The Stuff What Don’t Get Spoke: Hawkeye and Disability Done Well

Hawkeye 5JPG
Art by David Aja

“You can get it all back.”

Hawkeye (Vol. 4) written by Matt Fraction and illustrated by David Aja (Vol. 4), is arguably the best comic book that Marvel has put out in recent years. The comic pays equal attention to the bow-wielding Avenger Clint Barton and his Young Avenger counterpart Kate Bishop. Both share the title of Hawkeye, and both of them are great, but that’s not all it’s got. Hawkeye also has tracksuit-wearing, gun-toting Mafia villains, an issue from the perspective of a dog, and a passing reference to the movie Blade Runner.

But the greatest achievement of this series comes with the July issue, #19. I this twenty-two page story, the makers of Hawkeye give us a story of disability done well.

As a result of a previous issue, Clint Barton has lost his hearing and his brother Barney has lost the use of his legs.

Too often in stories about disability, the disabled character is used as a joke (a deaf character shouts “what?”), or their entire story is about trying to find a way to remove their disability so that they can be “normal” again.

But Hawkeye doesn’t once bother with these ideas, and instead takes this opportunity to show insight into a life without sound.

Absent are the typical sound effects that usually line the background of comic book pages. But Hawkeye goes even further, and has very little audio at all. The majority of speech bubbles are actually blank with no text inside them whatsoever, allowing us to hear exactly as much as Hawkeye himself: nothing.

The few times audio is permitted is when Clint attempts to read peoples’ lips. It’s boxy, and words are not completely made out, showing us the guesswork that goes into lip reading. It is an imperfect method of communication, and the comic manages to reflect that well.

But  what really sets this issue apart is that Hawkeye #19 is told with sign language.

Hawkeye 1
Art by David Aja

The creative team of Fraction and Aja are unapologetic about this approach. They do not try to dumb it down for the audience. There are no subtitles and there is no explanation as to what the different signals mean beyond the reader’s interpretation of the situation.

At first, this is a little confusing. I don’t not know sign language and I’m not used to reading a comic where I am not privy to what is being said. This is a story that, from the outset, does not look like it should work.

But the amazing thing is that by the end of the issue, it’s perfectly clear what the signs mean. Like speaking to someone with a different accent, eventually the barriers of confusion give way to understanding, and you are surprised you ever had trouble understanding one another.

By the middle of the issue, there’s a moment when Barney is signing to Clint, telling him to take a shower and change his clothes. Clint sniffs his shirt and waves him away. Without a single word, the conversation is perfectly clear, and by the end of the issue, when Clint signs asking to go up to the roof, the reader understands what those signs mean as well. This is not a struggle. You do not frown or furrow your brow while trying to decipher the signs; you understand them effortlessly, and without doubt.

Whether it’s intended or not, David Aja’s art does actually teach the reader some sign language, making it a unique and engaging storytelling tool.

Hawkeye 4
Art by David Aja

Just as important as how the reader deals with Clint’s deafness is how Clint and Barney deal with their new disabilities. Too often is a story about a character in a wheelchair is about them wishing they could walk again.

Barney is not the main focus of the issue, but we still see how he deals with being in a wheelchair: by carrying on. He loads himself into a taxi, and he is not ashamed asking for help going up the stairs. Barney is not treating this disability as though it is the end of his life, but is shown instead to be just as capable and just as independent as before.

Then there is Clint. Hawkeye is never a happy camper. No matter how things are going, he always seems to have trouble just convincing himself to get out of bed. So, true to his character, Clint’s immediate reaction to his disability is to have a beer, and not change out of his pyjamas. But Clint’s character journey isn’t about conquering his disability, or fighting it.

Hawkeye embraces his hearing loss, accepting that it is a part of his life and that he doesn’t need to hide it or be ashamed of it. He accepts that a disability does not mean he is disabled.

Hawkeye 6
Art by David Aja

I have hearing loss. I am not completely deaf like Clint, but I have almost no hearing in my right ear. I wear a hearing aid. My little brother has progressive hearing loss in both of his ears. For us, seeing a superhero also being unable to hear what people are saying, seeing a superhero reading lips and needing to look at people when they talk, is amazing. So at the end of the issue, when Clint Barton signs “We” to a crowd of people he has promised to protect, I am more than happy to sign “We” right back at him.

The issue ends with Barney and Clint going out to kick some tracksuit butt, but the real message of the issue is truly the importance and the meaning of the stuff what don’t get spoke.

 -contributed by Ben Ghan

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