Hawkeye – Exploring a Marvel Masterpiece

Few comic books in recent years have engendered as loyal of a fanbase or had such a unique impact as writer Matt Fraction and artist David Aja’s 2012 Marvel series Hawkeye. Its quirky storytelling, deeply flawed protagonists, and one-of-a-kind art make it a comic book like no other and a major influence on modern superhero stories.

Fraction and Aja’s Hawkeye finds its power in balancing its hard-luck heroes with an insanely stylish presentation. Together, they forge an original comic book that bucks the typical superhero traditions while still providing all the thrills that fans of the genre love. As is made clear by the instant, passionate fan base engendered by Hawkeye upon its launch and the comic’s continuing influence in the years since its first issue was published, Fraction’s series is one of the most influential comic books of the modern era.

In its wake, numerous comics have attempted to capture the idea that drove this series: what does Hawkeye do when he’s not being an Avenger? Throughout its run, we see Hawkeye deal with everyday problems while attempting to save his apartment building from the Russian mob. The superheroics are often left on the sidelines and interpersonal dynamics are given the greatest emphasis, even when the action takes center stage.

While Marvel Comics have been defined by their focus on the human side of heroes ever since Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four launched Marvel as we know it, Fraction’s series offers a slightly different twist on the approach. Clint Barton is a screw up and his heroic acts are often far removed from common superhero adventures. That’s clear from the very start. And issue #1’s opening line of “Ok, this looks bad” immediately establishes the tone, voiceover style, and struggles of its hero.

With our hero brutally injured and in the hospital as the series begins, Fraction establishes Barton’s vulnerabilities. But human physical fragility is not the biggest of the hero’s flaws.

Barton has deep self-doubts and is prone to making rash decisions that alienate those who love him. He’s all too willing to run away from his troubles, but when he ends up put in charge of a New York apartment building full of likable tenants targeted by the Russian mob, he finds himself forced to own up to his mistakes and try to be a better man. These are relatively low stakes for a superhero comic book, but the humanity and likability of its central characters means that the reader quickly becomes invested in their physical and emotional wellbeing. We root for Clint despite his glaring flaws and his heartwrenching losses are offset by his small yet crucial victories.

And the person most directly affected by those flaws is Kate Bishop, a younger hero who also goes by the codename Hawkeye. Younger and much more good hearted, Kate pushes Barton to be a better person while also struggling with her own destructive tendencies. She’s hot headed, optimistic, and often finds herself weighed down by human baggage, but still fights the good fight. These two protagonists bounce off each other in ways that would feel right at home in an indie drama, helping to bring both levity and tragedy to the wild action sequences they often find themselves embroiled in.

The Clint-Kate dynamic is the heart of Fraction’s Hawkeye, with their platonic but meaningful relationship defining the series’ major arcs. Supporting character favorites like the irrepressible Lucky (you can call him Pizza Dog) and late comer Barney Barton, Clint’s sometimes villainous brother, bring a more robust family dynamic. At crucial moments, we see the story through their eyes, adding layers to these side characters and new perspectives on Kate and Clint.

Early stories like the first few issues feature wild setpieces, including a spectacular car chase that ranks among the most well-told actions scenes in comics, set up the ongoing conflict between the Hawkeyes and the Russian mob gunning for their lives and their apartment. These soon give way to mysteries regarding why the mob wants the apartment and an ever-growing number of villains gunning for Clint and Kate. Our heroes soon begin to crack under the pressure, dealing with in-fighting and constant missteps in their various relationships that often pose a greater threat than the villains outside their door.

When tragedy befalls the apartment, our heroes splinter. Kate leaves for L.A. and takes Lucky with her and Clint stays in New York to wallow in his misery. These dueling stories play out in separate issues, with Kate becoming embroiled in a noir mystery that pays homage to both Robert Altman’s take on The Long Goodbye and the messy history or The Beach Boys, and Clint suffer numerous physical setbacks, including being deafened, as he reconnects with his often antagonistic brother. These two storylines underline the heroes’ need for one another in their lives and culminate in a massive, high stakes, fiery finale for the fate of the apartment complex. Like the rest of the series, it’s stylish and emotionally satisfying.

Fraction’s dialogue is a major selling point of Hawkeye’s original voice, as the writer utilizes an often-staccato stumbling and mumbling from its characters provides an indie film feel that breaks hard from the superhero cliché of big bold speeches and extra loud proclamations. In addition, repeat phrases from numerous heroes and villains amongst the witty repartee establish this quirky, idiosyncratic world. These are often done to affect light moments of character-based comedy that don’t break the tension of the story, but provide some reprieve to the frequently downbeat nature of the characters. You’ll see them pop up time and time again from start to finish, but they never feel tired or boring thanks to the shifting story arc and it’s frequently changing dynamic. They’re a calling card of the series and the storytelling in Hawkeye wouldn’t have the same rhythm without them.

That rhythm is wonderfully matched by David Aja’s art, whose minimalist approach eschews the modern tendency to push realism and hyper detail as much as possible. Aja fills the page with dozens of panels, using his enormous amount of images to focus in on numerous details within a scene, capture every emotion that plays across a face, or slow down time for maximum dramatic impact. Aja’s ability to create believable and expressionistic human characters while maintaining a bold style brought to life through clean, heavy line work is a marvel. These are bold and stylish images that deserve to be poured over time and time again, with the mundane nature of a rundown apartment block becoming some of the most visually wonderful images in comic books. The greatest writer-artist duos in comics work with an almost subconscious ability to coordinate and that is clearly what happened here.

Aja isn’t the only artist to provide the images for Fraction’s Hawkeye. However, he is most certainly the defining designer for the series and his ideas are what inform the visual storytelling, even when done by other artists. Those artists include Annie Wu on Kate’s solo stories in Los Angeles, Francesco Francavilla on several standalone side character focused issues, and Javier Pulido on the early two-issue arc The Tape. They all add some additional flair to the series, but Aja’s work is unmatchable here in its meticulous and innovative layouts.

Colorist Matt Hollingsworth also played a critical role in establishing the look and feel of Hawkeye. By using a very limited color pallet, Hollingsworth created a visual tone that shifts from the start to finish of each issue. What may have been initially used as the color of the sky at the start of an issue may find its way to becoming skin tone. We don’t notice it because Hollingsworth slowly shifts the colors from page to page, which recontextualizes each color without the reader noticing until the entire issue can be seen as a whole. These shifting colors change the mood, indicating the onset of depression, anger, love, and much more in subtle but substantial ways.

While the broader story arc of Hawkeye’s 23 issues centers on the major conflict of the heroes versus the Russian mob for the wellbeing of the apartment and its residents, Fraction also makes time to explores tangents which add great character depth and huge splashes of style to the series.

6 Days in the Life of Hawkeye is a Christmas tale that shows Clint making major decisions in a nonsequential order. By showing Clint’s decisions in an emotionally cohesive yet rearranged order, we see Fraction’s ability to put character at the center of the narrative instead of pure plot.

The Stuff What Don’t Get Spoke has its characters communicate almost entirely in sign language, without subtitles spelling out the meaning to readers. This massively researched issue depends on Aja’s ability to express emotions and show character development through faces and actions, almost entirely free of words.

However, the jewel of these out-of-the-ordinary issues is #11 – Pizza is My Business. It’s a mystery told entirely from the perspective of Lucky, which means that most words are rendered into gibberish and a series of images and symbols are used to help readers interpret the world through Lucky’s eyes. As the reader begins to understand the non-verbal language spoken by Pizza Dog, we pick up on clues that will become vital for later issues. It’s so unconventional but is the epitome of completely visual storytelling. Read it in the context of the larger series. Reread it by itself. It’s an absolute blast and shows what a perfect team Fraction, Aja and Hollingsworth make.

While major scheduling delays caused Hawkeye to go for months between issues toward the end of its run, there were no compromises made regarding narrative or illustration. Now, on its five-year anniversary, Hawkeye can be taken as a cohesive and artistically powerful whole. Its stories of finding redemption through caring about others and overcoming your own deeply flawed nature is what gives real warmth to its stylish presentation. With Kate and Clint struggling to find a greater meaning in their often troubled daily lives, readers can find countless ways to relate, even in the midst of insane action and suspense.

Like the best superhero stories, Hawkeye is inspiring and gripping, but Fraction’s storytelling emphasizes the very real mess that comes with caring about other people. We love one another, hurt one another, and try to be better people for others’ sakes, even when we don’t think we’re worth being cared about. Over and over, Clint and Kate accept each other’s shortcomings in an effort to grow and move forward.

Hawkeye still feels fresh and exciting, despite numerous imitators popping up in the years since, as even the best of the series it has inspired have never quite been able to do what was done here. Fraction and Aja’s Hawkeye is a true modern classic in comic books and deserves to go down in the medium’s history as one of the greats.

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