At the turn of the century, widescreen became the latest hot trend in comics. What started with The Authority moved to Justice League and arguably hit its peak with The Ultimates. Part of the allure of these comics was the simple fact that they were taking advantage of the uniqueness of the medium; you were not going to find stories like this anywhere else. Anything the creators could dream could come to life in the pages of a comic book, wondrous, exciting things that could only exist in this form.
But that’s no longer the case.
Technology has advanced to the point where a green screen and some computers can simulate almost anything. The widescreen comics that were once unique to the medium can now be reproduced on the big screen. We’ve already seen epic battles in the Marvel movies akin to anything we’ve seen in comics. And this has, slowly but surely, led to a change in the comics these movies are emulating.
It’s not surprising, then, that six months after perhaps the biggest of the wide screen movies was released (Avengers), Marvel published the first issue of Hawkeye, a character who had just appeared in the aforementioned movie. But this take on Hawkeye was nothing like that one. This story was small, personal, and told in a way that was unique to the medium.
Matt Fraction chose to take Hawkeye in the opposite direction of the movie, ostensibly telling the story of Clint Barton’s adventures in an apartment building. This wasn’t big, cosmic action full of gods and monsters, this was the story of a group of people who lived in the same space fighting off an incredibly entertaining Russian mob. This was a quiet story, or as quiet as they get in superhero comics.
David Aja decided to take advantage of the medium in a way that movies couldn’t. Panels in comics are both stagnant and kinetic, representing still images and movement at the same time, something film can’t reproduce. Comics have panels, and Aja decided to manipulate page layouts and images in a way that was groundbreaking and specific to comic books; you won’t see anything like this anywhere else, not to this extent.
Matt Hollingsworth’s colors set the book apart from the other superhero books on the stands. Each issue, each type of scene, had its own palette, maintaining a specific tone depending upon the story. These weren’t brightly colored tights and capes doing battle, these were muted tones meant to keep the story small, but significant.
The result of this writer/artists pairing was something fresh for comics, although not wholly unheard of. You can see the origins of this type of superhero comic as far back as “Batman: Year One” by Miller and Mazzucchelli: narration heavy, dynamic page layouts, grounded characters. But this was a modern take, less noir and more slice of life, less grim and gritty and more complex, full of moments of life and death drama and outright hilarity. This was taking a wonderfully dramatic style and humanizing it.
Hawkeye has been (as the final issue of the Fraction/Aja/Wu run has yet to be released as of this writing) a critical hit, if not a sales success, although it’s performed decently in that regard. What set Hawkeye apart, however, was its reach; the typical comic book audience wasn’t reading Hawkeye. The demographics included the young and the old and, more importantly, the male and the female. Editors noticed. Publishers noticed. The writing was on the wall.
The Hawkeye Effect kicked in.
Interestingly enough, the Hawkeye Effect had actually begun happening before Hawkeye had much of an impact. Daredevil #1, by Mark Waid, Paolo Rivera, Marcos Martin, and Javier Rodriguez (among others) was released in September of 2011, a year before Hawkeye. Like Clint Barton’s book, this new series was a fresh start for the series, with the focus moving from crazy ninja adventures to character driven stories. But while the word of mouth on Daredevil was fantastic among those in the know, the book has never garnered the type of cross over appeal the way Hawkeye has. This is, in part, due to the wonderful colors by Javier Rodriguez. Daredevil looks more like a traditional superhero comic than Hawkeye, and is easily dismissed as such. Waid’s stories are often more pure superhero adventures, which in continuity, something that Fraction has mostly avoided in Hawkeye.
There’s one other big element to Hawkeye which no doubt helped it appeal to both men and women: Kate Bishop.
In 2013, Marvel released The Superior Foes of Spider-Man, another title that followed the Hawkeye style. Writer Nick Spencer, artist Steve Lieber, and colorist Rachelle Rosenberg took a handful of c-list villains and told quirky stories similar in tone and presentation to Hawkeye. The book was a critical hit, but failed to find a large audience, and only lasted 17 issues, perhaps because of its focus on the aforementioned c-list characters.
Superior Foes wasn’t a surprise to anyone who was paying attention, because it came from the Spider-Man editorial group which, at the time, was led by editor Stephen Wacker, who, surprise surprise, also edited Hawkeye and Daredevil. While Wacker would leave Marvel after 2013, he’d already started a fire that would spread to multiple titles (the impact that Wacker has had on Marvel is akin to what Mark Doyle is currently having at DC, but more on that later).
She-Hulk would be the next title to ride the Hawkeye Effect. Charles Soule and Javier Pulido created a book that had elements of both Hawekeye and Daredevil, yet still managed to stand on its own. The book, however, would fail to attract a large audience, possibly due to the fact a) She-Hulk is a woman and b) She-Hulk isn’t branded. The former is unfortunate, but female superheroes have always had an uphill battle, because guys tend to read about guys and dismiss anything else, much to their detriment. The latter is a simple reality of superhero comics in the age of Intellectual Property. If a book isn’t branded with an A or an X or spider, its chance of survival drops considerably. While She-Hulk may have been an Avenger at one point, she hadn’t been a main feature in those books for some time.
Since then, the Spider-Man office, specifically, has gone whole hog with the Hawkeye Effect. Spider-Woman #5 featured new artist Javier Rodriguez, a new costume, and a new status quo that has already improved the book. Silk #1 by Robbie Thompson and Stacey Lee has the same look and feel as Hawkeye, Daredevil, She-Hulk and now Spider-Woman. And while the art by Robbi Rodriguez on Spider-Gwen #1 might have more of a manga influence than other titles falling under the Hawkeye Effect, the story by Jason LaTour is very much akin to what Fraction, Mark Waid on Daredevil, and Soule have been doing: grounding the character in the real world, and making that real world just as interesting as the superhero one.
To a certain extent, you could even see Stan Lee’s influence in this. He regularly balanced his stories between the fantastic and the mundane, something the Hawkeye Effect embraces.
Unlike Stan, the Hawkeye Effect wouldn’t be limited to Marvel Comics. Its influence would spread to DC, specifically to Batgirl. Batgirl #35 changed the direction and tone of the series and, not unlike Hawkeye #1, begins with the main character moving into a new apartment. After all, what’s more grounded and universal than living in an apartment or having roommates? Much like Spider-Gwen, the art was more manga influenced than the other titles listed above, but the general tone was the same. There were no aliens showing up here. There weren’t superhero slugfests destroying large sections of the city. These stories were meant to be personal and low key. The focus here is on character.
Come June, DC is unleashing a mini-relaunch of sorts, full of concepts that are less dependent on continuity and more focused on original ideas and storytelling. Not surprisingly, many of these new titles seem to follow the Hawkeye Effect, to the point where some are calling it the “Batgirlification” of DC, even though Batgirl was the Hawkeye-ing of DC.
The best part about all of this is that Hawkeye began a trend that didn’t just feature unbelievable storytelling, but also featured stories that appealed to a wide demographic. Marvel and DC are starting to publish stories that might interest more than just straight, white guys ages 25-35. Slowly but surely, comics are becoming inclusive.
Granted, it’s because they had to, but at least it’s happening.
The comic book response to the big budget Hollywood superhero movie has been perfect. It’s made the genre better, it’s made the art form better, and it’s expanded the audience. It’s yet more proof of how what comics can be and can do can’t be defined. It underscores just how incredible the medium is, and the fact that it always will be, no matter how these stories are interpreted in other ways.