Pizza Dog And The Art Of Comics: Deconstructing ‘Hawkeye’ #11
Bro. Let me tell you about Pizza Dog.
Pizza Dog isn’t his real name. His real name—at least these days—is Lucky, and before that, it was Arrow. But dogs named Lucky are a dime a dozen, and when you’ve got a comic where the main character’s epithet has its own epithet, well, sometimes you’ve gotta let a Pizza Dog be a Pizza Dog.
So. Pizza Dog belongs to Hawkguy, who is actually Hawkeye, who is really Clint Barton, in a Marvel Comics series about the stuff Hawkeye does when he’s not being an Avenger. The first time we saw him, he was pretty badly beat up (Pizza Dog, I mean, not Hawkguy — although the first time we saw Hawkeye, he was pretty badly beat up, too), after he rescued Hawkguy from some gangsters in track suits and got thrown into traffic for his trouble. Hawkguy, who knows a thing or two about being on the wrong end of a sixty-mile-an-hour collision, got the dog fixed up and adopted him. Hawkguy had another nine issues of adventures, and Pizza Dog stuck around, and then came last week’s Hawkeye #11 — which could be the best single issue of comics you’ve ever read.
Except, we’re not going to go there quite yet, because to get Hawkeye #11, you have to get Hawkeye, which is probably the best book coming out of Marvel these days, a tight little number written by Matt Fraction and (usually) drawn by David Aja and colored in a gorgeously muted palette by Matt Hollingsworth. It’s a comic I keep trying and failing to compare to other books you’ve read. There’s some flavor recognizably borrowed off Chris Ware —more on that later— and a little Jason Lutes and a taste of Howard Chaykin and maybe a tiny touch of Starman-era James Robinson, but for the most part, Hawkguy is Hawkguy, and Hawkeye is Hawkeye, and you should pause a moment before the next paragraph and think about how rare that kind of incomparability is in a big-two superhero book.
The book is weird and wry and understatedly virtuosic in the kind of way that’s going to make it a critical darling and a go-to for comics professors who like to pick apart masterwork machines to see what makes ’em tick. That might make you think Hawkeye is smugly clever, but it’s also incredibly immersive, and behind all that exquisite intricacy, there’s a whole lot of heart.
Which brings us back to Pizza Dog.
See, Hawkeye #11 is from Pizza Dog’s point of view, and it’s pretty damn close to perfect. It’s one of those books that’s a pain to review, because I’d rather just tell you to sit down and read it, and then read it again, and then maybe read it a third time, because, man, you will never care this hard about another story. And while you’re caring, it’ll sneak up on you that Matt Fraction and David Aja are doing things with comics that you didn’t know could be done.
I mentioned above that this story is from Pizza Dog’s point of view, and I want to take a minute to break down what that means visually. Pizza Dog doesn’t speak English, or Polish, or any language but Dog, at least not fluently, so when people are talking the dialogue is scratched out around the stray words Pizza Dog recognizes: “help,” “don’t,” “Kate,” “collar,” “stay,” “good boy,” and, when he happens across his old owners, “idioto” and “już dobrze.” Pizza Dog notices different things than you notice, makes different connections than you do, thinks in smells and associations unfolding as streams of symbols from doors and people and other details.
It’s an unusually intimate collaboration with letterer Chris Eliopoulos (rightly credited in this graphics-intense issue with the more appropriate “production” rather than “lettering”) that’s a bit like Building Stories-era Chris Ware, but Chris Ware has never, ever told a story with this much heart — not because he’s cold or dry, but because Hawkeye has a whole damn lot of heart, and an awful lot of that is concentrated around Pizza Dog.
But to get there, you have to read Hawkeye #11, which is difficult, at least at first, because even if you’re fluent in visual narrative, this is visual dog narrative, and that’s something else entirely. There’s an element of deciphering a code as you start to realize what the symbols mean and where they lead and how they interact with the story taking place behind and around them; and then at some point you realize that, without noticing, you’ve started to think like Pizza Dog. And then it hits you that even though you are a bleeding-heart animal-lover theory-head judgmental-curmudgeon-of-an-editor like me, you have never cared so much about a comic or a fictional dog as you do today.
When critics have talked about Hawkeye #11, they’ve been batting around phrases like “best comic of the year.”
They’re not wrong, but they’re not quite all the way right, either.
It’s not just that it’s the best comic of the year.
Hawkeye #11 might be the best comic ever.