Monday, March 8, 2010

Human Target: Chance Meetings

DC Comics/Vertigo, paperback, 188 pages, $ 14.99

Writer: Peter Milligan
Artists: Edvin Biuković, Javier Pulido
Colorists: Lee Loughridge, Dave Stewart
Letterers: Robert Solanović, Todd Klein
Cover artist: Tim Bradstreet

Reprints Human Target #1 through #4 (1999) and Human Target: Final Cut (2002).

A former teacher of mine suggests that good fiction provides "explanations for human behavior in highly specific situations." By this standard, Christopher Chance, the protagonist of Human Target, would make a splendid writer.

Chance is a gun for hire, a highly intelligent high-ticket bodyguard and private investigator whose shtick involves adopting his clients' identities and drawing any potential danger on himself. He's a master of disguise, obviously, but more importantly, he's a master of imitation, of completely making the life of his clients his own for the duration.

Chance is so good at his job, in fact, that he's frequently teetering on the brink of mentally becoming whoever he's impersonating, and it's not always something he's necessarily averse to. On the contrary, it's part of the thrill for Chance to escape his identity for a while and flirt with losing himself.

Obviously, that's a great recipe for character-driven stories with a healthy dose of genre thrills right there.

The makers of the new Human Target television series must have thought so, too, when they bought the license, but then they went and came up with a set-up that's not very much like that at all. Just in case the TV show takes off anyway, DC Comics put out this new collection of the miniseries and book-length one-shot that re-invent the character, a 1972 creation by writer Len Wein and artist Carmine Infantino, for the publisher's Vertigo imprint.

In both stories included here, the single most intriguing of Christopher Chance's abilities features prominently: Once he's slipped into a new identity and made himself comfortable, Chance is able to "intuit" aspects of his clients' life and behavior. Which is to say, he becomes so good at being them that he's able to improvise parts of their personality he didn't actually know about: sexual preferences, extramarital affairs, alcoholism—that type of thing.

On some semi-conscious level, in other words, Chance is able to anticipate and explain human behavior in highly specific situations, not unlike a good writer. In the miniseries, Irish scribe Peter Milligan and his collaborators wrap this kernel of literary ambition in an action-packed thriller full of double-crosses, triple-crosses and cases of mistaken identity.

Illustrated in a slick, kinetic and adequately busy style by late Croatian artist Edvin Biuković, the four-parter juggles a whole bunch of characters. Chance and his client, a vocal black minister in a violent neighborhood, each come with their own supporting cast, while Chance also has to deal with two other master impersonators: a former sidekick with an identity crisis and a female assassin called Emerald.

It's all a little too much, unfortunately. Chance himself and one or two other characters—the minister's wife stands out, in particular—are fairly well-fleshed-out; but ultimately, Mr. Milligan's reach exceeds his grasp. Characters like Emerald, the sidekick and his wife, the drug dealer and his girlfriend or Chance's confidant Bruno all dutifully contribute their share to the plot, but for a story about identity, there are too many stereotypes and blanks here.

At least part of that is due to the limitations of the serial format. Mr. Milligan raises intriguing questions about his cast, but the cliffhangers and action beats required by a four-part, 22-pages-per-month thriller rarely permit the creators to really delve into them. (C+)

The 90-page "Final Cut," originally released in 2002, reads like something rather more of one piece—because it is.

Although the beats and the action are still there, Mr. Milligan no longer has to chase an inevitable break every 22 pages, which vastly improves the pacing.

The way the story unfolds seems, for once, predominantly determined by the needs of the characters and not those of the format. After the breathless, confused, somewhat choppy rhythm of the miniseries, the much more deliberate storytelling that's on display here comes as a relief.

The departure is emphasized by Mr. Milligan's new collaborators. Javier Pulido's artwork and storytelling come out sturdier and more conventional than Edvin Biuković's. Mr. Pulido's work, which bears its Steve Ditko influence like a badge, is no less kinetic, his page compositions no less dynamic than those in the first story, but his layouts show more control and focus.

Unlike in Mr. Biuković's work, there are no overlapping panels, busy over-the-top-action pages or art that's bleeding off the page. Instead, everything's contained inside the panels, which in turn are clearly separated and contained by traditional white gutters.

Dave Stewart's colors paint an atmosphere that's not drowning in muddy murk all the time, something that Vertigo seems to be struggling with to this day. Even the lettering by Todd Klein suggests a roomier, less claustrophobic approach—because of the fonts, certainly, but mainly because Mr. Klein leaves a lot of white space in the balloons and caption boxes.

All of this combines into the tidy, mellow, mature tone of a story whose creators are all masters of their craft, pulling in the same direction. "Final Cut," while still very much a genre work, is more interested in character than in plot. There's room to breathe here, room for growth—room to fill in the blanks that put us on the same page with the hero as he tries to figure out who he is and who he wants to be. It's just a joy to read. (B+)

Grade: B-

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