Oh, Occupy Avengers...
Has there been a Big 2 title that seems so certain to date itself so fast? If there has it’s probably been a good ten to fifteen years. But despite a name plucked from 2011, I’ve been eagerly awaiting this series. Marvel has always been “the world outside your window” and, one way or another, the world outside your window tends to contain a lot of oppression, injustice, and complexity. So to see Marvel giving one of their titles over to consideration of such issues, especially as seen through the eyes of David Walker, was both a much needed step forward and a pleasant return to form for the publisher.
What I didn’t expect was that this would essentially be a Hawkeye comic. Now obviously Clint Barton was going to be the face of this team, Marvel made no secret about that, but this really could have been called Hawkeye #1 if Marvel had different priorities or less confidence in its readers. There’s definitely something weird about pitching a Social Justice Avengers book and slapping the straightest, whitest hero in Marvel’s stable on it, and more than a little weirdness given that the Distinguished Competition also tapped a sardonic archer to lead their most famous foray into political commentary. But, despite the surprise of these choices, David Walker writes one heck of a Hawkeye story.
Fresh off of an Important Moment™, Clint Barton is searching for a better legacy than ‘the man that killed the Hulk’, looking for fights worth fighting. It’s a naturally appealing set up and Walker perfectly nails the resentment that Barton feels for his fame and himself without wallowing in manfeels™ for too long. Likewise, he grasps what Hawkeye is uniquely capable of doing and what he can say about the limits of being a superhero.
There’s also no denying the political force of the issue, as Hawkeye investigates an Indian Reservation dying a slow death after their water is polluted. Especially given the lead time involved in getting a comic to print, its obvious that Walker is using the comic to draw attention to the protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline and was doing so long before it became the halfhearted headline that it has slowly evolved into.
Hawkeye’s inner monologue is tremendous throughout the entire issue. In moments of action it ties physical and philosophical conflict together and in quieter pages it lays out his way of thinking, allowing the reader to experience the character and the issues in a direct and engaging manner. The realities of the situation on the rez are laid out plainly without being divorced of emotion and meaningfully without getting away from reality. Walker muses on the danger of slow, ‘legal’ crime, a sort of frog in boiling water approach to injustice, to great effect. As is his way, Walker lays the blame on malicious interests rather than the seemingly limitless indifference that our culture feels for Native Americans. To be honest, I don’t know which is scarier. I will say that these two valid ideas don’t blend that well for me, there is, after all, something for a superhero to do when the root of a problem is a private military company rather than the structural problems of American privledge.
I expect that this tension will form a significant part of responses to the issue. For me, about halfway in the issue swerves into an abnormally well written but largely unnecessary fight scene. For others the opposite will be true, the story dealing with issues that are too real, too new, or ‘too boring’ for a cape comic only to be saved by some solid action. But no matter how you feel about the fight scene, there’s no denying that Walker is uninterested in filling his stories with meaningless action. Walker’s script depicts Clint as a tactical fighter, whose greatest strengths are grit and improvisation. Visual spectacle is allowed a place but with the clearest sense that it does not justify a place in this issue by itself.
It’s also interesting to see Red Wolf teaming up with Hawkeye. It’s not hard to see why the two make for an interesting pair and it’s nice to see an underappreciated character from an underrepresented demographic find a place in a book of this stature. That said, especially for a character who’s been caught up in a controversy or two, images of Red Wolf riding a horse into battle holding a tomahawk and flanked by wolves raise flags. One suspects that an expert on exploitation films like Walker either did this intentionally or was unhappy about it, but it’s still odd for a progressive series. Moreover, the cards Walker was dealt literally cast a Native American as a being from an older time and put him in the role of a police deputy, a familiar role for Native American heroes. I hope there’ll be time to explore Red Wolf’s role in the story in subsequent issues. At the moment he’s a promising addition but this issue is unlikely to put him on people’s radar.
Carlos Pacheco is a gifted storyteller, that much is clear from the first page. Word balloons slot cleanly into his panels, each of which conveys a clear but never intrusive idea. Panels make pages make an issue full of details. But, despite this, the linework is lacking in polish. It can’t obfuscate the story, but it doesn’t feel like an A-List Avengers title, and it’s important that this book be seen as a central series rather than Marvel’s liberal experiment. That’s hardly to say that the art is bad, but there are small places where eyelids droop too much or part of a face or a figure will lose a bit of three-dimensionality and, especially with the fine lines of this issue, they stick out.
Occupy Avengers #1 has to walk a very narrow line, but it does so like a master acrobat. It’s obviously tremendously exciting to see Marvel giving diversity and social consciousness a real push with the Avengers name, and perhaps more so to see David Walker coming into his own as a voice within the industry, but the biggest story here is how engaging a Hawkeye story they have produced without letting down the progressive promises of the title.
There are, of course, concerns. The fight scene feels a little too eager to woo back the traditional market this book will need to avoid preaching to the choir, the art could use some tightening, Red Wolf could use some more time in the spotlight despite being Clint’s only teammate, etc., but there’s fantastic promise in this issue. There’s an ambition in the plotting, in the layouts, in the use of the Marvel universe that makes this issue exhilarating. Walker, Pacheco, Fonteriz, and Oback make thoughtfulness, action, and - most of all - character pull together for an impressive opening chapter.