Sending a B-list character out with their own solo series without an A-list creative team has proven to be commercial suicide again and again over the past few years. Occasionally, you’ll get lucky and the team will click and we’ll have ourselves a new hit book that will go on for as long as the team stays together and is then promptly cancelled when the new team who isn’t quite as good takes over. David Aja and Javier Pulido are fantastic artists who bring their distinct styles to whatever project they work on, though their appeal has only remained at “niche” despite many years of quality work. Matt Fraction, on the other hand, has proven to be consistently hit-or-miss in his many contributions to the Marvel Universe particularly in his signature series “The Invincible Iron Man.” When this series was announced the only thing it managed to provoke in me was mild sarcasm. However, after nearly a year on the stands it has since emerged as a critical darling and consistent seller much like Mark Waid’s “Daredevil.” So I figured I’d check it out to see how deserved the buzz was.
What I found after reading the five issues of the series collected in this volume (plus an extra Fraction-written/Alan Davis-illustrated issue of “Young Avengers Presents” featuring the title character and his partner Kate Bishop to round out the page count) was that this was a prime example of a creative team clicking. Now that he doesn’t have to worry about steering the direction of A-list characters or teams, or directing the company’s latest crossover, Fraction proves to be far more relaxed, witty, and inventive than I’ve seen from him outside of his creator-owned series “Casanova.” That this is a series about Hawkeye shooting the breeze and finding new ways getting into trouble while he’s not being an Avenger fits with the style the writer is employing here. With the fate of the world not at stake, all that’s left is to worry about how to have fun.
We see this play out in fine form over the five issues collected here. Three of which are done-in-one stories while the last two also tell one complete. In the three stand-alone stories Hawkeye matches wits with a scheming Russian landlord who wants to kick him and his fellow tenants out of their apartment, takes on a faux-French circus act out to rob New York’s finest criminals, and gets the car of his dreams with some tracksuited mafia attached. Throughout all of these stories is a grounded feeling where the most suspense is wrung from whether or not a dog that got hit by a car during one of the character’s fights will pull through.
Other than that, we’re treated to some slickly-paced action scenes with lots of absurdist bits courtesy of Fraction to keep things interesting. Giving the Daily Bugle a headline of “EVERYTHING AWFUL; Oh God Somebody Do Something” and characterizing a stagemaster’s language as “French stuff. Wait, maybe some Italian too?” does tend to strain at the boundaries of one’s suspension of disbelief in a fictional world. At least until you realize that we’re seeing this all from Hawkeye’s point of view and that these instances are simply how he views things. It also helps that they’re genuinely funny as well.
The last two issues here are the story of “The Tape” and probably the closest these stories come to out-and-out superheroics. After a tape, yes a genuine VHS videocassette, showing Hawkeye murdering a big-time international criminal is leaked from S.H.I.E.L.D.’s stores he finds himself on a trip to Madripoor to infiltrate the criminal auction set up to bid on it. Though the stakes are high, the same sense of breezy fun that permeated the previous issues is still present here. Bits like the matter-of-fact way in which S.H.I.E.L.D. agents stage a rooftop recovery of Hawkeye in broad daylight, the way in which he nonchalantly becomes a cab driver in Madripoor, and Madame Masque’s “recovery” of his Amex Black card are just a few of the highlights from the story. They’re also all in the first part. Ninjas show up almost immediately in the second to throw the still-tied-to-a-chair archer out of a window in the second. Things only get better from there.
I do have to say that I don’t think these stories would’ve been nearly as entertaining without the art of Aja and Pulido. The former’s style has become cleaner and more spare in the years since his work on “Daredevil” and “The Immortal Iron Fist” to the point where his panels have a lean efficiency to them that emphasizes the drama and action in them. His storytelling is also remarkably clear and easy to follow even when he’s cramming over a dozen panels on each page. Certain scenes, such as his appropriation of a playing card as a weapon in the first issue and two separate conversations with Kate -- one playing with time dilation and another giving us a 24-panel conversation on a single page -- are marvels to observe.
Pulido illustrates “The Tape, and while he may not be as flashy his work is just as stylish. His work is even more spare than Aja’s, but he knows how to frame it for maximum effect and overall “coolness.” The man’s style also meshes extremely well with Fraction’s deadpan sensibilities here and even though he’s not the regular artist on this title, I hope that we see him here again in the future.
If the work of these two great artists has one drawback, it’s that their distinct styles are at odds with the more traditional work of Davis in the final issue collected here. Normally I have nothing but good things to say about the man’s work except that it comes off as staid and conventional in a book that has done its best to ward off those two ideas. Fraction’s script does have some zip to it, and the story does have some relevance to the events in this volume as it chronicles the first time Hawkeye and Kate met after she took up his moniker in the Young Avengers. It still can’t help feeling rote as far as these kinds of encounters between characters who have shared the same name and have the same abilities go in comparison to what we’ve read before. Still, I will concede that I prefer sticking in more recent issues such as this to pad out the page count than throwing in some random issues from 30-40 years ago as Marvel has done in the past.
In the end, I found myself glad that this title is enjoying the success that it has. Sometimes the most entertaining superhero comics can be found on the margins of their publishers lines where the editorial mandates aren’t quite as strict and the creators have more room to play around. I can imagine that there are some fans who might be turned off by the way this title deliberately eschews superhero conventions and doesn’t feature art that fits with the “house style.” It’s their loss, though. “Hawkeye” shows that you can give these things the bird and find success on your own terms if you’ve got enough confidence, style, and fun to go around.