Last week’s season finale of the TV show “Human Target” made a decent showing of itself, creatively. Though the interpretation of the concept suffers in comparison to the comic book source material, it was still a cleverly executed action show, and everybody could use a little more Chi McBride in their lives. Unfortunately, the show’s ratings took several dips throughout the season, notably when FOX moved it from Monday to Wednesday, and the finale charted about seven million viewers. Which, in television, is apparently bad.
That’s not an ironic exclamation point, by the way. That’s a sincere exclamation point. It is indeed a good time to try to pick up a few readers — viewers feeling orphaned by the show’s murky future may be on the lookout for solace in other media. The coincidental timing of this reprint and the “hey, remember when they all cost this much?” price tag of $1.00 might provide an opportunity for DC to swoop on in and pick up a few sloppy seconds. That’s a good thing. The fact that the original Vertigo miniseries completely blows away the television version? Also, a good thing.
In the late nineties, writer Peter Milligan had little presence in American comics. Though part of the same British invasion that lured Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison from across the pond, he never achieved the same level of popularity. After a decade-and-a-half of working in American funnybooks, he had amassed a handful of critically acclaimed but popularly ignored books: the psychedelic revamp of “Shade, the Changing Man,” the whirligig “Enigma” with Duncan Fegredo, and the startling “Skin” with Brendan McCarthy. Everything he had done was like black licorice: people either loved it or they hated it. A very small group of followers considered him a leading light in comics. The rest just thought of him as That Weird British Guy. The One Who’s Not Writing “JLA.”
For awhile, he disappeared from the US scene entirely — “to do other things” the most specific any interview has gotten. The Milligan drought stretched from one year into another, into another. The few who truly knew and loved his work had to resign hopes for more, and accept that he had Probably Moved On.
Enter the Hero, Axel Alonso. For whatever mad reason, Alonso — then Editor at DC — thought “Hey, you know who’d do a good ‘Human Target?’ That crazy guy who smashes the reader’s self-perception. The one who’s not writing ‘JLA.'”
The original Human Target created by Len Wein and Carmine Infantino was built on a simple, instant-classic of a conceit: In order to protect his clients, bodyguard Christopher Chance must become them. A master of disguise, he assumes the identity of those he protects and uses his detective skills to draw assassins out and neutralize them. Great stuff. The character lived through back-up stories and guest appearances, including a stint impersonating Bruce Wayne. Like so many great characters, though, he faded into the panel border, presumably full-bleeding his way to fictional character afterlife. Right where Vertigo wants ’em.
The Vertigo Solution: Take a dead property, assign a British writer, then sit back and watch that bastard burn the house down
. The Vertigo Solution is so powerful an idea, it pre-dates and is independent of the actual DC Vertigo publishing line. The Vertigo Solution is everywhere and in everything, and is that which cannot be named, but The Vertigo Solution is a really good name for a band and I am hereby staking my claim to it. I have called shotgun on The Vertigo Solution.
Unfortunately, Milligan didn’t want to do it. He liked the stories, but didn’t think there was much he could do within the constraints of previous continuity. He was prepared to turn it down, but was intrigued enough to conjure the possibilities if the reins were loosened. Constantly living as someone else is bound to take a toll on one’s perception of him/herself. Milligan told Alonso that he wouldn’t do it, but if he was going to do it, then this is what he would do. Not being stupid, Alonso said “Well, let’s just do that.” (paraphrasing.)
The Vertigo Solution works in ways both grand and subtle, and in my head
sounds like dirty instrumental pop with Sonny Sharrock
doing the leads – invention songs with Satan on jazz guitar… Seriously, no one
can use this name now, okay? The result of TVS’s fine works? A dangerous, four-issue slash through the modern spy story. Forerunner of the supercompressed narrative of “Casanova,” “The Umbrella Academy” and others. The comic that finally made Milligan a stuperstar, and broke Croation artist Edvin Biukovic just a few months before his sudden death.
Milligan and Biukovic push a hot knife through the false face of Christopher Chance. Semi-retired and deeply entrenched in the artificiality of Hollywood, the aging jet-setter only takes cases that interest him. He assumes the role of Reverend Earl James so completely that he actually forgets that he’s Christopher Chance. Except he’s not.
Through a series of over-the-top action sequences, revolving narratives, and deep character work, the series – collected as “Human Target: Chance Meetings” – leads the characters and readers through a deconstruction of identity at 150 mph. Everyone is pretending to be someone else; everyone’s lies are examined. Chance’s understudy is pretending to be Chance pretending to be others. The Reverend is pretending to be a pious man. The assassin Emerald, out to get the real Chance, has an entirely separate life as a suburban mother and wife, but deep down she knows it’s a cover identity she could drop at any moment. There’s the wife who pretended to be a believer, the hardcore killer negotiating a television deal and the girl who knows something about Reverend James. Every character is batted around and carved up in cages of their own creation.
Except Chance. Unlike everyone else involved, he gets through unscathed, and hauntingly unexamined. He’s so fake, he’s not even at the center of his own story. He is trapped, though. He’s everybody else’s blank slate.
“Human Target” was successful enough to lead to a follow-up graphic novel and an ongoing series that lasted two years before getting the ax, which is pretty good for a Vertigo title, actually. I honestly believe that it would have gone longer had Edvin Biukovic not passed away in late ’99, from a brain tumor he’d been diagnosed with just days prior. Though several good artists worked on the series, none had the intensity of Biukovic. Each page is an adventure of angles, humming with energy. His action scenes are jarring, visual stunts that throw the eye around. His characters absolutely seethe with emotion. He brought out something in Milligan that no one else did. Only thirty years old, his star was just beginning to rise. It’s safe to say there wouldn’t even have been a (second) tv series if not for the sheer sex and violence he made possible.
Eleven years have already gone by since the series’ initial release. In addition to the chunks of displaced fans scrambling for purchase, there’s a whole new generation of comic book readers starving for content. This is a perfect opportunity to go back and pick up one of the most refreshingly different books of the previous decade. The action series that asked important questions, lit a fire under Vertigo, and got people thinking again about the man who could be everyone but himself.