[31 October 2013]
I’m a little hesitant to refer to Hawkeye #8-13 as an “arc,” but I suppose that’s what they really are. They tell a single story together, with some scenes repeating in two or more individual issues, but each of them has its own complete narrative, too. Six smaller stories (well, seven, actually, because the Hawkeye annual is in the mix) come together to form the larger one, with each chapter written from the point of a view of a different character. This kind of greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts story, where every part is seen through the eyes of a new person, runs the risk of being overly confusing or repetitive.
Keeping track of where everybody is and when everything happens grows more difficult the more times you go back to the beginning and show the audience something it’s seen before from a fresh perspective, as opposed to simply moving forward all the time. And having the same scenes happen multiple times can make things predictable or, worse, downright boring. To avoid these problems, every story beat has to find a way to shine a new light on old events, advance the shared narrative in some way, and be a satisfying self-contained piece of fiction. Based on these criteria, this most recent Hawkeye arc is quite good overall, with the issues succeeding to different degrees in all the necessary areas. To see how that was accomplished, I’ll look at them one-by-one, and examine what they did to progress the overarching story in an interesting way by focusing on their own pieces of the puzzle.
Hawkeye #8: As the beginning of the run, this issue is mostly concerned with set-up, putting things in motion that make the rest of the story possible. Hawkeye—whose real name is Clint Barton and who is referred to as “Clint” FAR more than “Hawkeye” within the pages of this comicbook—gets an unexpected visit from Penny, a woman he’s met before who has ties to the criminal organization he’s been struggling with since this title began. I believe their semi-official name is the Tracksuit Draculas (in our world, anyway…I think in the comic that’s just a joke title Clint gives them once), but whatever they call themselves, they’ve been a thorn in Clint’s side for a while. Recently, in classic villain fashion, they threatened to hurt the people he cares about, so he’s been sort of laying off them of late.
Then Penny arrives out of the blue and already on the run from the bad guys, one of whom (her husband) she recently shot. She convinces Clint to help her go after the king of all maguffins, they successfully steal it from the villains, and then she departs, leaving Clint in possession of the object (it’s a safe but that really doesn’t matter) so that he has to deal with the fallout on his own. The beginning stages of that fallout are what the rest of these issues will focus on, but you don’t see that coming after reading Hawkeye #8. On its own, this issue feels more like a means of tying up loose ends with Penny than the start of a bigger storytelling project it truly is. She is hustled on and off the stage with such haste by writer Matt Fraction that the whole affair seems breezy and inconsequential, a standalone issue built to be a tiny treat before moving onto the next big thing. In fact, it is the start of that next big thing, but inconspicuously so. Part of that impression comes from the simplicity of the story: Penny arrives, says she needs Clint’s help to steal they safe, they teal it, she leaves. In terms of the actual content, this is a lightweight tale, easily digestible. What makes the issue remarkable is the artwork instead of the writing, most of it by David Aja with a handful of pages drawn by Annie Wu.
Aja’s panels are tight and cramped, with an abundance of close-up images, even during the more sprawling action/heist scenes. This adds urgency to the story, as if the events seen in the pictures are happening so quickly the pages can barely contain or capture them all. Peppered throughout the issue are Wu’s full-page splashes depicting fictional vintage comicbook covers. These images have considerably more room to breath than Aja’s, acting as punctuation marks at the ends of his more hurried artistic sentences. This give-and-take between Aja and Wu is Hawkeye #8’s best characteristic, and what makes it such a good read even without moving onto the issues that follow. Also, insofar as the art is much more complex than the story, this issue establishes a dynamic that will be common for the rest of this arc: straightforward scripts with fancier, flashier visuals.
Hawkeye #9: The second chapter wastes no time in introducing the idea of the same scenes being shown from new points of view, which is one of its two most important contributions to the arc as a whole. In Hawkeye #8, when Penny first showed up (at Avengers Mansion, no less), her dodgy attitude and obvious affection for Clint did not go unnoticed by the other women in his life. His frequent ally in the field Natasha Romanova (Black Widow), ex-wife Bobbi Morse (Mockingbird), and current girlfriend Jessica Drew (Spider-Woman) are all suspicious of Penny, Clint, or both, and how they deal with that suspicion is the topic of Hawkeye #9.
After opening on the scene of Penny’s arrival that was also the beginning of the previous issue, this story follows each of the aforementioned women in turn, plus Kate Bishop (Clint’s partner and the female Hawkeye), as they react to Clint’s involvement with someone as unknown and untrustworthy as Penny. Natasha gets his back by going after Penny herself and forcing more detailed information out of her; Bobbi confronts Clint with her concern for the way he’s running his life now; Jessica delivers the smacks to the face that he so richly deserves; and Kate gives him grief but is nevertheless by his side. They all have their own priorities, and Fraction gives them equal space, so that the issue is basically four separate stories from four points of view all on its own. Again, this is laying the groundwork for things to come—not only is a scene repeated, we also get the first taste of this series doing its storytelling through many characters’ eyes.
Then, when that’s all said and done, the issue closes on the central event of this arc. Grills, a man who lives in Clint’s building and has been his friend, sounding board, confidant, and counsel in the past, is suddenly and ruthlessly murdered by a previously unseen villain wearing terrifying clown makeup. We don’t yet know the specifics of why this happens or who the killer is, don’t get any build-up to that moment or indication that it’s coming. Like Grills himself, the reader is caught totally off-guard, having just enjoyed several tiny, humorous vignettes about Clint’s friends and romances that contained nothing like the darkness and pain of Grills’ death. It’s a powerful and well-paced ending, and with the unifying tactics of repeated scenes and varying viewpoints now firmly in place, this conclusion launches the arc with great speed into the next issue.
Hawkeye #10: Grills’ murderer, whose name we learn is Kazi (and who, of course, works for the Tracksuit Draculas), gets an issue devoted to his origins, drawn by Francesco Francavilla instead of David Aja, and it is fantastic. Its effectiveness lies not in the specifics of Kazi’s history, which are familiar to the point of bordering on cliché, but in the chilling portrait Fraction and Francavilla paint of him as an unstoppable force of death and hatred. He goes to a party where Kate is in attendance so he can hit on her, not necessarily to get any useful information out of her, but more for the sake of messing with her while he waits for it to be time to go shoot Grills. He talks to her about how much he loves his job without, of course, divulging the details of what he actually does. While Kazi is expressing his enthusiasm, Francavilla draws numerous past examples of him at work. He is clearly a capable killer, utilizing different methods depending on the situation, but always completing his assignments with efficiency and focus.
Like before, the story of this issue is none too deep, because Fraction lets the artist take the reins. Exactly what made Kazi the man he is today isn’t as important or interesting as watching how he operates, toying with Kate for hours over cocktails before snuffing out Grills in a matter of seconds. Francavilla’s bold coloring and noir lighting add significantly to the tension of the issue, allowing Fraction to leave many things unsaid. And of course, the fact that the audience has already seen Kazi kill Grills makes his time with Kate all the more unnerving. In that we find the first and maybe best example of this arc finding ways to keep its repeated scenes from growing dull.
The end of Hawkeye #10 is the same as #9, right down to the closing line of dialogue, but the effect it has is wildly different in each case. Initially, in #9, it’s a startling surprise, a shocking cliffhanger that demands answers. Issue #10 provides those answers and then some, so that when it finally circles back to Kazi shooting Grills, the feeling it evokes is a less intense but more profound sadness. Because we see it coming the second time, what matters isn’t the murder itself but the preceding events. Knowing that Kazi spent all night flirting with Kate for no real purpose except his own sadistic amusement adds darkness to the already extremely grim moment of Grills’ demise. It makes us better understand and more passionately hate the villain at once, which needed to happen after his oh-so-brief but immensely powerful introduction last issue.
Hawkeye #11: The famous dog issue. Clint’s dog Lucky, also known as Pizza Dog, is the star, and the whole comic is an experiment in telling a story from an animal’s perspective. Whenever Lucky sees anyone, or even walks past their apartment, we see a series of connected images that represent all the smells the dog associates with that person. Once again, it’s a way for Fraction to let his artistic collaborator be in the spotlight, since the clarity of Lucky’s picture-based take on the world is Aja’s accomplishment. No doubt the creators worked together to come up with what those pictures would be, but Aja’s the one who actually built them. Also helping Aja’s work remain the focus is the dialogue, all written in indecipherable scribbles except for the handful of words Lucky can understand.
Everything Lucky does is straightforward, because he’s a dog, so he’s never involved in especially complex situations. The art adds depth to his simple life, and gives the reader a chance to get more out of it than perhaps even Lucky does. So there’s no narration or conversation, but still plenty of information. Lucky finds Grills’ corpse, fights with Kazi when he returns to the crime the next night, and eventually leaves Clint with Kate, who we see driving with the dog beside her all the way to California. Why Kate is abandoning her longtime friend and partner isn’t fully explained, because Lucky has no way of getting that information, or even wondering about it, really. It’s a detail teased here to be addressed later on, one of several such bits in this issue that we only see or understand small parts of because our first exposure to them is from Lucky’s POV.
It’s the right time for Fraction to introduce some new narrative threads, to show some of the aftermath of Grills’ murder now that the thing itself has happened twice. But by having Lucky as the filter through which the new details are processed, Fraction delays our satisfaction a little, enticing us with half-scenes and mysteries. Plus having Lucky as the character to discover Grills’ body is a nice touch; his sadness and fear can be seen, but they don’t need to be overtly expressed or explained in text. The moment speaks for itself, and lets the reader react to it without commentary from the writer. In general, I think Lucky’s issue was well-placed, right in the middle of the arc where it can push things forward by moving past Grills’ death, yet still draw out the anticipation by not giving us all the details of what is said and done.
Hawkeye #12: Clint’s brother Barney rolls into town, broke and homeless and with no apparent plan, and asks Clint to help him get back on his feet. What I like most about this issue is how it acts as a sort of mirror to Hawkeye #10. Francavilla draws them both, and they both tell the tales of their central characters’ pasts. But where before the focus was on a new bad guy, Barney is set up here as a possible new good guy, even though historically he’s been a supervillain in other series. I can’t know for sure what or how big his role will be in this book, but based on this introductory issue, I think he’s going to be an ally and asset for Clint, even if he does have some heavy baggage of his own. We see him in flashback as a protective, concerned older brother, and a mentor figure for young Clint. In the present, he seems to have a rather low opinion of himself, letting a couple of Tracksuit Dracula guys beat him up for the promise of a few dollars. But he also proves his mettle when he eventually fights back, taking on several of them at once with relative ease, even after they’ve injured him pretty severely.
That seems to be this issue’s primary goal, to show us Barney’s strengths and weaknesses as a means of folding him into the cast. It is strangely the least connected to Grills’ death of any issue in this arc, but like Hawkeye #11 before it, this does a lot of work in the way of setting this up for the comicbook’s future. Having just seen Kate exit, we now get Barney’s entrance (though actually there was a glimpse of him in Lucky’s issue, it just wasn’t made obvious who he was). As depressing a figure as Barney is, having him come into Clint’s life feels like it could be recuperative for them both. Add to that Barney developing his own beef with Clint’s current foes without even realizing who they are, and it seems a fair assumption that the Barton brothers are going to avenge Grills together somehow. Should that end up being the case, having Barney arrive on the scene during this arc is the perfect choice. And either way, it’s a good call for Francavilla to do two issues in the run, the first exploring a villain’s past and the second a hero’s.
Hawkeye Annual #1: I think I have this right, based on the order in which these issues were released, but it’s possible this really should be read before Hawkeye #12. Either way, though, the annual is only tangentially connected to the rest of the arc. It’s beginning is the same as Hawkeye #11’s ending, where Kate walks out on Clint. The annual, however, is from Kate’s point of view, so we get to hear all of her reasons for leaving and then follow her out to L.A. where she has a complete Madame Masque adventure of her own before truly settling in. That takes up the bulk of the issue, so it’s only really the very first scene that relates to the rest of this arc, but it’s a significant one, a necessity.
Kate has been the second lead character of Hawkeye since early on, so having her decide she’s had it with Clint and move across the country is a big deal that will have major ramifications for the book’s future. It’s important that we get to see why she did it, get to hear her side of the story completely. But, since this is an annual and therefore not as obliged to fit into the main title as a regular issue would be, giving it its own story separate from the Grills murder is a smart decision. That narrative stays within the pages of Hawkeye proper, and this annual nods to it without them relying on one another.
Hawkeye #13: Finally, in the latest issue, we return to Clint’s outlook on everything we’ve been seeing through other people’s eyes all this time. Clint gets the news of Grills’ death, goes to the funeral, deals with his bum older brother, fights with and loses Kate (also losing his dog in the process), and struggles with the right way to respond to the Tracksuit Draculas pulling such a dirty stunt as murdering some average Joe nobody who happened to be Clint’s friend. Most of all, we see him mourn, utterly grief- and guilt-stricken over the role he played in an innocent man being killed. What’s so beautiful about this issue as the conclusion is that almost everything in it is either a scene that’s occurred in another chapter already, or directly follows one. And the moments referenced are from all five of the previous issues, so that this final beat fills in the gaps of the whole rest of the arc.
That also makes it one of the more complicated issues, script-wise, often jumping forward in time from one page to next, and sometimes only showing one side of scenes that have happened before. To lend a hand with the comprehension, then, Aja pares back the artistic flourishes and does every page as a nine-panel grid in tidy, evenly-spaced rows and columns. It’s an inversion of the word-art dynamic that the other issues had, which is another fitting thing to do in the finale. No tricks, no distractions; just crisp, clean artwork telling a more nuanced story that digs into the sadness of its central character after the death of a friend.
Hawkeye #13 closes on the above image of Clint, standing alone on the same roof where Grills died, staring into the night with a faraway look on his face. He seems lost, and maybe a little scared, like he wants to peer directly into his future so he can see what dangers await him, and his inability to do so is the greatest obstacle in his life. The reader, meanwhile, is left with almost the opposite feeling, having been given in this issue a strong sense of closure, however temporary. There are still many threads left dangling, to be sure, but Grills has been laid to rest, and it’s time for the next part of Clint’s conflict with the Draculas to commence. What that will look like is anybody’s guess, hence Clint’s apprehension, but the arc that just ended was a lovely piece of serialized comicbook craftsmanship.
Matthew Derman loves comicbooks and writes about them every week on his blog Comics Matter. He also loves his lady and their two dogs.