Every week in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Publisher of Comics Bulletin Mark Stack will ask Co-Managing Editor Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.
So without any further ado…
Why was Hawkeye so overrated?
This might seem like one of the more difficult leading questions you’ve thrown my way at a passing glance. Hawkeye was one of the most widely applauded American comics of the past decade. It ranked #12 on the best comics of 2016 list over at Loser City that we both contributed to. In fact, I’m pretty sure we both voted for Hawkeye as well. So what ill is there to be spoken of “one of Marvel’s greatest comics” that went about changing the publisher?
But, bro, Hawkeye is overrated, bro.
Overrated doesn’t imply something is bad or even not great, it’s a much more elusive term to pin down than that. Hawkeye is a perfect example though. This is a comic that is innovative, does push the boundaries of its publisher and genre, and regularly entertains in both a dramatic and comedic fashion. It’s a damn fine comic and one I’m perfectly okay sitting where it does on that Loser City list we collaborated on.
But is it better than something like Prophet, or Blacksad, or Sunny?
For those of you typing furiously in the comments, that’s a rhetorical question. There’s no definitive answer when it comes to ranking art. It’s an inherently futile effort that at its absolute best is designed to provoke discussion, disagreement, and exploration. And it’s also the sort of task upon which the term “overrated” is based. In order to believe something is overrated, you have to argue that it is not correctly assessed in comparison to other pieces of art. That its star value or positive percentage or list ranking is generally too high. But that’s what you’re asking about on Hawkeye, and that’s what I’m agreeing with.
So let’s get going down this rabbit hole.
I think the popularity of Hawkeye and the rapidity with which it was hoisted up the flagpole of critical acclaim is based largely in its position with the comics publishing landscape. you might have noticed that both the iO9 and Entertainment Weekly links I provided define the success of Hawkeye in relation to Marvel Comics. That’s not altogether surprising considering that Marvel was the largest American comics publisher when both of those pieces were written. It’s a title they only recently relinquished (for more than the briefest of periods) to their closest competitor DC Comics.
Yet it’s difficult to move past the fact that in so many reviews and lists phrases like “for Marvel” or “for superhero comics” are regularly used as modifiers. While Marvel may publish more comics than most, that doesn’t mean they have a consistently higher bar for quality. If anything, I would argue for it being lower due to the overt focus on maintaining intellectual property and raising sales above all else. When something like Hawkeye comes along and combines that mainstream appeal with higher artistic aspirations and achievements, it’s absolutely something to be celebrated. But that combination also tends to provide too much credit.
Hawkeye is an easy sell. It is genuinely good. It is easy to find. It’s well-branded and popular. It features a recognizable character with a Hollywood counterpart. For all of these reasons and more, critics, fans, and journalists both inside and outside of comics have gravitated towards it. There’s an undeniable pull to this series that goes far beyond its quality.
For that same reason, I fully expect to be talking about one of my absolute, no exceptions favorite series of 2016 as overrated within 2-3 years. I’m talking about The Vision. It’s a comic that really is just that good. It’s also a comic that gets a boost from Tom King’s skyrocketing profile in superhero comics, the Marvel brand, and Hollywood connections. The Vision receives a lot of attention because it is the exception to the rule at publishers like Marvel and it had a built in audience most creator-owned comics would (and do) die for.
However, there’s one reason for being called overrated that I don’t think Hawkeye and The Vision share, and it has nothing to do with hitting deadlines. It’s about endings. I’m a big fan of the final issue of The Vision and how that series coheres as a complete narrative. The finale of Hawkeye shits the proverbial bed.
We can leave out all of the sprawling narrative build. I’m not a big detractor of Kate’s adventures in Los Angeles, even if they ultimately don’t add much to the series. I even sort of like the Christmas special, although it adds even less. These were experiments and they are never poorly executed. Most just don’t meet the high bar set by the issues in which Matt Fraction and David Aja are collaborating.
It’s those individual issues from which the series draws most of its hype and acclaim. When we discuss Hawkeye it’s typically in episodic terms. We know the “Pizza Dog issue” and the “deaf issue” and that spectacular thesis statement of a debut. Heck, even the penultimate issue is something really special that I can talk about for hours. But that doesn’t stop the ending from failing the promise of these individual incidents.
Early on it appeared those separate incidents were building upon one another to reach something truly special. The series climax comes after the death of “Grills” when the eponymous hero is abandoned by his partner and dog during a spiral into self-pity. It is the story of destruction and rebirth. Clint’s implosion, the first half of the tale, is simply spectacular. The resurrection is… not so much.
Part two of the series meanders its way about. Even taken in monthly doses or a single sitting (something its substantial delays did not initially provide), these issues read like a drag. They take all of the momentum and tension built mid-way through Hawkeye and absolutely squander it all. This isn’t to say that a series can’t regain momentum or make up for poor choices with an excellent finale. Just look at The Wire. But that’s not what Hawkeye does. Instead it ends on Hawkeye #22, which is a fine comic book, but fine is hella far from great.
After so many dramatic highs, memorable comedy, and experimentive moments, Hawkeye #22 is a shrug. It wraps up the series plot and puts all of the pieces back in their box rather nicely. The telling is still better than you can expect from most Marvel Comics, but that shouldn’t a compliment for greatness. There’s shockingly little meat to the final chapter of this highly acclaimed story; it appears the creators have nothing left to say. Instead of concluding with a bold statement about the nature of a calling, public service, and resilience, things essentially just work out pretty okay for Hawkguy.
If we were discussing the current All-New Wolverine or Invincible Iron Man series, that wouldn’t be so bad. They were stories well told that ended just fine. Hawkeye set a higher bar for itself and completely missed it at the end. That’s especially important because it’s not one misstep along the way, but a complete failure to achieve catharsis or a clear conceit. This botch is one that colors later readings of the series and the way in which it can be recommended. It’s a permanent asterisk on a comic that still has a lot going for it.
Now look back at that Loser City list and consider some of the comics that come before Hawkeye. I’m talking about comics like Boxer & Saints, Nijigahara Holograph, and Demeter. These are all creations that don’t come with an asterisk because they don’t fall apart halfway through their runs. They’re pieces of art that didn’t run out of steam or inspiration; they hold together. More importantly (unfortunately), they don’t have any modifiers to attach to their names. They come from traditions of mainstream publishing, manga, and self-publication, respectively. These are comics that don’t get a boost for being pretty good for being something else. They are simply really good comics.
And Hawkeye is a really good comic. But is it really as good as we keep telling everyone?