Matt Fraction’s, David Aja’s, and Matt Hollingsworth’s Hawkeye, the first issue of which hit the shelves in August of this year 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’s 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 superhero 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 superhero-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 become prominent.
To be continued…