By Lillian Hochwender
Other than the sound of pages being turned, comics are a largely silent medium. All text – whether dialogue, narration, or onomatopoeia – is soundless. When the creators of Hawkeye’s 2012 run (Matt Fraction, David Aja, Matt Hollingsworth, and Chris Eliopoulos) chose to deafen their titular character, they faced a significant challenge: how can an already soundless medium portray the absence of sound?
At the end of Hawkeye #15, a mercenary attacked Clint and his brother Barney, leaving them for dead. A few issues later, Hawkeye #19 reveals that both brothers are still alive, but Clint has been left deaf – not for the first time – and Barney is now in a wheelchair. Over the course of the issue, the lettering uses speech bubbles as most comics do: to tell readers “speech is happening.” However, in scenes featuring Clint, these speech bubbles are frequently empty. The lettering sometimes uses a spiky bubble instead of a smooth one to indicate something is being yelled loudly, but the words being said remain absent. Readers are put in Clint’s position: we’re able to understand that words are being spoken but not to understand what’s been said.
As society often expects of d/Deaf people, Clint frequently relies on lip-reading in order to understand people speaking to and near him. However, while hearing people may assume that d/Deaf and hard of hearing (HoH) people can make out most of what’s being said via lip-reading, this is far from the truth: they’re more likely to understand less than half, depending on the skill of the lip-reader and other factors such as concentration and if the speaker is facing them. To convey this struggle, Aja intersperses images of lips as Clint reads them, while the lettering switches to a jumbled, typewritten font, with extensive parentheticals and question-marks highlighting Clint’s laborious guesswork.
However, Hawkeye doesn’t solely define Clint’s d/Deafness in terms of lack and absence, but also emphasizes the significant role that sign language – in this case, specifically American Sign Language (ASL) – can play in the lives of d/Deaf people. One of the major plotlines of Hawkeye #19 focuses on Barney’s struggle to convince Clint to begin using ASL again, with artist David Aja incorporating a number of diagrams as an alternative to speech bubbles whenever Clint or Barney speaks in ASL. In Hawkeye #11, the creative team had similarly placed the comic’s audience at a linguistic disadvantage when telling part of the series’ story from the perspective of Clint’s dog Lucky. Depicting Lucky’s thoughts as a series of pictograms and visually obfuscating human words Lucky can’t understand, this issue offered the comic’s readership an opportunity to consider different ways meanings can be communicated.
Thus, when readers encounter ASL diagrams in Hawkeye #19, they’ve been – to an extent – prepared for it. However, while readers are meant to understand Lucky’s pictograms, the ASL diagrams are designed to frustrate understanding and emphasize Clint’s linguistic disconnect. Significantly, these ASL diagrams are never translated for the reader anywhere in the issue. Addressing the comic’s lack of translation, Aja stated on Twitter: “If while reading Hawkeye #19 you feel you don’t get it at all, if you find obstacles, congrats, you’re starting to learn what being disabled is.” With only around 1 million people in the USA alone using ASL as their primary form of communication, many ASL speakers consider themselves a linguistic minority. The creators of Hawkeye #19 make an important choice to privilege this linguistic minority, forcing the comic’s linguistic majority to be the ones using surrounding contexts and external sources to make sense of conversations.
Reactions from d/Deaf and HoH readers have been mostly positive, with HoH essayist (and former Marvel employee) Andrea Towers saying that the issue was “the first time I’d felt truly seen in relation to my own personal experiences and emotions” and Deaf essayist Clint Nowicke praising how the comic captures the difficulty of lip-reading and how easy the ASL is to understand as an ASL speaker. The deaf blogger behind The Inside Cover, meanwhile, is slightly more critical of the ASL due to the absence of facial expressions (an important part of ASL) but nonetheless calls it “a portrayal of deafness so close to mine that I cried while reading it.”
At the same time, there is nonetheless a history in fiction of d/Deaf and disabled characters being treated as “lessons” for hearing/non-disabled audiences. With disability, one of the best examples may be Barbara Gordon being disabled by Joker in The Killing Joke as a lesson for Batman – though the later creation of Oracle moved Babs beyond lesson territory. While I’d posit Clint’s development as a character moves beyond making this issue a lesson for others, it’s still nonetheless an issue that hearing and non-disabled readers alike ought to keep in mind. Ableist tropes in superhero media (and media generally) range from the treatment of disabled people as “inspiration porn”/”supercrips” whose athleticism/superpowers negate their disabilities (e.g. Daredevil) to the overabundance of disabled villains, which is an essay unto itself.
But Hawkeye #19 is more than another exploration of language: it also participates in a larger conversation about the ways various barriers to access can isolate and restrict the lives of d/Deaf and disabled people.Central to Hawkeye is a distinction between the medical and social models of disability. While the medical model focuses on disability in terms of physical impairment and the need to fix/cure disabled people: it’s this definition that also leads many d/Deaf people to stress their identity as a linguistic minority and that they are “Deaf not disabled.” However, Hawkeye focuses on the social model of disability, which argues that society itself is disabling through forms like stigma, and inaccessible environments, and eugenicist ideology. This disabling takes place both passively and actively and affects everyday life in a vast variety of ways: it can isolate D/deaf and disabled people from forming community, for example, but also from participating in their own medical care or getting around independently.
In showing not only Clint as deaf but Barney as a wheelchair user, Hawkeye #19 is able to highlight not only the diversity of d/Deaf and disabled experience but the various forms the act of disabling takes. The Center for Disease Control identifies seven categories of accessibility barrier, some of which are explored in Hawkeye: attitudinal, communication, physical, policy, programmatic, social, and transportation. For the most part, the barriers faced by Clint are communication barriers. For example, Hawkeye #19 shows Clint twice in medical settings. In both scenes, a doctor speaks to Clint’s parents or brother about his deafness, but Clint himself is sat at a distance and left out of the conversation. The barrier Clint faces isn’t physical (his inability to hear), but systemic: his doctors haven’t chosen to learn ASL or to have an interpreter, placing the onus on Clint to understand them, not on them to communicate with him. Rather than a full embrace of the medical model of disability in this scene where Clint is diagnosed, the comic highlights how Clint’s doctors participate in the wider social process of disabling.
(While “disabling” and ableism are in no way specific to the USA, below is a brief explanation of US healthcare for readers unfamiliar with the USA’s healthcare system. The USA continues to be the only developed country without universal healthcare. Instead, the USA’s private healthcare system places the financial burden directly on sick people – including emergency care and medication. People living in the USA often pay for an insurance provider, who takes on some of the financial burdens, allowing insured people to pay less for things like doctor visits, medical procedures, and medication. However, insurers may still decide not to cover doctors/visits/medications – sometimes simply because they decide it’s too expensive for them.
Insurers may also choose not to cover disabled or medically complex patients at all for the same reason. That said, most US citizens remain uninsured and pay for medical care fully out of pocket. While the USA’s lucrative private healthcare system has some small upsides (e.g. attracting pharmaceutical companies who put out newer drugs faster on the US market and patients can to an extent choose their doctors), the prohibitive cost of medical care makes many people unable to afford medical care – even in emergencies, resulting in lower life expectancy. These issues are compounded for d/Deaf, disabled, and chronically ill people, who face even higher healthcare costs and systemic ableism, forcing d/Deaf and disabled people further into poverty.)
The differences between Clint’s experience and Barney’s is stressed mid-issue when Barney asks Clint in ASL for help getting up a flight of stairs in his wheelchair. The stairs in this scene – and absence of an elevator – are a physical barrier that disable Barney but noticeably not Clint. Meanwhile, conversations without ASL or the option to lipread – like one when a doctor talks to Barney about Clint – disable Clint. The stigma towards both Deafness and disability even further disables Clint in the form of internalized audism (bigotry towards d/Deaf people) and ableism (bigotry towards disabled people), which makes him feel a sense of shame and prevents him from choosing to use ASL for the first portion of the issue.
When Hawkeye highlights these varied forms of inaccessibility, it also doesn’t expect d/Deaf and disabled people to overcome access barriers individually through the sheer power of will. Hawkeye #19 concludes with Barney and Clint on the rooftop as the brothers rally Clint’s neighbors to defend their shared apartment building from the mob (and get Clint and Barney a little revenge). In order for this scene to take place, Barney has to act as Clint’s interpreter and help Clint overcome his shame towards speaking in ASL, while Clint has to get Barney’s wheelchair up the stairs. While this could be taken purely as a story of brotherly love, it also serves as broader commentary on how inaccessible environments keep d/Deaf and disabled people from participating in society at large and keep them from forming community (who are, in this case, at the top of both the literal and metaphorical stairs).
When Hawkeye incorporates ASL diagrams without translating them and shows blank or lip-read speech bubbles, it actively – albeit temporarily – disables its readership, too. In order to overcome the comic’s intentionally constructed barriers, the audience much like Clint and Barney has relied on others, either learning ASL or sharing/reading ASL translations on social media platforms like tumblr and reddit.
Ultimately, Hawkeye #19 offers its readers far more than an answer to the question “How does one portray silence in a soundless medium?” For d/Deaf and disabled readers, it offers the catharsis of seeing their lived experiences reflected on the page. For the comic’s wider readership, meanwhile, it urges the need to empathize, communicate, and build community with them in the face of audism, ableism, and alienation.
Hawkeye Vol 4 #19 “The Things What Don’t Get Spoke”
Written by Matt Fraction
Drawn by David Aja
Coloured by Matt Hollingsworth
Lettered by David Aja and Chris Eliopoulos
This post was made possible thanks to the Shelfdust Patreon! To find out more, head to our Patreon page here!
Lovely piece, just one slight correction: Kazi attacked Clint and Barney at the end of isssue #15, not 18. There were two Kate-centric issues and a flashback issue before we caught up with Clint in #19.
It could also be argued that this was the third time Clint was deafened, if you count the sonic arrowhead in Hawkeye #4 (1983), and whether or not the Fraction’s addition of childhood deafness effectively retconned it away.
Thank you so much for your message – I’ve incorporated both your notes into the essay, which are very much appreciated!