Monday, 4 February 2013

Eye on Hawkeye #7

Or my apparently regular feature gushing about Matt Fraction, Steve Lieber, and Jesse Hamm's Hawkeye because this book is perfect.

Wherein I continue my wonky analysis of how great Hawkeye is and say nice things about the creators. All of the standard gushing applies: effortless seeming writing, amazing colours from Matt Hollingsworth, and a high frequency of laugh out loud moments. This time I'm actually going to use this space as an excuse to write something about Steve Lieber and storytelling that I've been thinking about for a while. Specifically that under the art-stick of Steve Lieber setting and environment become full characters in a story.

(Also, how cool is Matt Fraction for donating his incentive payments from this issue to the Red Cross? How effective is it that Fraction chose to tell a story that highlights how godawful the storm itself was and ALSO a story that showcases the challenges faced by survivors? Fucking hell this book is brilliant.)

You should assume that there will be *SPOILERS* within.

From what little I understand about narrative theory, conflict can be broken down into three categories: man-vs-man, man-vs-self, and man-vs-nature. Superhero comic books tend to be heavy on the man-vs-man: Spiderman fights The Green Goblin, Batman fights the Joker and, in Hawkeye #7 Grills is in conflict with his Father about the disposition of his dead mother's effects. The best Cape comics also usually feature some amount of man-vs-self, like Iron Man's trying to stay ahead of his weaknesses and substance abuse issues or Batman trying to stick to his moral code despite the excesses of his adversaries. In Hawkeye #7 we see Grills have an internal conflict between how much he loves his parents and how frustrated and angry his father's actions make him which was a nicely personal and nuanced story beat in a disaster comic. What's remarkable about Hawkeye #7 is that we also see man-vs-nature in the Hawkeyes trying to help people in the chaos of Frankenstorm Sandy. This is something we almost never see in mainstream comics.

Steve Lieber draws the during-the-hurricane half of the comic that follows Hawkguy as he travels to Far Rockaway with his neighbour Grills to help his father get ready for the storm. Sandy arrives, things get wild and wet and windy, and our hero gets to be great at boats. And this all works because Steve Lieber and Matt Hollingsworth build Sandy into nearly every panel which gives it a looming, constant presence before unleashing it to directly imperil our protagonists. Which, in turn, makes the setting function as an actual character in the story.

Steve Lieber has a long history of drawing incredible stories that pit people against the forces of weather. In Whiteout, a crime/thriller written by Greg Rucka about crime in Antarctica, Steve Lieber creates this perfectly realized representation of the frozen continent. Rucka writes a great script that pits the continent's single US Marshal against would be ne'er-do-wells, but its the artwork of Lieber that establishes the frozen world of the Antarctic as the real antagonist, the true challenge that the protagonist and antagonists must overcome. The comic would not work without his steller depiction of the comics' environment. Whiteout is another set of great comics where Lieber is able to establish setting/environment as a distinct character.

But Steve Lieber's man-vs-nature repertoire isn't limited to drawing extreme weather. In Underground, written by Jeff Parker, Lieber and colourist Ron Chan depict the Stillwater cave system as both the setting and key character of the comic. The plot of Underground is kind of like an 80s-90s action movie that pits the story's heroes, a pair of park rangers, against the criminal henchmen of a local business leader with greedy and unlawful plans. Accidents happen and soon the protagonists have to escape the thugs and survive the dangers of the cave system. Lieber and Chan depict a dark, claustrophobic world that captures both the terror and wonder of caves and this is the source of Underground's critical atmosphere. Underground is another comic that works purely because the art team nails setting and environment so effectively. Underground is also a comic where setting becomes a key character in the story.

So here are three amazing comics that, through Steve Lieber's particular attention to environmental details, provide amazing stories that feature man-vs-nature conflicts. To me there are two salient points in this. The first is that Steve Lieber is an incredible artist and that anyone writing a man-vs-nature story would do very well to have him on art duties. The second is that these comics highlight just how fundamental and critically important thorough, well designed environments are to storytelling. A well established and designed setting can elevate a good comic to a great comic and even add a whole other dimension to the storytelling. 

I guess what I'm trying to say is that Hawkeye is great at boats and Steve Lieber, he is great at man-vs-nature storytelling.

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