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Hawkeye #19 uses deafness to help a broken Clint Barton find his voice

Fraction and Aja deliver an experimental issue that is worth the wait

Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic-book issue of significance. This week, it’s Hawkeye #19. Written by Matt Fraction (Casanova, Sex Criminals) with art by David Aja (The Immortal Iron Fist, Daredevil) and colorist Matt Hollingsworth (The Wake, Wolverine), this issue uses Clint’s deafness to show how diversity can impact storytelling, using his disability to visually experiment and delve deeper into his character. This review reveals major plot points.

Hawkeye has lost a lot of momentum. That’s what happens when there’s a four-month gap between issues at the tail end of a run that has been plagued with delays. Those delays were easier to swallow when the book was running on the steam of those exciting, unpredictable early issues, but splitting focus between two slowly moving storylines while taking months between issues severely diminished the book’s forward motion over the last year.

After the recent announcement that writer Matt Fraction and artist David Aja would be ending their run with October’s Hawkeye #22, the book needed a serious jumpstart to get readers pumped for the final issues, and the creative team delivers. Hawkeye #19 is worth the wait, an experimental issue in the vein of last year’s Eisner Award-winning Hawkeye #11 that reenergizes the story by delving into Clint’s past while inciting him to action in the present. It’s also another visual marvel by artist David Aja, using the comic-book medium to reflect the deaf experience while using the it to change the structure of his comic-book art.

Clint Barton goes deaf after his encounter with The Clown, and this issue depicts his hearing loss by cutting out almost all the dialogue in scenes where Clint is the focal point. Empty word balloons indicate when people are talking (and occasionally reflect heightened emotion with the shape of the balloon), and panels of sign language show how Clint and his brother Barney are communicating, but they aren’t translated. Aja needed considerable extra time to accurately depict the hefty amount of ASL as well as the largely silent storytelling, and he brings incredible clarity to the issue.

In an issue where the script doesn’t make the dialogue explicitly clear for readers that don’t know American Sign Language, the visual elements need to do extra work to keep the audience engaged. The emotional beats of each scene are primarily dictated by Matt Hollingsworth’s colors, and in the issue’s inspirational final pages, the colors work to emphasize a sense of unity by rotating through red, white, and blue. The majority of this issue is Clint working out his childhood issues with his brother, issues that come rushing back to the surface when he finds himself suffering from his childhood disability, but it’s also a story about the resilience of the American spirit, a theme captured in Hollingsworth’s color scheme.

Clint is fighting to save his rightfully owned property from foreign forces, but it’s a war that he can’t fight alone. Deaf and abandoned by all his allies except for his brother, who is currently confined to a wheelchair, Clint doesn’t see how he can succeed in his mission, and this issue is about him finding the strength to keep fighting by remembering the lessons taught to him as a child. In a flashback to a moment that would define the course of Clint’s life forever, Barney tells his brother, “Make everything something to hit with. And hit them until they stop.” Clint responds with a six-panel ASL sequence about the overwhelming size of the threat (in this case: their father), but Barney responds, “Then we outlast him.” The pronoun is important here; Clint can protect himself by turning everything into a weapon, but the only way to truly outlast an overpowering opponent is by turning to others for help and support.

The most remarkable thing about this issue is how these ideas are conveyed in a challenging way that invites reader interpretation. Clouding the specifics, the script stimulates the imagination by having the reader make connections by following visual cues and drawing conclusions based on their own personal opinions. People that know ASL are going to get more information from the artwork, but even then, there’s still plenty that is left open for interpretation thanks to those empty word balloons. Clint’s big inspirational speech is very vague for people that don’t know ASL, but it’s presented in a way that makes the intent completely clear.

Clint’s deafness forces the creative team to take a different approach to this integral chapter of their story, making a valuable point about the benefits of embracing diversity, specifically in regards to characters with disabilities. The A.V. Club’s Roundtable discussion of diversity in comics noted that most comics lack characters and creators with disabilities, and it’s an omission that is made far too often in discussions of diversity. As comic books strive harder to include characters of every gender, race, religion, and sexual orientation, spotlighting people with disabilities becomes an equally important agenda. That’s why it’s a big deal when Barbara Gordon can suddenly walk after spending years building an identity as the tough, proud, disabled superhero Oracle.

How this miracle occurred has never been revealed in the comics, despite early insistence from DC that it would be eventually, and now that Gail Simone is leaving Batgirl, it looks like that question may never be answered. And Oracle wasn’t the only disabled heroine to disappear in the New 52. Wendy “Proxy” Harris, a supporting cast member in Bryan Q. Miller’s exceptional Batgirl series, was also erased from continuity. The number of disabled comic characters is already low, but the number of disabled characters with disabled friends is even lower. Oracle and Proxy had a dynamic that isn’t explored in comics very often, and just as they were starting to build a strong bond, their relationship was wiped from existence.

These were some of the few characters reflected the experience of disabled readers, and those experiences opened up new storytelling opportunities. Barbara was in a wheelchair, but that didn’t mean she didn’t know how to defend herself. Her paralysis forced the writers and the artists to find new ways to make her a badass, and they succeeded. Representation is a big part of the movement for increased diversity in comics, but diversity is also just great for storytelling. Barbara Gordon’s disability gave creators the opportunity to put her in a new position of power within the DC universe, and in the case of Hawkeye #19, Clint Barton’s deafness provides an avenue for visual experimentation while making a bold statement about making your voice heard.

As G. Willow Wilson mentions in the aforementioned Roundtable, “Differences of experience and identity are bridges that can be crossed. The end goal is greater empathy and a more articulate reflection of human experience.” Hawkeye #19 shows how that goal of empathetic articulation can lead to more creative opportunities, offering a riveting story that wouldn’t hit the same impact if it were told in a more traditional manner. Maybe seeing this issue will inspire deaf comic creators to tell stories that use sign language in a similar manner, or inspire other creators to include deaf characters who communicate through ASL. Hawkeye has already proven quite influential in the landscape of contemporary superhero comics, and it would be wonderful if part of its legacy included more titles embracing disabled characters.

The easiest way for readers to see more diversity is to support titles that feature diverse casts and creative teams. Larime Taylor is a disabled comics creator born with arthrogryposis, and he writes, draws, tones, and letters his work with his mouth. His Top Cow series, A Voice In The Dark, is a chilling psychological thriller featuring a primarily female cast, and it returns in September with a new first issue in full color. Valiant’s Harbinger stars a disabled cast member in John “Torque” Torkelson, a teenage boy that is paralyzed from the waist down, but can project solid psychic holograms that turn him into a powerful superhero. Gail Simone introduced a new disabled superheroine to the DC universe with Vengeance Moth in The Movement, but low sales prompted that book’s cancellation after a year.

Archie has found great success in diversifying its cast with the debut of the openly gay Kevin Keller, and in June, Archie #656 introduced Harper, Veronica’s fashionista cousin who uses a blinged-out wheelchair because of injuries she sustained in a car accident as a child. Harper is inspired by disabled author Jewel Kats, who met Archie writer/artist Dan Parent at Toronto’s Fan Expo in 2013. When she asked him why Riverdale didn’t have any disabled characters, the two exchanged contact info and collaborated together to create Harper. Kats made her voice heard and she incited a change, and that’s what Hawkeye #19 is all about.

When Clint finds himself without his hearing, he stops communicating. He’s not mute and he knows sign language, but he’s lost all his self-confidence and is a silent shell of a man for the first half of this issue. Thanks to his brother and a rush of childhood memories, Clint is able to find his power again, and that means making his voice heard. But that voice doesn’t necessarily come from his mouth. After signing the word “we” to the tenants of his building, Clint lifts his fist in the air, a gesture that is repeated by the rest of the residents. He may not hear them, but their voices ring loud through their raised fists, a brilliant way of tying this major event in the narrative to the concept of the issue. As Hawkeye, Clint is a man that relies on his hands to be a hero, and this week, he uses them to assemble an army. Now it’s time to end the fight.