If all you know about Hawkeye is that he’s a guy who shoots arrows in the Avengers movies, then you don’t know anything about Hawkeye. Lucky for you, then, there’s an excellent comic-book series that shows you just how awesomely complicated Clint Barton is. For example, he’s great with boats.
Hawkeye #22—the last issue of a series that started in 2012—came out last week, wrapping up one of the strongest single-character superhero runs in a long time. A creative team anchored by Matt Fraction, David Aja, Matt Hollingsworth and others made a character who’s been around for decades feel brand new. Part of that appeal of the Fraction/Aja Hawkeye comes from its small, tight focus, when compared to other superhero series. The recurring description set the tone from the very first issue:
Secret identities tend to be just another staging area for superhero drama to happen. Not in Hawkeye. Clint Barton’s personal life feels well and truly separated from his duties as an Avenger. He almost never wears his superhero get-up and deals with problems that have nothing to do with a villain wanting to take over the world.
The series’ main conflict comes from Clint’s ongoing brawls against the Tracksuit Draculas, a Russian mob collective that’s trying to buy out the building he and a bunch of working-class folks live in.
The Tracksuit thugs make for great antagonists, because they’re largely portrayed with broad strokes of cartoonish buffoonery, but there’s always an undercurrent of sadistic menace present, too. For all the broken English, you can’t just laugh them off.
Hawkeye isn’t just about Clint Barton. The other heroic lead is Kate Bishop, who used the Hawkeye codename as a member of the Young Avengers when Clint was presumed dead. The two characters present a nice contrast to each other: Clint’s a carnie who grew up poor and started his costumed career as a bad guy; Kate’s a rich daddy’s girl who funded her team after strapping on the purple quiver. Their bickering, affectionate, same-but-different relationship formed the emotional core of the book.
Much of the fun of 2012 Hawkeye comes from the way that Fraction and company repeated phrases, established rhythm and experimented with visuals to play with structure. Most of the stories in the series’ first half started in the middle of that issue’s drama, with first-person narration that said, “Okay, this looks bad.” The storytelling often jumps back and forth from past to present but still remains readable.
Bad as things got, Clint and Kate were usually able to wrap up the goings-on with aplomb. But that eventually changed. One of the riskiest hallmarks of Hawkeye comes around the halfway mark, when it starts feeling harder to root for Clint as a protagonist. For a guy billed as “the greatest sharpshooter known to man,” he’s a man with a ton of emotional blind spots. His freewheeling approach to life leaves a lot of collateral damage in his wake, and refusing to deal with that eventually pushes Clint and Kate apart.
Hawkeye boasted a strong sense of aesthetics. Some of comic’ best stylists have contributed to its pages, like Francesco Francavilla, Annnie Wu and Javier Pulido. The book’s muted color palette provided continuity for all those different styles and underscored the down-to-earth approach taken towards its lead character. The occasional use of dense and/or intricate panel layouts was a visual signifier of the tricky moral tangles Clint and Kate would find themselves in. And the dog. The dog saw some shit, too.
The action that happens in Hawkeye matches the rough-and-tumble tone—which feels like it owes a bit to classic 1970s shows like The Rockford Files—of its approach to the title character. It may occasionally feel choreographed but it rarely feels pretty. You can feel the gravel and scratches and when throwdowns happen.
Hawkeye was a comic book about the punches we absorb while moving through life, and the importance of dealing with the baggage we accrue while doing so. Clint Barton is as screwed up as he is gifted. The series that showed us what that combination looks like was a great example of the successes of creator-driven work in the superhero genre.
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