Sunday, September 22, 2013

Dig the Longbox: Hawkeye #1

This review originally ran on RCB.net for the 'Dig the Longbox' column.
 
I wish I had a Hawkeye #1 story, I don't. The same goes for stories about Hawkeye #2, #3 or #4. Hell, I don’t even own Hawkeye #2, #3 or #4. All I got is Hawkeye #1 and a whole lot of nothing else. Only a few columns in and this has already devolved into a white elephant for forgotten comics of the 1980's.
 
The look and language of Hawkeye's first solo foray by writer/penciler Mark Gruenwald is far off the mark from the hyper-stylized, too-clever-by-half Eisner winning Hawkguy of today. Before Fraction and Aja (and Jeremy Renner) brought sexy back to Marvel’s longbowman, Hawkeye looked like a fugitive from a Renaissance faire or, perhaps, a proto-larper.

From its How-to-Draw-Comics-the-Marvel-Way-cover to a plot in which Hawkeye works as Head of Security for a (most certainly) corrupt corporation to the first time he meets Mockingbird (they're married by the end of the mini), Hawkeye #1 falls into the nebulous category critics call 'fun' when a few highlights here or there allow one to look past obvious flaws.

Before I pull back the curtain (bow?) on this solo tale of the 'Avengers' Ace Archer,' I don't want to bury the lead: Mark Gruenwald died in 1996. With one exception -- the pinup of Merlyn in Who's Who in the DC Universe -- Gruenwald spent his entire eighteen year career with Marvel comics. By all accounts he was an inveterate comic book nerd and the wonkiest of continuity wonks. He was paid the ultimate honor in Thor #372 when writer/artist Walt Simonson creates the Time Variance Authority or TVA which monitors timelines and prevents paradoxes in the Marvel universe; each member is a clone drawn to look like Gruenwald.

Simonson's tribute falls far short; however, with what the man himself had in mind when it came to being memorialized in comic book form. Gruenwald made it clear to family and friends that his final wish was to be cremated and his remains added to a comic book. No joke. So, when the trade paperback for the limited series, Squadron Supreme -- the work Gruenwald was most proud of -- was published in 1997, Bob Harras, Marvel comics then Editor-in-chief, allows Gruenwald's widow, Catherine, to add her husband's ashes to the ink used to print the book. First print editions bear the sticker, 'A Tribute to the Imagination of Mark Gruenwald,' and sell for approximately $600 and up on Ebay. Comics, kids!

Gruenwald had worked his way through the Marvel bullpen as a fill-in writer and assistant editor starting in 1978 and by 1983 he is named the full-time editor on Avengers, Iron Man, and Captain America. While keeping everything copacetic with those titles, he also takes the reins as a writer and the editor on The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. For a continuity cop like Gruenwald, this project must have been an absolute kick.

Hawkeye is much smaller work, of course, than a compendium of every person, place and thing (living and dead) in the 616. Not only does Gruenwald write Hawkeye, but  he is also credited as penciler on the series as well. ‘Penciler’ is (probably) a loose term here as much of the credit for the depth and details has to go to Brett Breeding who is the inker/embellisher on the issue. The perspective throughout the issue is dodgy at best and much of the character work manages to be tragically generic. For the most part, the art in Hawkeye #1 looks like one of those comic book ads for Hostess fruit pies stretched to twenty-three pages. Oh, and Gruenwald loves the broke back pose, absolutely loves it.

After Hawkeye, either Gruenwald (or his fellow editors) decides he should put his blue pencil down and stick to words instead of images. Gruenwald goes back to the drawing board only two more times in his career for an issue of What If? and a comic book tie-in to the Marvel videogame Questprobe.

There is a thin filament that connects Gruenwald’s Hawkeye to the current series by Fraction and Aja. What makes Fraction’s Hawkeye such a success is how he manages to bring out the 'lunch pail' aspect of the main character. Fraction plays with the idea of what Hawkeye a/k/a Clint Barton does when he's not being an Avenger, the superhero on his 'day off, in repose. Genius. Fraction turns character moments into a serial; the reader learns who Clint Barton is through his everyday actions/interactions with (mostly) non-super-powered people, people like him. Fraction and Aja's Hawkeye plays out as an indie movie along the lines of Jim Jarmusch's Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. Instead of an African-American hit man who follows a strict code, Fraction and Aja offer occasional opportunities for their main character to use a bow and some cool trick arrows.

Hawkeye has been a Marvel mainstay since 1964. His charm is he's
uncomplicated: a circus sideshow performer turned hero who uses ancient technology with a few modern upgrades the archers at Agincourt never imagined. Like Fraction will do thirty years later, Gruenwald grounds his story in Hawkeye's everyman-ness. And because this is an early 1980's superhero comic -- which is to say as subtle as the S.H.I.E.L.D Helicarrier -- this faux Robin Hood recalls his origin story (in two efficient pages) and makes his current intentions known to the reader and to Sheila, his co-worker at Cross Technological Services (CTE) and the woman he's trying to woo: ''I've done many a stint with my avenging buddies, but I think I'm ready to wing it solo for good. Much as I like 'em they cramp my style a bit too much.'' If it weren't already so meta, I'd want Barton to add: ''See, baby, I got this limited series now and, who knows, if sales are strong, it might become an ongoing or at least it might prove I can carry a series on my own. Plus, I know the Avengers editor so I'm good to go.' Hello, West Coast Avengers.

 
If the all-purpose art suffers from a lack a style, than the dialogue doesn't do anything to improve the overall experience. Hawkeye marks a hinge in Gruenwald's career. Before this series and tOHotMU Gruenwald was either a fill-in writer on one shots or a co-writer during short runs of third or fourth tier on-goings like Spider-Woman and What If?. One hopes his tin ear for dialogue improved over the course of his decade long run (1985 – 1995) as writer of Captain America. At this stage in his career, the best Gruenwald can do is manufacture one flaccid thought bubble after another so the reader knows exactly what kind of deep/obvious musings are running around in Hawkeye’s blond head.

Besides the lack of superpowers, what makes Hawkeye relatable is his (at times) complicated love life. The bad dialogue and paint-by-numbers plot aside, Hawkeye is a love story. Once Hawkeye figures out Sheila is up to no good at CTE, she has him thrown into a pit (because, of course) -- where awaits a caged (get it?) Mockingbird -- and then Sheila (literally) has toxic sludge dumped on Hawkeye (subtlety!); it's more than the lovesick schlub can take. As their ridiculous costumes (what was up with Mockingbird’s sleeves back then?) drip with green goo, Hawkeye rallies from his slumped stupor and breaks bad: ''Shut up!'' he calls to Mockingbird who's been trying to escape their gloopy fate, ''I'm gonna get us out of here, lady. Then I’m gonna kill Sheila for what she did to me.''

Hawkeye and Mockingbird escape, natch, and while Mockingbird waits atop a convenient conical water tower, Hawkeye crashes his sky sled through a window, takes out some goons and confronts his (I assume) now ex-girlfriend. Shirtless, a result of the acidy ooze, Hawkeye balls up his fists and tells Sheila, ''this is just between you and me, babe. You hurt me, Sheila … more than anything ever hurt in my life. I could kill you for what you did to me.'' Of course, Barton/Hawkeye chooses deference as the better course of valor. All he asks from her in return is his bow and quiver.

A cowed cupid, Hawkeye picks up Mockingbird and flies back to his apartment as tears stream down his face. Tough break, bro. For a pre-pubescent or (arrested) adolescent audience this ending has (almost) as much drama and machismo as when Leia tells Han she loves him and he says, ''I know.'' If only Hawkeye could find a good woman to heal his broken heart. If only …
 
To be fair, Hawkeye #1 is fairly forgettable. Sure, this issue and limited series, as a whole, chronicle the first blush of romance between Hawkeye and Mockingbird which continuity-spotters (Gruenwald-types) may well want to note. Hawkeye's recent rise to pop-culture prominence isn't a fluke nor is it all Renner. Hawkeye's super-power is his relatability, he loves, he loses, he's human. Fraction builds on what Gruenwald knew; Hawkeye is a guy's guy, a bro's bro with a bow and arrows as goofy as they are groovy. You dig?

2 comments: