Friday, 31 July 2015

Eye on Hawkeye #22

Or how to build a satisfying ending, bro, in Hawkeye #22,
by Matt Fraction, David Aja, Matt Hollingsworth, and Chris Eliopoulos; Marvel Comics

Hawkeye has been one of my all time favourite comics. It has consistently been one of the most amusing, emotionally charged, and gorgeous monthly comics I've read. It managed, within the context of a large corporate publishing machine, to be original, experimental, ambitious, and filled with idiosyncratic in-jokes and a consistent, unique aesthetic. It's also a comic that changed the way I read and write about comics: Hawkeye has been a huge influence on the critical direction of this blog. So you could say I have a lot invested in seeing this series end on a high note.

And team Hawkguy absolutely nailed it.

They not only provided us with a satisfying conclusion to their story but also put on a clinic in how to construct a memorable, celebratory ending.

There will be *SPOILERS* for Hawkeye #22 below.

The foundation of a good ending, is of course, that it's an ending. It is really important that the core conflicts draw to a conclusion, that the themes explored have some sort of coda, and, for a conclusion to really sit well with me, some sort of epilogue to establish the character outcomes of the story. Basically, for an ending to be good it has to feel like a big, solid, real ending. Which seems like a kind of an asinine statement right? But the thing is, getting true-feeling endings in mainstream comics, or really, a lot of sequential story vehicles is discouragingly rare. And the fact that Hawkeye #22 manages to build a real conclusion within the context of a perpetually on-going story is impressive and a huge part of why this ending to this iteration of the series worked so well.

The other thing about endings is that they can't be *too* perfect. Real life is complicated, and tying everything off in a perfect bow lacks the complexity and imperfection of truth. If nothing else it feels trite. So a great ending needs to leave a few loose ends, some space for the narrative keep on living beyond the confines of the story. There is a delicate balance here, since too many loose ends prevents an ending from feeling complete and a story to feel more like a just a chapter. It's like the difference between leaving room for an after-the-fact season maybe or a post-series movie, and the cliff-hanger non-ending of a syndicated flagship series. Hawkeye #22 navigates this compromise perfectly, leaving just enough of that critical space to leave room for the future without actually undoing the knot of the ending. It's perfectly done.

The ending in Hawkeye #22 is also served by some great artwork. Like, this page here is a fantastic composition that uses non-linear storytelling to make an especially tense feeling layout. The chronology of the events do not follow a simple left-to-right-down-the-page convention but are instead thrown together in a more complicated way. The middle tier of panels are the key since they show simultaneous events that go left-to-middle and right-to-middle before dropping own to the next level of panels. Functionally what this does is break the page into four general time-regions which makes the page feel like a great deal of motion has been compressed into a short amount of time. This unusual layout also changes the way the reader tracks through the page, making them spend extra time on the middle tier and maybe pan back and forth a little. This serves to catch the feeling of the furtive surveying of the characters on the page, but also keeps the reader focused on these two characters so that when Ladybro Hawkeye nabs the gun it feels more unexpected. It's a great page of comics that really showcases just how well made Hawkeye has been.

Or maybe this page is a better example, since I think it really exemplifies one of my favourite aspects of the artwork in Hawkeye and David Aja, generally, as an artist. In this page Kate Bishop tosses the pistol to the Tracksuit Bro. This creates a natural arc for our eyes to follow as it rainbows across the page. Additionally, the pistol in the arc is drawn tumbling, and with varying degrees of zoomed in, which draws more attention to its flight since the reader has to concentrate a bit to understand exactly what is happening. (The zoom effect is also pretty cool in that it really nails the feeling of the motion of something being tossed.) Critically this part of the composition just soaks attention and time so that when we carriage return across the page into the next panel, an angry red, narrow, moment of a panel moving contrary to our eye motion, it feels sudden, rapid, and extra impactful. It reads simply and organically but is deceptively complex and really clever in how it guides the reader through the page in a way designed to generate the perfect moment. It's quintessentially why I have found the art in Hawkeye so alluring and instructive. 

I am going to miss this comic so much, bros, so much.

Both of these pages, though, fit into another reason Hawkeye #22 was such an effective ending: Team Hawkguy delivered the high quality comic experience the series was known for. Too often final issues feel and look tacked on, or greatly suffer from uneven, rushed art or tone deaf fill-in assists that radically compromise what should be the triumphant moment of a story. Hawkeye #22 was definitely a case of a comic ending on a high note.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of Hawkeye as a series has been all of the in-jokes, running gags, and internal references. The Bros, hawk-blocking, Pizza Dog, Hawkguy, great-at-boats, etc. For being a corporate comic about a long standing intellectual property character, Hawkeye managed to build it's own culture, and seeing those moments reflected in the final issue was a nostalgic, joyous thing. 

Which I think is another reason Hawkeye #22 functions so well as a series ending. It's not only an exceptionally well crafted comic that provides a pitch perfect ending to the story, but it's also constructed with dozens of little references to previous issues. And in so doing, the issue also kind of works like a montage of greatest moments that let's the reader remember all the issues that have come before and celebrate Hawkeye as a whole. It's like a series finale that also functions a little like a secret clip show.

But there is more to all of this than simply a series of fun call backs. The referencing of past issues in Hawkeye #22 is usually involved in critical moments of the story. For instance the way in which the tragic clown assassin is dispatched uses items set up in a past issue and a method that has been played with all the way back in the first issue of the comic. This gives this moment a huge amount of additional cache and adds an emotional sense of vengeance to this key story moment. This set up work makes these depicted moments into triumphant pay offs that are dramatically more satisfying.

This kind of pay off is the result of obvious longterm planning on the part of Team Hawkguy and is yet another hallmark of the quality of this series. To be able to pay off moments set up 10 or 20 issues before is remarkable as a feat of writing, logistically and as a surrogate for effectiveness  (since it takes a special kind of readership engagement to make this trick work). It's also, I think, a big part of why Hawkeye #22 felt like such a satisfying ending: seeing those final dominos fall into place, those last beautifully set up moments pay off, was an incredible experience. It changed the last issue from a series of exciting events to a grand finale of earned, climatic moments that resonate throughout the series. It's this diligence that I really think elevates Hawkeye #22 into the perfect ending.

Hawkeye was one of my favourite comics and in Hawkeye #22 it has one of my favourite endings.

I love this comic. I am so thankful I was able to read it and I will profoundly miss this comic now that it's over. 

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.

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