Review: Hawkeye: "L.A. Woman"

Hawkeye: "L.A. Woman"


So there used to be this comic called Hawkeye. You've probably heard of it. It was the next great work from the writer of Casanova, in collaboration with an artist hitting the absolute peak of their storytelling powers. It came along from almost out of nowhere, and everybody loved it, and it was immediately the best and possibly the most important thing in contemporary comics. It was the kind of series that single-handedly sparked loves of the medium. It pretty much set out a manifesto for what a certain kind of Marvel superhero comic could be in the early 2010s, to the extent that its effects are still being felt, and new series in its direct lineage are still being created.

And then, something happened.

Well, a few things happened, some we got to hear about, and some we could only guess at, but either way, there were things getting in the way. The comic started coming out less often. This couldn't help but harm its momentum - it had been a series almost perfectly suited to the monthly, serialised format, dense enough that you could only deal with instalments of a certain length and regularity, but light enough to be able to pick up the threads of what was going on after a four week gap. But now, showing up almost unannounced at random intervals, simply following it almost became a chore.

This didn't mean the comics stopped being any good. But it made it a lot more difficult for them to continue to be fresh, and relevant, and talked-about. And when the series split into alternating chapters of the opposing-coast Clint and Kate stories, keeping up became even more difficult.

It's only now, as "L.A. Woman" (aka "the Kate storyline") reaches its conclusion with issue #20, that we can appreciate just how much it was harmed by being released across four issues (and an annual) over a time span of fourteen months. Because now that it all actually exists, if you take the opportunity to sit down and read the thing as a whole... well, it is - of course - a bloody good comic.
Kicking off with the Hawkeye Annual, which sets Kate up in L.A. and reintroduces Madame Masque (a character that surely by now can be comfortably described as her arch enemy), it's ostensibly a series of short stories connected together by an underlying narrative - but in truth, only one of them (issue #16, the "Brian Wilson but not really Brian Wilson, but really, no, it is Brian Wilson" one) really stands alone. Otherwise, the individual cases Kate gets pulled into in #14 and #18 tie more strongly into the overarching story.

Although it's ultimately a short run, it sees Matt Fraction getting a lot out of his system when it comes to digging into a certain, storybook version of Los Angeles and California. It's a town where everybody is a bit crazy, and a bit broken, and hiding it behind all kinds of masks (and not just the literal one worn by Whitney Frost).

Issue #16 is a fantastic, charming and surprisingly moving examination of the clash between the creative and the commercial, filtered through its obvious Beach Boys pastiche; while the run's most fascinating original character, Harold H. Harold, is of course not original in the slightest, being a direct lift not just from a movie (Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye, if you didn't know - Harold is simply Elliott Gould's Philip Marlowe with the serial numbers not even fully filed off), but a movie that is one of the most infamously drenched-in-artifice stories ever to be shot in and around the streets of Hollywood.

It's rare territory for superhero comics to venture into, perhaps because to place them under a glare of such artifice can only be dangerous for the genre; but it suits Kate, perhaps because this isn't really a superhero comic by any normal measure anyway. And it's not merely a way of putting her as far away from Clint as possible in terms of pure distance, but also the chance for her to be a part of her own story and not just his.
Perhaps the biggest surprise about the Kate arc is that it manages to find an artist capable of drawing Hawkeye and putting as much of a stamp on it as David Aja. Annie Wu demonstrated her talent by drawing the mock romance-comic covers littered throughout issue #8, but here, she's something else entirely. She's an astonishingly perfect match for Kate, with her expressive art style absolutely hurling personality off every page. It enables Fraction to liberate the character more, turning her into a bounding, whirling dervish as she clatters into stories that she has no part in and generally manages to make worse before somehow, eventually, making better.

She helps Fraction to make the book funny, too - properly, uproariously funny, like it was in its earliest days - thanks to some fantastic visual timing. Yet when called for, she can sell the darker, more unpleasant elements in a way that a "cleaner" style arguably wouldn't manage as well.

But a word, too, for Javier Pulido, already a tried-and-tested hand on this book and one who helps ease the transition between the two styles with the introductory annual. In particular in that issue, both the device used to convey Kate's internal monologues and the extensive use of silhouette continue the tradition of Hawkeye being a book that has relentless fun with its storytelling.
The arc rounds off with an issue that takes off the brakes when it comes to the book's storytelling. This isn't like the ASL issue or the Pizza Dog issue - it's not about playing with symbols and diagrams and stuff, it's just that with very little in the way of visual signifiers, it expects you to keep up with its non-linear storytelling. It has the air of a classic L.A.-style neo-noir wrapping up its plot with flashback and revelation - which is appropriate enough, given that that's exactly what is and what it's doing. It's also, perhaps more than any other issue of Hawkeye so far (and this is really saying something) the one that's most reminiscent of Casanova.

Taken in and of itself, it concludes in a reasonably satisfying way, setting up Kate's return to New York for the grand Hawkeye finale to come. But there's a nagging sense of hunger left by it all the same - the disappointment that we only got these five issues, and that it took us over a year to do so, so it feels slightly like we're being denied a fuller, richer palette of Kate's L.A. adventures. Perhaps we should be grateful for what we have, but when comics are this good you can only ever want more of them.