Pull List: Hawkeye

When I first pitched Pull List, I intended the column to look at the bad stuff as well as the good, but somehow it’s morphed into monthly love notes. Which means that this is the perfect time to talk about Matt Fraction and David Aja’s absolutely fan-flerken-tastic run on Hawkeye. It’s one of the rare few superhero comics I’d readily and without hesitation put near the top of my Best Of list. It’s that good. No, it’s that incredibly great.

Origin Story

PL_Hawkeye-coverIn this series by writer Matt Fraction and artist David Aja, Clint Barton is “the Avenger that’s Just A Dude.” The series shows what happens to Clint when he stops being an Avenger and starts getting real. Clint fights with his landlord. He takes his dog to the vet. He goes to a neighborhood barbeque and untangles his Christmas lights. He hooks up with a girl, gets dumped, and squabbles with his ex wives. He watches cheesy holiday movies with a couple of cute kids, drunk dials an ex, and, um, steals an apartment building. He bonds with his brother, shuts out his best friend, and makes a ton of stupid mistakes with the best of intentions. Meanwhile, Kate Bishop runs off to Los Angeles for the same reason everyone else does and discovers the same thing they do—that no one makes it in LA, that the glitz and glamor is all a mask for the darkness and chaos roiling beneath the surface, and that maybe she’s not quite as ready to be independent as she thought. There’s an overarching story about Eastern European gangsters, an evil league of evil, seemingly indefeatable archenemies, and betrayal, but for the most part it’s about a guy standing in front of a girl asking her to hand him a boomerang arrow.

The 22 issues—or 4 trade volumes, if you please—were released by Marvel between 2012 and 2015 (the last issue came out July 15). Volumes 3 and 4 are wonky in terms of the issues compiled within: Vol 3 covers Kate’s time as practically an Avenger in Los Angeles—issues #14, 16, 18, and 20—while vol 4 (released July 29) focuses on Clint dealing with being an off-the-clock Avenger in Manhattan—issues #17, 12, 13, 15, 19, 21, and 22. In other words, don’t even try to read them in release order, it’ll drive you up the wall jumping back and forth.

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To Pull Or Not To Pull

I’m a huge sucker for losers fighting against all hope to defend the thing they love. Not the underdog, but the underestimated. Hellboy stands up to the most powerful beings in existence even though he know he probably won’t make it out of the fight alive. Oliver Queen on the CW’s Arrow faces off time and time again with insurmountable odds with little more than his wit, quick reflexes, and the knowledge that even if he dies at least he died for something good. Furiosa battles three whole armies of sadistic men because she believes it’s better to die free than live in hell. They go to war recognizing there’s a good chance they won’t walk out of it alive, but they go anyway. Sometimes they have help, and sometimes they even ask for it, but the fight is ultimately theirs and theirs alone. That is the role Clint Barton was born to play, and I can think of no one better than Matt Fraction and David Aja to lead the way.

I should admit that I’ve never read anything Hawkeye besides Fraction/Aja. Technically speaking, the first Hawkeye I ever read was Kate in Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s Young Avengers. I knew about Clint, having seen the Marvel movies and worked up a righteous feminist fury with the Hawkeye Initiative, but boy howdy am I glad Fraction and Aja were the ones to welcome me into the Hawkeye fold. He’s the kind of character that would be so easy to get wrong, to turn into a putz, an asshole, or one of those dudebros who thinks they’re being charming but are really just annoying and creepy. In fact, the MCU suffers with the lack of Fraction’s Clint “human disaster” Barton—and, frankly, with the absence of Gillen and Fraction’s Kate.

This run of Hawkeye isn’t just a bunch of stories about Clint when he’s not being an Avenger; it’s about Clint being Clint but with a few trick weapons. He’s not a superhero, he’s a guy with a problem that needs fixing and is stubborn enough to think he can solve it on his own. Don’t misunderstand me, Clint isn’t selfish or proud. He doesn’t think he can save the world without any help, he thinks he has to do it alone. He started it, willingly or otherwise, and now he has to finish it. Of course it’s more complicated than that—it always is when dealing with human emotions and past traumas—but the fact that he stands up to The Clown and the Tracksuit Draculas sans teammates and costume wishing he had Thor’s hammer instead of actually calling in Thor speaks to what kind of man, what kind of hero Clint truly is.

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But there’s more to it than just Clint. Kate and The Clown are both shades of Clint. Kate is younger, prettier, and almost as talented at archery as her mentor is, but she’s also equally as troubled, troubling, and troublesome. She blunders off to Los Angeles in a huff meant to punish Clint as much as it boosts her confidence. Clint’s battle against The Clown and his Tracksuit Draculas mirrors Kate’s standoff with Madam Masque and the Bellboys, but unlike Clint she realizes early on she can’t win on her own and turns to her new LA friends for help. In a lot of ways, she’s a better superhero than Clint, even if Barton has the punch to match the costume.

And The Clown, well, there’s a reason he looks a lot like Clint, especially with Aja’s spartan artwork and clever camera angles. Clint isn’t merely fighting a supervillain, he’s fighting himself. The Clown is the worst aspects of Clint Barton all wrapped up in a white suit. Clint feels like a joke, a loser, a clown, when compared to the rest of the Avengers, so it’s fitting that he can’t even defeat an actual clown that functions as his metaphorical polar opposite. For those hunting for more Kate/Clint parallels, the defining costume features of both Madam Masque and The Clown are their masks, and Kate toys with looking similar to her nemesis by donning her gear and launching a cover rescue mission. Like I said, there’s a ton going on here, and it gets deeper the more you think about it.

I can’t end this review without gushing about the artwork. David Aja is the principle artist on the series, and he knocks the whole thing out of the park. I enjoyed his style tremendously—issues #2 and #11 most especially—but it was issue #19 that broke me. Clint goes deaf again, and spends most of the issue sulking in silence. Fraction and Aja make the wise choice not to write out what the other characters say to him or translate the ASL, putting us squarely in Clint’s shoes. It’s heartbreaking and emotional, but tremendously respectful of the deaf community. While Clint is upset about his condition, it’s not that he hates being deaf but pissed off about the circumstances that made him so. He feels like a failure because of what happened, not because he’s deaf. No one makes jokes about his lack of hearing, nor does anyone taunt Barney for being in a wheelchair. Diversity is vital in popular entertainment, and Fraction and Aja demonstrate that even though it takes some effort to get it right, the payoff is more than worth it (and on the DC side, Justice League 3001 continues with its super gross transphobia). Once Clint goes deaf Aja’s art becomes the narrative force, and it’s a testament to his skill that the story never falters. If anything, it’s actually stronger without dialogue cluttering things up.

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Other artists crop up from time to time. Javier Pulido (from Charles Soule’s She-Hulk) and Annie Wu (the new Black Canary) dominate Kate’s stories in Los Angeles to wondrous success. Their quirky, playful style that contrasts strikingly with Aja’s more muted tone. It’s only fitting that Los Angeles should appear brighter, more colorful, and more expressive than midtown Manhattan, so Wu and Pulido drench Kate’s issues in every color but purple—for the most part, the only time we see the trademark Hawkeye color is when she’s wearing it. I was a little unsure about Steve Lieber and Jesse Hamm’s heavy lines and odd body angles until Kate pulled the world’s greatest angry face and referred to an old server as “Steve Buscemi’s tiny grandpa” while looking like the Dowager Countess from Downton Abbey. Francesco Francavilla has done some amazing covers on about a million different titles, but his best work is in weird science fiction and horror. He brings that to his own issues with atypical panel layouts, lurid coloring, and a Hannibal-esque fetish for unexpected closeups.

In case this review wasn’t clear enough, Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye is awesome. It’s got that beautiful balance between black comedy and tragicomedy, action and adventure, non-exploitive romance and exploitation violence, film noir and YA, and emotional intimacy and awkward romance that the MCU can only dream about. Clint’s Hawkeye is a fun superhero outside of Fraction and Aja, but in their world he becomes all too human. And their version of Kate’s Hawkeye is on par with Gillen and McKelvie’s and streets ahead of anything the MCU has managed with the women they’ve put on the silver screen. I’m sad to see Fraction and Aja call it a day with Hawkeye(s), but what a note to go out on.

Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.

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