A Journey into the Comics Fourth Dimension

Matt Fraction, David Aja, and Matt Hollingsworth’s Hawkeye, the first issue of which hit the shelves in August of 2012 and has, since, gone through five more issues and a number of printings, is a masterful lesson in how comics can play with and deploy time-and-space. Mark Bernard and James Bucky Carter have called this kind of deployment of time-and-space the comics’ fourth dimension, which they describe as “a special relationship with space and time wherein the two conflate such that infinite multiple dimensionalities become simultaneously present. … [B]ridged by human experience and interaction,” this fourth dimension can be defined as “simultaneous, multitudinous dimensionality deeply entwined in and part of individual experience.”

Epitomised by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s now legendary Watchmen, and particularly by its Dr. Manhattan, a creature who exists in all of time simultaneously, the fourth dimension of comics allows the reader to, like Dr. Manhattan, be in “many places at once, mentally and, in the storyline, physically as well.” It does so by laying out, on a single two-dimensional page multiple temporalities which the reader can absorb or engage with through either a) sequential reading of words and/or images, b) glancing over the layout of the images asequentially, or c) a simultaneous absorption of the images of the entire page, which, in comics generally, often lends itself to such reading.

As Bernard and Carter note in relation to the Watchmen page, above: “As the audience ingests the comics page as a whole, they are with Dr. Manhattan every step of the way. When the setting turns back to Manhattan at the derelict bar, the reader is there with him, just as the reader is, at the same time, back on Mars with him. After all, while observing the panel that shows Manhattan in the bar, the panel showing Manhattan on Mars is still within eyeshot. This all combines with the reader’s actual space to bridge dimensional relations.”

Despite Fraction’s Twitter-confession that this is “the closest to comics scholarship [he’s] ever done,” his and Aja’s Hawkeye is a marvelous exploration of how the comics’ fourth dimension works.

Witness the first two pages of the first issue, which starts off with a full-page action image of a backward-falling Hawkeye, shooting an arrow at we-don’t-know-whom off-page. “Okay…” his narrative voice tells us, “This looks bad.”

While the large action panel on page one suggests a typical super-hero narrative – which is to a certain extent provided in, paradoxically, somewhat less interesting issues four and five – there are several elements that, from the beginning, suggest the “fairly banal slice-of-life stories” which dominate the pages of this comic and intentionally work against the traditional superhero narrative: One, Aja’s heavily-inked/shaded and suggestive rather than detailed images deliberately swerve away from the clean lines of traditional superhero representations; and Two, Hollingsworth’s restrained, subdued palette similarly steers clear of traditionally bright representations of superhero characters which were originally printed in primary colours (see also this webpage).

The first issue’s first page after the credits starts the narrative’s slowing down in two ways: a) from super-hero-action (imaged above) to the above mentioned slice of life stories as Barton is severely injured and immobilized, shown to be mere flesh and blood, and b) it represents the protagonist’s (literalized) drop from Hawkeye to Clint Barton as, as he falls, he compares himself with the Avengers with their “armor. Magic. Super-powers” which contrast sharply with Barton’s own “stick and a string from the Paleolithic era.”

And this, as the narrative starts to slow down – this slowing down is shown through the multiplication of gutters between the images at the bottom of the page, which forces the reader to literally slow down his or her reading – is where the issues of time first become prominent.

They becomes crucial, however, in Hawkeye’s focus on a ‘domestic’ conflict between Barton-as-Barton-and-not-Hawkeye and the ridiculous “tracksuit mafia” whose unjust activity (beyond their criminal appearance) of evicting the poor is circumscribed within the limits of and justified by law. In other words, their villainy is lawful. The villainy is here “in [the] lease. She sign.” The subtle difference and divergence between law and justice is here brought to the forefront, and its re-entanglement is shown to need a solution more subtle than that traditionally employed by the typical super-hero.

The pages of Hawkeye’s first issue present two separate – time-and-place-distinct – conflicts between Barton and the tracksuit mafia.

The first, occasioned by Barton’s visit to the mafia’s lair, focuses on the legality of their conflict as Barton tries to “pay the rent … [f]or everybody. For the building” which the mafia is trying to take over. The fight between the two is here occasioned by the mafia’s refusal to play along within the legal parameters they themselves have set up by trying to raise everyone’s rent threefold. When Barton presents the money with which he plans to pay everyone’s tripled rent, and the bad guy refuses with a “go @@#$@ you, bro. Don’t accept,” the bad guy steps outside of the legal parameters he himself had set up. This legal transgression evokes ass-kicking #1.

The second conflict is occasioned by the tracksuit mafia’s attempt to even the score with Barton as he tries to take care of a dog that was injured after the dog had – instinctively – helped Barton during the first fight. The tracksuit mafia invade the veterinary clinic in which Barton is waiting and, once again, experience Barton’s wrath. This time however, the issue is not one of legality, but one of justice: “Who throws a damn dog into traffic,” yells Barton as he deals with the three thugs. While the ass-kicking #1 is occasioned by the mafia’s transgression of legal parameters they have set up, ass-kicking #2 is initiated by the unjust action of picking on the poor and the weak. The mafia’s injuring of the dog by throwing it into traffic is here the stand-in for their more general treatment of the poor and the defenseless. As such, ass-kicking #2 is a remedy for their unjust rather than illegal transgressions.

The first conflict, then, emerges out of a dispute within the legal realm. The second, on the other hand, emerges out of an impassioned concern with justice.

The interesting thing here is that, through clever use of the fourth dimension – in which the two conflicts are melded together through a continuous presentation of time-divergent events – these two conflicts take on a unified appearance. In other words, even though they occur in what we understand to be­ distinct places and distinct times, by graphically presenting these as continuous, as part of the same fight (IGN’s Joey Esposito has called this segment as presented via a “jarring narrative structure, which leaps back and forth in time”) we see the conflict as unified.

The upshot of this representational, formal strategy is that we come to understand that the issues of legality and the issues of justice are here united. Even though Barton fights dirty, he acts both legally and justly in his dealing with the mafia.

The final page, in which Barton finds out that the dog’s name is Arrow, then, does two things: it, on the one hand, presents the two – Arrow and Barton – as belonging together; and, at the same time, it metonymically echoes the way in which legality and justice were in the preceding pages shown to belong together.

The first issue of Fraction/Aja/Hollingsworth’s Hawkeye, then, nicely sets up the way in which this series works on slowing down narrative time through multiplication of gutters and through the domestic nature of Barton’s conflicts. As I pointed out above, Aja’s drawing and Hollingsworth’s palette reinforce this narrative contrast between Hawkeye and the typical, action-packed, superhero narrative. Furthermore, the formal focus on time in the series allows for the use of subtle narrative juxtaposition, such as that between legality and justice, through which Barton’s character can be interestingly explored.

This focus on time continues throughout the subsequent issues of Hawkeye (again, issues four and five are something of an exception – all the more interesting, however, for highlighting the formal and narrative strategies of the other issues). And this focus on time is finally brought to a kind of apex in the sixth issue of the comic, in which the narrative is structured around Barton’s quite literal “making home” – furniture and home-electronics arrangement and set-up.

As in the first issue, from the very first page, Fraction, Aja, and Hollingsworth subvert our superhero-comics expectations by presenting struggle with electronics-cables in the form of a bomb-disposal scene. Treatment of time, here, plays a prominent role. Typically, in action comics (and movies), these easily recognizable bomb disposal scenes are slowed down to a crawl in order to build suspense. Like the first issue, then, the sixth issue of Hawkeye opens with a promise of a narrative that will fulfill our superhero expectations (see part one of this discussion, above). This promise is, however, quickly and playfully broken on the following page on which we encounter Iron Man and Hawkeye – well, Stark and Barton – trying to set up Barton’s DVR, VCR, DVD, TV, and A/V receiver. Hollingsworth’s use of Christmas colour scheme and Aja’s representation of Stark’s and Barton’s sweating, nervous faces retroactively become funny and strangely endearing.

Barton’s subsequent superhero antics with Spiderman and Wolverine become framed by his domestic concerns: “Did you see the finale of ‘Dog Cops’ last night,” asks Wolverine at one point, to which Barton responds, “Gaah spoilers spoilers spoilers shut up. I got the whole season in this DVR at home.” As we get glances of Barton’s conflicts over a span of six days, conflicts which involve both evil minions and the return of the tracksuit mafia, we are consistently referred back to Barton’s domestic problem: that of building a home. Here, as in the case of the juxtaposition between legality and justice explored in the first issue, domesticity and heroism, private and public spheres, are brought into contact.

This bringing into contact of public and private spheres is highlighted in the last two pages of the comic in which Barton is set to take a stand against his enemies, with an emphatic “I’m not going anywhere” laid over an image of Barton’s building; and – more pointedly – with the only full-page image of the issue in which Barton wordlessly stands in front of his building, his weapon at ready.

The most interesting aspect of the issue, however, is its panel layout, which employs the technique most effectively used by Chris Ware in his Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth. In this graphic novel, Ware intriguingly represents the failure of traditional ideas of masculinity and their relationship to superhero narratives by giving the reader a beautifully illustrated and beautifully designed mostly-uneventful domestic story of the relationship between a boy and his estranged father.

Here, Ware uses the technique of laying out a large number of small panels in order to slow down the reading process in the interest of representation of the minutiae and dreariness of the everyday existence of a man-child whose male role models have consistently failed him. Inside a superhero comic, this representational strategy necessarily acknowledges the lessons of Ware’s narrative. Hawkeye’s subversion of the traditional superhero narrative and its focus on the domestic here come into a sharper focus.

Since the 1980s, with Frank Miller’s Daredevil and The Dark Knight Rises, with Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen, as well as more recently with Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and (maybe) even Zach Snyder’s forthcoming Man of Steel, we have been taught to think about not just superheroes’ weaknesses and shortcomings, but also about the way in which their public personas comes into conflict with their private ones.

Hawkeye inserts itself into this discussion by ‘domesticating’ Barton’s superhero action. By representing jumps/fractures in time as continuous and by slowing down narrative time through use of gutters and a large number of small panels, Hawkeye effectively domesticates Barton’s superhero struggles. By doing this, it brings into contact his public and his private personas in a similar way in which it brings into contact Barton’s concern with both legality and justice in the first issue (see part two of the discussion, above).

What we have here is a new(ish) kind of super-hero: a super-hero whose private life becomes a setting for heroic action. Not only does this make Barton more relatable to the reader, it also continues to rewrite the superhero figure in light of the problems with the genre that have been raised by Miller, Moore, and others.

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Nemanja Protic is, for just a little while longer, a PhD student in English at York University. He's ABD, and even the D -- which focuses on what he likes to call "the contemporary grotesque" -- is almost done. He lives in Toronto. You can find him on twitter as @brynnbeard. He likes comics.

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