How Tom King and Greg Smallwood's Human Target went from 'stupid' to 'transcendent'
Writer Tom King and artist Greg Smallwood's new Human Target comic book series started as a Twitter joke — seriously.
In March 2020, a fan told King he should write a story about Human Target, a.k.a. Christopher Chance, the DC Comics bodyguard who assumes his clients' identities and lets would-be assassins try to kill him. While the character doesn't have a major footprint in the publisher's universe, he has had two TV shows. As always, King replied with a self-deprecating joke about what that hypothetical story would look like.
"'Oh, Human Target stands looking out a window,' because all the books I write [have] men sitting by windows crying, 'and gets shot,'" says the Eisner Award-winning Mister Miracle scribe, recalling his tweet. "And a DC editor texted me and was like, 'Hey, I saw your tweets. You want to really write Human Target?' I thought he was joking."
The editor wasn't, and their conversations about this silly concept slowly started to increase in seriousness until a 12-issue Black Label mini-series was born. "That's this incredibly stupid origin story of the book I love," says King with a laugh. "It started with being so stupid. It became something so transcendent. It's crazy."
EW is debuting an exclusive preview of Human Target #1, which hits stands Nov. 2. The limited series follows Chance after he takes a job protecting the notorious Lex Luthor. Unfortunately, the gig doesn't go as planned and leaves Chance with only 12 days to solve his own murder before he dies. For reasons better left unspoiled, this sends him down a path to investigate the former members of Justice League International, which was created by Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis, and Kevin Macguire in the '80s. Despite the morbid setup, King believes Human Target is more tonally similar to Supergirl: Woman of Tomorrow than his recent angrier titles like Strange Adventures and Rorschach.
"It's such a fun book to write because I get to write these old JLI [characters]," says King. "Booster Gold's the most fun character to write because he's such a goofball. I think issue 2 is the most beautifully drawn comic you'll ever seen in your life."
Below, EW talks to both King and Smallwood about this new title — plus, check out exclusive pages from issue 1.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Greg, how did you come to join the project?
GREG SMALLWOOD: I had a couple of years there where I was just working on short stories and I'd finally decided that I needed to get back into doing a monthly book. One of the editors I was working with, Ben Abernathy, asked me if I would be available for a 12-issue series. He couldn't tell me any details at the time, but then as soon as I found out that it was Human Target with Tom King, and it's all I knew, I said yes, because I just knew that our styles would match really well. And then I read Tom's pitch for it and I didn't really know much about Human Target. I knew the basics, but that pitch sold me. It's probably one of the best pitches I've ever read.
What was it about the pitch that sold you?
SMALLWOOD: Well, it's got a good hook. It's high concept. It reminded me of D.O.A., which is a classic film.
TOM KING: It reminded you of it because I stole directly from it.
SMALLWOOD: Having seen the film and then reading all of your scripts, I know that it's obviously very different in execution. But there's a core concept there that it's reminiscent of the film. I could get a vibe and a tone from [the pitch].
How would you describe that tone?
SMALLWOOD: Well, it evolved. So I started getting pictures in my head when I read the pitch and then I started getting a better sense once I read the first script. But then it even evolved further because Tom just kept turning in scripts as I was drawing the first issue. And I actually went back and revisited [issue 1] because I think I had drawn about eight pages before I started over. I took the approach of a '40s noir. That's what I was picturing in my head — very shadowy, the Venetian blinds, that kind of vibe. Then, eventually I realized that there was a lot more levity to Tom's story and that needed to be present otherwise the art and the writing were going to be juxtaposed in a negative way. So I started bringing in more pop colors and started looking at art that maybe was more in line with '50s and '60s noir. So it'd be like neo-noir. I like that there is a contrast between this cynicism and then optimism. There's a through-line of like bitterness and cynicism, but then also there's that levity that I talked about and this lightheartedness and it balances each other out. It wasn't really there necessarily in the pitch, it was a hard-boiled tone, I think, in a pitch that really grabbed.
KING: I think what you're seeing is [some of your influence]. I hate to admit this: The Human Target is a cool character, but it was never my dream character. Which is funny because he's had two TV shows. It's been a fairly successful property. I hate to say this, but I was like, "Okay, When I get to this book, I'll get to it," was my attitude. But then I got your first design for the first cover, which was before I wrote the first issue, and then I was like, "Oh my God, this is going to be something special." It changed the entire tone of what I thought the book could be. It went from a hard-boiled, [Raymond] Chandler-[Dashiell] Hammett-esque book… That was where I stole the tone from the book from, which I think you're seeing reflected back at you. Then suddenly I could see your art in the pages, and then I was all about it. I was like, "Okay, now I've got something where I could get a Mister Miracle or Vision."
Tom, what did you find most interesting about Christopher Chance as you started diving into the story?
KING: The book has this D.O.A. pitch where the guy discovers he's going to die in the very beginning of the book. At that moment [when I was writing], we were in max COVID, locked down. Since I'd been in the war — it sounds stupid — I haven't felt that close to death. There are moments in your life — like 9/11, being in the war, COVID, even when your kids are born — where you're close to that curtain between life and death, and there's a certain fear and adrenaline that makes you reassess your life. So that's what this book became about: What does it mean to live when you know you're dying and how do you reconcile? What do you become obsessed with? How do you occupy yourself and what makes life worth living? And that along with it, it became a very romantic book. That was the secondary theme that developed.
What is the romance element of the book?
KING: It's a book about the Human Target investigating the JLI, and Ice plays a big role in it. Her and Human Target have a spark is the way to put it. It's just a gorgeous story between two people... There's a scene where Ice and Chance are in the ocean together and it was just my chance to write, I don't know, like "high sexy noir." This was Bogart and Bacall, and it was incredibly fun and rewarding to see it come to life.
What inspired you to bring the Justice League International into the story?
KING: Well, this story starts off funny and then gets f—ed up. My youngest son, who's 7 now, his favorite superhero is Ice. I don't know why he settled on that, but that was just from watching the cartoons. Every night at dinner, I talk about my stupid job and my stupid job is playing with toys. My son's like, "Well, when are you going to play with Ice?" So literally I was like, "Okay, Human Target…" We had this idea that if he would explore a superhero world, which world would he explore? So I literally pitched it to get my son to stop nagging me at the table. And then, of course, we made this super sexy book where Ice is... She's not a femme fatale, but it's not a book I would give a 7-year-old to read. It's a book for adults about adult relationships.
Greg, how did you come up with the concept for the first Human Target cover with the JLI's hands pointing at Christopher Chance?
SMALLWOOD: I was just going off the pitch and that was one of the first images that popped in my head. [There was] lots of black ink on that cover; it was a little bit more traditionally done. I hadn't really factored in the more poppy side. Although, I guess that's what Tom saw. I didn't actually know how I was going to approach Christopher Chance in terms of personality, but I did see like, "Okay, well maybe it's like a James Bond film." It was pretty clear from the pitch that the JLI had to be on the cover, but obviously Christopher Chance had to be the focus of it. How do you convey those two things? How do you make sure it's Human Target without including the JLI?
Greg, how familiar with the JLI and Human Target were you coming into this? Did you pull anything from older Human Target or Justice League International stories?
SMALLWOOD: Yeah, I went back and read a good chunk of the JLI run just to familiarize myself with the characters. I could see where a lot of that levity was coming from. I was amazed that Tom was able to combine these two contrasting styles: You take a book that was obviously known for its humor and then you combine it with a hard-boiled detective story.
I had read some of Human Target by [Peter Milligan] and [Javier Pulido], and so I went back and reread that and then I read all of the old Human Target stories [by Len Wein and Carmine Infantino]. I remember one thing that stuck with me that I definitely integrated was a line in one of the first stories. He's talking about [how] he likes old cars, they don't make them like they used to, and the craftsmanship of the car. And that got me started on like, "Okay, he's going to like old stuff." I started introducing more and more mid-century aesthetics and little knick-knacks in the comic.
Christopher Chance is a guy who is constantly transforming into a different person, and risks losing his sense of self, so that people can kill him. How did you approach that psychological aspect of the character and the toll it must take on him?
KING: When someone says, "Do a Human Target book," that's the first place your mind goes. That's such a good writer idea that Peter Milligan already did it. So, I had to turn off that theme of a guy getting lost in his disguises and find a different theme. Again, eventually, it goes back to guys staring at windows, the rain — the idea of what you said about a guy who chooses as his job to constantly get killed is a psychological thing. And then looking back at his origin story. He's got a very Batman origin story, except it's a little different where his father was caught by a criminal and his father gets on his knees, begs for his son to live, and so the guy shoots his father instead of him. And so he literally sees his father do what he's doing — get killed on behalf of somebody else. Once you have a guy who chooses to relive the worst moment of his life as his profession, you've got something deep, psychological to work with. So it built from there. Then you start, he's already looking at window with the rain. So I just got to see what it looks like when he turns around.
SMALLWOOD: That was actually something that informed his personality. I remember having this idea that he would be more comfortable talking to people with a mask on. He's secure in himself, but he just doesn't like people. I make sure he actually avoids eye contact a lot when he's talking to people; I have him looking away or facing away.
Human Target hits stands Nov. 2.
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