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Is Hawkeye’s Pizza Dog issue the future of superhero comics?

Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic-book issue of significance. This week, it’s Hawkeye #11. Written by Matt Fraction (FF, Casanova) and drawn by David Aja (The Immortal Iron Fist, Daredevil), this experimental issue uses a dog’s-eye view to show the vast storytelling opportunities of superhero comics. Warning: spoilers ahead.

Superhero comics are predictable and repetitive. The stories all tend to be variations on the standard “good guy vs. bad guy” narrative, and while those conflicts have become more complex in the past 30 years, at the end of the day there’s going to be one person in costume punching another person in costume. As revolutionary as Watchmen is in its exploration of superhero psychology and the real-world impact costumed vigilantes would have, it’s still a comic book about a group of superheroes trying to stop a madman’s catastrophic plan. And for every Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns, there are hundreds of traditional superhero comics sitting in 25-cent bins. 

Despite being predictable and repetitive, superhero comics are often entertaining. I don’t go to the theater to see the newest Fast And Furious sequel because I’m expecting something new. I go because I’m expecting to see what I already know amplified to new levels of stunt-car insanity. Marvel and DC superheroes have developed a massive, rich mythology, and the best creators explore that mythology to find different angles to approach the characters. There are many reasons why Marvel Now! has proven a bigger creative success than DC’s New 52, including a stronger editorial focus and consistent creative teams made up of writers and artists who want to work together, but what really differentiates these two re-launches is that Marvel has kept its history while DC’s has mostly been erased. The basic superhero narrative doesn’t change but the characters do, and the evolution of those heroes is the reason to keep coming back to their titles. 

The ongoing comics that were folded into the Marvel Now! initiative (Daredevil, Captain Marvel, Hawkeye, Wolverine And The X-Men) were already taking inspiration from the past to propel their characters into the future, and by tapping into established Marvel mythology, new titles like FF, Captain America, and All New X-Men have become must-reads. These are all comics that deliver “good guy vs. bad guy” every month, but by reminding readers where these characters started, they create a real sense that the Marvel heroes are growing with time. Few heroes have undergone quite as dramatic a metamorphosis as Clint “Hawkeye” Barton, who has grown from child circus roadie to adult criminal, Avenger, and now urban Robin Hood. The tone of Hawkeye is unlike any other superhero comic on the stands, with writer Matt Fraction taking advantage of his various artists’ individual strengths to tell stories that are heavily influenced by classic black-and-white horror films (Francesco Francavilla’s #10), ’60s spy thrillers (Javier Pulido’s #4-5), and gritty ’70s action movies (David Aja’s issues). The results are exhilarating and consistently surprising, but Hawkeye #11 reaches a new pinnacle of excellence by completely breaking away from superhero conventions to experiment with the medium. 

Told entirely from the point of view of Lucky (a.k.a. “Pizza Dog”), the one-eyed canine Clint rescued in the first issue of Hawkeye, “Pizza Is My Business” is the most untraditional superhero comic of the year. There’s minimal dialogue except for key words that Lucky recognizes (“help,” “up,” “good boy”), and the majority of information is presented through icons depicting how Lucky interprets the world through sight and smell. The use of iconography and incorporation of architectural design in page layouts immediately calls to mind the work of Chris Ware, but it’s a combination of influences that makes this book so distinct. Aja’s usual realistic, David Mazzucchelli-inspired style is combined with Ware’s design sense and storytelling techniques plus the animated animal expression found in Sunday comic strips like Peanuts and Mutts, creating a tribute to different forms of graphic storytelling.  

The comic-book medium has a unique relationship with its audience in that the reader is the person that ultimately completes the story by connecting the static images. The snapshots come together to create a complete narrative in the reader’s mind, but the bridges between those pictures are unique to each reader. There’s massive potential for experimentation with the connection between words and images, but superhero books have largely steered clear of the kind of avant-garde storytelling that has characterized alternative comics. Hawkeye #11 suggests that it’s time to change that as it creates a story that requires a level of personal interpretation that has more in common with poetry and jazz than it does superhero comics. (Naturally, Aja’s playlist for #11 contains songs by jazz luminaries Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Chet Baker.) 

The story doesn’t break from the detective mold too heavily—Lucky meets a beautiful bitch that leads him to a case, he tries to solve it, sleeps with the female, then discovers and fights the perpetrators—but the execution is incredibly imaginative and visually striking. Instead of the hard-boiled narration that would be found in a more traditional detective story, the reader is invited into Lucky’s mind through yellow pictograms and simplified diagrams. Each yellow icon represents a distinct olfactory or visual characteristic that Lucky associates with the different people that he encounters: Clint and Kate “Hawkeye” Bishop both receive archer icons, but Lucky associates coffee, leather, and dog food with Clint while Kate is connected to tea, pizza, makeup and a mystery smell that Lucky will pick up again later in the issue. When Lucky leaves Clint’s apartment and explores the building, the inhabitants behind each closed door receive their own individual picture web, providing brief glimpses into each person’s living situation without ever actually showing them. 

The way Fraction, Aja, and colorist Matt Hollingsworth depict Lucky’s vision is ingenious, placing the yellow icons over a white-and-blue outline of the environment that reinforces the fact that dogs are color blind. When the focus shifts outside of Lucky’s perspective, that blue-and-white outline is filled in, with the two different points of view bleeding into each other in Clint’s apartment to show the level of comfort Lucky has in his owner’s home. Hollingsworth is an invaluable member of the Hawkeye creative team, giving the book a limited color palette that has kept the visuals consistent across different artists. (Francesco Francavilla colored his own issue, staying consistent with the palette established by Hollingsworth but amplifying it for his chiaroscuro style.) Violet and yellow are the primary hues, and the complementary colors give the book a stylized, high contrast look that stands out from the textured, realistic coloring used in most superhero comics today. 

The yellow icons are how Lucky perceives the immediate world around him, but the visuals become even more creative when the reader sees how Lucky goes about his detective work. After sniffing the ground around the dead body on Clint’s rooftop, Lucky picks up on three distinct scents: Clint, Clint’s neighbor Gil (the deceased), and a mysterious third party who shares a question-mark icon with Kate. The page shows a bird’s-eye view of the roof drawn in the blue-and-white of Lucky’s vision, with each person’s path of movement indicated by a number attached to a list of icons. The lack of text and the simplified visual elements make the reader’s imagination work even harder to put all the pieces together, creating a wonderfully immersive reading experience.

The words that Fraction chooses to include reveal a lot about the world Lucky inhabits; the fact that he recognizes “Avenger” and “ex-wife” shows what Clint likes to talk about in his apartment. He also recognizes choice Polish phrases spoken by his former owners, showing how aspects of Lucky’s old life linger. Fraction may not contribute much in the way of dialogue, but there’s no lack of significant story developments this issue. He introduces a homeless man outside the building that could be Clint’s brother Barney judging by the Clint icon and approximately equal sign Lucky associates with the man. Fraction also reveals that there’s a tenant in the building who is still loyal to Clint’s track suit-wearing enemies. The relationship between Clint and Kate also takes a major turn in the final pages, setting up a new status quo for Clint as he finds himself completely alone after recent events.   

An experimental splash page from Young Avengers #4 received a lot of attention for thinking outside the superhero-comic box, but Hawkeye #11 goes even further to show how bold design can revitalize a superhero comic. In order to keep sales up, Marvel and DC have consistently turned to events like crossovers and relaunches, but Marvel has found a way to turn each issue of Hawkeye into an event in and of itself. That’s partly due to its delayed shipping schedule, which leaves readers clamoring for the next issue with a fervor that can’t be matched by titles on an accelerated schedule, like Avengers and All New X-Men. It takes a while for a new issue of Hawkeye to hit stands, but the wait is always worth it. 

Hawkeye #11 is a sophisticated comic book about a crime-solving dog that loves pizza, and it combines drama, intrigue, and humor in a package that challenges the reader. Lucky may be an animal, but he’s given more character in this one issue than a lot of human superheroes. He has the thirst for adventure and sense of duty of a costumed do-gooder, but is also forced to endure the everyday obstacles of an ordinary civilian. Fraction hasn’t lost sight of the human side of Clint as he places him in increasingly intense situations, and he applies that same introspective character development to Lucky. 

Quiet scenes showing Lucky eating leftover pepperoni pizza in an alley, comforting his grieving owner, and flirting with the neighbor’s dog provide the emotion that adds depth to the innovative visuals, proving that any character can be a captivating lead with the right creative team. Hawkeye #11 isn’t the future of superhero comics because of its graphic design (it would be horrible if every superhero title was blueprints and icons), but in the way that design works to depict the singular point of view of the central character. By experimenting with the medium, the creative team have succeeded in building a superhero comic that is anything but predictable and repetitive, and the entire industry would benefit by breaking from the established boundaries of the genre.