Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Hawkeye, Vol. 4: Rio Bravo by Matt Fraction, David Aja, and others

Not to give it all away up front, but I don't think this all adds up to even as much as the sum of its parts. Sure, the Fraction/Aja run on Hawkeye of a few years back was visually stylish, character-focused, and felt more adult than the usual run of superhero comics -- but, at the end of those twenty-two issues, what had actually happened, and what did it mean?

Well, spoiler alert! But the answers to those questions are "two people named Hawkeye punched a lot of people, and broke a bunch of other stuff along the way" and "we got twenty-two superhero comics."

Nothing ends in Rio Bravo. There's a really big fight with the Tracksuit Draculas at the end, which actually leads to some or all of them being bundled off by the police. But let's be honest: the footsoldiers will be bailed out or easily replaced. And the ringleader, as we discovered in this volume, legally owns the damn building. The central lesson of this Hawkeye series is that Clint Barton is a bad person who makes bad choices: he got several people killed, and caused millions of dollars in property damage over a multi-month period, for absolutely no reason. The other tenants in that building will be evicted, eventually, and the big shiny new development will go up. The only real question is how many of them will be killed, injured, or traumatized along the way by Barton playing Avenger with their lives and homes.

You can tell stories about people in spangly costumes punching things, and having that make the world better -- those are classic superhero comics. And you can tell stories about people in moody costumes punching things, and having them just barely keep the world from getting even worse -- those are gritty superhero comics. And you can tell stories about people in regular clothes punching and shooting things, and having that make the world at least marginally better -- those are a kind of crime stories, in comics or out of it.

But if your story is about people who are supposed to be superheroes punching things for twenty-two issues, and they've only made things worse (for those dead innocents, for one), what you have is a mess. The Fraction/Aja Hawkeye is a mess.

Now, it's probably not their mess: corporate comics have to dance to the tune the piper plays, and Marvel in particular has been a very changeable and off-tune piper these last few years. But that doesn't matter to the book: even if it's not their fault, it's an essential flaw in the product we have here. The four volumes of this Hawkeye run are not a story, or even really a collection of stories. They're just pretty vignettes about a few months when Barton pretended to be Robin Hood for a while, and screwed up the lives of a whole bunch of people.

We also get a very dramatic, lots-of-panels-on-the-page scene, in which the assembled silly-looking gangsters of the Marvel Universe solemnly swear that they're going to break with protocol and actually kill someone! (Well, actually kill a superhero, which I gather they don't do normally because ah ahem well actually Comics Code um would you look at that thing behind you!)

This is a stupid scene for several reasons, one of which I've just alluded to: good stories don't call attention to their silly premises. Another reason is that there have been a couple of nearly identical scenes throughout this run, with some subset of the Legion of Silly Villain Hats declaring that This Time, The Hawkeyes Have Gone Too Far, And So This Means War! They've already said they want to kill the Hawkeyes; they've just failed to actually do it.

(Yes, there is one Very Significant Person in this last version. Anyone who didn't realize this Shocking Revelation about this person some time ago is either very innocent or very stupid.)

So, here's the thing: the Fraction/Aja run of Hawkeye had a lot of great issues. Frankly, each one is pretty damn good: tense and taut and full of nifty smart page designs and smart human dialogue. Reading this on a monthly basis would have been really impressive. But it's years later now, and we need to compare the Fraction/Aja run with similar street-level stories that it will sit next to on a bookshelf: the O'Neil/Adams "Hard-Traveling Heroes" run, for example, or Miller/Mazzuchelli on Daredevil: Born Again or Batman: Year One. And Hawkeye falls flat by comparison: it doesn't go anywhere or solve anything. It was just the Hawkeye product in the market for about two years. Yes, it was a better Hawkeye product than it needed to be. But that's only an argument that works during the run: it's pointless afterward.

I don't know if corporate comics now systematically exclude good work with a real shape -- if they are actively hostile to real stories, and not just passively a bad environment for them -- but it doesn't really matter. All you'll get there is pieces, no matter the reason. This book, and the series it was part of, is no exception, despite its real strengths. (And see my reviews of the hardcover of the first two collections and then volume three for more about those strengths.)

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