Comics reviews: Hawkeye, vol 1

May 12, 2013 § Leave a comment

Hawkeye, vol 1 coverWhen the people who decide these sorts of things get around to splitting up the ridiculously-named “Modern Age” of superhero comics, Hawkeye by Matt Fraction and David Aja will certainly land squarely in the middle of the canon for whatever time period now ends up being.

The current historical moment of the superhero genre is a fascinating beast. In the 80’s, as we all know, Alan Moore and others began to thoroughly deconstruct the genre. Then the 90’s introduced superhero cartoons and movies largely aimed at children, inculcating the superhero myth into a new audience au naturale. Simultaneously, fiction writers like Michael Chabon and China Mieville have worked to reclaim and rehabilitate genre fiction, massaging the essential tropes of sci-fi, fantasy, and others to coexist with literary modernism. My twitter buddy Ben likes to call this genre puree Fantastical Materialism.

So when superheroes arrived again, such as in the 2001 Spider-Man movie, the very deconstruction that created genre-defying works like Watchmen and Miracleman now reinforced the genre entirely. What would you do if you, like Peter Parker, were by chance bitten by a radioactive spider, giving you unique and incredible powers? Why, you’d become a masked hero, fighting villains and saving lives, of course! Why? Because this superhero myth has become so ingrained in our cultural psyche that that reaction has become a default expectation to the situation.

Now, when we see a superhero, we don’t ask “what kind of self-aggrandizing pervert puts on tights to beat up strangers?”—we simply say, “okay.” This is especially true in the Marvel universe (616 to fans), with superpowered beings seemingly on every New York streetcorner. In Joss Whedon’s 2004 Astonishing X-Men #1, Cyclops discusses the X-Men’s image problem and the need to emerge from Grant Morrison’s black leather to new costumes of brightly colored spandex. He states, “We need to present ourselves as a [superhero] team like any other. Avengers, Fantastic Four—they don’t get chased through the streets with torches.” For Whedon’s X-Men, gaining the acceptance of the public, both in their world and in ours, means fulfilling the expectations of the superhero genre. This acknowledgement of the construct of a superhero, and the tropes it entails, such as costumes, is an intrinsic part of the contemporary superhero story.

from Astonishing X-Men 1 by Joss Whedon and John Cassaday, via Comixology

Hawkeye (2012) applies this context to the titular Clint Barton, a hero who previously was so vanilla that even Joss Whedon couldn’t come up with anything interesting for him to say in the Avengers movie. In four hyper-compressed short stories, stretching the first 5 issues of the comic, Fraction recasts Hawkeye as a superhero everyman. Without powers or technology, Hawkeye is your average Joe Superhero; he fights crime, has regrettable sex, and spends a lot of time in the hospital. His main villain thus far is a new invention—the “tracksuit mafia,” a cartel of Russian immigrants who profit from gentrification and should win Fraction the Pulitzer prize this and every year for “best comedic use of the word ‘bro.'” But make no mistake: Hawkeye is a superhero. Though he bumbles, and lacks superpowers or a flashy costume, something essential about the superhero DNA remains in his story—the “of course” part. In fact, absent those other elements, his heroism shines even brighter.

For example, Fraction even rehabilitates the genre kitsch of Hawkeye’s “trick arrows”—specialty arrows outfitted with ridiculous gimmicks like an acid-filled tip or a boomerang effect—in a frenetic car chase with the tracksuit mafia. These arrows are a staple of the Hawkeye character since his introduction in the 1960’s, yet have been increasingly toned down in recent years since the superhero deconstruction and the subsequent push to make superhero stories more plausible to the real world. Dealing with the trick arrows, Fraction begins with a deconstruction—Hawkeye decides to “finally” organize his trick arrows, much like your or I might rearrange our sock drawer. Of course, this earns him a merciless mocking from his more contemporary counterpart, Kate Bishop, Hawkeye of the Young Avengers. Yet by the end of the issue, even the stupidest arrows have proven unexpectedly useful. Yes, this deft deconstruction and reconstruction, a fully realized story, a fantastic chase scene, and an emotionally revealing sex scene, all happen within the space of a single issue—a compression of scale rare in contemporary comics.

Of course, Hawkeye’s super-compressed adventures wouldn’t be possible without the masterful work of David Aja and Javier Pulido—though most especially Aja. I spent several minutes on more than a few pages, reading and rereading, trying to figure out how Aja was able to convey so much on a single page, until I realized maybe I just enjoyed looking at it.

With the Avengers movies bringing millions of new eyeballs to the franchise, it’s nice to see their companion comics excelling at the same time—and Hawkeye absolutely fucking kills it. Read it for both a great story and a fantastic look at where and what superheroes are today.

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