Shiny Shelf

Peter Milligan and Human Target

By Eddie Robson on 22 March 2011

Jarringly, it’s nearly eight years since I posted a breathlessly enthusiastic review of Vertigo’s Human Target on this site. I’ve just been revisiting the series for an upcoming encyclopaedia of comics from Salem Press: it also happens to be coming out again in a new set of trade paperbacks. When I wrote that review I hadn’t read the original Human Target and knew nothing about it, but that didn’t matter: neither had the writer when Vertigo offered him the gig.

‘Axel Alonso – now editor-in-chief at Marvel – was then at DC and he wondered if I’d be interested in reviving the old comic,’ Peter Milligan tells Shiny Shelf. The series had previously run as a back-up strip in Action Comics in the 1970s, later appearing in Detective Comics and The Brave And The Bold. The lead character, Christopher Chance, disguises himself as people who are in danger, to draw out threats and eliminate them. ‘After I read them the answer was an emphatic no. Not my kind of thing. Then I started thinking about what I could do with it. I started thinking about what “The Human Target” could mean: i.e., someone trying to be human. A story about character and identity.’

It is a great title, and one to which you can tag different notions. It’s notable that the current TV series, ostensibly based on the DC character, in fact bears little resemblance to any previous incarnation in comics, essentially just using the title. But then it’s hard to see how the original concept could work in live-action. It works best in comics – which, in a world filled with comics that have one eye on selling the movie rights, is refreshing.

Milligan himself didn’t pay much lip service to earlier versions when he wrote a four-issue Human Target mini-series, published in 1999. ‘I kept Chance. I think there might have been a character named Bruno [in Milligan’s version, a restaurateur who hooks Chance up with clients] but I forget how they initially handled him. I pretty much made a lot of it up to fit my concerns.’ The initial series is a twisted, hyperreal action narrative in which nobody’s identity can be trusted: it quickly transpires that even Chance himself isn’t Chance himself. The series is grounded by Edvin Biuković’s pulpy yet kaleidoscopic artwork. ‘Edvin’s art was so amazing he seemed perfect for the story right away. If he had lived, he would have been the artist for as long as he wanted to do it.’ Sadly, Biuković died suddenly shortly after the series came out.

In any case, Milligan hadn’t intended to write any more Human Target stuff. However: ‘Sometime after the initial miniseries Karen Berger at Vertigo wanted me to create a new series that dealt with a lot of the issues going on in America and the wider world. I thought about this for a while, and then at dinner one evening we both realized that we already had a character and a series that could deal with these very subjects.’ Chance returned in a graphic novel called Final Cut, drawn by Javier Pulido. ‘It was important we didn’t go for a Edvin clone. Javier brought something very different.’ Pulido’s approach is more stylised, sketching the world around the characters. His simplified figures fit well with the concept: it’s easy to believe Chance could be anybody.

An ongoing series followed – and, just as Milligan was gearing up to explore ‘issues going on in America and the wider world’, the 9/11 attacks happened. This fed straight into the new series, with a storyline about an accountant who pretended to have died in the Twin Towers in order to escape looming fraud charges. But it went wider than that. ‘The key thing is, I wanted Human Target to be a series about what was going on in the national psyche, as well as the personal psyche of Christopher Chance.’ It proved an excellent vehicle to explore an America suddenly paranoid about infiltration, whilst also taking a look at issues of religion, corruption and revenge.

I was far from the only one to give the series a glowing review, but this never quite translated into sales and the series lasted 21 issues (though when asked if he was disappointed with this Milligan says ‘Well, at the beginning I never envisioned it going on that long’). Eleven of those issues have never been collected. However, the TV show has prompted DC to dust off their old Human Target material. Last year a collection of the miniseries plus Final Cut was published, and a new edition of the first ten issues comes out in April. God knows what fans of the TV show will make of this noirish, ambiguous series – sometimes flippant, sometimes brutal, with a lead character whose job takes him dangerously close to psychosis. But I’d recommend it to anyone – it’s hands-down one of the best comics of the 2000s – and I implore DC to complete the run in book form so that it can reach those people who are allergic to monthly comics.

Chance’s creator, Len Wein, has written a new comic to (vaguely) tie in with the TV show. It seems to be one of those things that’s destined to pop up every few years. Could we ever see Milligan revive his own version? ‘The thing is, The Human Target – or at least the human target that I recreated – taps into something that goes to the heart of what interests and moves me, so there will always be stories and avenues I can explore with it.’

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By Eddie Robson

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