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Re-examining Heroism

The story in the first issue of Matt Fraction’s (writer), David Aja’s (pencils and inks) and Matthew Hollingsworth’s (colors) Hawkeye opens with a splash page that visually references the character’s signature moment from The Avengers (2012). Falling from a great height, he unleashes an arrow with a grappling a hook. Unlike in the film, in the comic, the gambit doesn’t work.


The series of panels that follows the story from the first page documents this failure. The hook appears to catch, but the line breaks. The character falls, head first towards a parked car. He lands on the vehicle, on his back. The sequence ends with Hawkeye lying prone and splayed on the roof of the car. The bottom two panels of this page shift the scene to a hospital, where a doctor is listing the injuries. Turn the page to “Six Weeks Later”, and Clint Barton is exiting the hospital in a wheelchair.


cover art

Hawkeye

(Marvel Worldwide; US: 2012)

Backing up to the opening, as Hawkeye falls he takes an inventory of the things he lacks. He has no super or supernatural powers. No mutations. He could also add not a scientific genius or a billionaire to back him up, either. Hawkeye is, at the end of the day, just a guy. A guy with an apartment, with neighbors who have to worry about being evicted by their predatory landowner and who hold summer roof parties together. A guy who can be injured and has to heal like any ‘normal’ person. While the series title and covers signify “Hawkeye”, inside is about Clint Barton, or as the series prelude puts it, “Clint Barton, AKA 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.”


In issue one, the prelude comes after the opening page referencing The Avengers. This constitutes a clever reversal on the part of writer Fraction and editors Sana Amanat and Stephen Wacker. That the movie is why the series exists is acknowledged by first impressions: the title, Aja and Hollingsworth’s modish cover showing the archer in a costume inspired more by the movie than other comics, and the aforementioned splash page, but then the creators overturn these expectations. “Clint Barton” is listed above “Hawkeye” on the title page. Clint Barton and not Hawkeye is the “he” referred to in the prelude. As Hawkeye enumerates his lack of qualifications to be an Avenger, he is peeling back the alias to reveal Clint Barton, and when the comic turns from the opening action sequence to the lead character’s emergence from the hospital, Hawkeye disappears altogether, except as a signifier, a strategic code that Clint Barton uses to leverage the greedy landowner off of his plans to sell the building.


In clichéd terms, then, this series is not about Hawkeye so much as the ‘man behind the mask’, but that trope is approached from a particular angle by Fraction and his artistic collaborators.


The construction of the prelude already foregrounds that whatever “Hawkeye” is is made from what Clint Barton has to give to that identity. Most of his compatriots in the Avengers have some quality that puts them in a state of alienation from others: genetic or technological mutation, cosmic strength, super human abilities, great wealth, not being human at all. The aphorism, “With great power comes great responsibility”, while associated with Spider-Man, is at the core of all American superheroes. The ability to transcend the limits that exist for others is framed as a choice: do good, do bad, do nothing (which often ends up looking perilously close to doing bad, at least in narrative context).


Clint Barton, while extraordinarily skilled in respect to his weapon of choice, is still human in the same sense that the characters he mingles with, or the readers of Hawkeye, are human. He has not had ‘great power’ thrust on him by accident, nature or social position. The power that he has, and, more significantly, the responsibility he feels are the results of choices that he has made.


For Clint Barton, being an Avenger is not so much a responsibility as a privilege, and the power he is shown exercising in the first issue of the series is less from his physical prowess than it is from the status afforded to him from being an Avenger. He has access to wealth and, like the hero in a classic Western, to an extra-legal moral authority that allows him to make a ‘deal’ to save the building for the tenants. As the landowner protests, “I broke no laws, bro. Allowed to raise rents. Is tough luck for you and your friends but I know my rights”. The law is one thing. Justice is another, and Clint Barton is interested in justice for his neighbors.


The other act of heroism Barton displays in the first issue, saving a dog kicked into the street by an anonymous thug, requires no privilege at all, but merely the impulse and will to be a decent human being. While one could go from seeing The Avengers to reading Hawkeye number one without missing a beat, for readers more familiar with the character’s history, it is notable that becoming comfortable with being a decent a human being, what that means and how you might do it, is exactly where Clint Barton is at the moment that Fraction, Aja, and Hollingsworth have picked him up for this series.


In the second issue, Barton turns his attention to more conventional heroism, breaking a ring of con artists and thieves, but the crimes are petty, important to those that they affect and as a matter of principle, as well as for personal reasons to Clint, but far from “Avengers Assemble” stuff. Nothing that Barton and his compatriot, Kate Bishop, can’t handle.


The way the series has been drawn so far emphasizes the human scale of the story. After alluding to the spectacular in the opening, the series is literally and figuratively brought down to earth. People and places are common and everyday. The action unfolds on city streets, in modest apartments, restaurants, hospitals, and vets. Characters are of a kind that you could walk by in New York, or most big cities, and not think twice about who you saw. Hollingsworth’s colors compliment Aja’s figures and backgrounds in their limited range and muted, cool tones. The art in Hawkeye, while highly stylized, nonetheless has the look and feel of daily life, not the fantastic.


It maybe true that people who read Marvel comics don’t do so to see the everyday. On the other hand, most of the characters who populate the Marvel Universe aren’t suited to being a part of ‘normal life’. Clint Barton is. The charm of minor or background figures in a sprawling storyworld, whether Marvel, DC, or Shakespeare, is that, when placed at center stage, they afford a shift in perspective on the larger narrative. Hawkeye is being taken as an opportunity to weave the grand, world-in-peril material that is Marvel’s stock-in-trade into a story about a different kind of heroism, one where helping the neighbors and saving a dog is enough for a good day.


Shaun Huston is an associate professor in Geography and Film Studies at Western Oregon University, where he primarily teaches courses in political and cultural geography. He also makes films, including Comic Book City, Portland, Oregon, USA (2012), a documentary on the community of comics creators in Portland, Oregon (view details on IMDB).


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