Rise of the C-Listers: Hawkeye

I can honestly say I never bought a comic with Hawkeye in it, let alone as the primary protagonist, until 2012. I was aware of Hawkeye since at least childhood, since he appeared alongside other Avengers in the 1990s Beat-Em Up arcade game Captain America and The Avengers. I remembered liking him then, if only because his purple color scheme stood out, and because he was an archer. It’s no secret that my favorite archer in comics is far and away Green Arrow; nevertheless, when I saw David Aja’s striking cover to issue #1 on the stands, I couldn’t resist picking it up.

Covers always lie: this issue doesn't feature Clint in the classic costume and there are very few crossword puzzles.

Covers always lie: this issue doesn’t feature Clint in the classic costume and there are very few crossword puzzles.

All You Need to Know

Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye series begins with an intro page that notes Hawkeye is a bow-wielding Avenger…and that’s all you really need to know. True to their word, the duo craft a story that isn’t embedded in continuity, and doesn’t require any prior knowledge of Hawkeye let alone the greater Marvel Universe.

The story follows two heroes that bear the mantle of Hawkeye: Clint Barton and Kate Bishop. Clint, the original Hawkeye, is a screw-up. This portrayal works quite well, both for allowing readers to identify with his imperfections, as well as the opportunity to insert a great deal of comedy at Clint’s expense. Clint’s failure in relationships, both romantic and platonic, along with his penchant for getting into fights he can’t win, is ridiculous while still extracting empathy from readers.

The comic also provided some great opportunities for merchandising.

The comic also provided some great opportunities for merchandising.

Kate, on the other hand, is much more put together. Though Clint’s junior, Kate has a solid understanding of people and is better at making tough decisions. Kate still endures her own trials, particularly when she goes to L.A. and loses almost everything while struggling against Madame Masque.

One of the greatest aspects of Hawkeye? The fact that readers can dive right in. We rapidly learn about Clint and Kate, as well as their supporting cast which consists of their neighbors (a group of vaguely Eastern European foes known as the “Tracksuit Bros”), Clint’s brother Barney, and various members of the Avengers including Mockingbird, Black Widow, and Spider Woman. Fraction succeeds in introducing characters rapidly, communicating their personas within just a few panels. Aja aids in this endeavor via everything from body language to clothing styles. Hawkeye is without a doubt one of the most accessible comics Marvel has published in the last decade.

Innovative Storytelling

Hawkeye may be the king of nonlinear storytelling in mainstream superhero comics. A solid quarter of the issues have their internal stories told in nonlinear fashion, while multiple issues revisit the same scenes from new perspectives. Moments hinted at or shown in earlier installments return later with new angles that deepen the story. This is especially well done in Issue #11, which is told from the perspective of Hawkeye’s dog, Lucky. As a dog, he only understands certain words, so we only see snatches of an argument between Kate and Clint; it’s not until a few issues later that we see the exact details of the event, which leaves the reader confused at first until the pieces are exquisitely brought together later.

An example of the innovative approach taken in issue #19

An example of the innovative approach taken in issue #19

Speaking of the dog issue, Hawkeye is no stranger to taking risks with storytelling formats. Sometimes this works well, as in the case of the aforementioned Issue #11 which is told from a dog’s viewpoint, and Issue #19 where Clint is deafened and much of the story is told through American Sign Language and other nonverbal cues. Thanks to the exceptional artwork of David Aja, readers are able to understand stories told without words, which adds another level to the comic experience.

However, not all of these alternative formats work. Issue #17 is the most egregious example. 11 issues prior in issue #6 is a beautifully done holiday special, where we see themes of working with what life gives you, and finding joy in the rough edges of one’s experience. At the end of #6, Clint sits down to watch a holiday television special with some of his neighbors; in issue #17, we see Clint fall asleep and have a dream about the special itself. While #17 makes a good effort, it’s clearly a filler issue and adds nothing to the overall scope of the series. Sure, there are a few clever jokes and it gives series letterer Chris Eliopoulos the opportunity to show off his cartooning skills, but nevertheless this issue simply rehashes themes we’ve seen earlier and does so in a heavy handed manner.

And speaking of filler, we need to talk about Kate’s adventures on the West Coast.

Side Stories

I’ll preface by saying “filler” might not be the right word to describe Hawkeye’s “L.A. Woman” arc, but it certainly feels as if it wasn’t intended to be part of the main storyline from the start.

At least it had cool art for both covers and interiors!

At least it had cool art for both covers and interiors!

Midway through the series, Kate decides to head to the West Coast to find herself, taking Lucky the dog with her. While this offered the potential for interesting stories, this suite of issues failed to garner my interest on the first or second read-through. I theorize, along with some other Hawkeye fans, that Fraction decided to add this story in order to give Aja more time to work on the main story. This is somewhat evident by some of the major delays experienced when the series was initially serialized (for instance, issue #16 came out before #15). “L.A. Woman” does allow Annie Wu to flex her creative muscles, and it’s clear she grew as an artist over the course of this story. However, the story itself failed to pull me in, least because it seemed to lean heavily on some tired “youth finding herself” and “Los Angeles stereotypes” tropes. Some of this, of course, may be attributable to the story’s addition to Hawkeye midway through the run, but nevertheless these issues are almost entirely skippable, as long as you know that Kate learned a lot while she was away.

On Target

Overall, Hawkeye is an exceptional series with great art (including the masterful Francesco Francavilla for a few issues). The team provides a moving story with great humor and exciting action that heightened my appreciation for Hawkeye.

Though the series did experience large delays during its serialization which may have contributed to some weaker issues and disjointed storytelling in the middle, overall everything came together well and, like Clint himself, the creative teams makes do with what they’re given (in this case, delays). Still, now that the series is complete, readers can explore the entire narrative, and perhaps those that look at things with fresh eyes won’t have my imputed bias.

One of Hawkeye’s greatest strengths is that issues standalone, yet build on earlier events to provide a greater tapestry. At the story’s conclusion, everything comes together while still leaving room for later writers to play in the sandbox Fraction, Aja, Wu, and company created. Without a doubt this series catapulted Clint and Kate to higher standings and recognition among fans. Hawkeye is definitely a series I recommend, not least of which because the heroes are everyman archers.

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