Another Chance: Fox’s Reboot of DC Comics’ “Human Target”

Wednesday nights have become an uneasy time. They mark for assassination a much-beloved DC Comics character who has enjoyed a nearly 40-year publication run (albeit an interrupted one). Each Wednesday evening sees Fox denigrate the memory of Len Wein and Carmine Infantino’s beloved creation, The Human Target with their high-adrenaline TV Show of the same name. Purists and geeks alike howl in contempt.

But is that really the case at all?

Almost none of the above is true. While purists may well howl, and the McG executive produced show Human Target certainly does fall into the category of ‘high-adrenaline’ TV drama, there certainly is no assassination of a much-beloved character. Instead, the Len Wein and Carmine Infantino creation of Christopher Chance (the eponymous Human Target) finds an entirely new audience, and a serious character reboot. And in return, the mainstream audience of popular culture (those beyond a comics-specific culture), find themselves exposed to comics-style reboot of a character they may not have known at all.

First published as a backup story in Action Comics in 1972, Christopher Chance debuted as a kind of anti-assassin. What if someone incredibly wealthy found their ghosts return to haunt them? What if those ghosts came armed, intent on ending the life of that particular someone responsible for their misery. In such a scenario, with their life directly threatened, such a someone might turn to legendary impersonator with the movie-star good looks, Christopher Chance, the Human Target. Chance’s method of approach to flush out the threat would be to assume the identity of his clients. With makeup, padding, deep psychological profiling and incredible acting skills, Chance would ultimately subsume himself into the assumed identity. But just as the final attack was launched, he would break cover and engage the would-be assassins with expert gunplay and supreme close-combat skill. The trap would be sprung, and Chance would escape, always the victor.

By the cusp of the millennium, Chance would see a character reboot under DC’s mature-reader “Vertigo” brand in the skilled hands of writer Peter Milligan (at that point familiar to audiences for his landmark work on earlier Vertigo titles Shade, the Changing Man and Animal Man). Milligan’s vision for the character would shift reader perspectives away from the sleuthing elements that had thitherto been foregrounded in the original Action Comics and later Detective Comics stories. Instead, Milligan would focus on the psychological aspects and the clearly tormented intellect of a man who time and again throw himself into danger by completely deleting his sense of self.

In the 1999 limited series simply entitled Human Target, Chance would confront the identity meltdown of his protégé, Tom McFadden, while needing to flush out an assassin targeting Chance himself, all while playing the role of a fire-and-thunder Reverend committed to ending the reign of terror of a neighborhood street gang. The 1999 limited series would see Chance relocate from the mean streets of New York to the slick boulevards of Hollywood. Along with the geographical relocation of the character, Milligan would refocus the storytelling. Now, Christopher Chance’s psychological disposition would be central to the story itself. How would Chance negotiate the enforced plasticity of his existence? How could he? Milligan would tap a dormant vein in the ongoing drama of the Human Target. As Milligan himself writes in the opening issue of the limited series, ‘It was a good move coming to Los Angeles, making a new start. Besides, L. A. suits me. It has a pleasing devotion to artificiality’. Milligan would present Chance’s incredible confidence as nothing but a slick veneer for a tormented psyche.

Milligan’s success with the reboot of the Human Target character would see the publication of an OGN (Original Graphic Novel) in 2002 titled Human Target: Final Cut. This OGN would relate Chance’s investigation into the kidnapping of an aging child-star. Through a minefield of machinations and schemes, Chance would eventually come to permanently assume the identity of the kidnapper (and husband to the victim’s mother), movie mogul Frank White. The OGN would eventually launch a Human Target monthly series in the late summer of 2003. With a convenient external threat to his new family life ‘Frank White’ would quickly reclaim his identity as Christopher Chance, relocate to New York, and confront political realities of the post-9/11 world with the slew of cases that seemingly wandered into his life. The series would run for 21 issues before finally concluding on a bittersweet ambiguity in the spring of 2005.

But the Fox rendering of the Human Target, which sees Mark Valley of Boston Legal and more recently Fringe fame, is nothing like the original comics which focus on the investigative elements or even anything like Milligan’s reboot which dramatizes the psychological elements. Without the spectacular acting ability or the critical skill at psychological profiling, Fox’s Christopher Chance is far less the master of disguise. And while Fox’s Chance is far more suave than the seemingly congenitally curmudgeonly Jack Bauer of 24, he is nowhere near as debonair as his comicbook counterpart. Also, Fox’s Chance seems to provide executive producer McG with a suitable vehicle for his trademark storytelling of drama-through-high-takes-action. Far more than Charlie’s Angels Full Throttle and even the recent Terminator: Salvation, McG seems to have found the proper instrument for his gospel of the drama of action.

But without Milligan’s psychological elements, and without the sleuthing and without the perpetual cascading of identity crises, what if anything connects Fox’s television reboot with Milligan’s Vertigo reboot, with the original Wein-Infantino Human Target? Is the Fox vision of Christopher Chance a viable Human Target, or is this version simply to be relegated to the trash-heap of used-up popular culture?

If anything, the Fox vision of the character might easily prove to be definitive of the character as a whole. In this version, even the psychologically recursive traumas seem nothing more than props for confronting the central mystery of Christopher Chance; why would anyone perpetually throw themselves into danger? Far more a Hemingway-esque Nick Adams to Milligan’s more Joycean Leopold Bloom, Fox’s Chance is able to correctly mimic a wide range of professions, intuit specific technical knowledges, but is never more than one step away from frenetic violence. Away from painful questions of identity and its supposed worth, Fox’s Chance assumes professions, rather than identities. Like another Fox show, House (where each new patient presents its titular character with an ethical as well as medical challenge), Fox’s Human Target is only glimpsed at through the fractional and shifting perspectives of each new episode’s client-of-the-week.

Ultimately, with these new psychological tropes in place for the character, Fox might have mounted a very necessary rescue of the core character, as Milligan’s series ended on an ambiguous dead-end for the character. With the final chapter in the final storyarc, “The Stealer”, Milligan completes his drama of psychological necessity, and illusory identity-politics. In “The Stealer” Tom McFadden returns, this time to claim Christopher Chance’s identity and life as his own. What begins as a simple, revenge/evasion story quickly degenerates into an intractable morass of mistaken and re-mistaken identity. Had Chance and McFadden swapped lives once long ago? Have both men forgotten this event? Or is the usurper wearing Christopher Chance’s face really his assistant after all? By the end of “The Stealer” there is sufficient evidence to support both version. The character walking away in ignominious defeat after surrendering the Christopher Chance identity, may very well be McFadden. Or he may very well be Chance himself. Who could possibly know. That character’s final meditation that the truth scarcely matters, marks a death-knell of sorts for the Human Target as a character. What further stories could possibly be told?

And yet, just in the nick of time, Fox unmasks a new vision of the character, with a new and rewarding psychological depth. And the trap is sprung. The real Christopher Chance takes control, allowing for new stories to be told.