Friday, March 29, 2013

Recommended Reading for 3/29: Hawkeye

If you had told me last year that I would be writing a recommendation for a book featuring Hawkeye, Marvel Comics avenging archer, I would have given you an incredulous look. Sure, Brian Michael Bendis had done some decent things with him in New Avengers, but my first and main exposure to Hawkeye was during the period when he was with Mockingbird a lot, and to a DC fan felt like a poor man's Green Arrow (who is often a poor man's Batman). But I had heard such good things about this series, and the last time Matt Fraction and David Aja worked together they had done an amazing job on Immortal Iron Fist, so I thought I'd try it out. And boy am I glad I did.

Hawkeye isn't a traditional superhero comic. Like Immortal Iron Fist was really a martial arts comic, Hawkeye is a crime comic. Sure, there are supervillains, but they seem to be street level villains, or at least non-powered ones, and Hawkeye is fighting them on his terms. The first issue is a street story, where Hawkeye is trying to get a bunch of Russian crooks to stop trying to force the people in a building they have bought, one where Hawkeye keeps an apartment, out on the street. Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor really don't fight a bunch of Russian mobsters in track suits who call them, "Bro," throughout the story.

Matt Fraction's writing has a wicked sense of humor. Clint Barton, Hawkeye, is the kind of guy who has a wiseass comment for every situation. He disarms his foes and his friends with them. There's a long line of heroes who do this, from Marvel's own Spider-Man, to wizard-for-hire Harry Dresden, to Vlad Taltos, Steven Brust's wizard/assassin. The stories are narrated by Barton, so it helps being in the heroes head to really get his irreverance.

What it feels to me Fraction is doing is really taking Hawkeye and turning him into a classic hardluck pulp hero when he's no with the Avengers. The series opens with Hawkeye taking a plunge out of a window and breaking enough bones to leave him in the hospital for six weeks. Over the course of the first trade's worth of issues, Hawkeye is mugged, shot, hit on the head with a bottle, and knocked out. Sure, superheroes usually take a beating, but rarely as constantly, and in such an embarrassing manner for them. The narrative of each issue actually has the repeated phrase, "Okay... This looks bad." This is not the heroic mantra of a hero; it's nobody's, "With great power comes great responsibility." This is something you'd expect to hear from Sam Spade, or a similar character in a noir as the mobster he's been tailing leads him down a blind alley and is waiting with a gun to rub him out for good. It's humanizing, and makes Hawkeye a more endearing character than simply the archer who never misses and makes smartmouth comments at Captain America.

So far, the supporting cast for Hawkeye seems to be made up of one character: Marvel's other Hawkeye, Young Avenger Kate Bishop. And let me say, that while she may be a member of the Avengers junior team, she sure doesn't act like it; she's a full fledged superhero, and woe unto Clint Barton if he should forget it. Kate is nobody's sidekick, but she is willing to be Clint's partner and be mentored by him. It's clear right from the get go that Clint respects Kate, both her mind and her skill with a bow. And she saves Clint as much (if not a little more) than he does her. The strength of their relationship is part of what drives the book, and giving someone Clint can trade zingers with one to one is an excellent choice by Fraction. Clint is still the senior partner, though, and Kate is still learning, but Clint is never the overbearing mentor, like Batman is to Robin. He tries to get Kate to learn, and doesn't scold when she disobeys orders, mostly because he knows in her place he would have done the same thing.

Fraction's particular use of Marvel's established supervillains is something I enjoyed a lot in the first volume of the series. Over the course of five issues, Hawkeye finds a way to royally tick off both the Kingpin and Madame Masque, neither of whom are people you want to be on the wrong side of. But its issue two that really impressed me, where Hawkeye runs afoul of the Ringmaster and the Circus of Crime. Evil circus is kind of an old trope, and there have been attempts to make Ringmaster and his crew edgy and modern before, and they usually fall flat. Fraction doesn't try to change the Circus, but first he plays with the modern circus atmosphere by cleverly changing the Ringmaster's schtick into a more Cirque du Soliel thing,and then he ties in Hawkeye's own background: Hawkeye was raised in a circus, trained by the man who would become the villain Swordsman. And with one of Swordsman's other students in Ringmaster's crew, the adventure had a more personal twist to it. Fraction finds a way to make what could have been the same old Ringmaster story much more interesting with just a couple nice additions.

David Aja's art perfectly suits the kind of stories that Fraction is telling in this book. His style falls in that same gritty family as guys like Michael Lark, Steve Epting, and Butch Guice, all artists who have worked on some of Marvel's more non-traditional superhero books in recent years. It has a gritty look, very much at home on the streets of New York or Madripoor. And while the idea of both being clean and gritty seems oxymoronic, Aja's style is. His line work is distinct and his continuity if marvelous, while still maintaining the street feel of the book. It seems like in between each Aja drawn arc, there will be one drawn by another artist, and that line up is equally impressive. The first two parter was by Javier Pulido, known for his beautiful work on Human Target and Daredevil, and the forthcoming arc is by Francesco Francavilla, whose Black Beetle is the best pure neo-pulp on the stands right now.

Hawkeye was definitely the sleeper hit of last year, and I'm glad it was a hit. A strong, character driven half super hero/half crime title is something that speaks to me. After only one trade, I've come to appreciate both Hawkeyes on an entirely new level, and I'm looking forward to reading more with them. I also think that this would be a great book to crossover with James Asmus's equally crime flavored Gambit. I can see a Gambit and Howkeye in the Big Easy story, where the run across ladies and thieves. Two more unlikely titles I can't think of, but there's something about it that I think wold work. Fortunately, for all his problems in the book, things don't look bad for the future of Hawkeye.

The first trade of Hawkeye, My Life as a Weapon, was released two weeks ago, containing issues 1-5 and an issue of Young Avengers Presents where the two Hawkeyes first met. The books is released monthly through Marvel, with its second trade to be released in May.

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