comics, comics criticism, marvel, TV, writing

You Gotta Make Your Own Stuff Work Out: Reflecting on Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye #6

You gotta make your own stuff work out. 

Writing is hard, even when you’re writing about things you love for nothing but yourself. It’s hard because writing requires something of you, from you. It doesn’t matter what. The act of writing is the act of self expression and vulnerability and frustration. 

Writing about things you love is not any easier because inevitably the things we love are busted and a mess and half- taped together. But you have to make it work. You gotta make your own stuff work out. 

Comics are broken and busted and exploitive and a mess. One of the most highly regarded superhero comics of the 21st century (Shelfdust’s 100 Greatest Comics of All Time list has fourissues appearing), Hawkeye by Matt Fraction and his primary artistic partner David Aja, is, at last, being adapted into a new massive Disney+ series with Jeremy Renner’s version of the character. The show isn’t shy about the inspiration, wholesale lifting Aja’s cover design and major set pieces. And it’s no criticism, the source material is rich and exciting. It’s a testament to the defining work these creators did that they are inextricable from the character. 

But comics and film, they’re busted. Fraction and Aja get little more than a thank you, no compensation for the work, no royalties on the tv show… it’s hard to love these things.

But we try, because to give up on it all,what do we close ourselves off from? We celebrate what is good in hopes that by so doing  these works of art and commerce can enrich and enliven us and others.

Fraction and Aja’s Hawkeye is about a broken man who does his best but can’t put the pieces together to be the hero in his personal life that he presents to the world as an Avenger. A blond carnie with an Errol Flynn obsession, Clint Barton is a mere mortal among superpowered beings. Throughout the series he is beat up, bandaged or otherwise in over his head. The series’ sixth issue, “Six Days in the Life Of,” is perhaps Fraction and Aja’s most important issue thematically, a thesis statement for Clint’s journey of self destruction and listlessness. No matter what he tries to do, he can’t stop hurting himself or others. His life is splintered around him and the weight of the mess of all his baggage—all his stuff—contorts around him and the page itself. 

At its most basic, the issue follows a week in Clint’s life between Avengers missions as he tries to make his normal life work in the apartment building he purchased at the start of the run, and tries to keep its residents safe from the Eastern European thugs that want to develop the land. The issue is presented nonlinearly, days flashing back and forth. Aja transitions the scenes expertly, finding points of visual similarity to connect disparate moments into a cohesive whole. 

The issue opens with a collection of tiny square panels, of colored wires tangled together as Clint and Tony Stark tensely stare them down. Clint cuts a wire to avoid having to untangle them. We’re led to believe it’s a classic bomb disarmament scene, instead it’s a gag about Clint’s disastrous technology situation. He can’t face the mess of his VCR’s knotted up wires and cuts them away.

Aja’s layouts throughout the issue are a contrasting array of meticulously designed pages and details  and a chaotic interconnecting patchwork of tiny square panels. The classic grid structure  is mostly non-existent and instead Aja embraces the white space of the page, leaving tiny moments hanging in the air as the events of these six days in Clint Barton’s busted up life sweeps him away.

At the start of the week, the tracksuit mafia, as Clint calls the Eastern European thugs, threatens the building and get the better of Clint in a brawl. His first instinct to help the residents is to run away, feeling no one would miss him and their problems would vanish along with him. He places no value on his own life, beat up and lonesome as it is.

It’s only after sending his young protege Kate Bishop his bow as a farewell present that the selfishness of his decision is made clear to him. By running away and assuming his life leaves nothing for others to miss, he discounts those around him. When Kate confronts him he is forced to reckon with the harder truth of his own fear that has isolated him. Ultimately, he decides to confront the tracksuits in a dramatic full page splash that shows no action but conveys the full story.

The issue’s preceding pages are important to understand why this penultimate moment lands and is as dramatically effective as it is. As noted, up until this point the pages have been cobbled together by small disjointed moments. The complex and crowded panelling, the jumping around out of order, all inform us of Clint’s emotional state. There is something deeply wrong with him that leaves him unable to embrace those around him, to piece together his daily life or even recall it properly. It is a morass of moments and experience that he can’t quite bring into a cohesive whole until the issue’s end.

Writer Matt Fraction, when he was active online before smartly disappearing, has been remarkably open with his struggles with mental health, depression, and alcoholism and it is all but impossible  to read Clint Barton’s passive self destruction as anything but a deeply personal catharsis. Even superheroes can be damaged. The trick is to keep fighting.

The time jumps and dizzying Tetris layouts are rarely confusing thanks to Aja’s meticulous design, but they reward a close reading and rereading. The shifts are not random, instead focused on events or items that overlap and relate. Clint’s neighbor’s busted tv is because of his first skirmish with the tracksuits. Kate’s lecture is a direct response to his wrapping up the bow and handing it off to a bike courier in his apartment. The opening scene where he is setting up his home theater is a direct result of both of these events. 

Reading this issue, knowing how Clint gets to the point that he has asked Tony to help him set up the tv, having been challenged by Kate to stay and fight for the life he wants to have, in order to help his neighbors watch their Christmas specials, makes his brief speech to Tony about making due with what you’ve got even more powerful. On first blush it reads as a single outburst, a frustration with an out of touch billionaire. 

But it’s something more–a man trying for the first time to make an effort to make his messed up little life and all the busted parts of it just work for once. Because you gotta make your own stuff work. It’s the only way through the damn week.

Which takes us back to the splash page at issue’s end. The only glimpse of that Sunday is him stepping out in front of the apartment building in the snow, an arrow nocked. The apartment rises above him, the windows of the building echoing the traditional comics grid structure, tenwindows and a door echoing a twelve panel grid, the bank of snow separating the page into three distinct horizontal moments in time. 

It is a classic heroic moment. The dramatic catharsis of Clint’s nonlinear journey to stand up and put some effort into his life for once. It echoes a classic comic layout, but instead of big bombastic action, the apartment looms over Clint. It is the only thing that matters to him in that moment. The windows and their rectangular resemblance to comic panels guide our eyes across and down the page, forcing us to sit with the time and weight of Clint’s action. After a full issue of small panels representing rapid individual moments, the empty window panels expand the pause into different moments of dramatic tension.

But the emotional end is what follows, as he hosts his neighbors to watch Christmas specials. He’s decided to make this place with all its problems–all his problems– home. No more running.

I read “Hawkeye” for the first time when I was fresh out of college, in Los Angeles far from home and constantly feeling like I had made a monumental error, that I was in over my head and unqualified for what I was doing, and doing it poorly. I was in month four of  a new relationship that was now long distance for a full year, none of my friends or family around to lean on. I didn’t know where I would be in a year or two years or five. At the time, Clint’s speech felt familiar because my life felt a shambles, a broken patchwork of things I couldn’t connect after four years in safety as a student.

Now life is much different, married to that woman whom I left behind for a year, a new father in a home of my own, but I feel the pain in Clint’s attempt to make his broken stuff work no less. 

How often am I reminded that my body, with its inflamed intestines and scarred torso, is a broken thing itself? How often do the anxiety and depression that llurk within the confines of my mind threaten to overtake the things I have accomplished, whisper that I am worthless and i’d be better off hiding away forever where I could never bother anyone again? 

No, I’ve gotta make my own stuff work out. 

What Hawkeye reminds us, this issue particularly, remind us, is that life requires the courage to fight for the things we have that are important to us, even if they’re busted. Even if we have no idea how to do it, even if we can’t really see why they matter or why we matter to anyone else. We make the effort to reach out to a friend to help fix our TV set up, we help a neighbor with their Christmas decorations, or just sit with our dog for a moment at home.

It’s bittersweet to be a comics fan. Because like our own personal lives the business is a mess. I’m excited to watch the new show, to see how it spins the source material with a much different Clint Barton. But it is hard and disheartening to consume these books and shows, even deeply personal ones like Hawkeye issue 4, and know the unfair business practices behind it. But I guess that’s why I keep writing, to try and make these broken things mean something. Because comics, they’re ours, and we gotta make our stuff work.

comics, marvel, Perspectives, TV, writing

The Simple Beauty of WandaVision

You would be forgiven for thinking WandaVision was a complex narrative full of redirects, misleads and hidden clues in every frame. An entire ecosystem of takes, theories, and explainers sprang up around the series over the course of its eight week run. I found myself caught up in it, firmly convinced the arrival of Evan Peters’ Quicksilver was a sign of multiverse shenanigans, fueled by speculation of Wanda’s forthcoming appearance in Dr. Strange 2, subtitled In the Multiverse of Madness.

Continue reading “The Simple Beauty of WandaVision”
comics, marvel, TV, writing

Marvel’s Daredevil: Daredevil

Daredevil Triumphant

The final episode of Daredevil opens with a funeral and the first ten minutes finds all of the show’s characters defeated. Fisk’s murder of Ben Urich has brought no relief from his anger, and the double punch of Vanessa’s poisoning and his mother being found has left him even more paranoid of his partners. With Gao skipping town and some financial oddities on his accounts, Fisk has figured out that she and Owsley were responsible. He goes to take care of Owsley, who reveals he’s got an ace up his sleeve: Detective Hoffman, who has insider information on Fisk’s misdeeds.

When Owsley informs Fisk that he wasn’t the target of the poison, the animal is unchained and he throws Owsley down an elevator shaft. This action proves to be the Kingpin’s own undoing as the search for Hoffman is what leads Matt to find the crooked cop and get him to confess. The testimony and accusations against Fisk topples his empire and leaves most of the people under his employ arrested or under suspicion. In a triumphant victory march that comes at the halfway point of the episode and lasts for around five minutes, we see Fisk lose and the law firm of Nelson and Murdock celebrate. Matt finally found a way to bring his vigilante life and his career as a lawyer into accord.

Leading up to this victory is a slow reconciliation between Matt and Foggy as Foggy comes back to him with new information and evidence taken from Landman and Zack, with his ex-girlfriend Marcie’s help. Foggy is still mistrustful of Murdock’s extracurricular activities, but gradually begins to see that there is only so far the law can go, and that maybe Matt has become a little less unchained.

For Matt’s part, his attitude begins to shift, with less focus on beating the crap out of people to a more methodical and less reckless way of doing things. He still feels torn over what to do about Fisk, but also much more willing to listen to Foggy’s concerns and pleas. The scene at the boxing ring is a subtle, but significant shift in conversation from Matt’s early debates with Claire Temple about what he is doing.

Fisk’s apprehension is not the end of the story. Like most victories in the series, it’s shortlived. He gives a very on the nose monologue about one of the least critically analyzed, misunderstood, and most overused biblical stories, the Good Samaritan. Like most people in the world, Fisk tried to imagine himself as the Samaritan, without any thought he could be anyone else in the story. Of course he’s the guy who would help his fellow man! That’s what he’s been trying to do for Hell’s Kitchen all this time. Raise it up. Who doesn’t want to think that about themselves?

Of note in the Good Samaritan story is that the Samaritans were a very hated group of people in Ancient Israel. Like, super hated. If he was the one lying in the ditch no one would have helped him, because, hey, he’s a Samaritan and that’s where they belong. So that makes the Samaritan’s selflessness even greater. As Fisk talks about the Samaritan character in the story who selflessly helps others, the camera shows Karen, Matt and Foggy celebrating in their office. Just one portion of this speech that’s very lacking in subtlety. (Not that I need subtlety from this show! I don’t. I like the eager spirit with which its metaphors are projected.)

Fisk, though he’s not a religious man, was intrigued by this story and that act of selflessness. But in his current predicament he realizes that he’s been lying to himself about his true nature. He’s not a good person, or a selfless person. He is the “ill intent,” a phrase he derives from the men of ill intent that descended upon the traveler to Jericho. Suddenly, in the wake of everything that has happened, he realizes that his true nature is a man of violence, who seeks power over others.

He breaks out of the police motorcade with the help of some people loyal to him that are still free. Matt goes after him, taking a detour for the new suit that Melvin Potter has made for him. Feeling the  horns on the helmet of the suit, Matt smiles. His symbol is ready.

The two fight in an alley, Fisk releasing all of his fury upon Daredevil. Blaming him (somehow?) for all that has befallen his corporation. It might be a misplaced anger, but he’s going to make Daredevil pay.

Ultimately, in a good story, a character’s external conflict must in someway be an extension of the inner conflict. When these two forces finally meet as equals for the first time, their converging stories crash. Fisk, torn between his desire to turn himself into a good, powerful man, and Murdock, who fears he may become one of ill intent, lash out at one another. Finally, they see their distorted reflections up close and face their demons head on.

Though the Kingpin is not the martial artist Daredevil is, the pure rage and physical ferocity that D’Onforio so terrifyingly embodies makes him a physical match. The fight is not the down and dirty exhaustive fight of the earlier episodes. The show’s fight choreography has gone through a subtle transformation, going from a more martial arts, street level, physical brawl to a more stylized, fantastical approach. It makes sense, thematically, with the show’s interest in portraying Murdock’s journey toward this new superhero.

Ultimately, Matt takes down Fisk, and gets to savor the victory of standing over his enemy’s unconscious body and seeing him put in handcuffs. He escapes into the night. Fisk is sent to prison to await his trial, where he sits down on his cot and stares at the wall…and thinks of the man he wants to be.

And finally, there’s a happy ending for our good guys, who have been through so much. The losses are acute, but the victory is emotionally significant nonetheless for both the characters and the viewer. At last, the Law Office of Nelson and Murdock is christened with its plaque, and the team is back together. At the same time, the paper gives their mysterious new horned hero a name: Daredevil. A frightening reminder in the dark that reminds the city’s evil doers that there are consequences for their actions.

A final conversation between Karen and Matt hints that not all wounds are healed. Matt assures Karen, as he did Foggy earlier in the episode, that though you can’t return to the way things were or undo the things that have happened, they can move forward to heal their wounds. Together.

Heroes always get back up off the mat.

Stray Thoughts

  • I was so excited to see Daredevil’s collapsible billy clubs in action!
  • I really dig the Daredevil costume in this show. Utilitarian but still true to the comics. You never quite get a good look because of the lighting, but it fits the world of the show very well.
  • Melvin Potter makes a point of asking Murdock that Betsy will be alright. Matt assures him he’ll keep his promise. It feels like an unnecessary exchange if that’s not followed up on in the future. Perhaps we’ll see the Gladiator in action?
  • Sad to see Owlsley go. Such a lovable villain.
  • Have I shared with you this amazing fan video yet, set to Chumbawumba? If so, oh well. If not, watch it in all its glory here.

Marvel Facts

  • Speaking of Owsley…there’s a character in the comics with the same name who becomes a super villain called the Owl. Obviously our Leland never takes on that identity, but there’s been a son mentioned a few times, so if it’s Leland Jr. there’s a slight chance he’ll show up. But who knows?
  • Since starting up these recaps (and thanks for sticking around if you did, I know the show’s been out for a while) we’ve gotten a lot of news about the future of the series. Let’s recap:
    • Season 2 is happening. Yay!
    • The Punisher has been confirmed to appear and will be portrayed by John Bernthal. This is cool, because I’m not a big Punisher fan and would much rather see him in a supporting, antagonistic role to a character I do enjoy. The difference in method and ideology should make for some great drama and action scenes.
    • Elektra has also been confirmed! She will be portrayed by Elodie Young. Everyone knew this was going to happen if we were going to get a season 2. But nice to see it official. I hope the creators don’t go as off the rails with her as Frank Miller eventually did.

And that’s all she wrote, folks. Excelsior!