Purple-Headed Warrior: Hawkeye #1 Review

From one point of view, Matt Fraction’s and David Aja’s Hawkeye #1 is a truly crappy Hawkeye comic book. Hawkeye doesn’t appear in costume for more than five panels, and he is getting the shit kicked out of him for each and every one of those panels. Other than those five illustrations, Hawkeye never holds a bow, we never see an arrow, there are no other Avengers, and there is a cab ride instead of a bitchin’ skycycle run.

So yeah: as a traditional Hawkeye comic book, one could make the argument that this is a pile of shit, an experience akin to buying a porno with certain expectations in your mind (and pants), and finding you’ve taken home a 90-minute video of a fully-clothed woman repeating, “Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.” The elements are there, but it’s not what one necessarily wants from an item of that type.

However, some dingbat could also make the argument that it would be a colossal disappointment to open a box of Cracker Jacks and finding a giant wad of gold bullion – just because it’s not what you expected based on your prior experiences doesn’t make it bad. Rather, Hawkeye #1 is a pulpy, character-driven, street-level crime story that not only made me care about the purple-headed warrior (get it?) for the first time almost ever, but which is arguably the best comic book you’ll read this week.

The title page to this issue states, “This is what [Hawkeye] does when he’s not being an Avenger. That’s all you need to know,” and that’s exactly what this comic book is: Clint Barton, out of costume, dealing with some scumbag Russian mobsters fucking around with his neighbors in his crappy Bed-Stuy neighborhood. The story jumps around in time, going from dealing with Ivan the mobster landlord (and if you have not yet tired of the familiar nickname, “Bro,” you are 20 pages away from being tired of it) to being at a veterinarian’s office trying to get them to save some dog’s life, until the stories wind up tying together.

There is relatively little action in this superhero comic book. We see Clint Barton getting out of the hospital after those five costumed panels (which is an area that is rarely touched on in non-superpowered hero books – the probable and inevitable extended hospital stays) and hanging out with his neighbors, negotiating with Ivan over a rent increase, and harassing the vet over this hurt dog. And other than a couple of pages of Barton trying to singlehandedly take out an illegal card room that’s frequented by Ivan, that’s about it. But that means that Fraction can focus on Burton as a real, human character, outside of The Avengers, and that is something that is bafflingly rare. I’ve been reading Marvel comics since I was five years old, and until this issue, all I could tell you about Clint Barton, other than the purple suit and the trick arrows, were that he was a mouthy hothead when he wasn’t busy fucking Mockingbird.

What Fraction gives us here is a well-fleshed character who is intentionally holding onto his blue-collar roots, making his way through the real world as best he can. There’s a sequence where he stops and tries to decide a course of action that won’t invalidate his health insurance that not only hits home to almost any American reader, but which makes utter sense for a non-powered hero to worry about. Fraction shows us a Hawkeye trying to solve his problems without the bow and arrow, through legal and regular channels as a regular person would do… and then falling back on his skills for violence when it goes wrong, as a mouthy hothead would. At least as he would when Mockingbird wasn’t around.

Fraction has succeeded in making Hawkeye feel like a real, likeable person, in a real-feeling world, with real-feeling characters. The people living in Hawkeye’s building feel like neighbors that anyone who’s lived in a urban setting can relate to. And in making Ivan and his “tracksuit mafia” simple and banal goons with no empathy that extends beyond the bottom line,  Fraction made me hate and fear Russians more than Red Dawn, which I shamefully got drunk and watched this weekend. Bottom line: the people in this book are people, and that should be enough to haul in readers who might have been expecting 20 pages of trick arrow shots.

David Aja’s art is a perfect match for a pulpy street crime book like this one. He has a thick line that illustrates realistic figures and faces that are expressive in about the fewest lines I’ve seen in good face drawings. His action, as little of it as there is, is well-choreographed and paced – the card room attack has a large panel to show Barton’s big, table-turning show of force in slower motion, with small sub-panels to allow some quicker action, and in the single gunfight where Barton’s running for his life, we get a series of small, claustrophobic panels that quicken the pace and add anxiety to the sequence. In addition, in quieter moments, Aja’s camera placement is masterful, to the point where he remembers where he is in relation to a picture window and reverses the text accordingly. If you’re looking for something similar, Aja’s art is reminiscent of David Mazzucchelli’s on Batman: Year One and Daredevil: Born Again, which is not terrible company to keep. The art and its influences help set an expectation for a street-level crime story, and is a simply spot on.

If you pick up Hawkeye #1 hoping to see a dude in a purple union suit riding a flying motorcycle and firing off trick arrows, you are going to be shit out of luck. This should not prevent you from buying the book, since any comic fan should buy all their comics hoping for a good story with well-written characters, with art that matches the story well. That’s what Hawkeye #1 is. This book is the gold bullion in your Cracker Jack box. It comes highly, highly recommended.