Today I will be gleeking the hell out of a comic. I’m going to be doing a lot of that for this year’s Month of Relentless Positivity, because this seems to be an especially propitious time for good comics. So take that how you will.
Hawkeye, aka Clint Barton, aka the guy with the bow and arrow in The Avengers movie. In the comics he’s not a super-cool government assassin working for Nick Fury (and/or Loki). No, in the comics he’s a two-bit criminal carnie with a bow and some trick arrows who FOR SOME REASON THOUGHT HE COULD TAKE ON THE AVENGERS. Give the guy some props for having brass cojones. Anyway, after he does a stretch in prison, he gets out, flies straight and eventually becomes a hero. And the leader of the Avengers. And the leader of the West Coast Avengers. And then he died for a few years until he came back as a mute ninja and – oh shit, I’m doing that thing where I overexplain comics continuity, aren’t I?
(Totally deliberate in that case. I could not possibly resist mentioning the bit about his being dead and then a ninja, because COMICS!)
So, Hawkeye (2012) by Matt Fraction and David Aja (with covers and colours by Matt Hollingsworth and letters by Chris Eliopolous) is a standard Marvel monthly title.  Except that it really isn’t like any other superhero book I’ve ever seen. Yes, it’s still about Clint ‘Hawkeye’ Barton and his teenaged protege Kate ‘Hawkeye’ Bishop, who are both regular unpowered-but-hypercompetent hero-adventurers. Yes, the superheroics of the greater Marvel Universe do occasionally intrude at the edges.
But Hawkeye – affectionately known as Hawkguy, as pronounced by the writer’s young son – takes its tone cues not from the absurd power fantasies of the superhero genre but from grimy TV crime dramas from the seventies, in particular The Rockford Files. In this series, Clint Barton’s life as an Avenger occurs off-screen. Instead, the story focuses on his after-hours life in a worn-down New York apartment building, hanging with his working-class neighbours, wrangling with some menacing low-rent Russian mafia scumbags in sportswear (the always-fantastic “tracksuit Draculas”) and generally screwing up his love-life and other relationships.
The colours are muted just short of sepia. The covers are stunning works of pop-art design. The vibe is run-down, weathered weariness bordering on the fatalistic. Clint’s in a low place, and despite gangster shenanigans, sexy mayhem and the odd high-speed chase with turbo-charged muscle cars and exploding arrows, he’s getting more down with every passing issue. Kate is a rich girl with a snarky confidence and thrill-seeker’s joie de vivre who can see Clint’s mounting depression sapping the life out of her.
Despite Clint’s world-trammelled, downbeat optimism and Kate’s sometimes biting cynicism, this series is funny. Hilarious, even. Even in the grimmest situations – such as the issue set in the eye of Hurricane Sandy as it beats the hell out of coastal New Jersey – the sparkling sense of fun and glimmers of hope seep through the murk. Matt Fraction, one of my favourite writers at the moment (and rapidly ascending into the pantheons of my all-time favourites) is at his best here, showing a sincerity and humanity that bleeds through every panel.
Not being much of an art afficionado, my initial impression of David Aja’s art was to dislike the scratchy lines. I’m an idiot. Aja does more with the body language and facial expressions in a single panel than most artists manage in a two-page spread with forty superheroes punching each other. Moreover, the composition in this book is amazing. The pacing, from panel to panel, page to page and issue to issue, is so controlled it’s almost impossible to rush through it.
This is a book where you notice the panel layout, because it’s doing as much storytelling as the dialogue and the pictures. I couldn’t tell you the last time I noticed stuff like that while reading a funnybook. And you don’t see it because it’s obtrusive. You admire it because it’s teaching you a language that you probably never paid the slightest attention to before. It calls attention to the fact that it’s something that you can pay attention to. It doesn’t just teach you how to read this book. It skills you up for reading every other comic you will ever lay eyes on.
And hey, there is an issue shown from the point of view of Lucky, the one-eyed stray mutt that only hangs around with Clint because he offered him a slice of pizza, that is basically a one-issue revolution in graphic storytelling. I just don’t have the words for how good that single issue is, and yet it’s not even my favourite in the series. (That might be the one where loonie teenaged gang-boss Madame Masque secretly bankrupts and then befriends Kate Bishop so that she can exact a bitter revenge, or the one where Clint’s exes team up to stage an intervention on him only to decide he’s a shiftless bum who deserves everything he gets).
Look, there are two volumes out so far: “Hawkeye Volume 1: My Life as a Weapon” and “Hawkeye Volume 2: Little Hits”. If not for the fact that I will be recommending several other comics in the course of TMoRP, I would practically insist that anyone with an interest in superheroes, light noir or witty dialogue should immediately cease all delaying activities and get both books.
But also, that would be bullying. And that’s Not Okay.
 Actually, scratch that. Standard Marvel titles are coming out about once every three weeks these days – presumably so that the trade paperback collections can be assembled and released more frequently – but Hawkeye has a slightly slower turnaround. Let’s describe the release schedule as “at a leisurely pace”.