People are probably going to read the title above and get really mad at me or take offense, when I honestly mean it as a gigantic compliment. Because despite what many areas of the internet (and culture at large) would have you believe, there is a lot of wonderful fan fiction in the world. And like all forms of art, there are certain tropes that a large portion of fanfic adheres to.
And Matt Fraction—knowingly or not—used a whole bunch of those tropes in his run of Hawkeye.
Why does this matter? It doesn’t really. But reading this comic I found myself racking my brain, trying to pinpoint exactly what about this particular run was working for me (and a lot of other people, if its popularity was any indication). And I realized something… that it had all the hallmarks of my favorite types of fanfic. That their inclusion was a large part of the reason why I had suddenly bought a pair of purple chucks and was seriously considering some sort of weird purple target tattoo in my future. (That’s totally happening, by the way.)
Before you stop me—of course, any kind of story can use the tropes I’m talking about. But finding all of them in the same place is what warms the cockles of my sometimes-cynical heart and brings a goofy smile to my face. This special combo is what made Hawkeye matter to me in a way that comics often don’t, and I’m willing to bet the same is true for a few other fans.
Now that the series is over, I thought I’d highlight the elements of this prefect storm. How does Hawkeye remind me of the best fanfics I’ve read? Here are the key markers:
1. Your Favorite Character Gets A Pet
Everyone should have pets. This is not a universal truth, but perhaps it’s a spiritual one of sorts. Pets are life-enriching. And less expensive/time-consuming than children, usually. They connect with humans in a very fundamental, no-bullshit kind of way. So imagining a beloved fictional character with a wonderful pet is something that happens a lot in fan fiction. It also happens when Clint Barton feeds pizza to a dog, and said dog saves his life shortly thereafter.
Lucky the Pizza Dog was immediately adored among comics fan, to the point where one of the more recent Hawkeye action figures had a Lucky figure tucked alongside it. The sleuthing dog’s personal issue “Pizza is My Business” won an Eisner Award because he’s the best, and a perfect pet for a superhero, and my heart hurts just looking at him, ack, don’t do this to me, this is not fair. Lucky is the MVP of the series, no questions asked.
2. Your Favorite Character F*cks Up Their Life/Relationships (Even More Than Usual)
Relationships are complicated, and so is life in general. But often in fiction, the plot can move a story forward at the expense of examining those complexities. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s the reason why fan fiction is so often employed to fill in the “gaps.” This is especially true of comics, when so many of the stories are centrally focused on big events where a bunch of characters clash together for a big brouhaha that has ridiculous ripple effects for the rest of the universe. Sometimes it’s just nice to scale down and remember that messing up your own stuff can be just as terrible as messing up the big stuff.
Which is why it’s strangely cathartic to watch Clint Barton get in trouble with the Avengers when he agrees to help a woman named Penny with a tricky situation involving her super shady husband. And then get into more trouble with his current friend-girl (Spider-Woman Jessica Drew) for sleeping with Penny. And then get into trouble with his co-Hawkeye Kate Bishop for refusing to accept her help and support with the Screwed Up Smoothie he’s made of things. And then there’s the bonus of Kate shoving off to L.A. after getting mad at Clint, only to lose access to all her usual funds and end up roughing it as a private eye.
It’s not exactly real-people problems, but it’s definitely small scale for people who spend most of their time jumping off buildings and rescuing cities for a living.
3. Your Favorite Character Hangs Around Their Apartment in Their Pajamas, Excessively
When life is tough, all you really want is to lounge around in your pjs, eating ice cream, drinking beer, and watching Netflix. (I want to do this all the time, but I’m not a role model, so stop looking at me like that.) And Clint Barton does spend a large portion of this tale in his apartment, wearing purple/target-themed sleepwear, drinking coffee out of the pot, getting drunk on the couch, and not showering for let’s-not-guess-how-long.
There’s an aspect of real depression to it, and perhaps that makes it even more important; the acknowledgment that characters that we admire fall pray to the same difficulties everyone else does. That sometimes they would also like to hide away at home and tune out the world as much as possible.
4. Your Favorite Character Takes Place in Battles That You Never See
In fan fiction, often the big explode-y action is an afterthought to all the emotional development at the center of the story. That doesn’t mean that there are never any cool fight sequences, but it does mean that you’re more likely to encounter those sequences at the halfway point, or even toward the end—the place where the important story-informing actions often take place.
While there are full-on battles in Hawkeye, they are primarily concerned with Clint’s apartment building, his community, and the Tracksuit Mafia he’s up against. Because that is our focus, the Avenger-stuff he does in this comic isn’t quite so important. Which means that when Clint is fighting on behalf of the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, we typically don’t see the majority of that fight—we show up at the tail end of it, in time to see Clint all beat to hell, tying to pick himself up off the ground. It reminds the audience that being part of a super team is still only a sliver of his life, and that what comes after is just as interesting.
It also reminds us that all post-battle recovery is hell. Seriously, why don’t more comics deal with that, it is literally bonkers the amount of damage that these people willingly agree to by virtue of their chosen profession. CLINT BARTON’S SKULL IS A JIGSAW PUZZLE OF FRACTURES.
5. Your Favorite Character Makes Friends With Their Neighbors Like A Normal Person
It’s great that the characters we watch and/or read about are all buddies. That’s half the fun, thinking about the Avengers playing video games together, or setting up a karaoke competition back at HQ. But it’s also fun to imagine how these characters interact with relatively normal people, the sort they are more likely to meet day in and day out. And those are the relationships that we don’t see very often.
The driving force of the plot in Fraction’s Hawkeye run is Clint trying to wrestle his apartment building from the hands of the Tracksuit Mafia, who want to drive out the tenants by hiking the rent, and then demolish the building to develop a super mall. This basic plot necessitates that Clint actually know and care about his neighbors. And he does. He shows up to cookouts on the roof, he invites Simone over with her kids to watch their Christmas show on his TV, he helps Gil rescue his dad when Hurricane Sandy hits. Kate has a similar experience in L.A., befriending a gay couple and saving their wedding by retrieving a few precious flowers. All of these people are interesting, dynamic individuals, and it’s refreshing to see regular-type folk (you know, people who work for a living and such) interacting with our title heroes.
6. Your Favorite Character Sits Around Bantering With Their BFF
Couldn’t we all do with more casual conversations between people who have that just-so dynamic? While some creators thrive on banter (Joss Whedon is the usual insta-pick for geeks in this case), there are plenty who only use it as a bare framing device to whatever important stuff is going on in their plot.
But Clint Barton and Kate Bishop spend pretty much all their time hassling each other whenever they’re in a room together, and it is categorically The Best Thing about Hawkeye. And because Fraction excels at writing organic dialogue where characters get flustered and can’t think of what to say, or ticked off enough to storm away, it doesn’t have that uncanny I’m-so-clever vibe that can come from writers who enjoy a good banter session. It allows the central characters to be funny, but also approachable. We know people like this. We love people like this. We talk to our own friends this way (or we wish we did). It’s wonderful.
7. Your Favorite Character Has to Deal With Family Stuff (and They Really Don’t Want To)
Plenty of fictional characters have relatives that show up on screen or between the pages. But family is background as frequently as anything, a reminder of what the character has or had and/or stands to lose. This is especially true in superhero yarns; the majority of Superman comics do not feature Ma and Pa Kent as starring players, and that’s just fine. But sometimes zeroing in on those dynamics is just what we need.
Clint Barton never had the smoothest relationship with big brother Barney, but often the older Barton’s appearance was meant to torment Clint. They would fight and part ways, and occasionally a word or two would get dropped about their past. But here, Barney is sleeping on Clint’s couch and filling out crossword puzzles while his little brother talks to the ex-wife. They have code words and phrases they use as they fight alongside each other. Barney rails at Clint for being stubborn about using ASL when his brother is re-deafened on their doorstep. To top it off, we learn the ways that Barney shaped his little brother’s life in moving flashback sequences. It’s an intimate look at their relationship, one that relies on them being brothers more than stock enemies.
Sure it doesn’t end perfectly, but while it lasts, it’s so, so good.
There are more of these touches laced throughout Hawkeye, but those were the ones that stood out most to me on reading. And in a way, it’s vindicating; when fan fiction is so often maligned, seeing a successful comic do so much of what fanfic does best is a clear point in favor of transformative works. While I don’t expect anyone to precisely duplicate Fraction’s winning combo any time soon, I do hope we get more works like it in the future.
The real point I’m getting at is—Hawkeye was fantastic. And I miss it already.
Artwork: David Aja. Color: Matt Hollingsworth