Hawkeye comic surprises fans with aesthetic maturity

Photo Courtesy of Marvel Comics

Writer Matt Fraction and artist David Aja publish magic on a monthly basis.

Comic books are often criticized, especially in the Big Two publishers Marvel and DC, for their “assembly line” production, wherein a single, 22 page comic can boast a writer, penciller, inker, colorist and letterer as its creators.

This is not always the case, of course, since some of the most respected names in the industry are those who tackle all these jobs by themselves for their artistic endeavors. It is safe to say, however, that a majority of titles follow the procedure of divided labor, and this division leads to comic books that feel disconnected from themselves.

Then there are titles like Fraction and Aja’s Hawkeye, which restore fans’ faith, not just in superhero comics, but in the medium as a whole.

Hawkeye protagonist Clint Barton lacks the recognition afforded such powerful names as Clark Kent or Tony Stark, and this fact has been instrumental in defining his character in Fraction and Aja’s run. Their Hawkeye revolves around what the man does when he is not gallivanting about the globe with the Avengers.

In fact, Barton spends the majority of his time outside his costume. The plot focuses on his personal life which, surprise, develops into a complex mess. Plenty of action unfolds alongside the drama as he tangles with the local mafia, but city-wrecking monsters are lacking. This has turned Hawkeye into the least super of superhero comics, yet it manages to be one of the best the genre currently offers.

Fraction and Aja’s collaboration is seamless. It is impossible to tell where the script ends and the art begins. Naturally the dialogue is a decent indicator, but the expertly-timed pacing of the book relies on a plethora of smaller moments that tend to be silent character panels. It is nearly impossible to tell if Fraction scripts them or if Aja adds them himself.

Both can be commended for their talents. Fraction writes a Clint Barton who is frustrating, occasionally suave, clueless about women, gold-hearted, seeking solace from his past and generally being too much fun to read. The secondary characters, such as “not” sidekick Kate Bishop, are also handled with love. Issue 11 is even told from the perspective of Barton’s adopted dog Lucky, who promptly solves a murder.

The character who stands out the most, however, is New York. Fraction taps the energy of the city through the tenement slum in which Barton resides. Barton’s neighbors appear briefly, but each panel is used to build their lives subtly and beautifully; they range from a single mother of two children to a man known affectionately as Grills for his tendency to grill food on the tenement rooftop.

Aja brings this crazy world to life. Technically, his art is great, but Aja excels at acting and composition as well. The characters practically deserve Oscars. Every subtle embarrassed head scratch, every expression of do-not-touch-me body language, every reconciliatory smile and heart-wrenching frown humanize the two-dimensional drawings into three-dimensional characters.

Flipping through any issue reveals Aja is a master of compositions. They break, distort, re-build, elaborate upon and utterly change the rules about how to make a comic page layout. 24 panels should not fit on a page, let alone illustrate the delicate relationship between a mentor and his student. Aja manages to surprise each issue.

Guest artists Javier Pulido, Steve Lieber and Francesco Francavilla deserve mention because their issues are amazingly drawn as well. Matt Hollingsworth, the colorist, also warrants high praise for accentuating the art with muted colors that follow a page-by-page color pattern. It is not as flashy or vibrant as other titles, but Hollingsworth knows how to underline the tone of the series so the emotional moments stick further in readers’ minds.

The first hardcover collection of the run is releasing on Nov. 19. It collects the first 11 issues and a plot-relevant annual issue. The next monthly issue being released is number 14, so this collection makes a good jumping-on point for any newcomers to the Hawkeye universe.

Gimmicks are an old sin of the comics industry that has never, and probably will never, disappear. Comic stands flood with new titles spawning under the auspices of their latest superhero blockbuster film, attempting to grab newcomers with familiarity.

Hawkeye was a title that fans had their eyes on, one they regarded warily as another money grab. The book seemed potentially doomed to be another side project profiting off the popularity of Marvel’s 2012 Avengers film. Beneath these squinted, jaded gazes, however, Fraction, Aja and Hollingsworth managed to deliver one of the best superhero comics of the decade.