I'll be the judge of that.

PURPLE SWAG: Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye

hawkeye david aja stimulated boredom 1000x562  PURPLE SWAG: Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye

In one of the more interesting ironies of the comic book world’s current interface with Hollywood, it’s become clear that Marvel’s lamest live-action Avenger happens to have its best ongoing comic book. Most neutral observers will agree that Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) was the one major character largely wasted in Joss Whedon’s fruitful spandex ensemble. This perception prompted Kevin Feige, President of Marvel Studios, to reassure us that Hawkeye will see an expanded role in Whedon’s upcoming Age of Ultron sequel.

Only time will tell if mainstream audiences will respond to an everyman archer-operative character decidedly lacking in weaponized armor, cosmic godliness, nationalist posturing, oafish physicality, or a skintight leather catsuit. But despite these uncertainties respecting Hawkeye’s onscreen viability, one thing is for sure: on the page, Clint Barton has never been more relevant.

Matt Fraction and David Aja launched volume four of Hawkeye in August 2012, and since then the team has gotten a lot of well-deserved attention. In the recently announced Eisner Award nominations, Hawkeye garnered five high-profile nods: Best Continuing Series, Best Single Issue, Best Writer, Best Cover Artist, and Best Coloring. The only major category the book missed out on was Best Penciller/Inker, but this doesn’t amount to a snub. In addition to his brilliant work on the interior pages, Aja also does the cover art, for which he was nominated.

This distribution of nominations among the book’s core creative team is reflective of how well-rounded Hawkeye has been since its relaunch. Although the title has suffered from some palpable inconsistency over the last year (see further below), when the core creative group gets together and has enough time, they can produce a near-perfect superhero comic.

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Over the past year, Matt Fraction has emerged as one of the most versatile and prolific writers in contemporary comics. Fraction previously paid his dues writing for multiple corners of the Marvel universe, including Iron Fist, X-Men, Thor, and Iron Man, culminating in the 2011 crossover event Fear Itself. Since then, he’s continued to make a name for himself through two non-cape, creator-owned titles published by Image Comics: Sex Criminals with Chip Zdarsky, a high-concept crime book about a couple who can literally stop time by having sex, and Satellite Sam with the legendary Howard Chaykin, a Mad Men styled and cheesecake photography infused look at the seedy old-school television business. While I don’t think either of these titles are necessarily the best-executed projects, they’re both indicative of a certain uniqueness and creativity that the comic book industry greatly benefits from as a whole.

Indeed, Fraction’s thoughtful and humorous writing style is a huge part of what has made Hawkeye so successful. In the era of desperate promotional initiatives aimed at soliciting new readers (while pissing off old ones) like The New 52 and Marvel NOW!, the name of the game in mainstream superhero writing is de-complication and accessibility. So quite wisely, Fraction has made simplicity a priority. The first issue’s title page summary is characteristic of the book’s ground-level approach:

“Clint Barton, a.k.a. HAWKEYE became the greatest sharp-shooter known to man. He then joined the Avengers. This is what he does when he’s not being an Avenger. That’s all you need to know.”

More or less, it’s true. The title follows the depressive Clint Barton as he moves to Brooklyn and confronts a series of quaint problems: tracksuit-clad slumlords of vaguely Eastern European origin who speak exclusively Bro, his nagging yet affectionate young sidekick Kate Bishop (a.k.a. the other Hawkeye), Avenger teammates who double as ex/current/quasi-girlfriends, and other charmingly low-profile villains and Joe-schmoe dilemmas. But most importantly, the story explores Clint’s oppressive inferiority complex as he struggles to come to terms with the limits of what he can actually do to help others, and what he needs to do to help himself.

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As strong as the writing is, the book would be fairly generic without the talents of its artistic team. Lead artist David Aja’s work is gritty but fastidiously constructed, with each page exhibiting a keen sense of balance and spatial reasoning that is all too rare in comics today. Most artists are content to fit three to six panels per page, but Aja comfortably assembles pages ranging from eight to sixteen panels (or even more –one of final pages of issue #2 features twenty-four panels). As a result, Aja’s skill as a sequential storyteller shines remarkably from page to page, with each tiny panel forming a tapestry of moments connected by clear narrative logic.

Enhancing Aja’s line-work is Matt Hollingsworth’s tasteful coloring, which washes each of Aja’s pages in a drab, chilly purple. The cohesiveness of Hollingsworth’s palate gives the book a distinct aesthetic that matches the hero’s classic purple costuming, but also contributes immensely to setting the story’s faintly dour tone.

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Despite such obvious strengths, Fraction & company often deviate from the core formula that has made the title so great. One of the title’s most pleasant features has been its ability to deliver stories that are memorable and distinct as individual issues. For instance, Hawkeye #11 earned its Best Single Issue nomination by virtue of its being told from the point of view of Clint’s dog. Another issue warmly went out to residents of New York and New Jersey who lived through Hurricane Sandy.

But at some point, Fraction’s fondness for interlude and digression has come to feel like a crutch. Even acknowledging the extent to which a monthly publishing schedule makes perfect consistency impossible, the sheer number and frequency of fill-in issues and rotating artists has made the title suffer. Other than primary supporting artist Javier Pulido, whose work is absolutely fantastic and perfectly consonant with the title’s overall look and feel, the succession of fill-in artists has significantly detracted from the book’s consistency.

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Fraction himself seems to be feeling the pressure. In a January interview, in which he discusses the half-dozen current and upcoming titles he’s involved with, he expressed a certain caginess respecting the title’s current narrative status.

“Yeah, right now, I want to focus on Hawkeye. I think if you’re reading the book you see where it’s going, and I’m getting kind of close to the end of this particular story…I want to make sure that I stick the landing. So right now I just want to focus on that… So I don’t know right now. I just want to stick the landing on this Hawkeye thing, and we’ll go from there.”

Although the title has had some bumps, if you’ve seen what Fraction and his core artists can do, you’ll agree there’s no doubt they’ll come through with a bullseye. Even when it’s spinning its wheels a bit, this book stands out as remarkably competent and lovingly assembled, and it’s one that no fan of the comic book form should miss.

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