Thursday, June 22, 2017

Hawkeye, Vol. 1 by Matt Fraction, David Aja, and others

I don't keep up with superhero comics anymore -- I have to admit that. Astro City was probably the last thing in that vein I read regularly, and even that was only as "regularly" as Astro City itself was...and that's not very. Eventually, I even soured on that comic.

At some point in your life, you either realize that punching people is not the solution to problems, or you become a full-blown psychopath. For all my flaws, I'm on the first path.

All that is to explain why I never bothered to read the Hawkeye run written by Matt Fraction and mostly drawn by David Aja, despite it being pretty much assumed to be the best superhero comic while it was coming out (2012-15). Even if something is the obvious best sushi in the world, it doesn't matter if your taste for seafood has gone.

But time marches on, and curiosity keeps building. And there's always time for one more book, especially one that's a few years old and no longer the hot new thing. So I finally did get to the hardcover collecting the first half of that Fraction-Aja Hawkeye run -- eleven issues of that series, plus a loosely related issue of Young Avengers Presents as a kind of flashback.

(That Young Avengers Presents issue comes off very badly by comparison, even with strong art from long-time expert ink-slinger Alan Davis. It's very much Yet Another Superhero Story, in the middle of a big stupid story that people didn't even care that much about at the time, with the bog-standard angst and drama and Whining About the Relationship. It's everything "good superhero comics" usually are, and a major exemplar of why I stopped reading that crap. In a nutshell, it's a story about costumes being moved around a chessboard, not about people or real relationships.)

The main Hawkeye story, though, is about people. Mostly Clint Barton, the least of the Avengers, whose origin is a bizarre amalgam of Robin I and Green Arrow and whose "power" is just being good at shooting arrows. And who isn't actually all that good at the living-normal-life thing, for reasons Fraction wisely doesn't explore -- he just takes Barton as the overgrown boy he is, stumbling through his own life like a bull in a china shop, getting into trouble just because that's what he does when left to his own devices. The trouble here is mostly about a Brooklyn tenement that he semi-accidentally bought (with stolen money from the Marvel Universe's biggest gangsters), to drive away a low-rent Russian gang he calls the Tracksuit Draculas. Again, his plans mostly don't work, or don't work right, and he needs to be saved repeatedly by the women in his life. Which brings us to....

There's also a newer, younger, female Hawkeye -- always have to have a non-cishet-SWM person in the costume these days, and pretend that person will "always" be the "real" holder of the shiny superhero title, as if we haven't seen a million "always" melt away in a million comics. (I think that's mostly cynical audience-pandering, but it's hard to tell in individual cases -- and every superhero-universe character gets handled by so many people that they turn into river-stones, rubbed down to an essence that no one person intended.) She's Kate Bishop, and I have no idea why she's so good at shooting arrows, or why she went into the superhero game -- she seems to have as few powers as Barton, and many more options. (She's some variety of rich girl, as far as I can tell.)

But this is a superhero universe, so dressing up in tight spandex to jump around rooftops and beat up thugs is just what you do. Apparently no other entertainment media exist in this world, so this is the only thing to do to keep oneself occupied.

These are, as I said, mostly low-level superheroics. Neither Hawkeye saves the world, and the globe-trotting is more spycraft than Galactus-defeating. Aja's art is perfectly suited for that level, and tells the story brilliantly, well aided by Matt Hollingsworth's colors. (There's also a two-issue story by Javier Pulido and a single issue by Francesco Francavilla here -- both are good, but flashier than Aja and so they stand out too much for my taste.) Aja reminds me of nothing so much as David Mazzucchelli's classic superhero period, particularly Daredevil and Batman: Year One. There's a similar grounded-ness, with thin lines that frame often violent action without rationalizing it -- keeping it shocking and unexpected even in the middle of a story designed to showcase violent action. It's strongly compliments Fraction's similarly grounded writing: both of them are committed to telling a story about people in a real world, moving through real space, whose actions have consequences and who bleed and feel and curse and laugh and wryly shake their heads.

Aja also delights in complex page layouts -- or his ability energizes Fraction to create them, either way it's a strong collaboration -- which make the world part of the story, and not just flat backdrops for more punching. An issue told from the POV of a dog is particularly impressive, and probably hugely well-known by this point.

You don't need to read Hawkeye. You never need to read any superhero comic, no matter what they tell you. But, if you do want to read about superheroes., this is miles closer to the real world than most.

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