Our recent experiments in brevity have been a blast, but this week I thought I might settle in for a more in-depth look at a single comic. To whit…
Hawkeye, by Matt Fraction, David Aja, and Francesco Francavilla
An awful lot of pixels get spilled praising this book, and not without reason. It’s stylish and pretty, with snappy dialogue, entertaining characters, and genuine emotional heft. Matt Fraction’s treatment of Clint Barton as a loveable jerk, a hard-luck hero, and a basically good guy with poor decision-making skills is not only convincing in its own right, but fits with the character’s history as a former criminal and general loud-mouth. I’ve been reading about Hawkeye off and on for pretty much my entire life, and this take feels to me like the brash, confrontational asshole of my youth losing the chip from his shoulder and struggling to find something to replace it with.
It feels like a guy who’s stopped overcompensating for being the weak link in a team filled with people who are more powerful than him, more moral, more professional, or who just generally have their shit together better. A guy who’s lost a lot, and maybe isn’t dealing with a divorce as well as he pretends to, and whose natural propensity for getting in over his head is maybe the only constant he has left. A guy who’s looking for family without realizing it, and stumbling into it out of his natural propensity for helping people. Which is also a constant, but maybe one he doesn’t recognize. A guy who’s perplexed by the new friendships and intimacies he’s developing outside the team that’s defined most of his adult life. A guy who’s pretty deeply depressed, and (because he’s emotionally stunted and still a little bit of a jerk at heart) is in the process of pushing away everyone who gives a damn about him. And a guy who needs those friends more than ever, because he’s pissed off the wrong people and is about to have hell rain down on his head.
A good night’s sleep wouldn’t be a bad thing right now, either.
I didn’t come to this analysis of Our Hero on my monthly read, I’m embarrassed to admit. No, it’s because I sat down this weekend to file away the last six or eight months’ worth of funnybooks. You know the drill: alphabetize, bag, box. Just like any other addicts, we funnybook dorks have our rituals and routines, comforting and distressing in equal measure. We all do it a little differently, of course; I alphabetize by author, for instance, and I typically set aside at least a day for the process, because any round of funnybook organization is also, as inevitably as night follows day follows night, going to involve a little bit of re-reading.
Which brings us back to Hawkeye. I sat down this weekend and re-read issues 8 to 13 (issue 13 having just come out last Wednesday). And it’s in getting the book in that large chunk, with the latest chapter fresh in my mind, that all this Hawkeye psychoanalysis spilled out of my head. It’s not that I haven’t been paying attention as we went or anything. I have been.
(Shut up! I totally have!)
It’s just that the book is designed as a series of single issues, and that’s how I’ve been treating them, when in point of fact, Fraction’s been building plot and character in neat, bite-sized pieces that, when taken together, form a much greater whole.
I think that’s been true from the beginning, but it’s especially true of these issues, which tell the story of the same two or three day period in different order and from different perspectives in each issue. We bounce back and forth in time, in fact, not just from issue to issue, but also sometimes within the pages of each issue. We see some scenes multiple times, but informed by different information on each pass, with the overall effect being a mosaic of events and motivations made that much richer by the way it’s all been constructed.
For instance, one of the key scenes involves Kate Bishop, Clint’s partner in Hawkeye, walking out on that partnership… and taking the dog with her. We’ve gotten that scene from Kate’s perspective, from Clint’s perspective, as overheard by Clint’s brother Barney… Hell, we even got it from the perspective of the dog. Because, yes, there’s an issue told from the perspective of the dog, and it’s brilliant.
But more about that in a minute. Something about Kate taking the dog has been bothering me: it seemed too petty. I mean, sure, Clint can be a real pain in the ass, and Kate’s kind of a piece of work herself, sometimes. But to take the man’s dog… That’s just mean.
It takes two other scenes make it work. First, in issue 10, we discover that Kate met Kaziu at a party, and–
Kaziu is, of course, the Russian assassin who’s been hired to kill Clint. He lost everyone he ever loved to violence, and turned to violence himself as a means of escape. He’s probably at least a little sociopathic, but also very charming and handsome, and when Kate meets him at the party, they hit it off.
Of course, she doesn’t really know anything about him. All she knows is that she met this attractive older man, a man around Clint’s age, and he showed her interest and respect in a way that Clint never really does. Clint, in fact, just yells at her when she goes to him afterward and tries to have the same kind of conversation with him that she’d just had with his assassin. So that’s one fracture between them.
And now, in issue 13, on the way to Grills’ funeral…
Oh. Yeah. They killed Grills. Like, back at the end of issue 9. Kaziu was casing Clint’s building, stumbled across Grills on the roof, and shot him. Lucky (the dog) is the only one who’s pieced this together, of course, but–
Grills is Clint’s neighbor, I should explain. So-called because he grills food for the residents of Clint’s building in these impromptu rooftop barbecues that Clint both loves being a part of and is made crazy uncomfortable by.
What was I saying? Oh, yeah! So Kate and Clint are on the way to Grills’ funeral, alone in the back of a car, and she makes this really genuinely touching declaration of her dedication to their partnership, pouring her heart out to him, and telling him that she feels like the two of them together form a whole person, a person who’s worth being, and… Clint falls asleep.
Now, at this point I’m getting the impression that Clint probably hasn’t gotten a full, uninterrupted night’s sleep this whole time. He’s gotten the shit kicked out of him on some unspecified Avengers business, he’s just signed his divorce papers, he’s committed a crime he doesn’t entirely understand in the company of this sketchy redhead…
…he’s alienated his girlfriend by sleeping with said redhead, the now-EX-girlfriend has joined forces with his ex-wife and another ex-girlfriend to snoop into his business, he’s bickering with his partner, the Avengers are threatening to kick him out, the cops are questioning him, his criminal brother…
…has turned up destitute on his doorstep, the one guy he’s formed anything like a normal friendship with has just been killed on the roof, and every single one of these people inevitably shows up just in time to keep him from getting any sleep. Dude is tired.
But falling asleep on that complicated, difficult-to-express confession? That had to be the last straw for Kate. So…
And that’s how Fraction’s been juggling this book. All these swirling issues of love, sex, friendship, family, loyalty, crime, and morality, and all of it interconnected in this massive web of plot and character. And I haven’t even touched on the complex view toward killing that’s developing, or the similarities drawn between the Barton brothers and Kaziu, or how the tracksuit draculas (the Russian mob villains) are also motivated by family ties, or the way the relationship between Clint and Kate is purely professional but with at least a hint of unrequited (and maybe unrecognized) romance that colors all of Kate’s decisions and is maybe the cherry on top of the “she took the dog” pie.
It’s complex work, a tightrope-walking performance rarely matched in monthly comics. It’s the sort of thing that makes this series a Funnybook of the Year contender. And in a year that’s seen Brandon Graham continue to kill on Prophet, and Grant Morrison wrap up a seven-year run on Batman, that’s impressive.
And it’s pretty, too. Oh, so pretty. I mean, you’ve been paying attention to these cover images I’ve been scattering through the review, right? All of them are pretty great, but most of them cross over the line into “stunning.” They’re all pretty massively embiggenable, too, FYI, so get to clickin’ and enjoy…
Anyway. It’s rare for a funnybook series to have any sense of design at all, but this book’s got it in spades. That’s down to regular series artist David Aja, who established impeccable design principles from the first issue on. His are the more… designy images, with the shapes and the sharp contrast and such, and he’s been handling the action taking place in the present-day. But there are two flashback issues in the mix, as well, and those have been handled by no less an artistic light than Franceso Francavilla, who’s routinely turning in the best covers on the stands these days.
The only ones that top them, in fact, are Aja’s. But he’s been killing it on the interiors, as well. He always does, of course, but his stuff’s really shining right now. The best of these issues from that perspective (and probably just in general) has to be the Pizza Dog issue.
Pizza Dog being Lucky’s nickname, due to his penchant for eating old pizza out of the garbage.
(Gah! I’m still doing it!)
Anyway. This one’s been talked about a lot. Hell, I talked about it myself when it came out. But it bears repeating, especially after my re-reading binge. So the story’s told from the perspective of the dog, and Fraction and Aja do a multitude of great things to demonstrate how Lucky sees the world. Here, for instance, is his view of an argument between the two Hawkeyes:
On Fraction’s end, I love the way Lucky only recognizes a handful of words. That’s cool, and gives us just enough insight into the conversations to be intriguing. But it’s Aja’s contribution that makes this issue something special. Those “dog diagrams,” the flow charts of smells and associations Lucky makes with the world around him, are freaking brilliant. They express how he thinks without resorting to the thought bubbles Silver Age super-pets often got, or the narrative captions explaining an animals’ motivations that came along later.
I like what they reveal about how Lucky sees masters, too. The shield says that Clint’s his protector, but that heart says that Kate’s the one he really loves. Which in turn explains why he goes with her when she leaves. Because she took the dog. Did I mention she took the dog? She totally took the dog.
But we learn some things about Our Heroes here, too: Clint’s been drinking a lot of coffee, for instance (playing back to his lack of sleep), and Kate… Well. Kate’s been having a few drinks, and… What’s that deal with the lips and the question mark? Hmm. Y’know, I missed this entirely on first read, but… check this out:
That’s Lucky investigating the crime scene up on the roof after Grills has been shot. He identifies Grills and Clint first.
Clint was up there talking to Grills only a minute before the murder happened, by the way, and because he’d been drinking pretty heavily at this point (note the beer bottles), he didn’t even realize Kaziu was there.
Next, Lucky identifies the third man, figures out he’s fired a gun, and… Yep. Lips and question mark. That means Kate’s been kissing up on Kaziu. Which we knew from their encounter in issue 10, but seeing it laid out here is a bit stunning.
So… Complex, innovative storytelling. Complex, conflicted characters. And beautiful, beautiful artwork. I knew I liked this book, but now I’ve come to realize that I freaking love it. And all thanks to putting off the “collecting” side of funnybook collecting for the better part of a year. Just this once, procrastination paid off…