Barton. Clint Barton.

I've been waiting for this book for a long time. Or, more precisely, I've been waiting for the successor to this book for a long time-- four years too long. Those first sixteen issues of The Immortal Iron Fist, those issues that Matt Fraction and Ed Brubaker wrote, those issues that David Aja drew, are certainly among the best superhero comics of our young century, and may very well be the best superhero comics produced in that century's first decade. But then Brubaker, after a little more than a year on the title, went back to concentrating on Steve Rogers for a living. Soon after, Fraction and Aja wrapped up the run, with the writer becoming Marvel's golden boy and Aja retreating, for the most part, back to Spain, doing an issue here and an issue there, dropping a few covers when he could.

I return to The Immortal Iron Fist on a pretty regular basis, out of nostalgia as much as awe, and, last April, it was good to hear that two thirds of the band was coming home for a series featuring the newly famous purple archer. Although Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye was the least developed and least seen presence in Joss Whedon's movie, the character still represented newly fertile ground for a decidedly West Coast Avenger-- if Fraction and Aja could drag Iron Fist back into the spotlight, after Brian Bendis, through sheer force of well, had done the same with Luke Cage, surely they could do the same for the Archering Avenger, right? Even though his last crack at an ongoing series was a massive, relationship ending, flop?*

Well, it turns out, they could. Hawkeye #1 is so close to a perfect 32-pages-with-advertising comic that pointing out its one flaw-- there's a panel that needs to be flipped in order for the characters' movement to make sense--seems like nitpicking. Fraction's writing is a joy, dense and clear, like, but not quite as much of a workout as, the best of his Casanova work. That book is probably the closest analogue to what he's trying to do here, not only because Hawkeye doesn't really resemble anything that either Marvel or DC is putting out right now, reading much more like one of those brilliant new Image books, but also because Fraction is very clearly pointing to the fact that he's going to be writing a certain kind of espionage story. The James Bond nods, one an explicit reference and the other a kind of easter egg, are a dead giveaway, but the subtler clues, the just this side of too clever references to Hawkeye's relative obscurity as a character ("...are you, like, Iron Fist or something?"), the way he passes unnoticed in his neighborhood, despite a conspicuous amount of purple in his wardrobe, suggest that this is a sort of anti-Avengers book, an attempt to figure out the hero that Barton is when no one is watching.

Given that, the closest cousin that Hawkeye does have amongst the current cohort of Marvel or DC series is Ed Brubaker's Winter Soldier, another superb spy project starring a less than well known character. But Brubaker writes a different sort of cloak and dagger than Fraction, more serious and less self aware, straight up espionage, really, while Fraction and Aja are just sort of winking and nodding at its conventions, and not those conventions alone. The duo mix their Ian Fleming references with homages to famous panels and reflections on the absurdity of an archer's presence on a team made up mostly of gods and supermortals, that is, the simple fact that a man who shoots a weapon from the paleolithic period is out of place on a team featuring Thor and a man with a reactor where his heart should be. In emphasizing these things, Fraction and Aja are reaching beyond Clint Barton and trying to say something about superheroes, or, more precisely, superhero comics, in general.


The punchline, it seems to me, goes back to how inconspicuous Fraction makes Barton, the fact that someone only recognizes him once in a while. Partially, that line is clever because it reads as a joke on how many times Hawkeye's costume has changed, but, truthfully, it moves beyond clever and into something resembling scholarly. Consider this: all comics, superhero or otherwise, work because of iconography, and not just obvious Captain America or Batman men-in-tights-with-their-own-homemade-logo iconography. We know that the talking mouse with the cigarette is Art Spiegelman the same way we know that the character with that one Curt Swan curl on his forehead is both Clark Kent and Superman. Icons are what makes comics intelligible, what makes them possible. But they're also what makes superheroes memorable-- this is why such characters found their natural home in the funny books-- and, without his bow, there's absolutely nothing iconographic about Clint Barton; as Fraction has himself has suggested, there's a much more famous character in American popular culture with that nickname:

I'd totally read a Fraction and Aja M*A*S*H comic. 
I would even go so far as to say that Barton's bow isn't iconographic the same way that, say, Spiderman's chest-spider is. The weapon represents Hawkeye, for sure, but it could just as easily represent a character at a rival comics company who is, with the exception of a slightly greener color scheme, essentially the same, or it could present him as an an American Indian stereotype or an Olympian. The bow, as a symbol, simply isn't specific enough to be powerful. Peter Parker's spider symbol, however, only really means one thing-- your friendly neighborhood Spiderman. This is why the Clone Saga, despite its poor execution, could have been terrific: the plot exploited a formal quality as the crux of the story. Fraction and Aja seem to have realized that his lack of significant or interesting iconography is Clint Barton's great flaw, the reason that he's never been successful except as a part of a group of much more immediately recognizable characters, and are making that flaw work for them rather than attempting to overcome it. 

That recognition, perhaps aided by the character's relatively limited presence in The Avengers, is why people, primarily people like me, have responded so well to the first issue of Hawkeye: Fraction is writing Clint Barton as the schmuck he's always been, he's just doing it with the mask off. It just turns out that Barton is much more interesting as himself, when someone is being honest about the fact that he lacks the heavy duty icons necessary for stardom, than he is as the purple archering Avenger.

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*That's not entirely fair-- it just turns out that people were about as interested in Hawkeye and Mockingbird together, again, as they were about either alone.

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