How did Hawkeye become Marvel’s best comic?

How did Hawkeye become Marvel’s best comic?

Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic-book issue of significance. This week, it’s Hawkeye #5. Written by Matt Fraction (Fantastic Four, Casanova) and drawn by Javier Pulido (Catwoman, Human Target), it’s an immensely entertaining action-comedy that shows why Clint Barton has become one of Marvel’s premier superheroes. 

Clint “Hawkeye” Barton is a fan-favorite character who has always had difficulty sustaining an ongoing series. There were two previous attempts in the past 10 years to give the archer Avenger his own title, but neither book reached the level of popularity of Matt Fraction’s current Hawkeye series. That may be due to the exposure the character received by appearing in this summer’s The Avengers film, but it’s more likely due to the creative vision of Fraction and his artistic collaborators. The first issues masterfully introduced Clint and his world to new readers with three stand-alone stories, establishing Hawkeye’s mission and the action-comedy tone of the title. Clint Barton is the people’s hero, an ordinary human fighting for the downtrodden masses, armed with only a bow and an arsenal of trick arrows (highlighted in the spectacular Hawkeye #3). 

Spider-Man has long been considered Marvel’s superhero everyman, but Hawkeye has stolen that title with this series. To start, Hawkeye doesn’t have a secret identity, helping his community both in and out costume. And while his civilian identity is public, Clint doesn’t like being referred to as an Avenger. He’s a regular Joe who would rather hang out with his neighbors at a rooftop barbecue than save the world, but when duty calls—and sometimes when it doesn’t—Clint is ready to leap back into action. When Joe Quesada was editor-in-chief at Marvel, he didn’t want Peter Parker to get divorced because that would further age a character that’s immensely popular with kids. That’s not the case with Hawkeye, and a major part of this book’s appeal is watching an aging Clint find his way out of impossible situations—and he’s divorced to boot. 

There seems to be a surge of archer superheroes in pop culture right now, between Hawkeye in the hugely successful The Avengers and Oliver Queen in the CW’s new hit, Arrow. There one distinct similarity between Clint Barton in Hawkeye (he wasn’t much of a character on screen) and Oliver Queen: They’re both wealthy but choose to use their money to help their community. Yeah, Batman’s been doing that since the ’30s, but he didn’t do it with a bow and arrow. Hawkeye and Green Arrow are variations of the Robin Hood myth; they steal from the rich and give to the poor, but they also happen to be rich themselves. That hasn’t always been the case for Clint Barton, but pushing his character in that direction was a wise move by Matt Fraction. 

Sometimes helping out the common man means being transported halfway across the world and getting tied to a chair and fondled by a supervillain, as Clint learned in Hawkeye #4, the first part of “The Tape.” Clint has been hired by S.H.I.E.L.D. to track down a VHS tape featuring footage of him assassinating a terrorist on camera, footage that would turn public opinion against S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Avengers if released. The issue ends with a cliffhanger revealing that Kate Bishop, the Young Avenger who also goes by the name of Hawkeye, has been posing as Madame Masque and retrieved the tape, but both Kate and the reader are kept in the dark regarding the true purpose of Clint’s mission. The tape ends up being a fake, created along with two others featuring Captain America and Wolverine so that S.H.I.E.L.D. could find an information leak within their organization and close it up. Clint’s work was all theater so that S.H.I.E.L.D. could keep secret the names of the Navy SEALs who actually killed Du Ke Feng. Sitting in a hospital bed after getting shot in the chest, Clint explains his reasoning to Kate: “The guys that actually did this—they’re doing what they think is right. They didn’t sign up to get their families and friends killed as retribution.” To save the lives of heroes that don’t get the fame, glory, and security of being an Avenger, Clint Barton is willing to risk his own.

Hawkeye #5 begins with Clint tied to a chair and jumping out of a skyscraper window, accompanied by the narration, “Okay, this looks bad.” It’s a callback to Fraction’s first issue, which similarly began with Clint falling out of a window and remarking what a bad situation he’s in, and this issue is a nice closer to the first arc of the book, even if the first three issues technically stood alone. At the end of the issue, Kate tells Clint, “As far as people go, you’re okay,” the sort of understatement that’s been present throughout this book’s first five issues. The superhero side of Clint Barton is always downplayed, even though he consistently performs extraordinary feats. He never appears in costume in #5, and he fights off a flood of supervillains wearing a brown suit and one shoe, making his actions all the more impressive. 

The first issue of Hawkeye was a strong debut, but the title really took off with the introduction of Kate Bishop, who has proven to be an outstanding foil for the lead hero. Kate is less experienced but immensely talented, and she’s even more headstrong than Clint, directly disobeying his orders in the previous issue and flying to Madripoor to have her own undercover adventure. Fraction clearly loves writing dialogue for Clint and Kate, and their innocently flirtatious, mutually beneficial relationship has become the heart of the book. After spending last issue as Madame Masque, Kate is able to show her true face in the second half of the story, and her youthful, sassy point of view becomes a major source of humor. When Madame Masque tells Kate that she’s going to use her face as an ashtray, Kate has a simple, hilarious response: “Ugh.”

Fraction is at the top of his game on this title, but he’s had help from two incredible artists: David Aja and Javier Pulido. Aja established a dynamic graphic style for this book with his first three issues, and Pulido’s distinctly retro artwork is a great fit for this two-part espionage tale, maintaining a look similar to Aja’s with his layouts, but employing a looser line in the actual rendering. The cruder look of Pulido’s art is appropriate for Clint, a hero with bags under his eyes and scars on his body, and while Pulido’s art may appear simpler than Aja’s, there’s no shortage of detail. (How many artists draw the butterfly clips holding up a woman’s hair?) The Madripoor skyline is a constant presence in this story, and it’s exquisitely captured by Pulido and colorist Matt Hollingsworth, who combines blue, black, white, and yellow to make the cityscape a bold graphic element on the page. 

There are so many things to swoon over in Pulido’s artwork, from his delightful use of onomatopoeia (“KERKUFFLE” for a tape exiting a VCR, “FOOTOOMP!” for Clint and Kate kicking down a doorway) to his spot-on character work, particularly his wide-eyed, round-faced Kate. She looks like Alexis Bledel, which combined with Fraction’s dialogue makes her character seem a bit like Rory Gilmore on Gilmore Girls if she was a deadly superhero. If Luke and Rory decided to fight crime, they’d probably be a lot like Clint and Kate. 

The Silver Age quality of Pulido’s art comes through in his linework’s vibrant energy and sense of motion, and this issue gives him the opportunity to stretch all his action muscles. When Clint shows up to save Kate, it’s a badass moment that’s given added weight by Pulido’s artwork, building and diffusing tension wonderfully over the course of a page. Four vertical panels along the top of the page show Clint pulling his arrow back, each new image turning up the intensity as the bowstring tightens. One large panel shows Clint silhouetted against the city backdrop, releasing the arrow and saying “boom,” and then four small panels across the bottom of the page zoom in on the arrow as it makes impact with the window. The explosion is saved for the next page, where the arrow destroys the window with the sound effect  “KGLASSSSS,” allowing Clint to jump into action, even if he only has one shoe. When he lands on a bunch of broken glass, he hops away saying, “Ow ow foot ow,” and his left foot becomes a recurring joke. When Clint kicks opens a stairway door, he screams at the pain, and Pulido adds a little stream of blood for extra emphasis. There aren’t many heroes that get screwed over in battle because they lost their shoe, but Clint Barton’s not like other heroes. (Well, maybe a little like one.)

Recently, a new side of Hawkeye’s appeal was explored in the thoroughly amusing Hawkeye Initiative Tumblr, which takes oversexualized images of females in comic books and replaces the women with Hawkeye. Putting a male in these poses reveals how weak and submissive women are made to look in superhero comics, and while the choice to make Hawkeye the central figure was arbitrary, making him the face of a feminist comic-book project fits with the character Fraction has established in this series. He’s the hero that fights for the oppressed without any care for what it will do to his reputation or his life, and if that means shamelessly posing in fan-art, he’ll do it. Sexy Hawkeye is starting to gain some traction with the people creating his book, too. Steve Lieber, artist of the upcoming Hurricane Sandy-centric Hawkeye #7, tweeted: “Drawing Hawkeye running away from the camera in wet jeans. It’s taking all my strength not to provide tumblr fodder.” There aren’t many things that could make Hawkeye a better book, but turning up Clint’s sex appeal can’t hurt. There’s clearly an audience for it.