by Thom Yee

Hawkeye 1

Hawkeye images courtesy of Marvel Worldwide, Inc. and Walt Disney Studios

In a world full of superstrong, invulnerable, flying people who can knock you unconscious with a flick of their fingers or vaporize you just by looking in your direction, the regular-guy (and girl) superheroes have it pretty tough. The ones who survive in this kind of world often have some combination of Olympic-level athleticism, intensive combat training, high-tech gadgets, and massive financial resources to bring to bear. They’re driven by tragic events from their childhood; they have an unshakeable resolve in their war on crime; they’ve trained for most of their lives to at least be the hero their city deserves (if not the hero it needs). Through hard work, constant vigilance, and fanatical determination, they stand at the peak of human potential, because in a superhuman world, they need to be the best of the best.

Then there’s Hawkeye.  When power-mad gods leading intergalactic armies threaten the Earth… he brings a bow and arrow.

If you’re anything like most of the rest of the world, you probably got to know Hawkeye from last summer’s The Avengers. In the movies, he’s a S.H.I.E.L.D.-agent-turned-superhero based mostly on his appearances in The Ultimates, an alternate-universe reimagining of the Avengers concept that informed a lot of the approach Marvel Studios has taken with its Avengers film franchise. He’s also the guy who Loki hypnotized almost right away, got beaten up by a girl to get him to come to his senses, and eventually ran out of arrows before barely surviving jumping off a building to get away from the bad guys. Tony Stark called him a master assassin at one point, but other than that, he didn’t get a lot of respect.

And, believe it or not, the regular Marvel universe Hawkeye is even worse. He wasn’t trained to be an eagle-eyed sniper, a super spy, or even a law-enforcement agent. He’s a carnie who grew up in a travelling circus, was trained in archery by a guy who was embezzling money from the carnival, and then got mistaken for a thief and wound up fighting Iron Man in his first appearance. He’s a massive screw up, usually the only unenhanced, fully human member of the Avengers, and his attitude rubs a lot of people the wrong way (on and off the page). The idea of being a Hawkeye fan, especially after movies where the character’s raised public profile has led to most people wondering why the Avengers need him at all, may seem laughable if not a complete waste of time.

On the other hand, he’s also the star of the best monthly comic that Marvel’s publishing right now.

Hawkeye 2Usually when it comes to getting others to read comicbooks, especially superhero comics, I’ll openly and almost immediately admit that you may need to make a few concessions for the book to work. Even though most of us have some passing knowledge of what we’re getting into when it comes to comics — ham-fisted dialogue, skin-tight uniforms, a reliance on a dense, seemingly impenetrable backstory — the whole thing can still feel a little off-putting, and it really doesn’t feel like many of today’s creators have done much to break away from the mould. As much as I love comicbooks, I have no problem admitting that a big part of that is a result of having grown up with them. If ever I try to convert somebody to comics, I’ll invariably steer clear of a lot of the stuff I’m reading on a monthly basis and go back to a laundry list of some of the best in the format’s recent history: Planetary, Ex Machina, All-Star Superman, New X-Men… really almost anything by Grant Morrison. While it certainly makes sense to direct people to the strongest works to get them interested, I can easily see how a fan-favourite writer like Geoff Johns’ work on Aquaman or Green Lantern (both of which I love) would appeal to hardcore nerds more than prospective readers.

Hawkeye (the comic) suffers from none of these problems. Writer Matt Fraction takes a very modern and realistic approach to the character that’s highly accessible to any reader while appealing to longtime fans. Modern might actually be the wrong word as the series draws clear inspiration from classic crime movies like Point Blank or the French Connection (or so I’ve gathered; I haven’t actually watched any of those). Along with artist David Aja, one of the best graphic designers working in comics today, and colourist Matt Holllingsworth, the creators have formed a fully realized world, with an interesting supporting cast, compelling, realistic villains, and a storytelling approach that works better than most could hope for.

Clint Barton, a.k.a. Hawkeye, became the greatest sharp-shooter known to man. He then joined the Avengers. This is what he does when he’s not being an Avenger. That’s all you need to know.

Minus a different-every-month snarky comment at the end, that’s how every issue opens. Though the character has a rich history dating back to 1964 — in which time he’s been a size-changing Goliath, dressed like a ninja (and used a sword instead of a bow and arrow), and, like all superheroes, died and came back to life among other temporary changes — Hawkeye is a book that any reader could pick up with pretty much any issue and know everything they need to know. As with the best Marvel books, the writer does a great job of creating new-reader-friendly stories, distilling the character down to only what’s important.

The first issue, released in August of last year, opens with an amazing shout-out to one of the few semi-cool scenes that Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye got in The Avengers:Hawkeye - Movie Falling

Remember, in August, The Avengers had only been out for a few months and had ruled most of that summer’s box office, so this…

Hawkeye - Comic Falling

…was a pretty obvious homage.

Of course, in the comic, he doesn’t quite stick the landing, falling several stories onto a car in the street. Six weeks, a shattered pelvis, three broken ribs, a sprained neck, a cracked fibia, and an almost-ruptured spleen later, we’re introduced to Clint’s world — his Avengers membership, his apartment neighbours, and his corrupt landlord Ivan, who’s just tripled the rents in an effort to flush out his tenants and sell the building. Ivan turns out to be a member of what Clint refers to as the tracksuit mafia (who all dress in Adidas tracksuits and use the word “bro” in almost every sentence), and when he attempts to buy the building from Ivan, he’s promptly knocked out by a room full of mafiosos. Still, by issue’s end everything’s worked out — Clint’s saved the building, rescued a dog named Arrow (to which he responds “Ehn. I’ll come up with something better.”), and has established a continuing enemy in the tracksuit mafia.

Over the next four issues, Clint breaks up a Cirque-du-Soleil-style crime ring that hypnotizes its rich audiences before stealing their valuables, sleeps with a girl who’s mixed up with the tracksuit mafia, and travels to Madripoor (the Marvel Universe equivalent of Singapore) to steal a high-value video tape from an auction where the buyers are some of the biggest super-criminals in the Marvel universe. The Madripoor trip in particular typifies Clint’s never-think-things-through approach to infiltrating the auction with a sequence of events capped off with my favourite panel from the entire series:

Hawkeye - Whoa Whoa Whoa

I laughed out loud when I saw that, a rarity for me when reading comicbooks. I really don’t think sequential art is the best form for comedy, but that moment really crystallized how not-ready-for-prime-time Clint generally is.

Over the course of the first six issues, Clint accomplishes the following:

  • gets knocked out at least once every issue;
  • loses all but one fight in which he doesn’t receive serious assistance;
  • gets laughed at by a chasing bad guy after shooting a bola arrow that does nothing more than wrap around his gun;
  • has his wallet stolen, losing his cash and Avengers ID;
  • throws himself out of a several-stories-tall building while tied to a chair;
  • cuts his foot on some broken glass;
  • can’t figure out how to connect his old A/V gear together; and
  • can’t figure out how to tell one of his neighbours the difference between “Hawkeye” and “Hawkguy”.

Sometimes he comes across like he knows what he’s doing, like he’s done these things a million times before, but he invariably screws up every plan, situation, and moment he’s involved in and pretty much always needs to be bailed out. After having just watched Star Trek Into Darkness (review’ll be up next Friday), he actually reminds me a lot of Captain Kirk. He’s part of a great team, is rarely prepared, is unconcerned with protocol, is almost always in over his head, but always manages to win, even if he gets beaten up in fights.

The only difference is nobody believes in him.

Hawkeye - KateThese issues also introduce Kate Bishop, a teenage superheroine who took over as Hawkeye when Clint was believed dead. With both now operating under the codename of Hawkeye, the duo have a prickly but productive relationship that, importantly, is not at all predicated on potential romantic entanglements. Clint sees Kate as his protégé while Kate knows what a screw up Clint is and does her best to make sure he never falls down too too hard.

What really brings this initial run together is the sixth issue, “Six Days in the Life of”, a largely quiet story where the only arrow fired is accidentally at the satellite dish at Clint’s apartment building. A Christmas issue told in a very non-linear fashion, the issue “begins” with Hawkeye taking a few days off before New Years to catch up on his life after having been knocked out during a skirmish with A.I.M. agents (Wolverine and Spider-Man having come out of the fight completely unscathed). Over the course of the issue, we’re further acquainted with Clint’s neighbours before the tracksuit mafia tries to take the building back. After being given an ultimatum to get out of town, Clint decides it would be best for everyone if he just left and is on the verge of taking off when Kate confronts him with a pretty stark statement:

You’re one of the good guys! So be a good guy! You know what–? This thing you’re about to do? This running away thing? It’s everything about you that sucks.

“Six Days in the Life of” is an issue that really shows us what’s at the core of the character. He’s more or less just a regular guy who knows to leave the high stakes, widescreen superhero action to the Captain Americas, Thors, and Iron Mans of the world, content to look after us all down here while the big guns get the glory. After all is said and done with the tracksuit mafia, Clint’s won like he somehow always does and is settling in for a merry Christmas when Simone, one of Clint’s neighbours, comes over with her kids to watch Christmas shows. When Simone asks him if it’s okay, that he must have somewhere else to be, Clint responds quite simply, “Nope. I’m not going anywhere.” And that’s who Hawkeye really is.

Ultimately, reading a bunch of plot synopses isn’t really going to show you what makes Hawkeye such a great book, comic or not. What I can say is that the writing’s incredibly sharp, the art and colouring are strikingly designed, conveying an amazing sense of tone, atmosphere, and the star is an underdog loser who will still always find a way to win in the end, even as he screws up his relationships and gets no respect. These are the kinds of humanist stories that we can all relate to, establishing the kinds of everyday characters we’ve known in ours lives juxtaposed against energetic action sequences. That this is a book firmly set in the Marvel universe about a featured character from the third highest-grossing movie of all time is just gravy.

The creators at Marvel know that it’s a minor miracle that a Hawkeye comicbook survives in today’s comic industry. These days, most books without instant name-brand appeal (anything with the words Avengers, Batman, or Walking Dead in the title) are lucky to last 12 issues. This month, Hawkeye will be on its eleventh issue and shows no signs of stopping. It’s been nominated for an Eisner Award for best continuing series and stands in sharp contrast to the kind of event-driven, superheroes-fighting-each-other-because-violence storytelling that many level against the American comics industry as a whole. It’s a perfect gateway into the real humanity that you can find in stories about superhumans, and it’s a series that I think can convince people that there’s sincere, meaningful, realistic stories to tell, even when it comes to capes and tights. I’m not saying that it’s perfect or for absolutely everyone, but it is one of the few monthly comicbooks that I would recommend without reservation to anyone looking for a good story. It doesn’t trade in well-worn superhero tropes, corny dialogue, or fifty years of history (not that I don’t love series that do). It’s a satisfying series of self-contained stories that run for one to two issues that has gradually built a rich world of everyday characters and compelling subplots. It’s street-level superheroics with a lead character who isn’t really that super, and even if he can’t redirect nuclear missiles through portals into other dimensions or channel lightning from the heavens to shoot down invading extra-dimensional armies, he’s still here to help, like any real hero.

Hawkeye final score: 10