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Ultimate Comics: Hawkeye (Review)

To celebrate the release of Thor: The Dark World towards the end of next month, we’ll be looking at some Thor and Avenger-related comics throughout September. Check back weekly for the latest reviews and retrospectives.

Ultimate Comics: Hawkeye is pretty much a companion piece to Jonathan Hickman’s Ultimate Comics: Ultimates run. Unlike other miniseries like Ultimate Comics: Thor or Ultimate Comics: Captain America, Hawkeye isn’t designed to be read on its own. It is clearly intended as a story to be read in parallel with Hickman’s on-going Ultimates narrative, unfolding at the same time alongside that particular story. As such, it’s a weird miniseries to read on its own terms, doing a rather excellent job of fleshing out the global scale of Hickman’s Ultimates work, but never really working on its own terms.

Broken arrow...

Broken arrow…

To be fair, a certain amount of this is down to the fact that Hickman’s strengths don’t lie in writing solo adventures for single characters. He is one of the best team writers working in contemporary comics, but he seems to have difficulty tightening focus around an individual character. (The closest Hickman’s ever come to writing a solo comic that worked was when he chose to focus on Nick Fury in Secret Warriors.) Ultimate Comics: Hawkeye feels less interested in its central protagonist than it does in advancing the plot of Hickman’s global epic.

Hickman does give the miniseries a hint of character focus. We discover, for example, that this version of Hawkeye is a mutant – whether he has an X chromosome or not. His ability to shoot with pinpoint accuracy is due an abnormal number of rods and cones in his eyes. We also get to see a bit of his history with Nick Fury, a hint at the bond of loyalty that exists between the pair. (As well as cementing the idea, solidified by Mark Millar’s Ultimate X-Men, that The Ultimates is really rooted in post-Gulf War America, a by-product of the nineties carried into the post-9/11 status quo.)

The mutant problem...

The mutant problem…

Still, all this feels relatively shallow, and Hickman’s Hawkeye feels very much like a supporting character in his one miniseries, to the point where Hickman even creates a team around Hawkeye in the second half of the miniseries, as if to confirm that the writer is much more comfortable writing a team dynamic than focusing on a single character. Either way, it’s clear that Hickman’s much more interested in the events happening around Hawkeye, setting up ideas that will pay off during his Ultimates run.

I like the idea of telling two comic book stories in parallel across two different books – akin to what Brian Michael Bendis tried to do with New Avengers and Mighty Avengers, but didn’t succeed at accomplishing. Tying the crisis in Eastern Europe to the trouble in the South East Asian Republic, but making each crisis large enough to dominate the plot of a single book, gives a sense of how deeply in trouble Nick Fury and his Ultimates are. It’s also a method of simultaneous storytelling that is really only possible in mainstream comic books.

Heading off the latest threat...

Heading off the latest threat…

While Ultimate Comics: Ultimates is concerned about the emergence of the City in Eastern Europe, Ultimate Comics: Hawkeye unfolds in the South East Asian Republic. Both storylines start from the same fundamental premise: given the “superheroes as weapons” metaphor that Mark Millar used in The Ultimates, the status quo is not sustainable. Just as splitting the atom created a new global status quo, the existence of Thor and Magneto must also be a pretty significant game-changer. Given the scale of the personalities and the technology involved, it should be a radical game-changer.

The notion of rogue states developing their own persons of mass destruction formed the basis of Mark Millar’s second Ultimates miniseries, Hickman takes the idea and runs with it. After all, mutants are also persons of mass destruction, and there’s no special skill required to produce a mutant. “We simply have more people, which should statistically produce more mutants,” one scientific adviser states, which is a clever way of developing the idea past a simple metaphor.

What's on the cards...

What’s on the cards…

Similarly, the idea of combating super-people through biological warfare is a clever twist, even if it seems like the “no more mutants” hooks drifts into the background amid the flood of other ideas in Hickman’s writing here. And, rather beautifully, there’s also the simple fact that making a super-person is not the same as manufacturing a bomb. There are countless variable involved, all associated with free will. There’s a point where the nuclear proliferation metaphor doesn’t quite work, and Ultimate Comics: Hawkeye takes us well past that point.

“There will be a breaking of the old order,” one prescient mutant informs his masters. “It cannot be stopped.” Hickman is shaking things up, recognising that with new power and new rules comes change. Not all political systems are strong enough to withstand these sorts of variables, and so it’s interesting to see two mutants effectively conquer the fictional South East Asian Republic. “What you knew as the South East Asian Republic — the country, it’s government, what remains of it ruling class — no longer exists,” they warn the world. “We have seized all lands, and all property now belongs to the collective citizens of this, our new home – Tu’an.” The revolution will be streamed.

Burn with him...

Burn with him…

Once again, this taps into the freedom afforded writers of Marvel’s Ultimate Universe, giving Hickman the freedom to destroy and create as necessary. of course, the largest destruction is saved for the main comic, but we get an idea of how radically Hickman is willing to alter and distort this world that was once so close to our own. Hickman never really had this sort of freedom in his mainstream Marvel titles, and he uses it well. There’s a sense that his Ultimate Universe work was a prelude (or audition) for his work on the Avengers franchise.

Hickman’s work tends have a clear thematic through line, and his ability to engage with crazy science-fiction high-concepts almost invites direct comparison to comics’ other sorcerer of the surreal, Grant Morrison. Like Morrison, Hickman tends to return time and again to the power of ideas – which makes a great deal of sense in an industry built around reworking and reconceptualising and reimagining characters who have existed for decades. This theme is particularly strong in his Ultimate comics work, echoing through Ultimate Comics: Thor and Ultimate Comics: Ultimates, exploring the raw power of the ability to imagine something.

Giving the line a shot in the arm...

Giving the line a shot in the arm…

“An idea is nothing until it is transformed into action,” we’re told at one point – in stark contrast to the philosophy espoused by Reed Richards in Hickman’s Ultimates, with Reed suggesting that even speaking an idea out loud brings it closer to existing. Of Xorn and Zorn, we are told that the pair are not simply mutants with opposite powers. They are more than merely political players in this global game of chess. “Two brothers became the embodiment of something beyond the acquisition of power in the great game of global politics. They became avatars of something more.”

(In a way, that really sums up Hickman’s work on the Ultimates, distinguishing it from that of Millar. Millar very much anchored these iconic characters in a world of realistic geo-politics. In contrast, Hickman seems to have them push through that, as if these superheroes cannot be contained by the fragile supporting structures that make up the world we inhabit. It’s fascinating stuff, and Hickman’s Ultimate stuff is very worth reading, even if it doesn’t quite stick the landing.)

Xorn apart...

Xorn apart…

Ultimate Comics: Hawkeye doesn’t really stand on its own two feet. It’s very much a companion piece to Hickman’s Ultimates run, and it works best judged as such. On its own, it’s a lot less successful, feeling rather slight and underdeveloped. However, taken in context, it adds a lot of texture to Hickman’s work on this particular Marvel universe.

You might be interested in our other Ultimates-related reviews:

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