Admit it. You all saw this one coming. While there are some books from 2012 that we haven’t got around to reading yet which could have given some on this list a run for their money (Prophet and Manhattan Projects spring to mind), there was only ever one book that was going to top this list, and that’s Hawkeye. It’s done more in six issues than some series manage in six years.
On paper, this project was in serious danger of being a dud. Fraction’s form at Marvel has been inconsistent at best, Aja was never going to be available for every issue, and historically, Hawkeye has proven unable to support a title. His last solo series died after eight issues, while his recent team-up series with Mockingbird managed only six. Expectations were low. So it was a double surprise when Marvel put out one of the best superhero series, not just of the year, but of the century. If it lasts long enough, maybe even of all time.
That’s because Hawkeye isn’t just entertaining, although it is that. It’s also experimental and aesthetically coherent in ways that few comics are. It’s got all the spirit and originality that Marvel’s best runs display – Lee and Ditko’s Amazing Spider-Man, Gerber’s Howard the Duck, Claremont and Byrne’s X-Men. Comics this good don’t come around very often, and when they do, you cling to them and hope the ride never stops. They’re the books that cast a shadow over everything that follows. There are enough techniques and ideas in Hawkeye to keep an entire decade of writers and artists inspired for years to come. You’re going to see them again and again, and each time you’ll remember where you saw them first.
Somehow, what Fraction has managed to do is metabolise the slicker-than-thou, medium-bending action of Casanova into a Marvel Universe superhero title. Aja displays a complete mastery of the page (it’s tough to imagine anyone else cramming 20+ panels onto a page and still make it look so fucking gorgeous) while guest artist for issues 4 and 5, Javier Pulido, proves that a lighter, Kirby/Steranko-influenced style can work just as well, illustrating a hotel gang war like it was a 40s screwball comedy and somehow maintaining the tone. Colourist Matt Hollingsworth, meanwhile, is the best example of what the right colourist can for to a series, complementing the pencils with deliberately limited palettes, never overwhelming them.
The basic idea behind Hawkeye is a simple one: he’s the man on the street who’s an Avenger in his spare time. Sometimes, that means he’s dealing with extortionist landlords. Other times, it means he’s being abducted from a rooftop cookout by SHIELD. The series reads like an action movie about a street-thug turned secret agent, as the unflappably down-to-earth Hawkeye and his Girl Friday Kate (also code-named Hawkeye) bicker and fight, as much with each other as with the villains they’re trying to defeat. The book’s pace is relentless, but it never seems like a slight read. Every panel and piece of dialogue seems to do two jobs at once. It’s dense, but not fatiguing. Simple but not facile. It’s not a gritty series, but the character study is intense and realistic. When Hawkeye thinks he’s falling to his death, he’s not sarcastic or scared: he apologises, even though no-one can hear. It’s a subtle reminder of the context of everything Hawkeye does. Of his practical, hands-on, one-day-at-a-time approach to achieving the redemption that he doesn’t feel he deserves, and doesn’t realise he’s already attained.
In 2012, Hawkeye released only six issues, but you could pick up any one of them and make a case for it being one of the best individual comics of the year. And that’s why it’s our favourite series of 2012. Realistically, nothing else even had a chance.