Monday, 11 August 2014

Eye on Hawkeye #19 pt. 2

Or a look at the use of layout and colour as thematic wayfinders in Hawkeye #19
by Matt Fraction, David Aja, Matt Hollingsworth, and Chris Elipoulos; Marvel Comics

Hawkeye #19 is another pretty special issue of comics. Like the Eisner winning Pizza Dog issue, it uses comics in unconventional, experimental ways to give us a unique comics experience. More importantly Hawkeye #19 also manages to teach us a bit about American Sign Language, provide a perspective of some of the challenges of being deaf, and, through the use of ASL, create an experience of deafness in readers that maybe gives us some clue as to what it feels like to be unable to understand and participate in communication. Which is all really cool, really noteworthy comics that people celebrate. The thing is, Hawkeye #19 is also a super formally interesting comic in more conventional ways.

Specifically, I am really interested in how Hawkeye #19 uses parallel layouts and colour tagging to instil emotional effects in readers and seamlessly convey varying time points.

There will, as always, be *SPOILERS* for Hawkeye #19 below.

Okay, this might be unsurprising, but I find design, infographics, and architecture really interesting. As a result I listen to a pretty great podcast called 99% Invisible which tells stories about the unseen thought that goes into pretty much every aspect of our manufactured world. A recent episode (which you can listen to here) discusses the hidden art of using architectural considerations to affect behaviour. There are people trying to figure out ways to subtly nudge you to walk a certain way or visit a certain store by using structural elements. They use obvious things like signs, but also really subtle things like the angle of a kiosk desk, sight-lines, and even floor tile patterns to guide your behaviour. It is called wayfinding and it strikes me as devilishly cool.

The thing is, Hawkeye #19 makes me think about this architectural wayfinding in the context of comics because it uses structural, layout choices and subtle colour to affect how we understand and emotionally experience the comic.

Interspersed throughout Hawkeye #19 are two different periods of time that depict Clint's struggles with deafness in the present as well as his childhood experience with deafness. None of this is explicitly stated in narration and instead this information is encoded in the artwork, layout structure, and colouring of the comic. The net effect of this is that we as the audience understand the time shifts and become emotionally invested in the parallelisms between the trials of child and adult Clint. But all of the little ways this information is encoded are worth examining.

The primary means of communicating the parallels come from the art. This two-page spread is the opening of the comic and is split between two distinct stories. Down one side of the page a doctor is handwriting a note about a deafness diagnosis for a little boy and his family. Down the right side of the page we see a series of similar images showing a deafness diagnosis being written out for an adult Clint. Now clearly the left side of the spread depicts young Clint and the right shows virtually the same diagnosis for adult Clint. We aren't explicitly told, but it's obvious.

Part of how this information is encoded is the use of related images. We see similar language used in the writing boxes, and a very similar doctor office layout with the same relationship between clint, his family, and the doctor on both sides of the layout. Critically, we finish the page on the left with child-Clint's face split over four panels, a pretty idiosyncratic layout choice, that is immediately reflected on the top panel of the next page in adult-Clint's face split over the same four panels. This instantly clues us in to the identity of the boy on the left, but really the various related images spread across the pages collectively convey this information.

The relationship between the two pages in the spread isn't, however, limited to the signs, the actual depicted events on the page. There is also subtle structural choices at work to establish that the events depicted are parallel and related. Specifically, the layours between the two pages use deeply related layouts. On both pages we have a large central panel bordered by two zones, one of which is split into two levels. What this parallel layout does is help reinforce that the events on the two pages are meant to reflect each other. However, the layouts are not identical, in that the two pages overall shape are actual inverted to one another. While this may have just been an aesthetic decision or designed to place the boy/adult Clint eye panels in close alignment for maximal effect, for me this choice helps to solidify the different place adult Clint is in: he has been here before. He is experiencing the events depicted on the right while remembering the traumatic events of his childhood deafness. And I feel this is reflected on the level of layout.

One of the aspects I find so impressive about this sequence, and comic in general, is how effortlessly and seamlessly it moves between the various time frames. A ton of this is done with tiny wayfinding choices peripheral to the central events. I mean sure, the most obvious indicator is whether Clint and Barney are depicted as children or beaten up adults but there are a wide variety of subtle indicators. The most important wayfinder is colour: the past events on the left are coloured in a brown-sepia wash that we have come to associate with aged, or old fashioned photography and the past, while the modern events are coloured in the purple/blue that we have come to associate with the modern-day Hawkguy status quo. It's straight forward, but unannounced and taking full advantage of our unspoken common colour biases. It's great stuff. 

And then there is all of the subtle set dressing choices made to indicate the span of time: past-male doctor -vs- modern-female doctor (something exceedingly rare during Clint's childhood) and the doctor using handwritten notes and having an old-fashioned phone -vs- the modern computerized workstation and phone of the modern doctor being the most obvious. And then there are the subtle things: the CT films and light boxes in the modern doctors office, the modern anatomy poster, the steel exam table, the modern firecode levered doorknob (as opposed to the disability unfriendly round doorknob), and in the historic office the wooden display table and old fashioned looking Snellen chart which seems indicative of older printing technology. All of these little setting choices help to ground the two scenes in specific moments in time and help reinforce the time changes for the rest of the comic. 

Also, I can't believe there was a time when a doctor would fill out a diagnosis pad with "with love and...". That's crazy!

You see all of these techniques used throughout Hawkeye #19, but I think the next best example is this double page spread. Again we have two different unlabelled time points that utilize directly corresponding images, sepia-vs-hawkeye colouring, and parallel layouts to accomplish the feelings of time displacement and narrative connectivity. What's maybe cool about this spread is the layouts are directly corresponding: the past left page scheme perfectly matches (well more or less) the present right page scheme. This might be reading into it too much, but I feel like this choice is to help cement that this is the end of the journey begun on the first double spread (the thing we looked at first) and is the point where clint is no longer reacting to his past traumas and is stepping forward into the future. I feel like the layout is meant to evoke that at the past and present narrative moment both child-Clint and adult-Clint feel a kind of parallel resolution to meet their challenges and situations head on. Regardless, it's great comics.

So yeah, once again Team Hawkguy create a remarkable experimental comic that is also a really smart comic in a conventional way too. This comic guys, this comic.

Eye on Hawkeye #19 pt.1: Empathy Machine
Eye on Hawkeye #18: Colours and setting.
Eye on Hawkeye #15: Composition, Layout, and colours.
Eye on Hawkeye #16: Smart layouts and chilling moods.
Eye on Hawkeye #14: Repetitive panels as a device.


  1. This Eye on Hawkeye series is gonna be a definitive go-to for Hawkeye criticism when its all said and done

    1. Thanks! That's very kind of you to say. Glad to hear you are enjoying it.

      Also, you wouldn't happen to have access to a time machine? Because jeetttllllaaaggg and laundry machines are killing me....

  2. This issue and pizza dog issue reminds me of CHris Ware way of doing comics. I didn't appreciate Pizza Dog issue - I found it too Ware-y, but this one is great. I respect your analysises :D Take care