Today, Drew and Spencer are discussing Hawkeye 21, originally released February 4th, 2015.
I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it…
Justice Potter Stewart
Drew: I’ve never been a fan of classifications in art. I could go on at length about how sub-subgenres eventually become too specific to have any utility, while broader classifications face the opposite problem of being to general, but my real issue is that our definitions fall apart under scrutiny. We tend to accept the kind of “I know it when I see it” definition of basically every category we have, from gender to genre, but most working definitions have to allow for so many exceptions that they lose all meaning. Take “superhero” for example. We all have a lose idea of who a superhero is, what they do, how they act, but to try and pin down the definition reveals that none of those things are fixed. Are they heroic (courageous, noble, selfless)? Many are, sure, but there are plenty of antiheroes muddying up any moral definition. What about superpowers? Again, lots do, but with so many non-powered superheroes, it’s hardly a criteria. The closest I can come up with is based on our relationship to superheroes — namely, that we expect their actions to lead to their success. In that way, I’d like to posit Clint Barton — particularly as depicted in Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye — as an antisuperhero.
I want to be very clear, though, that he’s not an antihero. Indeed, aside from being a shitty boyfriend, he’s been a stand-up guy in this series, embodying all of those heroic qualities I mentioned earlier. Working from my definition of superhero, antisuperheroism has nothing to do with morality or superpowers. Instead, it hinges on our expectations of success. Clint doesn’t smile and wink at the audience, and he won’t be riding off into the sunset. If we want those stories, we should look elsewhere, because Clint’s story is all about getting knocked down over and over again. But it’s hilariously easy to get confused on that point, since it always seems like he’s going to come back on top. Issue 19 ended with a rousing call to arms, making success feel inevitable, but issue 21 takes him to the depths of sorrow — the lowest point of the series yet (and no, I haven’t forgotten about Grills’ death).
As you might expect, it all hinges on that plan to protect the building. It actually seems to be going well for a little while — every able-bodied resident gets a few good licks in — until Kazi and a seemingly endless stream of tracksuits (and a well-placed double-agent) eventually take Clint down, leaving him for dead and apparently actually killing Barney.
Let that sink in.
Killing the protagonist’s brother is something you might do in the first act (as a call to action), or in the second act (as the hero reaches the typical low point), or in the penultimate issue of a much shorter arc, but certainly not towards the end of an arc this long. By now, Clint should be face to face with his adversary, preparing for the big boss fight. Instead, this series has escalated Clint’s misery at basically every turn. What’s worse is that this escalation has largely fallen out of his own attempts to do the right thing — he’s acting like a superhero, he’s just not winning like one. His obstinance has led to violence against himself, his friends, and now his family. Clint may ultimately prevail (more on that in a moment), but there’s no way to chalk it up as a win after this.
But I do kind of think Clint will prevail. Or maybe I just want him to. Fraction and Aja have managed to rally our spirits after each new tragedy, and this issue closes with the return of Kate (heralded by Lucky).
It’s a hell of an ending, taking us from mourning to fist-pumping in a single panel, but I don’t know what to make of it. Is this apparent turn for the better another fake-out? I mentioned that I want Clint to succeed, and the superhero expectation is that he will, but would that be in keeping with the story we’ve been told? Is Clint’s story ultimately about suffering adversity, or overcoming it? If he succeeds with Kate’s help, is that his victory, or hers (which I think is a fair distinction to make, given their time apart)? Honestly, it’s hard for me to parse what I want versus what I expect, and I’m basically torn on both fronts.
Well shoot, I’ve squandered yet another Hawkeye write-up talking about plot and making predictions, failing to dig in to the visual vocabulary and larger themes of teamwork. Hopefully, you can pick up some of my slack, Spencer, though I’m afraid I’m still going to ask you about what you think will go down in the next issue. Will a win even feel cathartic anymore, or has Clint lost no matter what?
Spencer: I think there may still be some catharsis to be found — even if solely through the reuniting of the Hawkeyes — but any victory Clint may achieve will be bittersweet at best. Maybe we never should have expected anything different. After all, the conclusion of Kate Bishop’s L.A. adventure in issue 20 — the closest thing Hawkeye had to a complete storyline before next issue’s finale — was also a decidedly bittersweet affair. I found the lack of a concrete victory for Kate frustrating back then, just as I found the dark direction Hawkeye 21‘s battle takes frustrating on my first read, but Drew has a point; if I want a story with a shiny, perfect ending, Hawkeye is probably not the place to look for it.
That probably should have been clear long ago; Fraction and Aja have put forth a lot of effort to keep Hawkeye gritty and realistic. In Avengers or Young Avengers Clint and Kate can take down intergalactic conquerors with just a bow and a few arrows, but in Hawkeye they often struggle against a goon or two with machine guns. As much as Hawkeye is a technically a part of the Marvel Universe, it seems to be set in a version of it much closer to our own reality, and in that reality, a guy with a bow and arrows is pretty likely to get shot and die.
It’s that grim reality that make Clint’s choices — which in any other title would be unambiguously positive — more questionable. Both the moral of Winter Friends and Clint’s epiphany in issue 19 boil down to “ask for help,” and to his credit, Clint takes that advice to heart; unfortunately, the people Clint turns to might not be all that qualified.
Clint enlisting his tenants to help defend their building is absolutely poetic, and in any other title would be more than enough to repel the Tracksuits. Fraction, though, never makes things that easy; Clint and his allies may have character development on their side, but that simply doesn’t give them the might to match the Tracksuit’s numbers and weapons.
So is Fraction purposely making sure Clint doesn’t get an automatic reward for “learning his lesson,” or does Clint perhaps still have more to learn? After all, despite all his growth, it’s possible that Clint’s simply still making the wrong decisions. Drew pointed out that Clint’s “obstinence” has lead to violence and death for those he cares about, and “obstinence” is such an appropriate word that I legitimately got mixed up and thought I read it in the issue itself (and subsequently skimmed through three or four times trying to find it again. Oops). Clint’s decision to oppose the Tracksuits in the first place started this whole mess, and ever since then Clint’s done just as much to escalate the situation as the Tracksuits have. Moreover, Clint keeps taking the same boneheaded approach to fighting the Tracksuits, continually trying to rush them head-on when they’ve proven over and over that they have Clint outmanned and outgunned.
To me, this says that Clint needs to change his methods and think more. Clint’s not dumb, and his idea to ask for help was an essential step in the right direction, but throwing his scared, untrained tenants into the fray was not the approach to take (although at least he and Barney had the sense to send the kids away). Who should Clint have called?
Spider-Woman’s inclusion in Hawkeye has always been a little strange. Sure, Black Widow and Mockingbird are Avengers too, but much like Clint, they’re powerless, street-level heroes, and while some other powered-Avengers popped up back in issue 6, there Clint was a part of their mission. Jessica is the only super-powered character to cross over into Clint’s world, to become a part of his story, and that’s always made her a slightly off-kilter presence, tempting to bring superpowers into a world that, as we’ve mentioned, is otherwise as mundane as comics can get. Here, though, she’s a reminder that Clint has super-powered friends who would likely help Clint with his little tracksuit problem, if only he’d ask.
But he doesn’t ask, and there’s a bit in the above image that seems to explain why: Clint’s line that the Avengers “don’t need me.” Clint still doesn’t see himself as good enough for the Avengers, as deserving of their friendship or respect. Much like Scott Pilgrim, I find it entirely possible that what Clint ultimately needs more of isn’t love or teamwork, but self-respect.
Of course, it’s almost impossible to figure out where Fraction and Aja will take Clint next — the only character following any sort of traditional arc is Barney, whose story over the last few issues was a textbook case of redemption equals death. Fortunately, it’s a suitably subtle and intriguing case, born of Barney’s own hitting rock bottom, the rekindling of his relationship with Clint, and bonding with Clint’s neighbor Simone and her kids. In this issue alone Barney is offered a way out of the entire conflict (via money that he could rightfully claim belonged to him in the first place), but chooses to stay and fight, and loses his life in the effort. Fraction and Aja have fleshed Barney out enough to make it a devastating loss on its own, but even if we weren’t attached to Barney, we can certainly feel Clint’s pain.
That’s the result of Fraction and Aja keeping so much of this series — and especially this issue — so heavily focused on Clint’s perspective. This allows the reader to continue to see Clint’s life and struggles through his eyes, and one of the most effective ways issue 21 does this is by continuing to depict Clint’s struggles with his disability, from the way Clint’s deafness can make even a simple conversation difficult to the sheer terror of the Tracksuit’s attack.
It’s just about impossible not to feel Clint’s panic and fear here, a paralyzing pain amplified by the fact that Clint has no idea what’s going on. Really though, it’s always been Fraction and Aja’s ability to put readers in their characters’ shoes, to make those characters as real and vivid (and absolutely charming and lovable) as possible that’s allowed their readers to connect with them so strongly. In turn, that’s why the bittersweet victory of Kate or Clint’s many losses hurt us so badly — we just want to see these characters we love win!
So, will Clint “win”? I can’t even begin to predict what Fraction has up his sleeve, yet I still think Clint might have a chance at victory. With Barney’s death hanging over the proceedings it will be a bittersweet victory at best, but that’s exactly why I think it can happen — unlike the finale of Kate’s L.A. adventure, which needed to establish both the bitter and the sweet in the same issue, Clint’s story has already established its bitter tragedy, leaving all the more room for issue 22 to bring us a sweet victory.
Considering Clint’s luck, that would end up being biggest surprise of all.
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