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Kate Bishop, Los Angeles & a Long Goodbye

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The first half of Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye series ends with Clint Barton in a rather low mood. So low a mood in fact that his partner/protégé/pep talker Kate Bishop (aka also Hawkeye) has had enough. Swearing herself done with all his self-destructive behavior, she packs in her gear, grabs his dog Lucky and drives out to the West Coast. Kate figures that the trip will be the restorative she so desperately needs. After all, she is equally fed up with her rich, lay-about father who recently married one of Kate’s classmates (OK, Heather was three years older, but still). All Kate wants is a clean bungalow, fresh air and bright sun. Once she clears her mind of all this self-involved negative energy, she can determine what the perfect step-forward is for Kate Bishop.

The problem with life is that we so rarely get to choose the perfect next move, having usually to settle for good enough. Even for those of us who aren’t Clint Barton, wallowing in our breakfast cereal, past events have a tendency to circle back around to bite us in rather sensitive spots. During one of her first team-ups with Clint, Kate ran afoul with the criminal Madame Masque. In addition to defeating her, Kate also embarrassed her in the process. Masque does not take such slights lightly. Thus as soon as Kate is in Masque’s home turf of Los Angeles, the wheels of conspiracy start turning. Credit cards are immediately denied, causing her car to be towed, while still containing all of her stuff. Initially a kind stranger offers lodging for Kate, only Kate pieces together that it is Masque herself. Kate is able to slip out from her nemesis’ clutches only to find herself and Lucky pretty much desolate. An agreement to cat-sit lands her a roof over her head in the form of a trailer on the beach. If she truly wants to survive the City of Angels, she is going to need a new source of livelihood ASAP. (And no, caving in and calling either her dad or Clint is not an option).

This is the set-up for Kate’s California sojourn, which proceeds to alternate every other issue with Clint’s troubles back in Brooklyn. Following the precedent set-down by the likes of Luke Cage and Danny Rand, Kate decides to put up fliers advertising herself as a hero for hire. Why not, she is “pretty much” an Avenger after all. As a result, she ends up styling herself as a modern day private eye. Her first case involves recovering stolen orchards for her neighbors’ dream wedding, which leads to a mystery involving a reclusive musical genius.

Fraction clearly is having a fun time playing with the detective genre, spinning engaging tales of his charming heroine. He also creates a winning supporting cast for Kate’s time in Los Angeles. Just like Grill or Simone in the New York sections, Fraction has a knack for making such additions immediately likable. One reason that I wished Kate’s West Coast period lasted longer was to spend more time with these new friends. On the other end of the spectrum, Fraction strings throughout the issues criminal flunkies dressed a bellboys, who keep popping up at awkward moments the same way tracksuited Russian gangsters continually antagonize Clint in Brooklyn. Throughout, Fraction cycles select details back to the overarching Madame Masque plotline. Masque will not give up lightly on her quest for revenge, especially as Kate keeps inadvertently stepping into Masque’s various criminal schemes.

Wu

All of this gets knitted together through a random person Kate bumps into at the cat food aisle of the grocery store. At first no name is given for this man dressed shabbily in a trench coat and tie, resembling some grizzled private eye from another era. Reinforcing this image, he gives Kate advice, encouraging her newfound enthusiasm for detective work. Eventually, though, the reader learns that his name is Harold, a former crime journalist who has been compromised by a shady criminal cabal (three guesses which gold-masked villainess sits at the head of that conspiracy). In and of himself, Harold is an intriguing character, who adds further personality to Kate’s circle. Dig a little deeper though and he offers the possibility of some deeper themes.

The P.I., of course, is a figure with strong roots in popular culture. Starting with the original novels of writers such as Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain and Raymond Carver and their first string of film adaptations in the 30s/40s, every decade has revisited this material for another generation. (Just last year, Paul Thomas Anderson continued this trend with his exceptional film Inherent Vice). As a result, Fraction had a wide variety of choices available to him when creating Harold. For me, though, it was immediately clear who Fraction had in mind: Philip Marlowe as portrayed by Elliott Gould.

Gould played the iconic Marlowe in Robert Altman’s 1973 film, The Long Goodbye, an adaptation of the Carver book of the same name. It is a film which while receiving a decidedly mixed initial response, has seen its stature increase with time. (I suspect it was one of the movies on Anderson’s mind as he made Inherent Vice). Beautifully shot by the great Vilmos Zsigmond, it captures the sleek, seductive look of Los Angeles from the shiny cars cruising through the night to the afternoon sun bathing the bleached-out beach with its rolling, crashing waves. The Long Goodbye is very much a Los Angeles movie. It also has a dry, biting sense of humor, which mirrors that found in much of Fraction’s writing, Hawkeye included. Indeed, Gould’s Marlowe, smart, sarcastic, and often dealing with events slightly above his paygrade is not that dissimilar to many of Fraction’s most memorable protagonists. Finally there is the movie’s brilliant opening sequence in which Marlowe tries to feed his cat.

In The Long Goodbye, Marlowe maneuvers his way through seemingly unrelated cases, all the while searching for proof that his long-time friend Terry is innocent of murder. Altman described his take on Marlowe as a Quixote figure, a man foolishly trying to apply the values of 1940s America to the self-centered hedonism of the 1970s. As a character tells Marlowe at the end of the film, Marlowe will always be the loser because he actually cares about justice. Most people have no use for it these days. In the end, Marlowe does solve all the cases, including the mystery of Terry’s wife’s death, yet, there is little sense of triumph. Indeed, Marlowe learns that he has been manipulated all along as a piece in someone else’s game, effectively played by someone Marlowe naively presumed cared about him.

A similar bitter pill is waiting for Kate after she completes her own puzzles. Even though Kate has all the evidence, has bested the villain in battle, there is no sense of victory. Authority figures swoop in, sweeping certain details under the rug. In addition, Harold admits that he was using Kate as his proxy, letting her fight the battle he either couldn’t or wouldn’t. It would seem that securing justice is just as elusive for someone who is “pretty much” an Avenger as it is for a weathered private eye. In her own way, Kate emerges as another variation on Don Quixote, another poor deluded soul who simply thinks that by living some sort of moral code, she can right the wrongs of the world. Sadly, yet again, life does not work that easily. Part of growing up is learning, as Kate does, this hard truth. At the same time, Kate realizes that perhaps she should not judge Clint so harshly. Maybe they have more in common than she was previously willing to admit. (Her father on the other hand, turns out to be another story altogether).

Aja

For his run on Hawkeye, Fracton has earned thunderous praise, most of it focusing on his treatment of Clint Barton. While the Clint segments totally deserve their acclaim, the Kate Bishop sections are equally impressive. They are fun, engaging stories, which at the same time offer up some somber observations about how the world works. They also feature some fantastic art from Annie Wu. Taken together they offer another reason why Hawkeye has been such an outstanding series.