Writer: Tom King
Artist: Greg Smallwood
DC Comics, February and March 2022
This is one of the smartest, most appealing comic books that American publisher DC Comics has produced in a very long time. We have previously reviewed The Human Target #3, very favourably – see here https://worldcomicbookreview.com/2022/01/13/the-human-target-3-of-12-review/.
As ever, this review contains many spoilers.
These two issues, numbered 5 and 6, are fundamentally different in structure, although forming part of the overall plot. The first issue is an intricate non-linear mosaic, set at a dinner involving the long-standing Justice League superhero, the Martian Manhunter, lead character Christopher Chance, together with his romantic partner, the beautiful Ice. The Martian Manhunter is usually depicted as a reserved but likeable leader within the Justice League pantheon, but he is nonetheless an alien with formidable powers – the ability to change shape (the Manhunter appears at dinner as a sandy haired fellow in a suit), super strength, flight, and telepathy.
There are no secrets from a telepath, and Chance is a vault of secrets. How to play this encounter out must have been a genuine challenge for writer Tom King.
It evolves however that Chance had been trained to circumvent telepaths very early in his career – a remarkable concept which had not been explored in DC Comics’ superhero universe (perhaps because there are not that many telepathic characters, at least compared to Marvel Comics’ stable). The identity of Chance’s teacher in this art (and, briefly, lover) is an enormous surprise. While her superhero name is never mentioned, Emra Ardeen from the moon Titan is otherwise known as Saturn Girl, a member of the future-dwelling Legion of Super-Heroes. Emra is stuck in the 21st century, a reluctant pawn of Batman villain Ra’s al Ghul. The flickering backstory has Emra mentally “wear [Chance] like a jacket”: without volition, Chance shoots Imra’s handler while seated at a dinner table. Chance recovers the “keys” to Emra’s time sphere (or whatever the Legion uses nowadays) and Emra departs, forever.
The issue serves as a sort of “origin issue” for Chance, as we see how as a boy, watching his father’s murder, he tragically became motivated to become a private detective, and why he is is such a screwed up, and fundamentally self-destructive human being.
The murder at the dinner table has a staccato interaction with the dinner between Chance, Ice and the Martian Manhunter. The mosaic is actually the jumble or fusion of some of the memories via telepathy, passing from Chance to Manhunter – and back. It sounds terrible, but it is well-set up and well-executed: Chance uses some psionic jiu jitsu to extract a remarkable secret from the Manhunter’s head.
At this point, it is abundantly clear that while the story contains popular characters from a revered era of DC Comics’ publishing history, The Human Target is in no way a part of its continuity (the purpose, we assume, of DC Comics’ Black Label imprint). The Manhunter’s secret is incandescent in scandal, and could not possibly sit in the ordinarily prosaic world of Superman and Batman. It evolves that Ice’s best friend, a Brazilian superhero named Fire (who can, as the name suggests, project fire), has had an ongoing, torrid, and unhappy affair with the Martian Manhunter. There are snippets of bizarre bedroom scenes involving the Martian Manhunter in his true form – a sort of green amphibian with a hadrosaurid head – looking haunted on a mattress. And in another scene, the Manhunter’s famous weakness to fire is some sort of masochistic fetish. It is a wild ride.
The diversion from continuity is also apparent from the next issue. Issue 6 is a return to linear storytelling. But we see a new confrontation between the rogue Green Lantern, Guy Gardner, and Chance. Gardner, Ice’s spurned lover, ambushes and assaults Chance. Ice scorns Gardner, swearing at him to get out of her house, and telling Gardner he is “little”, a serrated, double edged observation.
A bitter fight between Ice and Gardner erupts. Chance distracts Gardner by trying to shoot him with a pistol. Gardner lashes out with a ring-generated chain mace, catching Chance in the shoulder. The mace seems to us to be symbolic of the medieval brutality of the fight: Gardner is out to maul Chance with a singularly gory weapon. Fighting on two fronts is too much for Gardner, however, and Ice freezes him solid.
We then see one of the most startling things your reviewer has ever witnessed in a superhero comic. Recalling Batman’s famous “one punch” of Gardner in Justice League #5 (1987), Chance swings and punches Gardner in the head. Gardner shatters to pieces, segmented bone and flesh plainly visible in the icy chunks falling to the floor.
Chance and Ice watch Gardner over hours, scattered on the lounge room floor, slowly defrost into bloody chunks. They wonder whether they should seek help, but through inertia allow Gardner’s corpse to melt into spotty gore. It is a remarkable scene. (A brief survey of the internet suggests Guy Gardner fans are outraged.)
The art is superb. Clever use of irregular block light and shading gives the comic both a three dimensional and a ‘50s vintage feel. At the end of the issue, Fire appears, and artist Greg Smallwood gives her a decidedly Sean Young look: Fire, with dark coy eyes, full lips, and a wafting cigarette, more than resembles Rachael from the classic movie Blade Runner (1982). Chance, the detective, realises that he has let himself be distracted all day, by Ice and by Gardner, and has been cornered by his prime suspect.
What a wonderful series. And we are only halfway through. Thinking back through the roll call of those Justice League issues, can we expect appearances from Rocket Red, Maxwell Lord, Dr Fate, Black Canary, Mister Miracle, Captain Atom, and, in what would be a very odd change of pace, the stupid dog Green Lantern G’nort?
But, while we have months until the next issue (there is a reported production delay), Chance has been poisoned and has only days to live. Somehow, given Gardner’s messy death, the Manhunter’s dirty secret, the games played by Fire and perhaps Ice, and the Black Label imprint, Chance might suffer a very noir ending indeed.