Review–Marvel’s new Hawkeye series, a great story of the “other” superhero archer

Review by C.J. Bunce

Matt Fraction and David Aja’s new Hawkeye series is one of the best Green Arrow stories I’ve read in a good while.  It’s a strange thing, as I had no idea these guys could be interchangeable.  Sure, they both use bow and arrow as their chief weapon.  Green Arrow has been around since the 1930s and Hawkeye the 1960s so I must admit I looked at Hawkeye as a Green Arrow knockoff, nothing more.  After his supporting role as a good guy converted to bad in this year’s Avengers movie I figured I’d relegate him to the hundreds of other characters that don’t make it to my reading pile.  I was pretty underwhelmed despite some nice trick arrow moves in that film.  So I had no intention of checking out the Marvel Comics new Hawkeye solo series.  But a very Cliff Chiang-inspired set of covers to Issues #1 and #2 this week at the local comic hangout caused me to look closer, and Matt Fraction’s name caused me to flip through Issue #1.

Some quick background.  I hate, HATE when writers use overused techniques and, especially, quick emotional tools to gain reader empathy.  What the heck am I talking about?  Endangering animals for shock effect, for one.  I haven’t been able to get past Stephen King’s Greg Stillson at the beginning of his novel The Dead Zone yet because King starts by shocking the reader by having Stillson senselessly (and purposelessly) kick a dog to death, simply to show the character was a bad guy.  This technique is a tool similar to using “women in refrigerators” as plot devices.  You may have heard about the very vocal opposition to that story element on comic book online discussions–the ongoing protest continues over writers using the victimization of women as a vehicle to show why the male hero must battle the bad guy.  Similarly my personal peeve is using wounded, harmed or dead animals to pull at readers’ heartstrings, and it’s used all the time, including as recent examples in the Army of Darkness comic book series this year, throughout Animal Man, and in the first issue of the Revival series.  John Carpenter’s The Thing has always bummed me out because of the use of several innocent German Shepherds that end up merged into a mass of gore by the alien presence.  And did they really gain anything in the story by killing off Tom Hanks’ pal Hooch?  I understand why people use animals in this way in stories.  I think they get lazy or lack creativity.  I simply don’t choose to read stories that go there and move along.

So back to Hawkeye.  Hawkeye Issue #1 begins with Clint Barton, the alter ego of the bow-wielding Avenger called Hawkeye, looking at a dog laying wounded at a pet hospital.  Oh, great.  So I flipped to the back of the book to see if the dog makes it.

Happily, Hawkeye Issue #1 presented a variant on the animal-at-risk theme:  The “Save the Cat” story device.  What’s that?  Let me explain.   If you want to have your reader gain sympathy or admiration for your character, do what Superman did.  Save the cat.  You may have Superman defy bullets or leap over skyscrapers, but none of that is personal.  None of that is compelling or gripping.  Rescuing a cat and returning it safe to its home is instantly endearing.  Here Matt Fraction straddles the “danger to animal” tool and flipped it into a Save the Cat story, literally saving the story from being another entry on the “no more dead dogs” list.  And that prompted me to pick up the first two issues to see what this Oliver Queen wannabe had to offer.  (If you’re interested in story writing techniques, screenwriting scholar Blake Snyder speaks about this a lot in his book Save The Cat!, and even trademarked the phrase).

Before I spend too much time analyzing story–let’s get this part out of the way–David Aja’s art is excellent here.  His style is simple, yet coupled with colorist Matt Hollingsworth’s use of solids–often no more than 2 or 3 colors per panel or page–in a very bare-bones way he creates a chic look for Barton’s Bed-Stuy world.   Aja’s interiors reminded me of Tim Sale’s pencils in his Catwoman: When in Rome mini-series.  It’s a very neat and nuanced look.  The art and color served the stories in both Issues #1 and #2.  It’s evocative of Cliff Chiang’s run on the Green Arrow/Black Canary series, and that prompted me to pretend that I was reading a really good Green Arrow story.  But the bow and arrow and Chiang art style is only the first of the similarities.

Fraction’s introspective look at this urban archer clicked immediately.  And the similarities of Hawkeye to Green Arrow are not just a quirk from this reader.  Fraction’s Issue #1 takes the key story from the arguably best Green Arrow story–his first Silver Age encounter with Hal Jordan aka the Green Lantern, in Green Lantern Issue #76.  That story was about Oliver Queen going head to head with a slumlord, who wasn’t necessarily doing anything illegal.  Here, Clint Barton goes head to head with a Bed-Stuy slumlord who also is not doing anything technically illegal.  So it’s like an alternate version of Green Arrow, but with more of a Golden Age clean-shaven Green Arrow.

The similarities continue in Issue #2, where Barton introduces us to his partner, a much younger sidekick and superb bowman named Kate Bishop.  The banter between Barton and Bishop were undeniably similar to the witty back and forth between Phil Hester and Ande Park’s version of Oliver Queen and his then-new sidekick, the second Speedy, Mia Dearden.

I’m not imagining things.  This Clint Barton is just like Oliver Queen.  Interchangeable even.

For me this couldn’t be a better introduction to Clint Barton.  Fraction’s work here is the best storytelling I have read from him to date.  The dialogue is funny, there are clever in-jokes throughout, and conversations are jam-packed into each page.  This is due in part to Aja’s ability to draw these unthinkably small, one-inch square panels whose simple lines allow the story to speed along while fitting within a lot of detail.

This new Hawkeye series is great stuff.  The story is more personal than action-packed and is refreshing and compelling.  Fraction makes everyday folks’ everyday problems more gripping than typical save-the-universe superhero fare. It’s exactly the type of storytelling you hope for in comics.  I for one am happy to read any number of “Green Arrow” stories, and if Hawkeye continues to be this good, you can be sure I’ll be adding it to the pull list next month.

Editor’s Note:  Check out why this made the borg “Best of 2012” list here!

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