Tom King has a magic touch when it comes to DC’s “lesser” heroes. In recent years, he’s taken both Adam Strange and Mister Miracle and transformed them into inventive, hugely compelling character studies. This week, King, alongside artist Greg Smallwood, once more turns a B-list player into an A-level talent with Human Target.
The series, released via the Black Label imprint, follows Christopher Chance (aka the Human Target) as he attempts to solve his own murder with just 12 days left to live. It’s a retro murder mystery that deserves the DC prestige format. It’s also as beautiful visually as it is deeply compelling, and while it’s just as great to see Chance get more time in actual comics (he’s had more play in TV shows than most), it once more proves that King has a keen understanding of what makes DC such a dynamic roster of heroes.
King recently spoke with comics press about the series, detailing how it’s part of a new generation of titles emerging from the darkness that he’s explored with titles like Rorschach and Strange Adventures. Along with Supergirl: Woman of Tomorrow, which he wrote after Human Target, King said that he’s writing more optimistic stories a la his Superman Up in the Sky (compared to Heroes in Crisis). Perhaps that could be in part because this character sprung from the pandemic lockdowns and the accompanying sense of existential dread.
To peek further behind the curtain, King also spoke about how he and Smallwood approached Human Target to make it feel simultaneously new, retro, and from a different era. (One might even say it’s of the same era of the beloved Mad Men, which King references with true delight.) Below you’ll find snippets from a larger conversation.
AIPT: Tom King on how Human Target came together:
Tom King: This is not a book that I went hunting for. I very rarely go hunting for books. My best books were sort of given to me. Things like Vision, Mr. Miracle, those came from someone being like, “We have a project Tom, you do this,” and me sort of being in a corner writing my way out. Human Target was the same, I literally made a joke on Twitter. People say nothing good comes from Twitter, I got some work from it for once at least. And the editor called me that day, and said, “Hey, would you actually like to write about Human Target?” And I thought he was joking. So I said, “Yes,” because I didn’t really get the joke. So it kept sort of tumbling forward from there.
I went back and I read the original stuff, the Len Wein, Dick Giordano stuff, and it was just, it was absolutely amazing. And that’s what sparked my interest and got, “oh, I can do something cool with this.” And I came up with this pitch. And I was, again, I was kind of putting on the side burner, because I didn’t really think it was that important. And it wasn’t until I saw Smallwood’s art, his first cover he sent in, where I was this could be something special. This could be something unique in comics, something that transcends the moment, an opportunity to do all those things.
I always say I want to do my best projects, but be in a genre and tell great genres story, but also comment on our moments of the day, so that’s how I came to Human Target. And it ended up being a story about a guy facing death and what you do when you think you’re going to die soon, which is kind of the mood of the entire world for the last two years.
AIPT: There’s clearly a retro thing going on here like almost not a spy drama necessarily, but there’s like a Mad Man aspect to the book. Were there any inspirations you were drawing from as far as retro TV or movies?
TK: I don’t want to take credit for all the stuff that Greg’s doing. But yeah, as I was doing this, I was doing a big rewatch of Mad Men. So you’re definitely seeing him as Don Draper. It’s my favorite TV show of all time. It’s definitely superhero Don Draper where he has his own demons, but he’s also kind of scoffing at everyone at the same time. Greg was super into that aesthetic and that kind of 60s, 70s noir stuff.
Human Target had this complicated history, he’s had two TV shows, he had a huge Vertigo series that explored the depth of his consciousness. But if you put that off to the side and just go back to Giordano and Len Wein, like he started off as just this super cool Saturday night TV show guy who got assassinated on other people’s behalf. He had a partner, but was a loner, he drove a cool car, like just getting back to that beautiful aesthetic was part of the job I was trying to get done.
If you look back and look at Giordano’s, the way he drew people, he and Clay Mann are very similar artists. He drew this ideal world like if I close my eyes and imagine the entire world actually existed as James Bond described it, that’s what Giordano drew. That’s what I was kind of trying to bring through.
AIPT: Tom King on how the JLI became important to the narrative:
TK: My youngest son, my seven-year-old son, his favorite superhero is Ice. It’s his favorite superhero in the whole world. And every day at dinner throughout this whole pandemic, and we talked about my writing constantly, “Why aren’t you working with Ice, when you can do Ice please do Ice? When I came up with this premise, which involved a murder and suspects I decided that the suspects should be part of the JLI just so I could put Ice in the book and I could get my two-year-old to stop moaning at me.
It blossomed from there and I realized the JLI was the Justice League of my youth. It’s the first Justice League I encountered when I open up a book, [Keith] Giffen, [J. M.] DeMatteis and [Kevin] McGuire are three of my heroes in comics, and the chance to go into that world and into that very goofy family. But that dealt with actually very dark issues and it became very appealing to me, and especially the character Ice who is the co-head of the book as we go forward began to shine as a bright spot as another Big Barda or Elena Strange.
AIPT: It was interesting to see you frame this version of Christopher Chance a bit older, and a bit more somber than the cool Playboy character. What made you age up Christopher Chance?
TK: It’s one of those things where I was trying to get away from who I was when I was trying to write this. A fun kind of noir book, taking a lot of inspiration from Dick Powel‘s noir performances. I wrote this in the midst of a plague when I couldn’t leave my house. When every day I was saying is tomorrow the day I catch it. It was before the vaccine, will I get it tomorrow, will my kids get it, is tomorrow day my wife gets it. And if this is the end of me, this is how I’m spending the end of my day sitting in my house afraid of a virus? All that stuff was not conducive to just doing a guy who was super fun and carefree. That evolved into the character who had lived his life and was now looking back on some of his mistakes, which become lonely towards the end of his existence, and realizing that at the end of the day, he’d spent all his money. That’s where the ennui comes in the looking back and deciding “Is this all there is?” And then trying to build more, but only having 12 days to do it.
AIPT: What is your process of breaking a story for a mystery like Human Target?
TK: I’m not like a lot of other writers because most writers I know are outline guys or women. I do detailed outlines but they’re all in my head. I never write it down. I never write down any ideas. I’m of the bizarre belief that if I forget something that it was worth forgetting. So when I started a mystery like this, I come up with who is the bad guy? How is this going to end? Where’s this gonna go? What are we going to do and what’s the general structure of the mystery and then I hit the boards and start writing. The characters start talking to me and evolve their own voice.
I think a mistake that’s made in comics is writing an issue one or an issue two or issue three thinking “wow this is good but this is just a setup for our excellent issue nine.” Or, “once people read this in the trade man this is gonna really burn fire.” Like for me, every single issue has to be its own thing, has to stand alone, has to have a cliffhanger has to have a theme.
AIPT: Should readers be familiar with the JLI before jumping into Human Target?
TK: The onus is entirely on me to introduce you. I don’t want anyone picking up this book and being like, “Oh, if I’m not sentimental about the JLI it won’t work.” Each issue is devoted to one of the members or two of the members. And in each issue, it’s almost like an old DC Comics Presents or a Marvel Two-in-One to present a hero in a new light and tell you what’s interesting about this hero and what’s fundamentally flawed about them.
Hopefully, we pull it off but it’s easy since each of these characters has so much depth. You have Martian Manhunter who is like the ultimate symbol of repression. A guy who just takes all of his emotions and locks them down under a fake form. Or you have Booster Gold, my favorite character to write in all fiction, who is always trying to do good and always slipping on the banana peel. You’ve got Ice and Fire, these two people that should be the exact opposite but are actually bonded at their soul. You’ve got Guy Gardner, one of the few superheroes who’s allowed to be a dickhead and we can see consequences of that so there’s so much depth to these characters. They’re easy to write.
AIPT: On the perspective Tom King is taking with Human Target the superhero:
TK: Batman has a big appearance in it. When I think of the DC universe I think of it wrong. I don’t think of it as it currently is, even though I’ve been writing in the universe, probably consistently longer than almost any other writer now. But I’m still thinking of the Justice League Unlimited, I still think of it as a bunch of guys and women who go into a satellite at the end of the day, and they get coffee, and they share their stories and five of them get picked for the mission. And I know none of that exists in continuity. But I will never erase that from my mind of what that’s what the DC universe is. And so to me, this is an exploration of that world from a guy who will get an invite to the satellite but can’t stay. He has to have a guest pass, he has to wear his little badge the whole time and have someone look after him.
This is the view of the entire DC Universe, from the point of view of a guy who knows it but it’s still an outsider. He literally says in issue four, there’s a big fight someone’s like, “Why didn’t you get in the fight Chance?” He’s like, I’m not a superhero. That’s your job I’m just the guy who makes money by getting shot in the head. So it’s a different perspective on superheroes. He’s probably inspired by, you know Mark Waid’s Kingdom Come or Alex Ross’s Marvel’s where it’s like, take the whole superhero universe and twist it and look at it from someone who’s looking up at people flying. So in that way, it’s a look at the entire universe itself.
AIPT: Is there anything in general that you’re really excited for readers to come across as the series goes forward?
TK: I wrote Ice for my kids, but I’d never let my kid read this comic until he was older. This is a sexy comic. In a nice adult way. There’s a deep romance, it’s the kind of comic that’ll turn some heads. I think DC is now finally embracing the sexiness of its characters with male and female.
Way back in the day, Tim [Seeley] and I began working on Grayson for the first time. They were like, “DC Comics is not sexy in some ways. And in here Dick Grayson was a sex symbol. Can you take that out?” And finally, I feel like a decade later, people are finally making that the mantra so that this [Human Target] goes in that. It’s a fun book.
AIPT: Are there any other eras or time periods kind of DC canon that you would love to explore further?
TK: Ah, yes, there are. I’ve been into the Bronze Age of comics of DC. I’ve been just loving that era of the late 60s, early 70s when DC realized that it wasn’t selling, that Marvel was basically kicking its ass–no offense to the company that puts food on my table. They were looking at Kirby, they’re looking at Lee and they’re like, “We don’t understand we make comics that have much cleaner art, that have cleaner stories,” and then DC went insane basically from 1968 to 1985. And I love that era. It’s just so bizarre.
You’ve got your warlords and you’ve got your romance comics of the 70s and you’ve got Tor and you’ve got these beautiful war comics and they were just throwing everything against the wall trying to find something that would stick and help them compete with Marvel. I would love to mine that era, and I have, there are books coming out that mine that bizarre era, one of which is my creator-owned which is going to be announced soon which takes a lot of inspiration from that era.
AIPT: James Bond vs. Christopher Chance, who you got?
TK: Well, James Bond will kill Christopher Chance and think he won, and he’ll have actually lost. No, James Bond would win because Christopher Chance is an imperfect human being much like Don Draper. James Bond is a fantasy human. Christopher Chance is is a deeply flawed individual trying to be better. So in the end, James Bond will win but you know what, I think James Bond at the end, will be lonely, maybe Chance will actually find someone he loves.
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