Human Target: The Unlikely Television Hero

Human Target: The Unlikely Television Hero by Jerry Whitworth

With series like The Adventures of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, DC Comics’ characters were no strangers to television and often times proved to be culturally iconic. Beyond the trinity and their assorted supporting characters (Supergirl, Batwoman, etc), the likes of company heavyweights such as the Flash, Captain Marvel/Shazam, and Green Arrow made their marks across airwaves as well. But there were also some peculiar characters that made the transition and caught on with viewers. One such character was Swamp Thing, the star of two feature films, two live action television series, and an animated series with accompanying toyline. Undoubtedly, this development arose from the critical acclaim of Alan Moore’s run with the property and a likely desire to diversify from solely superheroes. But arguably a more interesting choice for adaptation was the Human Target.

Created by Edmond Hamilton and Sheldon Moldoff as a supporting character for Batman, the Human Target was Fred Venable, a master of impersonation who would adopt the guise of a client in danger and root out their attacker. After a single appearance, the idea was revised a few years later for a six page story featuring the character of Detective Bruce Perry in the role. 1972 saw Len Wein and Carmine Infantino revise the concept again with the third Human Target Christopher Chance. Beginning as a back-up story in the pages of Action Comics, Chance inevitably became a supporting character to Batman as well. After a decade however, the Human Target faded into obscurity. That is, until a single appearance in 1989 around the time it was being adapted into a television series.

In 1988, Warner Bros. had a desire to return to live action television with its DC Comics properties in the wake of years since various aforementioned brands graced air waves. CBS expressed interest in development of one of the company’s big seven in the Flash and so Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo were tasked with bringing the Scarlet Speedster to the small screen. The duo having previously penned the script for Disney’s The Rocketeer (1991) which languished in development for years until the success of the 1989 Batman film, The Flash borrowed a fair deal from that same Dark Knight film for its direction and style. Batman proved to be a gateway for many comic book and similar properties to return to media outside the printed page. Sam Raimi, writer/director of Evil Dead fame, spent years trying to unsuccessfully secure the film rights for Batman or the Shadow (which became adapted for film in 1994) before partnering with Universal to create a superhero that paid homage to the Universal monster films. The result was 1990’s Darkman, wherein a scientist named Peyton Westlake (portrayed by Liam Neeson) that developed a technology that made perfect synthetic skin masks of people employed the breakthrough in a quest for vengeance. Decidedly dark in tone like the Tim Burton Batman films, the parallels between the property and Human Target are intriguing. Coincidentally, the same year Darkman reached theaters, Bilson and De Meo were tasked with producing a pilot for Human Target for ABC.

Starring musician/actor Rick Springfield in the featured role as Christopher Chance, Human Target followed the source material’s theme in that Chance impersonated clients to root out their attackers but was expanded with a cast of subordinates that traveled the world in a stealth aircraft called the Blackwing. The pilot filmed in 1990, Human Target wouldn’t be picked up for series until the following year. Airing in 1992 as a mid-season mini-series replacement, the series lasted seven episodes and was dropped due to poor ratings and being panned critically. Noted earlier, Human Target was out of print for over six years until an appearance in 1989 in Action Comics. To tie-in with the television series, a one-shot based on the show was printed a month after the project was ordered for air. By 1988, DC Comics published a twelve-issue limited series of critical acclaim by Jim Owsley and Phil Gascoine called The Unknown Soldier, the titular character another master of disguise but one that operated during the second World War. A precursor to the mature Vertigo imprint in 1993, 1999 saw Human Target make the transition to Vertigo by Peter Milligan and Edvin Biuković to similar acclaim to Unknown Soldier. Human Target popped up time and again in Vertigo from 2002 to 2005 but wouldn’t return to television until 2010.

In 2009, Fox broadcasting announced it ordered Human Target as a mid-season replacement for the following year. Developed for television by Jonathan E. Steinberg, co-creator of the critically acclaimed series Jericho, Human Target starred Mark Valley as Christopher Chance in the titular role as the actor was just coming out of the hit Fox series Fringe. The concept was changed, however, in that this time, Chance acted as a bodyguard portraying a professional in the field of whomever the client was at the time. Like the 1992 series, Chance was supported by a team but operated out of a central location rather than the Blackwing. In an interesting twist, the series added a development in that Valley’s Chance inherited the name and title from a previous Chance portrayed by actor Lee Majors of Six Million Dollar Man fame (reminiscent of the long held fan argument that James Bond was a title in the films rather than a name). The series lasted two seasons before being canceled due to dipping viewership. Human Target went almost six years before returning to television in the Arrowverse.

Coming off his portrayal as Nuke in the Netflix series Jessica Jones, Wil Traval emerged in the fifth season of Arrow as the most accurate live action depiction of the Human Target Christopher Chance from the source material. A master of disguise who takes the place of his client, Chance portrayed Mayor Oliver Queen when the Green Arrow’s secret identity is uncovered by one of his enemies. Chance returned for an episode in the subsequent season after Queen’s identity was outed to the world. Arrow came to an end with its eighth season and a proposed sequel series in “Green Arrow and the Canaries” was passed over by the CW due to the global viral pandemic. However, several television series within the so-called Arrowverse remain ongoing so only time will tell if we’ve seen the last of the Human Target therein. Interestingly enough, Mark Valley portrayed district attorney Anton Slater in the Arrow spin-off series The Flash.

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