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Trouble with Comics

Hawkeye Vol. 1 (2013)

Writer: Matt Fraction

Artists: David Aja, Javier Pulido, Alan Davis

Marvel Comics $16.99 USD

I’ll be honest; as much as comics have meant to me in my 43 years on Earth, I don’t read that many new ones these days. The landscape is such a minefield. Too many crossovers and stretched-out arcs. Good creative teams either move on from a title too fast, or the writer gets so inundated with work that the quality of the work suffers. Way too much editorial interference without actual constructed, educated editing. But I try to keep my eyes and ears open for the good stuff.

Matt Fraction is an interesting case. The world of genre comics (superhero, crime, horror, fantasy—basically anything but art comics) is filled with bland voices and poor craft, and so anyone with a hint of freshness can be “called up to the majors” before they’re ready. Somehow the initially overpraised Fraction, despite smug tweets and the unironic wearing of a cowboy hat, has developed into a champion writer under the dubious auspices of Marvel Comics, navigating the event-driven, continuity-resetting, crossover-driven waters quite admirably. He reminds me a little of Mark Waid in that he’s able to find a take on a character that’s a little different than anything that’s been done before, while not being so drastic that it’s a new character. And like Waid, usually humor is a key ingredient, which is why Fraction’s Iron Man run reads as more deeply felt, deeply thought-out, and just plain more fun than his run on Thor.

Hawkeye, like Tony Stark, is historically kind of a wiseass, and that’s one of the characteristics that Fraction can work with here, but he goes a lot deeper. We meet a Clint Barton who’s the world-saving Avenger Hawkeye in his day job, but is more comfortable living in a New York apartment with regular folks. He’s got no quit in him, to an obnoxious extent at times, but basically, he’s just a guy who’s really good with a prehistoric weapon. In the first, three issue arc, Fraction and Aja scale things down so it’s a hero book, not a superhero book, with Hawkeye mixing it up with Russian mobsters when one of them, the landlord, wants to sell the building and evict Clint and his neighbors. Action is slowed down, with inserts of types of arrows to get the reader into the nuts and bolts of what he does, humorously. Matt Hollingsworth’s use of violets and earth tones gives the book a unique look, which I appreciate and think is important, especially for a solo title. Most of his offbeat ideas—giving the villains matching Mini Coopers, giving Clint a Dodge muscle car, having Clint try to buy rather than beat his way out of a problem, making his lack of labels for his arrows a running gag—work quite well, and some choices are terrific, like Clint’s no-quit attitude reflected in his saving of a massively injured stray dog. Yes, the dog-saving superhero may be a shameless bid for sympathy, but it works. I also really liked the dynamic he develops between Clint and Kate, the young woman who became Hawkeye during a questionable period where Hawkeye was (secretly at first) a sword-slinging hero named Ronin. It goes beyond typical meet-cute, sarcastic-banter-covering-growing-attraction stuff. Clint has made a lot of mistakes with women and is mature enough at this point to realize it, plus Kate is much younger and he’s her mentor. So he’s set up mental barriers for himself that for the most part he’s honoring, even if it means he’s unwittingly hurting Kate’s feelings in the process of keeping this distance.

The fourth and fifth issues of the series find Pulido as the artist in an arc with more of an international flavor, with Clint attempting to buy back a videotape of him apparently assassinating someone on S.H.I.E.L.D.’s orders. It’s mainly got a lighthearted tone, appropriate for a caper story, and there are some fun lines and moments of derring-do, but there’s also a sobering question running through it: is Hawkeye a murderer? Fraction balances the tones very well, while also continuing to develop the Clint/Kate relationship. We get even more of this in a flashback story drawn by Alan Davis from Young Avengers Presents #6 (which I didn’t even know was a thing), where we see the genesis of their relationship is with Clint being a protector and mentor, someone who wants Kate to learn from his mistakes, as she will eventually take his place. It also establishes that Kate is a pretty impulsive, romantic girl, so Clint would be wise to tread carefully in regards to her feelings.

A very enjoyable collection that, unlike most comics today, is good enough that I’ve read it a few times now, out of pleasure. I don’t want to go on a rant here, but one of the big reasons comics don’t sell the way they used to is that comics of this level are harder and harder to find. Comics with tight story arcs, fresh storytelling strategies, wit, layered characterization, emotional engagement, and high quality draftsmanship. When you find it, support it.

—Christopher Allen

Christopher Allen Reviews First X-Men, Hawkeye and Peter Parker 156.1

Marvel dropped three books this week that are all examples of their constant, never-ending and yet often contradictory mandate to keep coming up with fresh takes on characters at least 40 years old, while keeping these fresh takes from alienating the existing, aging readership.

First X-Men #1 (of 6)

Writers: Neal Adams & Christos Gage

Artist: Neal Adams

For those George Lucas types out there who think that there’s nothing cooler than filling in backstory on favorite characters, even if that backstory undoes a lot of what made them interesting in the first place, here’s…this.

So we have beloved comics legend, crusader and kook Adams apparently being shepherded by young, solid, within-the-lines writer Gage on one more retcon fiesta that noone was really asking for, and that has a subtitle, “Children of the Atom,” that at least one other retcon fiesta already bore. Here, we have Wolverine/Logan, as yet not part of Project X but still running with his bro, Sabretooth, kind of like in that Wolverine movie and Origin, but he’s not conflicted because he doesn’t seem to be an assassin. He has a friend and agrees to help find the friend’s kid, who is a mutant like himself. He enlists Sabretooth, who here is just a slightly rougher big brother and not really evil, and then the rest of the issue continues the putting-together-the-team formula. As one might expect, there are some new players, just like in that Wolverine movie, because of course they’re going to die and be forgotten and not have to be tied into modern continuity. We’ve got Holo, a teenage girl who makes people see what they want to see, and the fourth would-be member is young Charles Xavier, though he sees the murder in Logan and Victor’s hearts and won’t join them. At the end, we see the future Magneto, Erik Lensherr.

It’s all familiar, unnecessary and at best, just competent. Gage working with someone else means a professional but less personal job, and to be honest, I would have preferred Adams given more rope to hang himself than doing a mini nobody needed. Adams can still draw, with some great depth and forced perspective and his typical fetish for overly rendered hair, as well as the more recent fetish for drawing bodies torn apart by weapons, but his trademark for triangular, jagged panels has become a little stilted. 

Peter Parker, Spider-Man #156.1

Writer: Roger Stern

Artist: Roberto De La Torre

As he admits in the Afterword, Marvel asks Stern to write a Spider-Man story once or twice a decade now. Stern had a very solid run in the early ’80s with John Romita, Jr., including a terrific issue with the Juggernaut that illustrates the never say die quality of Spider-Man to a T, and a whole bunch of issues about the corrupt Brand Corporation. That provides the connective tissue to this, a .1 issue for a series that no longer exists, which finds Daily Bugle reporter Norah Winters enlisting Peter Parker to take some photos while she investigates what’s going on at the abandoned Acme Warehouse. Brand is going down the tubes with litigation and wants to get the tech that’s locked up in their labs at the warehouse. Norah doesn’t know this is the same place where the killer of Peter’s Uncle Ben was found, which has him bummed out most of the issue. 

Stern has a great collaborator in De La Torre, who has a kind of Alex Maleev-like photoreference thing going on but draws faces and figures seemingly mostly from his imagination. A lot of Matt Hollingsworth filters keep things from looking too grainy and grey. The art, and Stern’s way of writing Peter Parker capably, focusing on his core of responsibility and guilt rather than nonstop wisecracks, make this one work despite not adding up to a whole lot other than beating up some average thugs and calling back to not a classic villain but a vaguely defined corporation that was notable thirty years ago. Not to mention that Parker hasn’t been a photographer for some time now, and, past favor aside, could still be nice guy Peter and tell Norah politely that he’s got a great job he should be working at and to go find some other guy to dig around a dusty warehouse full of bad memories. It’s a nice enough book, I’m glad Stern got a gig, and you can take it or leave it. Unfortunately, by making these issues adjuncts to defunct rather than existing Spider-Man titles (there’s a two-part Sensational Spider-Man story next), Marvel’s underlying message is to leave it.

Hawkeye #1

Writer: Matt Fraction

Artist: David Aja

The thing about being a critic is that sometimes you can enjoy something the first time you experience it, and then the second time the flaws reveal themselves. To be sure, Fraction is one of Marvel’s bright lights, and any chance to see him work with his Immortal Iron Fist collaborator again is a good thing, and a smartass like Hawkeye is more in line with his strengths than Thor. This is pretty much a guarantee to be at least a decent superhero comic, and so it is, well-drawn and with some good bits in the first-person narration that paint Hawkeye as a likable, almost blue collar kind of superhero.

Unfortunately, while the choice to set uncostumed Hawkeye in an urban environment, just a regular guy who goes to work, pays his rent, and enjoys barbecues on the roof with his neighbors is a sound one, the execution is off on nearly every story beat. 

After falling several stories onto a car, regular guy Hawkeye breaks a bunch of bones like you or I would (if we didn’t die), but do we see him suffer? Do we see him go through physical therapy? No. We see him leave when he feels like it, all better, and dumping his wheelchair in an intersection to be destroyed and cause traffic delays, with a spoiled celebrity’s solution of, “Bill me for it.” And then we see him handle his Russian landlord’s raising of the rent to exorbitant levels (though legal) with a spoiled superhero’s solution of intimidation and then, failing that, a spoiled rich guy’s solution of taking out his checkbook and overpaying for the building by 50%. With Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark, that kind of thing can be very funny, but if you’re trying to establish that this is a blue collar type of superhero, a guy who came from nothing, has no powers, but somehow has the character and tenacity to stand as an equal with gods, mutants and living legends, then you need to come up with a better way than just throwing money at a problem. Maybe Fraction is going to explore this in future issues, like maybe now that the tenants know he’s rich and their new landlord, it will change their relationship with him, and what he thought he had in this low-key setup is gone. We’ll see, but for now, it kind of leaves a bad taste.

—Christopher Allen