Sunday, March 10, 2013

Good, But Not Great: Hawkeye & Young Avengers

It's like when you hear a joke that only makes you smirk while everyone else is in stitches. Though you can understand conceptually what makes the joke funny, and even pull some personal amusement and pleasure from it, you still feel like you're not getting it in the same way as those people around you. This happens in any and every medium, and it can make you question your competence and intelligence, even if only for a moment, when your own feelings seem to be counter to those of popular opinion. Right now, for me, this is happening in comicbooks in a big way with Matt Fraction & David Aja's Hawkeye and, to a lesser extent (because it is only two issues old) Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie's Young Avengers.
     Let me be clear: I like both of the books in question. Like them a lot, even. Visually they have each had some pretty stunning moments, there's a good deal of tight and funny dialogue in them, and I'm into their respective casts. But I don't think of them as the highest in current superhero comicbookery, nor have I ever considered them deserving of that level of acclaim. Are they more solid and better-looking than the majority of titles available today? Definitely. They belong closer to the top of the list than the bottom, but I don't LOVE them.
     I might grow to love Young Avengers over time. It's still so new and has been good thus far, but it's also immensely decompressed and has a sizable cast, so not that much has gone down as of yet. The first issue got more than one perfect review online, but in my eyes it came across as a pretty standard debut: we got brief glimpses of the current lives and personalities of all the main characters, and it ended by introducing the threat of the opening arc. Not every first issue is smart enough to do this kind of common sense groundwork, so kudos to Gillen for starting at the beginning, but still, the result was too many threads established too briefly for any of them to fully capture my attention. The issue had ADD; the opening scene of Kate Bishop and Noh-Varr was the best and most fun, but it was never returned to, abandoned in favor of meeting the rest of the cast. Even in Young Avengers #2, which was considerably more focused, there was but a single throwaway line referencing the characters from the debut's first scene, so in more than 30 pages Gillen has yet to get back to the most interesting story he's introduced. Yes, this is how comicbooks get written nowadays more often than not, aiming for the trade rather than satisfying single issues. And that's fine, and I like the other threads of the book, so I'm happy to follow those instead of the one I really want for now. But my mind isn't ever going to be blown by a book that, in two full issues, can't completely wrap its arms around or explain ANY of its myriad plot points, especially if it flat out ignores some of them for the sake of developing others at a snail's pace. When this arc wraps and I do have all the answers, I may well be thoroughly wowed. What bugs me is that so many reviewers online are already wowed, and I can't place why. It feels to me like Young Avengers isn't even expecting to drop its readers' jaws yet, that Gillen & McKelvie are taking their time in the beginning so that the latter half of their story can really go nuts. Nevertheless, the overwhelming praise continues to pour in, and though there MUST be people online talking about the title's flaws, too, they are much harder to track down than those folks enthusiastically waving the Young Avengers banner.
     Hawkeye is a stickier wicket, because my problems with it vary from issue to issue. Very much not written with the collected volume in mind, this series does mostly one- or two-issue stories, and while some of them have been a load of fun, there have also been a few duds already. And though I credited it above to the initial and most regular artist David Aja, it has also been drawn by Javier Pulido (#4-5), and Steve Lieber & Jesse Hamm (#7), and where Aja kicks ass the others only punch it lightly. So it is a less stable, reliable title than I want it to be, and even though I have seen this fact acknowledged online in places, the majority of what I've read has had a higher opinion about each issue than I.
     I never really thought the villains with broken English who say "bro" at the end of every sentence were especially funny, so maybe I'm just not the target audience, because those guys show up in the debut. But the story around them in that first issue was a strong one, showing Hawkeye's toughness along with his genuine altruism. And Aja's art was stellar right away. So I stuck with it, and though they had some rough spots, issues #2 and #3 were both more good than bad by far (even when the "bro" guys returned). Nothing that melted my face in the stories, but consistently great artistic work, from Aja and colorist Matt Hollingsworth both, and some impeccable humor from Matt Fraction. It was off to a strong start.
     But the Javier Pulido-drawn "The Tape" story was of lower quality on all fronts. The plot didn't ever grab me and then resolved on a cheap fake-out kind of ending, Madame Masque has never impressed me as a villain, and Pulido is similar to Aja in some ways but far less polished and detailed. His characters' expressions are wilder, and their appearances more prone to shift or morph from panel to panel. As much as I had enjoyed the opening three issues, I never raved over them the way I saw others doing, and then during "The Tape" I could feel my interest waning rapidly. But the promise of Aja's return kept me around, only for Hawkeye #6 to be another "bro"-fest. An entertaining, beautiful one, absolutely, but this being their third issue, the gang of tracksuit-wearing thugs began to feel like one-note clowns.
     #7 was the Hurricane (Superstorm?) Sandy issue, and even though it was inarguably awesome for Fraction to donate the royalties, the stories themselves felt a little cheap and like they were pandering. I'm not sure that could have been avoided entirely in the telling of Sandy stories about superheroes, but that didn't make it any less grating. Also, again, the art was not as strong. It's good, clear, emotive stuff, and both artists fit nicely with their respective stories, but it's a dip for the series, which doesn't help the weaknesses of the narratives.
     And that brings us to Hawkeye #8, another one centered on the "bro" dudes that seems to be leading us into a longer arc centering on them. Damn, now that I think about it, those jerks are the main baddies in half of the issues so far. Maybe that's the only reason I don't like this book as much as other people.
     Whatever. I'm still reading it eight issues deep so I must be enjoying myself. I don't eagerly anticipate it every month but I do look forward to seeing what it'll deliver. And I never know exactly what to expect, which is a point in its favor for sure. As for Young Avengers, I think I'm committed to the full first arc already, no matter how long that ends up being, after only two chapters. So even if I'm not trumpeting it as the next big thing in superhero books, I am glad to be reading it and excited to see how it plays out.
     But I'd love to love these series with the same enthusiasm I seem to find around every corner of the Internet. I want to feel like I am in on the joke, but I just don't yet get what the big deal is.

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