Hawkeye is the Rodney Dangerfield of the Marvel Universe. Since The Avengers film, he gotten no respect. There is even a recent skit from a Jeremy Renner hosted Saturday Night Live mocking Clint Barton’s usefulness.
Or there is Patton Oswalt speculating about Jesus trying to join the X-Men. When Jesus fails to mention he can raise the dead and instead focuses on feeding the multitude, the X-Men suggest he tries the Avengers. “They take anyone,” Oswalt says. “They have a guy with a bow and arrow. I’m not kidding. Are they recruiting at sporting goods stores?”
Even in the Avengers film, as Iron Man whisks Hawkeye into battle, Stark says, “better clench up, Legolas.”
Yes, the brooding hide-in-the- rafters version of Hawkeye may have done more to hurt than help the comic hero. Thankfully Matt Fraction is here to take the joke and run with it, giving it depth and making Cliff Barton the most human and sympathetic character on Earth-616.
Hawkeye tells the story of everyone’s favorite bowman—no, not Katniss or Oliver—and his day to day trials as a mere mortal in a superhero world. Barton’s adventures are episodic in nature. The book reads like a weekly television series with an occasional two-parter, and this strategy works very well in a market filled with massive crossovers and multiple monthly team books. Each month’s issue is like a little breath of relaxation. There’s no need to worry about what happened in seven other books. It’s just Barton and his life. Though Barton will tell you his life or current situation is bad. Over and over and over.
Issue one introduces one of Barton’s recurring antagonists, a Russian mob family with the penchant for saying bro (also over and over and over). The story wraps around Barton attempting to save an injured dog, Hawkeye’s countless injuries, and resolving his neighbors’ rent problems. Hardly the stuff of legend. But these plot elements are like peeking through the cracks of the Marvel Universe and seeing what we aren’t meant to see—the daily minutia of our heroes’ lives. Chris Claremont was great at showing these types of moments and stories in his X-Men run. A simple super powered game of baseball can work wonders in character building. This is an art that has all but been lost. There’s just too much urgency and world saving to permit our heroes a moment relaxation, or a trifling one-off problem to solve.
Kate Bishop arrives in issue two and immediately elevates Hawkeye from a good book to a great one. Bishop took the Hawkeye moniker when she joined the teenage superhero group Young Avengers. She acts as a mask for readers allowing to dig further into Barton’s life and examine his values and motivations. She makes for a great foil, too—a young upscale socialite with the wit to tackle Barton’s deficiencies (even minor ones like still owning a phone that has a cord). Bishop also allows us to see the great emptiness in Barton’s life—his loneliness that can’t quite be filled with neighborly barbeques, one night stands, and a new dog. Bishop is someone Barton can relate too, someone he can treat like a daughter or he can mentor, and yet someone who is also a mere human in a superhero world.
But Barton won’t say this, of course. During a phone conversation he says he lets Bishop hang around because he doesn’t want to sleep with her. The comment leads to the most poignant moment of the series to date. Barton tells her, “I look at you and I think you’re a lot like me. There are—I have these things I have to do. Yeah? Not want but have, y’know? I can do them alone but I bet that whatever it is that’s in me is maybe in you and…”
There’s a pause. Kate waits on her end of the phone. Barton finally continues by saying, “I don’t want you to get hurt.” But it’s not Kate who he’s worried about. Barton is the one who needs someone to help him out. All of that is said during his pregnant pause, and then covered up with his concern for Bishop.
Bishop, as stubborn as the man she shares a heroic identity with, can’t bring herself to acknowledge the real reason she’s Hawkeye’s sidekick either. She instead focuses on “Because I don’t want to sleep with you” and leaves the conversation with a simple thought toward Barton: “dummy.”
Another aspect that makes Hawkeye a strong book is the artwork produced by David Aja and the color by Matt Hollingsworth. The artwork is both reminiscent of comics’ early days where heroes relied on a mask and cunning and also low key indie books in which one published issue is a monumental feat. Sometimes the artwork looks downright amateurish. However, this approach works to remind readers we are in a very human world and our hero is often outclassed by those around him and is also very fallible in his decision making. Placing the art on the page must be a strenuous artistic exercise as panels are situated in a traditional comic book set up but also condensed and piled upon in ways that would make Scott McCloud add a revision to his book Understanding Comics just so he could spotlight Aja’s work as examples.
Hollingsworth uses a palette of purple and blue tints contrasted with fleshy shades of yellow and pink. The simple color scheme adds a not-quite noir feel to the series. Hawkeye can’t manipulate the shadows the way Batman can. Nor can Clint Barton play the sunlight as Bruce Wayne.
Hawkeye’s film version has been the butt of many jokes, but in Fraction, Aja, and Hollingsworth’s skillful hands he’s become something more. He’s not a no-respect Rodney Dangerfield archetype. Maybe he’s John Lennon’s Working Class Hero.