Given that Comic-Con International begins in San Diego Thursday, it's only appropriate to spend a little time raving about one of my favorite comic books, Marvel's "Hawkeye."
"Hawkeye" has a lot in common with my favorite TV shows: memorable characters, a distinctive atmosphere, a sense of place, a delightfully unique visual style and a knack for creating moments that linger in the mind for days.
It also has an awesome dog, which "Mad Men" does not. So take that, Don Draper.
Like the creators of most cult shows, its creative team expected "Hawkeye" to die early, but it has bucked all the odds and has done well for Marvel. The ongoing story of what the Avenger's archer does on his day off has amassed a fervent following, and it's certainly easy to see why. I experience glee when I read this book -- the kind of giddy feeling you get when you don't know what's around the corner, but you're fairly sure it'll be awesome.
I talked to artist David Aja and writer Matt Fraction in a recent hourlong podcast about all things "Hawkeye," and both sounded as if they still find it hard to believe the book wasn't canceled after six episodes -- er, issues.
"I couldn't launch a book with Doctor Strange and Iron Fist and the Silver Surfer and the Hulk, but Pizza Dog sells out," Fraction said, referring to "Hawkeye's" acclaimed 11th issue, which is told from the point of view of Clint Barton's dog. Many essays have been written about the brilliance of this issue, rightly hailed as one of the year's best. (If "Hawkeye" doesn't win several of the five Eisner Awards that it is nominated for at Comic-Con on Saturday, it will be a crime against against humanity -- and dogs.)
Fraction said he expected to be told early in the comic's run that it was going to be canceled, and that's part of what freed him and Aja to take chances with "Hawkeye."
"It's the book that should not exist, so why not take the chances and do the experimenting?" Fraction said.
Various issues of "Hawkeye" have played around with narrative structure and timelines, but always in pursuit of digging into the character's mindset and backstory. Fraction and Aja also goof around with expectations because it's fun. (In one issue, it looked as though Hawkeye/Clint Barton and Tony Stark were defusing a bomb -- but they were just trying to hook up his home theater.)
Part of the comic's appeal is Hawkeye's Everyman vulnerability -- he has no superpowers, aside from his bow skills and his ability to take (and dish out) punches. The comic is approachable from another angle as well: It's not meant to have anything to do with the adventures the character has in other Marvel books. Each issue of "Hawkeye" is self-contained and not off-putting to newbies, yet part of its charm is how each issue builds on the next and riffs on themes that come up again and again. Clint Barton may be the greatest sharpshooter known to man, but he struggles with commitment and connection, and though the book is visually and verbally witty on occasion, his earnest desire to be a better man shines through on every page.
Even the villains in "Hawkeye" -- hulking menaces known as the Tracksuit Vampires who call everyone "bro" -- are memorable but relatable. They look like guys you'd run into outside an urban bodega anywhere in America.
As Fraction pointed out, the Bro Mafia is nothing like AIM (Advanced Idea Mechanics), an evil gang of super-scientists found elsewhere in the Marvel universe. "It's not AIM. It's not like [the bros] are a bunch of weird yellow beekeepers," he said. "It's a real thing. I knew those guys. Those are real dudes."
Also real: The Bed-Stuy apartment building in which Hawkeye and his dog Lucky (more commonly known as Pizza Dog) live. The Pizza Dog issue did a beautiful job of depicting a day in the life of the pooch, who wanders from Hawkeye's apartment, to the roof that hosts nightly barbecues, to alleys containing garbage cans (which sometimes feature pizza, his favorite food). Everything about the location is specific and almost tactile, and Aja has even come up with a floor plan for Clint Barton's apartment.
"I've never written a book where comment on how much the character gets beaten up before, and I wrote 'The X-Men,' you know?" Fraction said. "But I think it comes down to, when David draws a guy banging his head, you believe he's banging his head."
Aja's page layouts crackle with vitality and energy when called for, but his restraint is remarkable when an emotion needs to resonate. Aja's refined yet emotionally charged work and colorist Matt Hollingsworth's carefully chosen palette are beautifully evocative together. It's worth getting the second Hawkeye trade paperback, which came out earlier this month, to see pages from Aja's sketchbook and examples of how Hollingsworth skillfully unites Hawkeye's experiences through color.
"I'm trying to be more clear with lines -- really, it's extra work. It's harder," Aja said. "The first sketch of a character is 1,000 lines, and then I have to start thinking, [how do I get it to] four lines? Making it work as a comic -- it has to be real. You have to read the pictures, so you have to be as clear as possible."
Aja and Fraction collaborate so closely that neither is billed as "artist" or "writer." They simply share credit on issues they work on. Given that Aja lives in Spain and Fraction in Oregon, most of their collaboration takes place via email. The podcast we recorded was the second time Fraction and Aja had heard each other's voices (but they said they will meet this fall at a convention in England).
Fraction has many other projects in the works (he writes the independent books "Sex Criminals" and "Satellite Sam" and other titles for Marvel), and he co-wrote an episode of Starz's "DaVinci's Demons" that will air next year, but neither professed a desire to split up the Hawkeye partnership any time soon.
In coming months, however, Annie Wu (who made some terrific contributions to one issue of "Hawkeye") will alternate with Aja. For the next batch of issues, Wu will illustrate stories about Kate Bishop (also a sharpshooter known as Hawkeye) and Aja will stick with issues that feature Clint and his adventures in New York.
Though it's hard to imagine how they could top the Pizza Dog issue, I am fairly certain Team Hawkeye will continue to experiment and come up with things the audience doesn't expect. As we discussed in the podcast, several issues recall the fourth season of "Arrested Development" in that they recount a series of events from different points of view, and Kate's upcoming adventures on the West Coast will be partly an homage to "The Rockford Files."
"She goes to California and she lives in a trailer on the beach. She gets her nose split. She has a cat that only eats one kind of cat food," Fraction said. "It's also 'Veronica Mars' -- it's every LA cop/detective story I ever wanted to do shamelessly piled together in one book."
And now that the comic has a year of unexpected success under its belt, Hawkeye and Pizza Dog aren't going anywhere. "I just feel we're going to get to tell our story," Fraction said. "I hadn't been sure for a long time that that was going to happen, but now I think we're going to get to do everything we wanted."