I love how I put that I’m “breaking down” the issue in the title, like this is going to be any more than a gushing ramble about a comic that wrapped up five years ago. There’s going to be a lot of exclamation points and a lot of words that look LiKe ThIs AND ALSO LIKE THIS BeCaUsE iT’s ThE OnLy WaY I cAn ExPrEsS mY fEeLiNgS, oKaY??
Cool. Give me a sec to stop hyperventilating.
So, some backstory: I’ve known about Hawkeye #19 for three years at this point, I think? It got a lot of attention when it was first published, and not just in the comic geek world. It was back when I was starting to look for d/Deaf and hard of hearing characters and was finding nothing, and then it turned out that, actually, there was this amazing issue by Eisner-award winning duo David Aja and Matt Fraction. And then I never read it.
That was mostly because I was eleven and lazy, but also because by the time I was old enough to drag my parents to the comics store, I couldn’t find it anywhere. So I bought it last night on Amazon (dear Comic Book Gods, I’m so sorry for not supporting my local comics store, but I just figured out my Comixology account and I cOuLdN’t wAiT).
And oh boy. OH MY GOD. I’m going to run out of scream-crying gifs if I try to describe how much I scream-cried. (But, like, scream-cried internally. We have neighbors.)
I mean, not only is the art freaking beautiful (bless you, David Aja, BLESS YOU), and not only is the whole volume tightly plotted and emotional, but there’s also a portrayal of deafness so close to mine that I cried while reading it.
I CRIED, PEOPLE. The last time I cried over a comic book was when Rhodey died in Civil War II back in 2016. So, needless to say, I felt well and truly seen in a way that I don’t think I ever have been in all my fifteen years of life, which is…really saying something. I’m going to try and explain what made this issue and the following ones not just relatable, but also strangely cathartic to read.
In this issue, Clint’s been rendered temporarily deaf after an attack in his apartment building. (#19 is the fourth-to-last of the entire series.)
Let’s look at a few panels.
This is the first panel with these blank speech bubbles, and I was like, holy crap. They get it. Like, for real. My experience of speech feels like that–like blank speech bubbles, where I know people are talking but I can’t understand them. And you’ll notice that Barney (the dude in the wheelchair, Clint’s brother) is facing away from him, and the doctor’s head is titled toward her computer, making it impossible for him to lipread anything. These bubbles take the place of speech for most of the issue, and I just wanted to shove it into the faces of every hearing person I’ve ever met (which is–let me just do some quick calculations here–pretty much everyone) and be like, “This is it! Trying to understand this issue with these blank speech bubbles is how frustrating it is and how draining it is and how angering it is to live in a hearing world and I want you to KNOW IT!!” (Okay, maybe not as forcefully as that, but you get the point.)
The dialogue is largely in sign language, without translation. I hesitate to call it true ASL because it’s pretty rudimentary–for one thing, they communicate with the English grammar structure, and there’s no facial expressions, which is pretty essential when signing. But it’s easy to overlook because the brothers have been out of practice for so long (they signed when Clint was temporarily deafened as a kid), and even if that weren’t true, the rest of the issue is just so great that I can’t bring myself to care too much. I mean, look at how cool it is:
“Shower today, maybe?” Barney signs, gesturing that Clint is stinky, then adds, “Change clothes?”
Between the untranslated signing and the empty speech bubbles, Fraction flips the script on hearing audiences, where d/Deaf readers can understand the dialogue in a way we usually can’t. Though the overarching plot is still understandable and exciting for them non-deafies in the corner over there, the emotional heft of the story (the relationship between Clint and Barney) is really only understandable if you know at least a little sign language. Aja tweeted, “If while reading Hawkeye #19 you feel you don’t get it at all, if you find obstacles, congrats, you’re starting to learn what being disabled is.” I think that sums it up pretty well.
I was also really blown away by the lipreading aspect of this storyline. Even the best lipreaders can only catch about 30% of what’s being said while lipreading, and it’s exhausting to do it every moment of the day. It’s a common theme for “characters [to] practically lipread through walls in media portrayals” even though this is extremely unrealistic, writes Clint Nowicke, a Deaf comics geek who reviewed #19. But just a few panels captures the experience so well.
This is from issue #21:As some of Clint’s hearing starts to return, we see more of his lipreading difficulties. The use of parentheses to indicate that Clint is lipreading is just so stylistically cool, plus it drives home the point that lipreading isn’t simple at all.
Two things about that first panel really resonated with me: first, the “(new?) [now?]” part. Although I doubt anyone who’s d/Deaf or HoH would confuse “new” and “now” when lipreading (the vowel shapes of “o” and “e” look very different on the mouth), it’s a great example of retroactively realizing what someone’s said using context, and explains why d/Deaf and HoH folks oftentimes have a delayed reaction when listening to people speak. I’ve never been able to articulate clearly what this is like, but Fraction manages to do it within a single panel.
The second thing that really resonated was the “(?!?).” Sometimes it’s just completely unclear what a person’s saying. I like this better than the “(new?) [now?]” thing because most of the time, you’re not confusing words that sound vaguely similar–you’re just not catching it at all. Lots of things can make it difficult to lipread–the speaker covering their mouth to cough or turning away from you while talking, for example. (Indeed, a page later, Jessica turns around to answer her phone and the blank speech bubbles make a reappearance, another testament to how scrupulous Fraction was while writing this.)
The other thing about the d/Deaf-HoH experience these panels capture skillfully is how Clint doesn’t bother asking for clarification even though he really only caught the first part of the sentence. It’s a super common thing to just respond to the only part you catch and hope it’s not awkward. Clint gets the gist of what Jess is asking and goes off of that, and I was like, hhhhHHHHHH oh my GOD they get it, I need to send this to my d/Deaf-HoH group chat ASAP.
The fact that the whole approach to portraying Clint’s deafness isn’t preach-y or patronizing at all is just spectacular, too. It’s not like, “Here’s the experience of every d/Deaf-HoH person ever, isn’t it just so hard and sad??” It’s subtle in showing some hardships we face, it invents novel ways to illustrate those hardships, and it treats complicated characters with real compassion. (And honestly, the whole volume is just outstanding…such a satisfying send-off to this iteration of Hawkeye.)
And in addition to all this–IN ADDITION!!–guess what? They don’t resolve Clint’s deafness in a single issue with some bogus alien powers! In fact, they don’t resolve it at all!
I feel like we need to sit with that for a sec, people. THEY DON’T RESOLVE IT AT ALL.
I mean, he becomes deaf in #19 and regains a lot of his hearing by the time the series comes to an end in #22, but he’s still pretty deaf. It says something that Team Hawkguy didn’t feel like they needed to “fix” Clint’s deafness to wrap it all up. Disabled people have always fought against the view that they’re something to be repaired or solved, and it’s heartening that the creative team recognized this. (Or, like, even if they didn’t and it’s just a coincidence, it’s still cool.)
Speaking of the final issue, have I mentioned that I cried when I read it? Like, a lot?
First, Lucky gets shot (HOW DARE THEY) and I was so worried he wouldn’t make it through and I was fully prepared to write an angry letter to the writers even though this comic ended five years ago because LOOK AT WHAT A GOOD BOY HE IS:
Then there’s these panels after the climatic battle ft. everyone’s favorite Hawkeye Kate Bishop:
But where I started full-out snot crying in the privacy of my room was right about here, when we see Clint’s hearing aids for the first time in the final few pages: I got my first pair of hearing aids eleven years ago when I was four. They were purple. I can’t quite explain how profound it is for me to see a hero wearing them, saving people and being badass, living a complicated and full life. I can only imagine how it would’ve felt for four-year-old me to have seen it. Even now, just staring at the screenshot while I’m writing this, I’m tearing up. I have never felt so completely and truly understood as I have while reading these issues.
So, you know. It was pretty good, I guess.
Thanks for reading my ramble, y’all. If you’re looking for these issues, you can find them in Hawkeye Volume Four: Rio Bravo (it’s so good please go read it I’m begging you). I think this post holds the record for the most interesting capitalization and punctuation choices I’ve made on this blog thus far, so that’s fun, and I promise you my other posts are a lot more level-headed, if you’re new here! I’ve got a new review on the way, and I hope to update again soon! Keep reading!
–The Inside Cover