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METAMERICANA: Hawkeye, Normcore Avenger: A (Mellow) Revolution from Marvel Comics’ Matt Fraction and David Aja

METAMERICANA: Hawkeye, Normcore Avenger: A (Mellow) Revolution from Marvel Comics

So-called “normcore fashion,” a bizarre combination of countercultural
radicalism and bourgeois complacency, is the only way anyone has found thus far
to re-envision mainstream culture as avant-garde. In normcore culture,
twenty-something hipsters who have already established their countercultural
bona fides by dressing in the uniform of their kind for years (think
thick-rimmed glasses, skinny jeans, sportcoats, bow ties, and brogues) turn
these customs on their head by returning to the white, upper-middle class clothing
stores of their youth. Thus, a herd of excruciatingly self-aware young people seems
to dress like either their parents or their suburban peers, and outside
observers are none the wiser about their intentions. Normcore is ironic to
those who know it when they see it, and painfully earnest to those who see
someone wearing clothes from The Gap or Abercrombie & Fitch and assume it’s
the result of thoughtlessness rather than design. Of course, the more generous
view of normcore suggests that those who subscribe to its fashion wing simply
no longer wish to be distinguished from others on the basis of their attire.
Better, then, to say that the wearing of jeans and tee shirts by normcore
aficionados is merely a “detached and knowing” decision, and not necessarily an
“ironic” one. But what happens to our hipster calculus when normcore culture
goes supernatural?

Superheroes are the hipsters of English-language graphic novels: discernible
almost immediately by their accoutrements, superheros may want to be like you
and me (hence, secret identities) but before long are sure to do something—lift
a car, shoot an eye-beam—that places them outside mainstream culture. They can’t
help themselves. And millions of us read about their exploits in comic books
because we, too, can’t help ourselves. Following the adventures of costumed
counter-culturists is the nerdy equivalent of sitting on a park bench
people-watching in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. Which is why, when
comic book writer Matt Fraction and artist David Aja decided to portray the
least-popular Avenger, Hawkeye, not as a bow-wielding badass but an
unremarkable, hoodie-wearing bro hanging around his apartment, it felt—to those
of us who enjoy comic books but are tired of their poor writing, cinema-ready
plotlines, and cutout characters—like something of a revolution.

Fraction and Aja’s Hawkeye depicts its titular character in his
traditional (at least since the Avengers movie) purple and black get-up on the
cover of its first two paperback collected editions. In both cases, “Hawkeye”/Clint
Barton—Iowan; former carnie; superpower-less master archer—is carrying his
trademark bow. It’s an intentional misdirection, as in the pages of My Life
As a Weapon
(collecting Hawkeye #1-5 and Young Avengers Presents
#6) and Little Hits (collecting Hawkeye #6-11) Hawkeye rarely
uses his bow and is almost never in his Avengers uniform. Instead, he putters
about his Bed-Stuy apartment and does, well, not very much. A breakdown of the
early issues:

Hawkeye #1: Hawkeye recuperates in a hospital, adopts a dog, attends a
neighborhood barbecue, helps a single mom avoid eviction, and buys his
apartment building so he can become its landlord.

Hawkeye #2: Hawkeye practices shooting his bow, attends a gala event,
stops a gang of petty thieves (but in a tux), and has a long phone call with a
young female protégé who has a crush on him.

Hawkeye #3: Hawkeye organizes his arrows, buys a new car, sleeps with a
stranger, and fights off some heavies hired by a slumlord who wants Clint’s
apartment building back.

Hawkeye #4: Hawkeye attends a neighborhood barbecue, gets interviewed by
the Avengers, travels to the Middle East, has his wallet stolen in a taxi, and
attempts to buy at auction an item that could destroy his reputation if it
falls into the wrong hands.

And so on. Clint virtually never gets into uniform, virtually never faces a
super-villain, never uses any superpowers, and views any excitement he
experiences as a distraction from what he really wants to be doing: hanging out
with his neighbors at rooftop barbecues and petting his adopted dog (“Pizza
Dog,” so named because this iteration of Clint Barton isn’t very witty, either,
so he simply names his dog after the mutt’s favorite food). In Little Hits,
the second Hawkeye paperback collected, the low-key vibe continues, and
if anything is doubled down upon by Fraction and Aja:

Hawkeye #6: Hawkeye sets up his stereo system, saves the world from a
terrorist organization (presented, however, via just a two-page pictorial
summary), argues with the maintenance man at his apartment building, attends a
neighborhood barbecue, fights off some slumlord heavies, watches TV, and
considers going on vacation.

Hawkeye #7: Hawkeye helps a neighbor move during a hurricane, and later
rescues him from drowning in his new basement. Hawkeye’s protégé Kate Bishop
attends a wedding, goes to a pharmacy, and stops a robbery in progress.

Hawkeye #8: Hawkeye deals with a new (and crappy) romantic relationship,
tries to fight slumlord heavies but ends up in jail, and complains about his
new girlfriend messing up his comic book collection.

While the news recently came down that the Fraction/Aja Hawkeye series
will come to a close with issue #22, the fact remains that this writer-artist
duo has given us an entirely new way of thinking about not just comic books but
ourselves. There are a number of things Hawkeye does in this series that no one
without superlative archery skills could do. However, these acts of heroism are
overwhelmed in both number and vividness by the roster of things Clint Barton
does in Bed-Stuy that nearly any of us could do: make an effort to meet
and befriend our neighbors; help someone move or avoid eviction; finally unpack
our boxes and set up our new apartment; adopt a stray; or make a property
investment with an eye toward making the lives of others a little less bleak.
There’s nothing preachy about Hawkeye, however—it can’t be said that
Fraction and Aja have any evident interest in making us all better people. What
they want, I think, is no more than what Barton himself wants, and what, if we
go back into the annals of Western literature, David Copperfield once wanted:
to be the hero of our own life stories, whatever banalities and unremarkable
tribulations those stories will so often, inevitably, entail.
 

In other
words, Fraction and Aja have somehow captured the temperament of our Age:
neither naively fixated on the possibility of heroism nor (anymore) captivated
by anti-heroes. The earnestness of the conventional superhero has begun to irk
us, but so too, however slowly, has an unwilling and unlikely hero like
Deadpool, a mercenary whose running commentary on his own antics—droll,
fourth-wall-breaking—is steeped in petulant cynicism. In an ongoing tug-of-war
that mirrors what’s happening now in video games (cf. “#gamergate”), there’s a
divide between those who want a comic book that simply “plays well”—meaning, it
touches all the usual plot, tight-pant, and monologing-baddie bases—and one
that is reflexive enough about its aesthetics and ambitious enough about its
aims to qualify as Art. Fraction and Aja have given us a comic book series that’s
decidedly in the middle in all particulars—even its interior art is somehow,
despite its stylishness, understated—and in doing so find a sweet spot that’s
exactly where most of us already live. This new Clint Barton is neither a hero
nor an anti-hero, he’s simply . . . unremarkable. Which makes him as
remarkable a superhero as we’ve seen in a very, very long time.

Seth Abramson is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Thievery (University of Akron Press, 2013). He has published work in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best New Poets, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, New American Writing, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, and The Southern Review.
A graduate of Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, and the Iowa
Writers’ Workshop, he was a public defender from 2001 to 2007 and is
presently a doctoral candidate in English Literature at University of
Wisconsin-Madison. He runs a contemporary poetry review series for
The Huffington Post and has covered graduate creative writing programs for Poets & Writers magazine since 2008.

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