In October 2012, Marvel rebranded their entire line of comics under the “Marvel Now” banner, an era that would effectively last for three years until 2015’s Secret Wars. It’s a fan favorite era of comics, under the editorial reign of Axel Alonso, with titles like Hawkeye, Superior Spider-Man, Thor: God of Thunder, and Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers among many others.
2022 marks the 10 year anniversary of Marvel Now, so at Comic Book Herald, we’ll be looking back at the best, most interesting, or just downright most confounding Marvel Now titles. This is “Marvel Then.”
Hawkeye officially enters “Marvel Now” with issue #6, running through issue #14 (and an annual!) by the end of 2013, the last year Hawkeye published with any consistency (it would take another 19 months for the final 8 issues to release). I’ll look at this year long stretch, primarily made up of Matt Fraction, David Aja and Matt Hollingsworth, with Francisco Francavilla and Steve Lieber providing important fill-in art, and Annie Wu coming on to the team by year’s end.
The first 5 issues of Hawkeye had already made it one of the most critically acclaimed comics of 2012, with “The Tape” story arc of issues four and five functioning as the most straightforward superhero story of the entire run. In the first three issues, Fraction, Aja and Hollingsworth establish the irreverence and style that would define and differentiate Hawkeye from Marvel’s traditional superhero fare. The tagline that best sums up the run though is:
“This is what he does when he’s not being an avenger.”
The Visionary Style of David Aja
Before we talk about Clint Barton, Kate Bishop, the tracksuit Vampires, Lucky the Pizza Dog, Grills, Kingpin, Madame Masque, and all the characters that make Hawkeye so endearing, there’s one piece of the comic that is more transcendent than any other: David Aja and Matt Hollingsworth’s storytelling and visual acuity.
The first two pages of Hawkeye #6 are a perfect encapsulation of how David Aja’s panel layout, narrative flow, and use of white space sets a uniquely defined tone for the entire series. Page one is split into a 5×6 template, but only 17 of the available 30 panels have defined borders. Simply put, it looks like nothing Marvel Comics published at the time, before or since really.
Aja uses the hyper-decompressed pacing to superzoom on all elements in the scene, fragments of Christmas ornaments, multicolored wires, a ticking clock, and Tony Stark and Clint Barton’s desperately nervous faces. The absence of the big picture context indicates Clint is trying to stop a ticking time bomb.
Fraction lets Aja work, and calls back to issue one’s now famous opening: “Okay… This looks bad.” He also perfectly summarizes his Clint, equal parts way out of his league and just dumb enough to confidently make the reckless and/or brave decisions the situation calls for. The only item in the entire left-hand column is the caption “Screw this” mirrored against the tangled wires; it always looks bad for Hawkeye, but eff it, here goes nothing! It’s basically the mantra of the book.
The second page completely resolves the tension with the punchline – Clint’s just trying to set up his TV, and he called flippin’ IRON MAN Tony Stark for tech support. It’s a comedy wrapped in an artistic vision with more attention to detail than Clint Barton’s every paid to anything.
Creatively, too, we can see in this issue, within two pages, how Fraction and Aja balance their skillsets. Fraction’s humor is an absolutely essential element to make all this work. There are so many small moments, so many hangdog ‘woah is me’ scenes, with a borderline-always-rocking-a-concussion Clint taking his lumps.
In Iron Man’s Marvel NOW series from this era he travels to space to encounter Phoenix and Rigellian recorders. In Clint’s series, he struggles with setting up his apartment because “you have to make your stuff work.” And in the hands of Fraction/Aja, it’s the latter that resonates with emotional depth and clarity.
Even at its most capital A Avengers, Aja’s take on Hawkeye #6 never feels like a Big 2 superhero book. In a fight against A.I.M with Spider-Man and Wolverine (in which Clint is characteristically knocked out and concussed), the action plays like an arcade horizontal scroller, 12 panels arrayed in 10 different shapes, all set in front of one bombed out building.
This is one of my favorite things about Hawkeye because despite the way I’m celebrating its differences, Fraction/Aja and team still aren’t running from the superhero landscape of the Marvel Universe that Clint and Kate call home. Hawkeye isn’t embarrassed to be a superhero comic, it just isn’t the focus.
What’s perhaps most incredible about Hawkeye is how it can almost completely remove the familiar inclusion of trick arrows and Avengers support, and hone in on a growing cast of unique characters that are a part of Clint’s apartment life. Hawkeye #11, “Pizza is my Business” starring Lucky the Pizza Dog, is a deserved Eisner winner, and the go-to example of what Aja brought to the series that elevates it so far above the majority of comics from either of the Big 2. Aja has an incredible feel for iconography as shorthand storytelling, the way he can give a dog’s eye view of Brooklyn through the kinds of icons you’d see in Microsoft Office.
The brilliance extends to the full creative team, too. The only “dialog” we can read contains words a dog would generally understand or be familiar with. Lucky’s POV is also colorblind or muted, since dogs are, allegedly* colorblind.
*For what it’s worth I also state that cats can “allegedly” see in the dark, and that mushrooms are “allegedly” edible on pizza. There are some facts I simply cannot verify.
“Pizza is my business” works so well because in addition to its ambitious storytelling approach, Lucky’s detective journey connects various elements of narrative that have been building or are to come in the run.
Hawkeye’s 2013 is all about Clint standing his ground in his Brooklyn apartment, despite the threats of the Tracksuit Draculas, and their organized crime ring. With Kate angrily urging him to be better, Clint decides to stand his ground, and help the people in his apartment who need him, extending as far as helping a resident, Grills, protect his Dad during Hurricane Sandy.
Ultimately, the threat does come back, as a hired assassin, Kazi, murders Grills on the apartment rooftop. In Hawkeye #11, Lucky discovers the body, overhears a fed up Kate tell Clint she’s moving to L.A., and is around for the arrival of Clint’s brother, Barney Barton. So “Pizza is My Business” functions as both an experimental comic and a multi-functional cog in an expanding story.
But again, it’s hard to say precisely how any of this would play outside of David Aja’s sublime approach to story. The idiosyncratic nature of the style, the fact that it looks quite unlike anything in Marvel Comics of the time, and the way this was embraced by readers leaves one of the most influential legacies of any artist on any Marvel Comics of the entire millennium.
The Progression of David Aja
While David Aja had been making excellent comics prior to Hawkeye – including a highly recommended run with Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction on Immortal Iron Fist – the Marvel NOW series is a clear leap in confidence and willingness to experiment.
You see the build to this ability over the course of Immortal Iron Fist, but it’s not as developed, nor as free to let loose. To be clear it’s still very good, and a stellar fit for Immortal Iron Fist.
When working in the superhero form, Aja’s clearest reference point is the incredible David Mazzuchelli’s superhero work, known for all-time great books with Frank Miller like Daredevil: Born Again and Batman Year One. This is often notable in Aja’s lines and sense of pacing, but there are even page comparisons – like those made by Reddit user “zackiscrazy” – that show an uncanny resemblance.
Nonetheless, by the time Aja’s working on “3 Jacks” in Daredevil #500 with Ann Nocenti (for the record, this 2009 anniversary short story is a fantastic Daredevil deep cut), he’s pretty clearly on the path to what would become “Hawkeye.”
The story’s title page is a cinematic overview of the dockside fair landscape, 10 uniquely sized panels blending zoomed in shots of building fronts, a bullseye, and a single image of Daredevil’s head smashing into a window.
It’s a more traditional layout, but Aja also plays with broader white spaces in the issue, using the extended gutters to incorporate Daredevil reading heartbeats to suss out versions of truth.
The clearest comparison point for the visual style – at least that I’m aware of – is Chris Ware, particularly his 2000 critical darling, Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth. Few graphic novelists that I’ve read make as much use of scattered iconography displaying thoughts and elements of the landscape.
Ware’s also never met a page he couldn’t dissect into 34,000 panels, really slowing down the reading experience, and forcing concentration on the motion of what’s happening.
Ware’s influence is clear, although I certainly would stop short of any nefarious accusations of shoplifting style. Aja and Ware are very different storytellers, and what I like so much about Aja’s take on these visual tricks is his ability to weave them into substantially more populist storylines and beats. Where Ware’s style often evokes the utter sadness of life, Aja’s is simply poppy and retrofitted to a dog that loves pizza and a goofball who likes his bow and arrow an awful lot.
The Key Components of Any Hawkeye
One of the most common criticisms I’ve seen towards this run from longtime Marvel fans is that Fraction/Aja and team’s Clint Barton doesn’t feel like the familiar version of the longtime Avenger. That Hawkeye is a cool comic and all, but it isn’t really a Hawkeye comic.
On the surface, I can definitely see why this might be. Hawkeye’s a hot-headed former criminal – in his debut he fights Iron Man – who over the course of 4 decades comes to really value and understand leadership in the Avengers, despite his antagonism towards the likes of Captain America in his earliest days with the team.
This is a character who has not only gone on to found the West Coast Avengers, but during “The Korvac Saga” saves the entire team – including Iron Man and Thor, from the cosmic Elder known as The Collector! It’s shown time and time again, that Hawkeye earns his stripes with the Avengers, and can hold his own!
So the sad sack Charlie Brown Clint who seems more likely to wind up bludgeoned in a dumpster than conquering a cosmic supervillain may rub some the wrong way!
But one of the things I love most about Hawkeye is all the ways it absolutely engages with this question and makes a real effort to maintain the legacy of Hawkeye, even as it redefines it for a new generation.
The most obvious continuation is through Clint as a regular guy hero, and at times even akin to the Robin Hood of Brooklyn for this apartment complex. Clint drives with Grills through a literal Hurricane to help the man save his father and at least try to salvage some memories before the home is flooded.
More broadly, Clint protects his apartment building from the predatory tracksuit draculas – although again it must be said that Kate Bishop deserves a majority of the credit for this. This is a purposefully small stakes mission – protect a building full of people from predatory landlords – that escalates with superhero undertones as the tracksuits are connected to the larger crime families of the Marvel Universe and players like Madame Masque and the Kingpin.
And while it’s less altruistically motivated, and more because he thinks with his favorite trick arrow, Clint tries to help an apparent damsel in distress, the elusive Cherry, when she comes to him in need of protection. He beats up a whole strip club full of tracksuits for her! What a hero!
Hawkeye’s always been one of the horniest Avengers, and early in his Avenging, even one of the most toxically sexist. As the character developed into Marvel’s 1980s, Clint’s calling card shifted to the Avengers resident doomed lothario, except unlike Tony Stark who occupies a similar space, Clint seems to almost exclusively date and/or marry superheroes.
Annie Wu joins for some amazing full page romance comic illustrations with Hawkeye #8, as Clint’s gallery of former flames – Black Widow, Mockingbird, and his at-time-time almost girlfriend Spider-Woman – step in to save the big idiot from himself.
For my money, Fraction and the team capture Clint perfectly, surrounded by gorgeous, brilliant, strong women, and stepping in it every time he opens his mouth. Clint Barton’s history with women is – to put it bluntly – real bad. He’s easily manipulated by Natasha when she’s at her Cold Warriest, he has an incredibly dark and nasty turn on Mockingbird after she’s sexually assaulted, and over the course of these issues, he clearly betrays and hurts Jessica Drew.
Even Cherry, the new femme fatale Clint’s fallen for, is playing him for her own gains, a fact that all Clint’s former lovers can see before Clint has any kind of clue.
Which brings us to the next piece of the Hawkeye legacy, the part where Clint’s in way over his head.
This is perhaps the most controversial for longtime Avengers fans because again, in a lot of ways, this one boils down to the cliched MCU argument that it’s pretty weird there’s a regular ass dude with a bow and arrow on a team with a super soldier, a super spy, an iron man, a god, and a hulk. For fans who’ve seen Clint hold his own in the Kree/Skrull War, Korvac Saga, and the duration of West Coast Avengers, watching him get beat up by the broiest bros this side of broston can feel like a declaration that your favorite superhero suuuuuucks.
I don’t think that’s the intent, though. Clint is a regular guy, and in that he’s one of the few Avengers who can plausibly get the snot beaten out of him on an off day. Captain America doesn’t get tricked into helping a woman rob a strip club only to get arrested when the police don’t recognize him. Clint? Yeah, clint does that.
In truth, we don’t see Hawkeye the Avenger on his own very often. And as a run, Hawkeye is considering how vulnerable he really is when that’s the case. After futzing up various plans, there’s a gathering of the New York criminal elite, including Kingpin, Tombstone, Hammerhead, Mister Negative and the Owl (and good golly look at Hollingsworth’s use of white on Kingpin here), where they debate the plausibility of putting a hit on mister avenger himself. It’s an interesting conversation, as these hardened criminals debate whether they want the heat of going after an Avenger, but it also highlights Hawkeye’s standing in the Marvel Universe that you couldn’t do if he wasn’t somewhat vulnerable.
Ultimately, the crime families are convinced to employ Kazi, a character we see introduced in Francesco Francavilla issues filling in for David Aja with his incredible use of fractured layouts, hot yellows and oranges raising tension, and various violent hits Kazi had executed – pun intended – in the past. Francavilla brings his Archie horror sensibilities to Clint and Kazi’s origins, dark mirrors of closeness with their brothers, and Clint’s drunk abusive father, and both of their parent’s early death.
I remember being put off by these issues when I was collecting Hawkeye as it came out, and re-reading I suspect a large part of that is because of how dark the narrative shift becomes when Francavilla’s Kazi is explored in more detail.
The reality of Hawkeye though is it’s not this flippant too-cute-for-its-own-good vanity project for Matt Fraction and company – at least not all the time. And Kazi’s assassination of Grills, this charming resident of Clint’s apartment, the grillmister who insists Clint’s codename is “Hawkguy”, is a real episodic gut punch, one that basically put the comic on hold for months, as the series then needed to catch its breath and avoid picking up chronologically from these broken pieces for a clean 4-5 issues.
The final piece of character development for Clint that is absolutely essential to understanding the run, and how this character fits to Hawkeye’s legacy, is in Clint’s relationship to his brother Barney Barton. When Barney comes to town we see how he helped target Clint’s bravery, and stubborn anger, and how he literally trains him in the art of quarter snapping and throwing a punch.
Because Clint Barton is one of the most human Avengers imaginable, his family is also frequently the most ignored. Think about regular Avengers, and you have all these domineering family connections – Thor’s Asgardian royalty, The legacy of Howard Stark, and of course for a time, Magneto’s fatherhood with Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch. What Fraction and team do here with a focus on Barney is to remind us of Clint’s humanity, again not as a crutch, but as a key component of what drives him.
Now, there’s no doubt that I’ve talked too much about Hawkeye without enough focus on Kate Bishop, the legacy Hawkeye who takes over the mantle – who simply claims it as her own and is proven right to do so! – and is just as essential to the book’s success as any character. In large part that’s due to the fact that Hawkeye’s first full year of Marvel Now is a lot less focused on Kate than I remembered.
Kate’s real shining moment begins with the summer’s Hawkeye Annual #1 by Fraction and Javier Pulido (the way Fraction and editors Stephen Wacker and Sana Amanat do not miss with artists on this run is amazing), and then picks up at the end of this year of comics I’m focused on, with Hawkeye #14 kicking off “L.A. Woman.” This marks the official debut of Annie Wu as primary series artist, alongside Fraction and Hollingsworth.
There must have been tremendous temptation, but I love that Annie Wu doesn’t overly try to capture Aja’s style, or approach to layouts. There’s purposefully shared DNA, sure, but Kate in California feels like her own unique story, which again is critical – she’s not just the supporting also-ran. Kate is Hawkeye.
Of course, even prior to “L.A. Woman” Kate is the heart that keeps team Hawkeye from falling apart. Truly, point to any moment of weakness for Clint, and it’s always Kate who snaps him out of it and gets him back on track as a hero. Arguably no one summarizes the Hawkeye partnership better than Kate when she says:
“You and me? Together? Together, Clint, I think you and me are the person we both wish we could be. And I know that person… I know that person is worth something. I know that person can… can pretty much do anything.”
Kate’s move to LA finds her kicking off a career as a private detective, and in true Hawkeye fashion, it’s mostly determination, frozen peas, and hutzpah that makes this reality. Kate’s quickly in over her head in solving a mystery, helping a wonderfully charming gay couple, and making her own way about as from her New York connections as she can get.
We’ve talked about the visual idiosyncrasies of Aja, but in “LA Woman,” Fraction’s own tics take center stage in stranger ways. Most notably, Kate has regular run-ins with a – never named – Jim Rockford, aka the private investigator from the long-running 70’s Rockford Files. This grocery store Rockford is like a ghost-mentor for Kate, in what I still think feels like one of the most self-indulgent pieces of the run. Again, though, it’s another gamble, and whether or not it works, I enjoy the creative freedom available to try.
The end of Kate’s first issue out west reintroduces the prominent role of Madame Masque, with Fraction, Wu and team building a lasting antagonist for Kate as she develops out of the shadow of the Young Avengers and into her own player. It doesn’t feel like an accident either that it’s Kate – not Clint – who is tied to a more traditional, long-standing Avengers villain as her primary rival, yet again declaring that Kate is Hawkeye.
All told, Hawkeye is one of the most influential superhero comics of the 2000’s. It’s certainly not the first, and there are contemporaries launching right around the same time or earlier in Mark Waid and Marcos Martin’s Daredevil, or Kelly Sue Deconnick and team’s Captain Marvel, but look at the landscape of Marvel solo hero titles before and after Hawkeye and there’s a dramatic shift.
It’s the way The Superior Foes of Spider-Man plays with the comedy of C-list villains trying to get organized, the way Declan Shalvey reinvents Mister Knight in the pages of Moon Knight, and the way Charles Soule and Javier Pulido are comfortable letting Jen Walters lawyer up.
Look around the Big 2 today in 2022, and books like Nightwing by Taylor and Redondo are clearly indebted and inspired by this work.
Given that I have the work as one of my 15 favorite comics of all time, it’s a bit of an undersell to say I think it’s a good Marvel comic. Certainly, in the context of the “Marvel Now” era, it’s a huge part of the reason the baseline quality assessments of this period are so high.
Clint and Kate may be pulling themselves out of a dumpster with bandages covering more skin than not. But Hawkeye? Hawkeye is pristine.