Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Eye On Hawkeye: Aw, compilation, no.

Or a look at the complex curation of the Hawkeye Omnibus,
by Matt Fraction, David Aja, Annie Wu, Matt Hollingsworth, Javier Pulido, Francesco Francavilla, Steve Lieber, Jesse Hamm, Chris Eliopoulos, Jordie Bellaire, Clayton Cowles, Alan Davis, Mark Farmer, Paul Mounts, and Corey Petit; Marvel Comics

The craft of comic making involves a bunch of interrelated disciplines. There is artwork, obviously, a combination of drawing, inking, and colouring. There is writing the plot and scripting dialogue. And of course there is lettering, which marries the two. Combined this creates the storytelling of the actual comic. I spend the majority of my time on this blog trying to understand and discuss storytelling and the creative choices that create that. But this approach ignores another group of comics professionals who also contribute to the process in a much more silent way: the editors. This part of the team helps guide the story, fixes mistakes, coordinates the workflow of creators and probably does a million other things that as a reader I take for granted. A friend of mine who is an editor calls it an invisible discipline. 

I recently got the Hawkeye Omnibus as a gift and beyond being great (thank you spouse!), it's an interesting object to look at curation and the role of editors. Specifically, I want to talk about curation as part of storytelling and take a closer look at some of the choices in the Hawkeye Omnibus.

Yadda yadda yadda *SPOILERS*!

The Fraction/Aja/Wu/Hollingsworth/Elipoulos/etc run on Hawkeye is one of my favourite comics. It's also a comic that fundamentally changed how I write about and read comic books. As a critic/wonk this comic was a gateway to looking at storytelling as a process and was instrumental in shaping my voice as a comics writer. So I love this comic, and having the omnibus as a hardy, curated collection is pretty great.

Another thing about reading the curated collection is that it was remarkably different than reading the issues as they came out. When reading Hawkeye episodically there was so much expectation for the next issue and time for every moment and in-joke to percolate and be savoured. And there was a community of Hawkguys out there bro bro broing and hawkblocking and being great at boats and echoing my enthusiasm for the comic. Reading the entire comic in one sitting is a lot more solitary and small. The pace of the comic, the fact I could just move on to the next issue, maybe shrinks some of these moments. (Although, it could be that this is just a reread effect...) The omnibus does work great for showcasing the interconnectivity and thoughtful planning between issues though: Hawkeye is filled with foreshadowing, Checkov's guns, running jokes, and clever easter eggs that really standout when the comic is consumed all at once. I think there is maybe a lot to be said that episodic comic issues and collections might be separate mediums like tv and film. 

The Hawkeye Omnibus is obviously an artifact of curation. The publication of Hawkeye was pretty complicated. The comic had delays, rotating artists, issues published out of order, and an extra issue inserted into the process for charity. Some of the narrative was published out of chronological order and certain comics happened in overlapping time frames. So taking these issues and working them into a logical, definitive order involves a number of editorial choices.

For the most part I don't think there is necessarily an objectively correct choice. Like, take Hawkeye #7, the comic made to engage with Hurricane Sandy. The comic is set in late October but was released after the Christmas issue of Hawkeye (#6). It makes logical sense to put this issue in plot order and have the Hurricane Sandy issue come before the Xmas one. And yet, the Hurricane Sandy issue plays with the "Hawkguy" running joke which was introduced and explained in the Xmas issue. Following plot chronology instead of publication order creates a tiny story snarl. Or take Hawkeye #17, the Winter Holiday Animal Cartoon themed issue. It clearly slots into the story right after Xmas Hawkeye (#6) but was published much, much later. So again it makes plot sense to move it into its plot chronology. But then again, Holiday Cartoon Hawkeye has character parodies from deeper in the series and the entire issue deals with series themes rendered into the medium of winter holiday cartoons. So I found it really didn't hit the same encompassing celebration/summary/commentary notes when placed in an earlier reading order position. (The issue to me reads more like a late season flashback episode than a normal episode out of order, if that makes sense.) And then there are the concurrent Clint/Kate stories. Do they read best interspersed or read as discrete subchapters? Or do both orders work: interspersed in an omnibus, but discrete in smaller collections? I think a curator can make a compelling case for multiple ordering arrangements and that every possible arrangement of issues will come with storytelling tradeoffs.

That said, I do think there was one particularly bad curation choice in the Hawkeye Omnibus which was putting Young Avengers Presents #6 as the first issue/chapter of the collection.

I think every storytelling choice is made in attempt to serve a purpose. So there must be a reason that YAP #6 was chosen for inclusion in the Hawkeye Omnibus and for why it was made the first chapter. I think part of it is that YAP #6 was written by Matt Fraction and contains both Clint and Kate. As such the comic could be considered part of Fraction's grand body of work with the characters. (Which massively discounts the authorial stamp of the series' artists, but whatever.) YAP #6 is also a comic that deals with the fact that there are two Hawkeyes in the Marvel Universe, that Kate had taken the mantle while Clint was temporarily dead (comics!), and that the two hash it out and conclude that they can both be Hawkeye. So this issue does work as an introduction to the two characters and their kind of complicated relationship. So maybe the purpose of YAP #6 was to provide the reader with some context and clarity about what the Hawkeyes deal was.

But I don't think it actually provides narrative clarity or serves a storytelling purpose in the broader Hawkeye story.

Part of the problem is YAP #6 introduces a whole bunch of irrelevant and confusing information. Sure it has Clint and Kate and them dealing with both being Hawkeye, but it also has Patriot (who?), Clint as Ronin (what?), and deals with the complicated illegal vs sanctioned Avengers continuity post Mavel Civil War comics circa 2006 (why?). This is so much information that has no direct bearing on Hawkeye and I think creates more questions than it answers. It also introduces a pretty complicated Marvel Universe status quo that is wildly out of date and has zero bearing on Hawkeye, a comic which exists almost completely separate from the publisher's main continuity. Including YAP #6 to introduce Clint and Kate is like... me making someone watch the entirety of the Lord of the Rings films to show them that one of the guys from Flight of the Conchords plays an elf. 

Which is all the more confusing because the main Hawkeye series does a great job of introducing Clint and Kate. Hawkeye #1 is a nearly perfect first issue that, among other things, gives the reader all of the relevant information about who Clint is and what they need to know about his situation. Hawkeye #2 involves a murder circus and sets up some important series plot stuff, but also serves as an introduction to Kate, the fact that there are two Hawkeyes, and shows how the Hawkeye's relationship basically works. Essentially all of the relevant character information is contained in these two issues of the main Hawkeye run. These issues manage to do this efficiently and without any extraneous information, characters, or continuity baggage. Including YAP #6 doesn't include anything not covered better in Hawkeye #1-2 and is therefore a redundant inclusion. 


The other thing to consider about Hawkeye #1 is that it has a perfect first panel. The comic opens with Hawkeye falling backwards out of a broken window shooting a grapple-arrow while narration says "Okay..." "This looks bad." We see Clint as Hawkeye clearly in over his head. We see him faced with the peril of falling to his death, a big problem for him, but a trivial annoyance to to flying or indestructible Avenger teammates. It's an exciting, attention grabbing panel that establishes the thematic contract of the Hawkeye series in a single image (the Avenger who is just a guy). It's also, serendipitously, almost identical to one of the most icon Hawkeye moments in the Avengers movie, which gives this panel the magic power of being a familiar landing place for movie fans who might want to try a comic. Putting YAP #6 in front of this panel dilutes the effectiveness of this panel as an introduction which hurts the effectiveness of the Hawkeye series. It also makes the first images in the omnibus Kate and  Patriot (who?) having an awkward conversation in a carriage... which is a much worse way to open a series. This is just inexplicable storytelling.

There is also the significant fact that Young Avengers Presents #6 has a completely different aesthetic than Hawkeye. I love Alan Davis art because it is correct to, but his classic superhero style married to representative, gradient colours does not fit in with the actual Hawkeye comics. Hawkeye as a series features a diverse group of artists, and yet, largely from the consistent, minimalist flat colours of Hollingsworth, the comic manages to have a unified visual identity. Which is absolutely integral to the experience of reading Hawkeye. I cannot emphasize enough just how important the look of Hawkeye is to this series. For a readers first experience of Hawkeye to be a comic that radically diverges from the series artistically is a baffling choice.

So the Hawkeye Omnibus is kind of a mixed bag for me. I love having the series collected in a single edition and the curation within Hawkeye itself is consistent and logical. However, the inclusion of Young Avengers Presents #6 is perplexing and it's placement as the first comic in the book is nonsensical. YAP #6 is not part of Hawkeye and should, at best, be a bonus extra in the backup material. 

More broadly speaking, I think there is a lesson here about the role of editors and curation: when it is done well it is an invisible art, but when it is done poorly it is distracting and damages storytelling.

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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