Hawkeye is one of those rare comics that come along, and unexpectedly smash you over the head with a glowing truncheon of excellence. While that may not be the most eloquent of descriptions, it accurately describes how I felt about the first issue of Fraction’s brilliantly down to earth take on an Avenger who has generally been relegated to the second-string.
I was wary of Hawkeye in the lead up to its release, concerned that the popularity the film version of the character has found would taint the authenticity of the story existing in the primary comics continuity. I was particularly apprehensive about Matt Fraction writing another character whom I’ve always had a soft spot for, as I still had a bad taste in my mouth from the second half of his run on Invincible Iron Man.
What I was excited for, however, was the inclusion of David Aja on the creative team, and I did really enjoy the Brubaker/Fraction/Aja combination during Immortal Iron Fist. Aja has been responsible for some of my favourite panels from recent years, and I was excited to see how his simple, yet brilliantly expressive style, could work with a character I’ve come to think of as the most inconsistently drawn in Marvel Comics.
So with trepidation, I read the first issue. And then I read it again. And again. I read it four times in twenty-four hours. I gushed about it on tumblr. I stared at the art for a long time just letting the beauty of every panel sink in. I think I may have actually had tears in my eyes at one point, just because it was as close to perfect as I’ve ever seen in a comic.
But why did I feel this way? What made me actually get emotional over some drawings with some words on them? What makes this book the one on my pull list that I anticipate the most each month?
1. Fraction takes a B-lister, and doesn’t immediately turn him into a hero
Many writers’ first instincts when tackling a character, with such an historically bad ability to carry their own title as Clint Barton, would be to have him doing something epically heroic in the first issue. Taking on Taskmaster, or Zemo, or a Brood Queen, with a toothpick and some dental floss – something MacGyver-level silly. Maybe even give him some temporary enhancement, to subvert the belief a comic about a dude without any superpowers will be boring, then take it away three issues later – which is something I sort of expected from Fraction, to be honest.
He usurps this by smashing Clint up so badly in the first two pages, that he’s stuck in a hospital for six weeks. When he does get out, he acts like a childish brat, and stops traffic by letting his wheelchair roll into the road. A page later, he’s at a vet clinic, telling them to fix up a dog that looks like it’s on death’s door.
So I guess while we do get a sense of heroism from this version of Clint, he’s still a dick. He’s still just a dude with a bow. He’s still just a guy. He lives in a building owned by the Russian Mob, which he makes a complete hash of buying in a back room casino. He hangs out with his neighbours and barbecues on the roof, has a fight with the mobsters in the vet’s office, and then gets mistaken for Iron Fist.
Instead of putting Hawkeye on a pedestal, Fraction expertly parodies the popular audience opinion of the character. He gives us a sardonic, three dimensional, morally ambiguous Clint, and isn’t afraid to remind us that he hasn’t always been a good guy. He continually enforces the idea that most people have no idea who the hell he is, and not only is it a brilliant running gag, it also helps to demonstrate how Clint has come in possession of such a low sense of self-worth.
2. Kate Bishop
The most important thing to note about Kate is that she isn’t a former Hawkeye. She is Hawkeye. Just because Clint isn’t running around in the black and yellow Ronin outfit any more (he hasn’t been for a while, to be fair), doesn’t mean she has to give up the mantle. So we have Hawkeye and Hawkguy, and it’s glorious. The rapport between Kate and Clint is excellently conveyed, with Kate being the major thing in Clint’s life that’s keeping him on the straight and narrow, calling him out when he’s wallowing in self-pity, and telling him to stop being a loser when he needs a wake-up call.
The best part about the relationship between Clint and Kate however, is the fact that it’s strictly platonic. Any one-liners alluding to a romantic entanglement are swiftly dealt with, and serve to enforce how comfortable they are with each other as friends. Do I ship them? Uh… yeah. But am I glad Fraction’s said he’s never going to go there? Absolutely.
Kate is the glue that holds this book together. Without her, it would be good, but not great. Hawkeye isn’t just about Clint, it’s about Clint and Kate.
3. The page design
Page design is sometimes overlooked when talking about comic art, which is a shame, because it’s something I’m particularly excited by. Aja’s brilliance doesn’t just extend to the the pencilling – his layouts are dynamic, interesting, and quirky. It just looks so different to most comics out there; an interesting mix of complex and simple, that is really one of the most visually pleasing reading experiences I’ve ever had. The only issue of any comic I’ve enjoyed looking at as much as this title, would be Secret Avengers #18 – Another Aja book.
The layouts of every issue, including the ones where Javier Pulido, and Steve Lieber and Jesse Hamm take over, are a great demonstration of how smaller panels can come together to convey both pace and tone. Even Francesco Francavella’s #10 – while not being the strongest art wise – has some excellent choices in the design department.
4. It’s not afraid to be high-concept
Fraction really pushes the envelope a lot with some of the storylines, and they all pay off big time. The latest issue – #11 – takes a look at the world of Hawkeye through the eyes of Lucky (the Pizza Dog). Not only is there limited discernable dialogue, but the majority of the story is told through simplified diagrams and flow charts. This could have all gone horribly wrong, but it’s the single best issue of a comic book I’ve read since Iron Age. Which is a tough call for me to make, as there have been some wonderful things on offer from many of the Marvel NOW! titles.
Every issue to this point, has taken a risk. The whole idea of trying to give Hawkeye his own title again seemed ludicrous to many – readers and critics alike – but taking the concept of exploring what Clint does when he’s not avenging, pushes Hawkeye out of the superhero genre. It inhabits a strange space where you can’t really pin any genre on it, and that’s partially what makes it so brilliant. Despite the ridiculous situations Clint and Kate find themselves in, they retain one important characteristic – you can relate to them.
Here’s something that you don’t often see happen in any form of media, let alone comics. Everyone calls Clint out for being a dick. Kate,Jessica, Bobbi, Natasha… pretty much every woman in his life isn’t afraid to tell him he’s a self-destructive asshole. And while he tries to defend himself to a point, in the end, he just sits back and takes it.
You’re so wrapped up in hating yourself that any time anybody starts to care about you, or god forbid you start to care about them – you push them away —Jessica Drew, Hawkeye #9
Kate’s there to support him after that zinger, but the fact still remains, that even though everyone loves him and would do anything to help him out, they don’t always like him that much. Even Tony Stark, king of the narcissistic, self-indulgent assholes, tells him he needs to pull his head in.
7. It’s visibly contemporary
We see events from our universe bleed into Earth 616, with #7 dealing with how Clint, Kate, and their friends fare during Hurricane Sandy. It could have come across as preachy, exploitative, or opportunistic. Instead it was an incredibly heartfelt issue, focusing on the concept of family, both those we’re born to, and those we choose.
Add to that, Fraction is intent on pointing out that Clint is ageing. He’s divorced. He’s got aches in places he didn’t know he has. He’s sometimes weirded out by the fact that he hangs out with a woman who is barely twenty. You almost feel like these people could be real, living around the corner from you, and that’s what I love in any story, be it comics, books, television, or film.
8. People are people
What’s Fraction’s biggest strength at the moment? Treating every character, no matter their race, gender, sexuality, age, or abilities, as a goddamn person. No character inclusion feels forced, or accommodated for diversity’s sake. Apart from Clint, Grills, and the Russians, most of the featured characters in Hawkeye are women, but then that’s not something that’s clumsily and deliberately pointed out. It’s just the way it is.
So, while I may sing the praises of Captain Marvel, the reality is that both CM and Hawkeye are far and away my favourite books out there at the moment, holding equal places in my heart thanks mostly to superior storytelling.
Hawkeye is such a breath of fresh air, and even though most of Marvel’s crop of current titles are very good, Hawkeye is a true step forward in the superhero genre. Despite the fact that – as previously mentioned – it doesn’t really fit that label.