The importance of empathy and perspective in storytelling cannot be overstated. Readers engage with stories when they care about the characters. That doesn’t mean that all characters should be extra nice or overly relatable, only that they need to be written in a manner that allows the audience to connect to them. However, it’s easier to empathize with characters who reflect some of our ideas or resemble our place in the world in some way. Lucky (a.k.a. Pizza Dog) doesn’t resemble us in any way. He is literally a dog, complete with a major language barrier, differently structured senses, and a perspective disconnected from the narrative of “Hawkeye” thus far. The entirety of Hawkeye #11 is told from Lucky’s perspective. Yet both empathy and perspective are not only maintained, but are better crafted than in most of the comics published in all of 2013. For that reason and many more, Hawkeye #11 is a perfect comic.
Alan Moore is claims that much of his work is unfilmable. I’m inclined to agree and for the exact same reasons that I would say the same thing about this issue. In changing the perspective of the story to a third person narrative centered around Lucky, Matt Fraction and David Aja embrace the comics medium to both relate a change in perception and maintain a clear narrative simultaneously.
On the very first page, a number of elements are clearly different from typical comics narrative. Dialogue in the first few panels is deemphasized, appearing only partially as it is misframed by the gutters. There is obviously noise, but a lack of understanding. This continues throughout the book with speech bubbles cutting out of frames and many words being replaced by scribbles, since Lucky may remember “collar” and “stay”, but not “suspicious”. The centerpiece of the first page makes it clear why the opening sequence is so oddly framed using a tool I like to call “smell-o-vision”.
Both Hawkguy and Hawkeye are connected to a web of pictograms converying Lucky’s associations with that person. It’s an infographic type of tool that instantly informs the reader of both Lucky’s thoughts and sensations. Clint smells like hot coffee and provides Lucky with food and attention. Kate on the otherhand has a much more interesting smell (perfume overlayed with scents of makeup, martinis, and something else…) and gives Lucky the treat from which he derives his name. It’s a tool that is both more effective and more interesting than an anthropomorphized narrative. The size of the bubbles relate importance, while the connections show how each idea is related both to one another and to whom. Even the pictograms summarize an idea better than any sentence. They also place sensation over narrative, which fits the concept of the story perfectly. A dog interacts with the world very differently than we do, focusing on a keener sense of smell and hearing, rather than sight. So instead of thinking of Kate as a pretty young woman, Lucky smells her as someone who likes lattes and uses nice perfumes.
“Smell-o-vision” is used throughout the book connecting itself to characters, scenes, and action sequences. It’s an incredibly flexible tool that can communicate information about… just about anything. It also makes for an almost universal language as it is composed purely of symbols. Comics are, by their very nature, symbolic stories. Even the most intricately painted comics still attempt to use art as a symbol for something else. Whether it’s the instruction manual for a flotation device or Superman socking Lex Luthor in the jaw, comics relay information that using symbols instead of words. “Smell-o-vision” embraces that concept, connecting us with Lucky’s senses and basic ideas by boiling them down to some of the purest language available, symbols. Nowhere is the flexibility and beauty of the tool on better display than this page found about halfway through the issue.
For the record, this is my favorite page of 2013. It populates an entire neighborhood against the backdrop of a solitary lookout position in front of a brownstone. The noise, the smells, the motions are all on the page and read more clearly than the best descriptions of Michael Chabon or William Faulkner. We are exposed to Lucky’s entire non-visual experience through a visual medium.
And yes, I do realize that this sort of visual narrative is not new. Chris Ware has used very similar story telling techniques in his “Acme Novelty Library” collections and in “Jimmy Corrigan”. The techniques used in this book are still very fresh though and are effectively used in such a manner that Chris Ware’s work may be the only body worth comparing (and that’s a super high bar).
Even the color palette contributes to Lucky’s perspective of the world. Dogs are not fully color-blind, but their ability to process color is much more limited than human’s. In fact they can really only see two major colors: blue and yellow. Now go look at some of the example images I’ve provide in this article… Seriously, take a moment… Pretty neat, huh? Not only does the book focus on providing the same knowledge and content as its canine protagonist, but attempts to relay that information as it would come from the source. Despite a very limited palette, Hollingsworth manages to create a still rich, vibrant world colored from a different point of view. I’m just going to come out and say that Matt Hollingsworth is the best colorist in the business. Between “Hawkeye” and “The Wake” his colors are helping to create two of the absolutely best monthly comics being published.
Beyond the more unique aspects of the book, the general comics language is as masterful as ever. The general story beats and sequences of each page create dramatic beats that are perfect without breaking the illusion of it being a dog’s comic. Simple shot reverse shot scenarios are played very well. The changes in expression, body language, and minimal dialogue convey a great deal in four panels. In both of the examples below, you get a sense of Clint and Lucky’s relationship, their history, and a great deal of humor. The addition of a fifth muted panel in black, serves to act as a period on the moment, pushing the story into the future on the subsequent pages.
This is also seen when Hawkguy leaves the apartments under Lucky’s care, with a fourth panel that is too goofy not to love.
Innovation and creativity add no value to a story, unless the storyteller has already mastered the basic craft. It’s the reason most directors, writers, and other creators can talk for hours about topics that seem like minutae to general audiences. Although the “smell-o-vision” is what will receive the most praise of anything in Hawkeye #11, it’s worth appreciating Fraction and Aja’s mastery of even small beats like these. Without that deep understanding of comics and their assembly, they could never have attained the heights they’ve achieved in this book.
Although this has been about the technical merits of Hawkeye #11, it’s worth noting that all of the technical prowess serves the purpose of creating a really heartfelt story. Even if you aren’t paying attention to the small nuances of the book, like references to Otto Preminger’s “Anatomy of a Murder”…
you’ll still feel your heart in your throat when Pizza Dog encounters the assassin or choke up a little at his discovery of Grills’ body or laugh at his interactions with the puppy. This book isn’t just an example of great storytelling, it’s an example of great storytelling in service to a great story. You couldn’t ask for anything more.