Milligan one, I will reveal that he doesn’t die at the end of this series. Sorry, bloodthirsty people! I’m sure you’ll let me know if I do a poor job with this. That’s why I love you guys! [Edit: I told you people were grumpy with me about my Hitman post! I tried to find the comments that took me to task, but the Wayback Machine is spotty at preserving things, and it just missed the date when I posted this. The refurbished post on the “new” blog killed all the comments, of course, so I can’t remember what was said, but people were upset!]
I’ve written about quite a few Peter Milligan comics in this series, mainly because he’s very good (unless he’s writing Elektra or the X-Men) and also because it just happens that a lot of his titles have come up in the alphabet so far. As we’ve seen, Milligan is extremely interested with identity in his comics, and this series, obviously, gave him a venue to pursue that theme. More than perhaps any comic he’s written (yes, even Shade, the Changing Man), Human Target is about identity. What’s most impressive is how Milligan manages to write so much about identity without becoming boring.
Before 1999, I had never read a Human Target comic. I have still never read anything but Milligan’s work on the character. Therefore, I know only vaguely that the character, created by Len Wein and Carmine Infantino, was somewhat of an action star/private investigator. Milligan kept that aspect – the action in these comics is fast and furious – but added the identity crisis (actually, I can’t say he added it, but he explored it more thoroughly). Throughout the series, Christopher Chance is tortured by the fact that he’s not sure who he is anymore. He has become so many people over the years that he’s gotten lost and no longer has a foundation. This becomes even more evident in the ongoing, which comes after Final Cut. At the beginning of that series, he no longer has his own face, and needs to “become” Christopher Chance through his usual process just to walk around. On top of that, he continues with his “work,” meaning he adds another layer of deceit. At the end of the series, he’s confronted by the ultimate problem – is he even Christopher Chance? In the mini-series, we’re introduced to Tom McFadden, Chance’s assistant, who goes further into the roles he plays than even Christopher. Tom returns at the end of the ongoing series, desperate to become someone else, and that someone is Christopher Chance. One of the failings of the series is that at the end of the mini-series, it seems like Tom McFadden will be okay, but the next time we see him, he’s at the end of his rope again. We can fill in the blanks, but it would have been more interesting to see how Milligan would get him to that point. In the final story, “The Stealer,” Chance and McFadden fight, not over a woman (although one is involved), but over who gets to live Chance’s life (something I’ll get back to). Milligan does a nice job keeping us guessing about whether Chance will retain even his identity.
However, just toying with Chance’s identity doesn’t make this a great comic. Milligan, interestingly enough, is terribly unsubtle about Chance’s crisis. He’s constantly doubting whether he can get back to “who he is,” even though he’s not even sure anymore. In Final Cut, he falls in love with Mary White, the wife of a Hollywood producer who hires him to find his kidnapped son, and when, in the ongoing, he has another chance with Mary, he always worries how he can be with her when he doesn’t even know who he is. Milligan has shown an interest in psychiatry and how therapy can affect people in ways not intended, and he gets into this a bit in the ongoing. What makes the comic great, therefore, is not Christopher Chance’s identity crisis – it’s everyone else’s. Milligan creates a number of wonderful characters, all of them with some kind of identity problem or other. It begins and ends, of course, with Tom McFadden, who has issues throughout the mini-series and then in the final arc. But Milligan creates characters almost off-hand who become facets of the identity problem – some obvious, some not. Emerald, the assassin in the mini-series who has been hired to kill Christopher Chance, is a quiet housewife when she’s not on the job, helping her husband write a novel about a female assassin named Emerald. Milligan, interestingly, doesn’t tell us if she was inspired by the novel or if she inspired her husband (who doesn’t know about her double life). The “target” of the mini-series, the reverend Earl James, has also led a double life, although his simply involves a sexual indiscretion with a choir girl years earlier, a girl who ends up a crack whore. Milligan’s look at identity extends even to D-Noyz, the drug dealer who wants the reverend dead. His arc, ironically, is one of the more interesting in the series, as he begins, seemingly, as a minor character, but who gradually morphs into just the kind of character who shows what Milligan is doing in this series. D-Noyz wants to kill the reverend because he’s taking a stand against dealing. However, in issue #3, he speaks to a Hollywood agent about getting a television show, because he’s “street.” At the end of the issue, Rhea, the ex-choir girl who told D-Noyz about Reverend James’ infidelity, shows up at his meeting with his agent and slits her wrists. She calls him “Dennis,” his real name, and her act transforms him. He saves her by getting her to a hospital, but we see his former identity come out – Dennis knew Rhea in fifth grade, and her act brings out that innocent boy. D-Noyz still exists, but Dennis is also there, and he has to make a decision about where his life is going.
This kind of shifting between identities is present throughout. Ronan White, the kidnapped son of the Hollywood producer in Final Cut, is damaged almost beyond recognition (figuratively). As the ongoing series begins, Christopher Chance is trying to lead a “normal” life with Mary White, but even she is leading a double life, as we learn in issues #11-13. Milligan does a nice thing with the secondary characters – they’re all leading double lives, but for different reasons, each which helps illuminate the human condition. Earl James is a good minister who can’t quite come to terms with his mistakes, while Father Mike, another good minister, can’t move past his mistakes. John Matthews, who was supposed to have died on 11 September 2001, creates a new identity so that his wife can collect insurance money. Larry McGee is a baseball player on a downward trend who’s hiding a secret that comes back to haunt him when Christopher Chance comes into his life. Charlie Rivers also creates a new identity to escape his past in a radical revolutionary cell. In one of the best issues in the series, the stand-alone issue #10, Jim Grace escapes from prison, calls up Christopher Chance, and asks him for a favor before he returns to prison. It’s a lively story that completely turns our expectations about what an escaped convict might actually want. In issue #17, another single-issue story, a woman asks Christopher to help her change her identity, but she doesn’t realize the cost of that request. It’s astonishing that even as Chance is internally narrating about his identity crisis, Milligan is nicely paralleling this through all the characters in the book. Chance might not know who he is, but neither does anyone else. Chance embraces his lack of identity (reluctantly), and Milligan implies that he’s more stable than most of the people with whom he interacts, even as he’s changing his face and becoming different people, often more than once in an issue.
Milligan explores this idea of identity being linked to sanity a bit, although not as much as he might have. Milligan, interestingly enough, is a rare writer in that he shows comic book characters seeking therapy, and it’s more than just a scene – the sessions actually have a continuity. He seems to be going in this direction more, as the recently-cancelled Infinity Inc. had therapy as an important plot point. In Human Target, he puts Chance in marriage therapy with Mary White, which becomes important in the final story arc. Tom McFadden, who becomes more of the person he’s impersonating than Chance ever did, cannot live his own life, so he must steal Chance’s. At the end of the mini-series, Chance gives Tom a very interesting send-off, but obviously it didn’t stick, and by issues #19-21, he needs something different. What’s fascinating about the arc is that Milligan shows Tom being a better “Christopher Chance” than Chance himself. Milligan wants us to ask if Tom is better because he’s a better man, or if he’s a better actor. Does Tom love Mary, or does he just want to destroy Christopher? And does Christopher really love Mary, or is he also impersonating a “normal” person? Milligan once again makes the point that perhaps no one is normal. Christopher and Tom have complex feelings for Mary, while Mary has complex feelings for them. As we might expect from Milligan, he doesn’t give us easy answers about this odd triangle.
The love triangle in the final arc is just another facet in another large theme in Human Target: sex. Milligan’s comics have always been drenched in sex, even more so than a lot of creators, and what’s always interesting about Milligan’s sex is that it’s so much more complex than most portrayed in comics. Sex in comics is often adolescent, with people reacting like teenagers to situations. Obviously, some writers are much better at it, and Milligan belongs in that company, as his relationships feature mature people wrestling with difficult parts of sex and love. It’s uncomfortable to read, but never ridiculous, as it often is in some other comics, even comics that strive for “maturity.” This examination of sex begins in issue #1 of the mini-series, when Christopher picks up a woman in a bar (who turns out to be Emerald, the assassin), and when they go back to the bedroom, Chance tells her that he simply wants to watch, because he’s unable to perform sexually. This is interesting for two reasons: it’s not actually Christopher Chance, but Tom McFadden, and Chance is disturbed that Tom actually knows that about him; and this problem of Chance’s comes up again and again in the series. Chance, of course, has to impersonate different people throughout the series, but what’s fascinating is that he doesn’t have this problem when he’s someone else. His impersonations get so deep (he often points out that he’s not “pretending” to be others, he actually becomes them) that he no longer has Christopher Chance’s hang-ups. He has plenty of sex, of course, and Milligan wants us to consider what each sex act means. Is Chance cheating on Mary? Does he even love her? If he doesn’t love her, why does he remake Maggie Stains into Mary White in a Vertigo-like move? Chance is haunted by the way his association with Emerald ended, and then he becomes haunted by Mary and what happened to put them together. When Tom McFadden returns, one of the things that draws Mary to him is that he’s a more attentive lover. She believes that Christopher has changed because he loves her, but ultimately, does it matter if she loves Christopher Chance or someone who is pretending to be Christopher Chance? As she points out in the final issue, “I know you’re not really fighting over me. You’re fighting over Christopher Chance.” Milligan forces us to consider crucial questions: Does identity matter if you’re with someone you love? Can someone love if they don’t know who they are? How much can love overcome other problems? Throughout the series, we see love twisted into something different – not necessarily ugly, just different – and by the end of the series, Milligan has put the characters through the wringer as they attempt to figure these important questions out. In the end, they may remain unanswered, but we have a better understanding of why people wrestle with them.
Sex has an ugly side in the book, too. There are men of God abusing their positions, horrifying stories of young girls brought over from Central America to be used in sex games, lying lovers who simply dig their own graves with those fabrications, and the inevitable linking of violence with sex (both Christopher and Tom get off on the violence). And it’s not just sex – love is under the microscope as well. The love triangle of the final arc is one, but Frank White’s love for his son fuels Final Cut, but it’s love that has gone somewhat awry and leads to dark places, while Earl James’s love for his family drives him to take drastic measures in the mini-series. Milligan wants us to consider how love takes over our lives, and therefore, the final arc is simply a culmination of people consumed by love and willing to do horrible things to save it. If it all goes wrong, it’s not because of bad intentions (it usually isn’t, of course), but because people are so desperate. The amazing thing about Human Target is that pretty much every character is desperate, yet Milligan allows them to react to their desperation in many different and fascinating ways.
Other aspects of the book aren’t quite as successful, not because Milligan writes them poorly, but because they’re less subtle and therefore a bit more obvious and even obnoxious. The plots range from timely and fascinating (the illegal immigrant sex trade) to timely and a bit silly (the reaction of some of the baseball players to being caught using steroids in issues #4-5 seem a bit extreme, given the way real-world players and the fans have reacted). The plots are a bit beside the point, because Milligan is far more interested in examining how life affects the characters, not the other way around. That’s not to say they’re not fun comics to read, as there’s plenty of subterfuge, hot women, and flying bullets. But this is a more psychodrama than anything else, and the plots don’t matter as much. They’re still fun to read, though.
The art chores are interesting, because what Milligan wants his artists to do is create a man who has a shifting identity, and therefore we’re always trying to spot the “fake.” The technical aspects of Chance becoming someone else is ridiculous, because they’re just too difficult to overcome, but on the surface, it’s fun to watch the art and try to discover who’s who. The tone set by the artists helps the stories, as well. Biuković, frankly, would have been the perfect artist for the ongoing series, but his death took that option away, of course. His art is wonderful for the stylish pseudo-espionage vibe that imbues the book. Chang has that kind of sensibility, too. Pulido’s work is a bit less suitable, but what he brings to the book is a kind of bleakness, which works well for the Hollywood setting. Pulido and colorists Stewart (in Final Cut) and Rodriguez (issues #12-13) turn the deserts of California and Mexico into bleak wastelands populated by morally suspect characters, contrasting the horrors that occur there with the savage beauty of the surroundings. In issue #18, Pulido colors his art himself, and does a fine job showing the isolation of immigrants in an increasingly anti-foreigner America. Pulido’s art doesn’t work as well on the series as Biuković’s and Chiang’s, but in some instances, it’s stunning.
Human Target could have easily lasted much longer, but I suppose sales just weren’t there. What’s nice about the issues (and graphic novel) we do have is that they’re quite dense – Milligan gets the most out of the space allotted. It’s impressive how thoughtful the book is, given the copious numbers of people getting their heads blown off and such. It’s also the kind of book that rewards re-reading – once you get the violence out of the way, you can concentrate more on what Milligan is really saying with this comic. As is the case with far too many excellent books, the series is not completely collected in trade. You can find the mini-series, the graphic novel (I don’t think it’s out of print), and the first ten issues of the ongoing in trade format, but after that, I guess the sales didn’t even warrant that. But that shouldn’t deter you from tracking it down!
And hey, check out the archives for more suggestions of comics that are worthy of your time!
[This series still hasn’t been collected, and the trade original mini-series, it seems, is out of print, so I linked to the graphic novel below, which is much cheaper. I’m a bit surprised that when the television show was on, DC didn’t manage to get the entire thing collected, but what do I know about marketing, right? If you can track down these issues, I’m sure they won’t be too expensive. This is just a terrific series, and kind of a distillation of the very weird Milligan who did The Extremist, for instance, and the slightly more mainstream Milligan who writes X-Men for Marvel. It’s definitely not as weird as some of his stuff, but its weirdness helps make the more mainstream aspects of it more bizarre, so it’s an interesting amalgam. Check it out!]