Cartooning Disability: Hawkeye and Hearing Loss

Cartooning Disability: Hawkeye and Hearing Loss

I’m terrible at finishing things—fictional things, that is. It took me four months to watch the last four episodes of Battlestar Galactica. Eight weeks to watch the finale of Avatar: The Last Airbender. I still haven’t seen the final season of Korra. And I’ve just accepted at this point that I will never be able

I’m terrible at finishing things—fictional things, that is. It took me four months to watch the last four episodes of Battlestar Galactica. Eight weeks to watch the finale of Avatar: The Last Airbender. I still haven’t seen the final season of Korra. And I’ve just accepted at this point that I will never be able to watch Jon Stewart’s last Daily Show.

I’m not 100% sure where this aversion to completion comes from, but I think sometimes it stems from the feeling of needing to be in the right place at the right time, to be fully emotionally prepared for something I’ve invested a lot of time and effort into. And sometimes, it’s from the pure feeling of not wanting something to end. In the case of the Fraction/Aja run on Hawkeye, we’ve got a little bit of column A and a little bit of column B. Which is why, though it came out in July, I did not actually read Hawkeye #22 until a couple of weeks ago, when I was invited to start writing this column.

Before Hawkeye, I never thought much about disability in comics. Although I’ve had a hearing loss from a young age, growing up it was never a part of my identity that I was invested in talking about or advocating for. My hearing aids (were one of several things that) got me made fun of. They marked me as different, and I mostly wanted to pretend that being hard-of-hearing wasn’t something that affected me in any way. And I certainly never thought about fictional representation, because there just weren’t hard-of-hearing characters out there—when I thought back to try and think of examples from my adolescence, the only one that came to mind was a series of children’s mystery books, Invisible Inc, where the main character’s best friend wore hearing aids. One example, and that was it.

It wasn’t until the end of college that I started to really think about what it meant to be a person with a disability, advocate for myself, and speak out regarding issues of accessibility and representation. My discovery of Hawkeye and his hearing loss dovetailed nicely with my burgeoning disability activism — because the year I graduated, the Avengers movie came out. Through reading mountains of fanfic I discovered that Clint Barton was, in fact, hard-of-hearing. He lost his hearing through an accident with a sonic arrow in the 80s, and many subsequent comic arcs deal with the fallout and onset of his hearing loss.

80s Hawkeye #1I was downright giddy when I found this out. I dug through dozens of old comic bins and internet archives to find the original issues, and honestly? They’re not bad! Sometimes it falls into caricature, but for the most part the writers depict the way he deals with it in identifiable, realistic ways.

Of course, it couldn’t  last. By the late 1980s storylines centering on Hawkeye tended not to mention his hearing loss, and Hawkeye’s hearing was officially restored in comic-book canon in the mid 1990s, when the Avengers and the Fantastic Four were reborn in Franklin Richards’ “Counter-Earth” alternate universe. The Marvel execs obviously didn’t choose to include it in the films, and if it weren’t for those fanfic authors who had taken this (at the time) little-known piece of comic-book history and chosen to write Clint as hard-of-hearing in their stories, I never would have found out as early as I did (links to a couple of my favorites are at the end). 80s Hawkeye #2It frustrated me, and I resigned myself to thinking that fanfiction was the only place I’d ever get to see Clint’s hearing loss, given that, at the time, there seemed to be no plans in the current comic to bring it back.

In early 2013, I was working on a conference presentation on how online fandom can work as a forum where fans can create space for disability to counter its erasure within popular culture, and a month before my presentation, Matt Fraction began to hint that Clint’s hearing loss would be making a reappearance in his and David Aja’s run of Hawkeye. There were rumors that he would lose his hearing through another injury and that sign language would be used.

I was excited to hear this news, but nervous too. There’s a long history of disabled characters being depicted as caricature or as one-dimensional “inspirations” for the main protagonist or audience in literature, and I was wary of a hearing person writing the comic, even as I trusted that Fraction would treat the subject with the same respect and care he had with the rest of the comic.

Fast forward a year, then two: the issues finally came out, and I got struck by my “can’t-finish-things” syndrome. I think part of me was afraid to be disappointed in something for which I had such high expectations. I didn’t read the last three issues until this week. And…

Real talk: Clint Barton and I do not have very much in common. I suck at archery, I’m more of a cat person, my dating life is fairly non-existent, and I would like to think that in general I’m far less of a human disaster than he is.

But.

I became hard-of-hearing when I was a kid. I never learned sign language, but I had other visible markers of my hearing loss, ones that I fought against with as much stubbornness as a kid can muster. My parents told me I would need to start wearing hearing aids when I was nine, and I remember crying in the car for an hour, protesting as much as I could, finally striking an agreement with them when I was 12 that as long as I kept my grades up at school, I could ditch the damn things. I was embarrassed by them, the way Clint is embarrassed about signing, because I didn’t know anyone else in my life who had to wear hearing aids, and because when you’re a kid, having a part of you that’s different can feel like the most alienating thing in the world. Sometimes that doesn’t really change when you grow older.

Hawkeye 22 image 1

Reading those final issues of Hawkeye, I related to Clint Barton in a way I’ve never related to a fictional character before. Not even when I was reading the old comics when he first loses his hearing. The 80s comics are representation, sure, but it’s surface-level at best. It’s not a punchline, per se, but it is a point of humor at times, and the point seems to be that Clint still functions as an Avenger despite losing his hearing. Similarly, even the old Invisible Inc books I loved as a kid didn’t exactly delve into Justin’s psyche or interrogate how he felt, being a hard-of-hearing kid. He just was, and there wasn’t anything weird about it when it came to his friends. That’s important in its own way, and there’s a certainly a need for it, but Fraction is doing something else with this comic.

This is the first work of fiction I’ve ever read that, in addition to confronting a million murderous tracksuit bros, deals frankly with what it means and feels like to have a hearing loss. More importantly, Fraction and Aja don’t just have Clint and Barney talk about it—they show it. Seeing the garbled, parenthetical, blank speech bubbles in the comics conveyed the experience of being hard-of-hearing better than anything I can explain to you in words. Seeing Barney talk about how Clint was embarrassed by it as a kid, and seeing that play out in the present day, felt like looking into a mirror.  Clint still jokes about it. As the reader hurtles into the final issue, it’s easy to forget about the hearing loss issue as the tension that’s been building for 22 issues finally breaks through in the final confrontation and the satisfaction of seeing Clint and Kate’s reunion. But then it’s brought back in the best way possible in the final page, with that panel of Clint wearing his purple hearing aids. With that simple image, Fraction and Aja show us that Clint’s finally willing to take that step forward in dealing with and acknowledging his hearing loss.  It’s visual proof that Clint will make good on what he told his neighbors in issue 19: he isn’t going to hide it anymore. Knowing Clint, and knowing myself, I doubt that this is the end of his struggles as a hard-of-hearing person—hell, I’ve been at my new job for a month and a half and I still haven’t disclosed to my boss. I still only wear my hearing aids about 10% of the time. But that’s exactly why this meant so much for me to see.

Hawkeye has dominated a lot of the conversation around disability in comics for the past year or so, and in future columns I hope to talk more broadly about disability in webcomics, in Marvel/DC/Image, and in my own writing. But if you’d asked me three years ago if I thought Marvel would ever dare to bring back Hawkeye’s hearing loss, I would have answered with a resounding no. Fraction and Aja proved me completely wrong, and for that, I’ll be forever grateful.

Hawkeye #22 image 2

Fanfic links:

Mad_Maudlin. “Frequently Asked Questions,” The Avengers fanfiction. The Archive of Our Own, 23 March 2013

Whisp. “If it Ain’t Broke,” The Avengers fanfiction.  The Archive of our Own, 12 July 2012

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Suzanne Walker
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