By Chase Magnett

“Dogs do speak, but only to those who know how to listen.” – Orhan Pamuk

When asking my students whether an animal in a work of fiction is a character, a typical response I receive is… why would it be?

Animals do not possess vocabulary or grammar in English or any other written language. Their motivations, desires, and references cannot be defined in the same fashion as our own. So they are often reduced to something less-than, a subservient species whose existence might support or reflect our own, but can never be considered equal in significance.

This conception of animals in literature reflects a concept known as speciesism, a belief in human superiority over other species. It’s the foundation of our societal treatment of animals in the United States and every other nation today. It defines animals as property and supports animal welfare only as far as humans concern themselves with a specific animal’s wellbeing. It undergirds systemic cruelty on a scale dwarfing imagination, subjecting billions of sentient creatures each day to starvation, degradation, and callous death. It is the cause of more suffering than any other belief system on the planet today… assuming one believes that animal suffering matters.

That mentality is evident throughout our popular culture, including superhero comics where it is seen in the presentation of almost every animal character. Marvel Comics possesses a long tradition of animal sidekicks and companions in sufficient numbers to form their own version of the Avengers. One of the most recent additions to this pantheon is Bats, Doctor Strange’s Basset Hound who is magically gifted with speech. 

After being introduced in Doctor Strange #381, Bats is killed in Doctor Strange #382 and transformed into a ghost. He has since become a recurring character in multiple iterations of Doctor Strange’s story and has crossed over with various other “Pet Avengers.” He possesses the personality and cadence of a wisecracking sidekick, comically understated and often unaware, but always prepared with an opinion. It’s no surprise this invention by writer Donny Cates and artist Gabriel Hernandez Walta has stuck around given the potent combination of comic relief writing and adorable dog aesthetics.

Doctor Strange #386

But Bats is fundamentally not a dog and his stories make no attempt to reflect his essential “doggedness.” Anthropomorphizing Bats by providing him mastery over the English language presumes that only animals possessing language may be understood. Rather than addressing how Bats might interpret the world, it presumes to translate his mind into something more rational by human standards. When he becomes a ghost, the story dismisses his canine qualities altogether and transforms him into a purely intellectual creature. An understanding and language shared with the world through keen senses of smell and sound are subverted to emphasize his witty retorts and generic observations. 

Besides his appearance, Bats is no more a dog than any other superhero or sidekick in Marvel Comics. He speaks, thinks, and behaves like a human character as anthropomorphization suggests, once again, that the primary value of a character rests in their humanity. The same can be said for Throg, Lockheed, Cosmo, and nearly every other superpowered animal besides Lockjaw (the Inhumans teleporting canine companion who is almost always presented as a mellow bulldog of enormous size). Broadly speaking, in superhero comics, for an animal to possess value as a character it must possess human qualities; animals are only valued as much as they reflect our existence, not their own.

So what might it look like for a comic book to consider an animal’s experience, perspective, and mind based upon their own merits rather than how they mimic ours?

That’s the question Hawkeye #11 – created by artist David Aja, writer Matt Fraction, colorist Matt Hollingsworth, and letterer/production artist Chris Eliopoulos – better known as “the Pizza Dog issue” centers. Taking place at the series’ midpoint, it ostensibly investigates the murder of Gilbert a.k.a. Grills, a beloved tenant and rooftop grill master in Hawkeye’s apartment complex, through the perspective of Hawkeye’s dog Lucky a.k.a. “Pizza Dog.” Over the course of the issue, Lucky discovers Grills’ absence and subsequent murder, uncovers the murderer’s associates, finds and attacks Grills’ killer, and eventually flees New York City with Kate. It’s a noir detective tale in plot signaled by its wink-and-nod title “Pizza is My Business.”

Appreciation of this narrative is based largely on readers’ existing knowledge of the series’ plot, though. There is no mystery about who killed Grills; the Clown was revealed as the killer at the end of Hawkeye #9 and subsequently presented with a narrative and motive of his own in Hawkeye #10. Lucky cannot relay his findings nor does he understand his discoveries in the same way readers might. He reads the world and responds as a dog. While Hawkeye #11 presents the form of a detective story, it is a character study of Lucky, first and foremost.

Lucky’s existence as a character in the pages of Hawkeye was nothing new for readers. Hawkeye #1 introduced Lucky to readers as the unfortunate victim of “Tracksuit Draculas,” an outfit of Eastern European mobsters, thrown into traffic after biting one of his abusive owners. Studying Lucky’s body language and expressions in this and each subsequent Aja-drawn issue reveals a careful appreciation for how dogs present themselves. Head tilts and tail wags are an active part of each sequence’s dialogue revealing how Lucky feels about his environment and companions. Just look at his line of sight, posture, and upturned tail wag when Clint first approaches bearing pizza. As a result, Hawkeye #11 builds upon an established approach to animal characters, one that takes their forms of experience and communication seriously. 

When readers reach this renowned issue, Lucky is already communicating key themes. The difficult partnership between Hawkeyes details the simultaneous importance and difficulty of creating a space of belonging and safety, but so does their relationship with Lucky. When he is greeted by Clint with “GOOD BOY,” his face shifts from a turned, quizzical expression to one of satisfaction with a panting mouth and wide open ears. Yet just outside their home, when he sees his formerly abusive owners, a submissive posture reveals the fear and harm that awaits just beyond the doors of home. These reactions are similar to the one’s experienced by both Hawkeyes as they seek to hold onto their space while fearing oncoming attacks. But where both Clint and Kate fail to speak their experiences into meaning, Lucky clearly presents his parallel responses for anyone caring to look.

While the perspective shift to Lucky in Hawkeye #11 may have been surprising, it was not unfounded. Lucky has been a character in Hawkeye from the very start, an active participant in events who saved Hawkeye’s life at one point and observes any number of important encounters. Even when he is napping in the corner, his being is carefully observed by Aja.

This is the guiding philosophy that undergirds Hawkeye #11. Lucky does not need to be anthropomorphized in order to be seen as a significant character; Lucky is already a character possessing his own perspective, experiences, desires, and understanding. This is what distinguishes Hawkeye #11 from being a comic featuring “one cool trick” to one that merits serious consideration. The shift in storytelling and perspective is not intended to obfuscate information from readers, but to clarify one character’s perspective and induce empathy.

This shift also makes Hawkeye #11 a showcase for Aja and the creative team’s dextrous mastery of visual grammar. Every element of the plot, much of it witnessed in prior issues, is recontextualized through Lucky’s understanding of the world. A great deal has been written about the many narrative devices deployed to portray a dog’s point of view, but it is worth summarizing just some of the tactics to appreciate how immersive the overall experience becomes:

  • Wherever word balloons appear, the majority of words are marked by vertical scratches denoting sound without meaning. The only words that can be read are those recognized by Lucky, like “DON’T,” “BAD,” “YOU,” “GOOD BOY,” and so on.
  • Eliopoulos’ lettering emphasizes the contents of each word balloon based upon volume and intensity. The issue opens with an “H” filling an entire word balloon before pulling back to reveal portions of the shouted word “WHAT.” What is being said is less important than how it is said.
  • The color palette is reduced by Hollingsworth to the spectrum perceived by dogs, emphasizing purples, blues, yellows, greys, and browns, all in a muted quality.
  • In wide panels only the central portion, reflecting Lucky’s focus, is colored. The periphery of these panels is portrayed in undetailed, uncolored blueprints presenting Lucky’s peripheral vision.
  • Pictograms are attached to each character as they are reintroduced or reappear in new contexts. These charts present a number of important details, often connected to smell and sound, that would be associated with that person’s presence in that specific moment—revealing new information to readers as well.
  • Diagrams of Lucky’s olfactory and auditory systems (i.e. nose and ears) draw special attention to organs essential to how a dog reads the world.

These are not the only tools applied by Aja and company, but they are the most prominent and listing them clarifies the seriousness with which the team considers a dog’s perspective in the comic. They extend a vocabulary the series had developed across its early issues to create space for each character’s story and outlook.

A similar task is accomplished in Hawkeye #19 in which readers are presented with the perspective of a hearing-impaired Clint Barton and must rely on simulated lip reading, ASL signs, and various other visual details to make sense of the world without sound. The purpose in this issue is clearly to not make the hearing-impaired more alien, but to highlight how they read the world and signify the differences between their own reading and that of hearing-capable readers. It seeks to understand honestly just as Hawkeye #11 does.

It is this distinction which elevates Hawkeye #11 and explains some of the mass critical acclaim it received upon publication in 2013. While readers (and human beings writ large) generally appreciate dogs as man’s most loyal companion, it is not another funny animal strip (see Hawkeye #17 for that) or anthropomorphized Pet Avengers; this is a story about a specific dog appreciated for how it sees the world.

Decentering human beings in Hawkeye #11 is a bold move and one rarely seen elsewhere in comics. Even a beloved story centered on animal liberation like We3 still relies on science-fiction mechanics to provide animals with human language. Hawkeye balks at any form of anthropomorphism, acknowledging that to make dogs more human is to make them less of what they truly are.

In this way, Hawkeye #11 may be one of only a few anti-speciesist comics, a story that does not value human life over that of all other living things. Lucky is an integral member of the cast participating and affecting the story based upon their own complex state of being. The pacing, plotting, and tone of the issue reflect that radical shift in perspective. Readers develop their own connections and reformulate the story to fit their own worldview, but the story told to them adheres to the authenticity of Lucky’s experience. So even as we consider how these events may affect Clint or Kate, we are asked to also consider how Lucky perceives and is affected by them. It elevates Lucky as a character worthy of sharing a perspective alongside his paired superhero owners.

In a world where animals are treated as property in nearly every legal context, where cruelty is perpetuated on an unimaginable scales for mass consumption, and the value of human life is considered far greater than that of any animal, Hawkeye #11 is a revolutionary piece of artwork. It is the rare work of fiction that does not seek to elevate animals by comparing them to humans. Instead, it asserts that animal lives possess inherent value and their stories are every bit as meaningful as those told by the human beings surrounding them. It questions how they read the world and how they act upon it to pursue their own interests. Lucky’s presence throughout the series is that of a fully-realized individual possessing a rich interior life and Hawkeye #11 leaves no doubt on the matter.

Lucky challenges readers of Hawkeye to expand their definition of whose lives matter and asks that they consider those they do not share a species with by revealing the rich experiences and breadth of emotions that artists can only imagine in the lives of animals. Hawkeye #11 asks its readers to consider the language of dogs, expand their definition of life, and rise above mere humanity by showing them a world populated with many more rich, interesting characters than Homo sapiens alone.

 

Hawkeye Vol 4 #11 – Pizza Is My Business
Written by Matt Fraction
Drawn by David Aja
Coloured by Matt Hollingsworth
Lettered by Chris Eliopoulos

 

Chase Magnett is a writer and academic, as well as the Reviews Editor for Comic Book dot com. You can find him on Twitter here and on his blog here! His dog Tetra is the world’s greatest dog.

 

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