Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Why I Watch The Walking Dead
How strange that such a benign show should prove so divisive. It seems odd to me that the program should inspire such a vociferous reaction on the part of its critics - who are seemingly legion - all of whom see the inexplicable success of The Walking Dead as some sort of referendum on the death of American high culture. Which is an exaggeration, but no more so than any of these breathless denunciations.

I admit I'm baffled, and it occurs to me that a large part of my bemusement in this matter might stem from a pure disconnect with whatever passes for critical consensus in contemporary television. I'm not a snob: I watch TV. I like watching good TV, and there's a fair amount of it these days. What there is not, at least not in my opinion, is good television drama. I am of the belief - built on years of observation and careful consideration - that America has lost the ability to produce effective drama. I haven't seen but a handful of American drama films in the last five years that haven't made me cringe - either because of bad acting, poor writing, simple childishness, or the general air of vapidity that has come to infect almost every attempt to produce "serious" stories in contemporary America. We are supposedly in the midst - or, at least, have just emerged from - a "Golden Age" of television drama, of which the supposed zenith (The Sopranos) was an amiable enough example of middlebrow entertainment, but by no stretch of the imagination any kind of great achievement. The Sopranos is only a great show in the context of all the terrible shows it succeeded, and I suppose it is to the show's credit that it has spawned a number of halfway decent imitators. But seriously, folks: if you think The Sopranos is a great and meaningful work of art, my suggestion is that you read a God-damned book once in a while.

If that sounds confrontational? Good. I'm not speaking from ignorance here: I sat through every episode of The Sopranos - every plot twist, mini-epiphany, and fizzled character arc. I grew attached to the characters out of inertia more than anything else, more the result of spending dozens of hours with appealing performers than any elevated quality of the material itself. And just that statement points towards exactly why American drama - both television and film - usually fails: the mediums are filled with performers, not actors. If that seems like a pedantic distinction, well, it probably is. But I can't take drama seriously if the actors are mugging like idiots - the unearned self-satisfaction of the drama-camp tyros on Mad Men seems barely distinguishable from something you might expect to see on Glee.

So, yes: the undercurrent behind so much of the criticism leveled against The Walking Dead is that it's a "terrible" show, as if being a poor show (as opposed to "merely" an entertaining show) is somehow a sin. It's predicated on an inflated overestimation of the mean quality of televised drama over the last 10-15 years. It doesn't help that The Walking Dead consistently sets viewership records, whereas critical darling Mad Men - and was there ever a more profoundly overpraised show? - gets all-time best ratings by pulling in a scant 1/3 the viewership of The Walking Dead. Well, gosh-dang, isn't that a shame?

People say the acting on The Walking Dead is terrible, but I honestly can't see it. How is the acting on that show any different than the violent scenery-chewing that passes for profound acting on any other overpraised basic cable television show? I'm not trying to be contrary here, I promise: I honestly can't tell how the acting on The Walking Dead is significantly worse than the acting on Mad Men. At least on The Walking Dead I'm not often pulled out of the show by moments of hammy "little kids walking around in their parents clothes" off-Broadway amateur hour emoting. I can readily believe that the folks on The Walking Dead are desperately scared rednecks wandering around the backwoods of Georgia trying not to get eaten, not contemporary actors pretending to look snazzy in their parents' clothing.

I grew up in hick towns in Northern California - far north, just south of Oregon. The parts of California that most people don't even realize exists, way out in the middle of nowhere. The types of places where Confederate flag bumper stickers are a regular sight, usually attached to pickup trucks with gun racks. (And, yeah, obviously California was never part of the Confederacy, I am very well aware of that delicious little piece of irony.) I also lived in Oklahoma for a few years. So I know from "Good Ol' Boys" even if I've never lived in the deep South of Georgia. And one of the things that show gets exactly right - in my estimation - is its evocation of Good Ol' Boy attitudes and behaviors. This isn't an element of the show I've seen discussed often, but the setting is absolutely crucial to the show's drama. It would be an entirely different story if it were set in Southern California, or New England, or Northeast Ohio, or the wilds of Montana. But no: it's set in rural Georgia, the land of Good Ol' Boys and proud self-proclaimed rednecks. And the characters who comprise the show's main cast are by no stretch of the imagination great intellectuals: a couple small-town police officers, a couple lowlifes, some homemakers, a few assorted nobodies. Not a single strategic thinker among them. There's a lawyer who spent most of the first season and much of the second trying not to kill herself. A veterinarian. They're not that smart, they're not that dumb, they're just normal everyday people. Walking cliches? No more than your average Good Ol' Boy. It's a definite type, and furthermore a type to which the self-identifying exemplars enthusiastically conform. I can't help but wonder if there isn't something of a class element in much of the criticism of the show - instead of upper-middle-class WASPS, we're down in the deep south with poor whites and - gasp! - people who actually own guns.

People criticize the show for the fact that the characters consistently act like idiots - well, yeah, I believe that. The show wouldn't really be the same story if it was filled with people who knew what was going on and acted appropriately in all situations - most people, when push comes to shove, just aren't that good in an emergency. And the situation we're given on this show is nothing if not a long, never-ending emergency, the kind of situation that frays your nerves and demolishes your resolve over long periods of time. As annoying as it might seem, it's refreshing to see a story where people so consistently do the wrong things: we're all so used to seeing movies and reading books where people always know what to do that the sensation of seeing people who do stupid things on purpose seems almost radical. Genre fiction especially is held in the sway of the cult of competence: no one likes to read adventure fiction starring idiots. People like to identify with fantasies of extreme competence, we like to believe deep in some part of our brain that if we were put in that situation - whatever it may be, dodging zombies, fighting aliens, racing cars down crowded city streets - we'd know just what to do. In reality, we wouldn't. Fight or flight doesn't always work to our benefit. It's not the same thing as stupid teenagers in a slasher film making the stupid decision to go back in the house instead of just running down the street as fast as they can - it's people in life-or-death situations presented with bad options who make the worst possible decision because they're tired, they're sick, they're worried half to death, they're operating on incomplete information. They get worn down and they die because they make stupid mistakes.

A few years back in class a professor passed out in front of me. I was sitting in the front row and he sat down on the table behind him and just sort of nodded off, faded slowly onto the floor, before he could even finish saying, "I don't feel so good." Everyone else around me stood up like a bolt and ran to his side, but I was rooted to my seat - I couldn't do anything. I felt a little bit faint myself, truth be told. No one at all cared about what I was doing, no one noticed, but I had just sat there while this guy keeled over right in front of me - I felt like a rank coward. I used to work a stressful job that required constant alertness and - very occasionally - split-second decisions and actual physical reflexes. (That was when I worked in the mental hospital, dealing with occasionally violent patients.) I was good at my job. But that was because it was my job, I could deal with it, I walked into the building and I was "on," ready to do these things for which I was paid. But when my professor passed out on the ground three feet in front of me? I didn't do a damn thing. That was just life - and sometimes when unexpected and stressful things happen in life you just sit there with your thumb in your ass. Sometimes we just aren't as good at dealing with surprises as we think we are.

The point is precisely that these people have been put in an impossible situation that requires every iota of their intelligence and skill to survive, and they just aren't prepared to - and, more to the point, aren't able to perform at this level of constant stress. And as much as we, the audience, sitting at home would like to believe that we would do better, it's important to note that every stupid mistake made on this show is made in an air of either vague or definite panic. No one gets to make plans, the best they can hope is to be able to recover from unforced errors. Usually they can't. Whenever the attempt is made to deliberate problems in a calm and rational manner, the process is usually overwhelmed by strong personalities with definite agendas, agendas influenced at least in part by the fact that the constant stress of unreal pressure is causing them to crack ever so surely. Those that survive - and we know that some will survive - will learn to do better. The stupid will die off, the smart will learn from their mistakes - just like people in warzones do, or people running from ethnic cleansing or civil war.

And this, ultimately, is what I find so compelling about The Walking Dead: more than just about any show on TV right now, it is about right now, the moment in which we are currently living. In case you haven't noticed, everything is falling apart right outside your window. Large swaths of people have lost confidence in all levels of contemporary society - you can't turn on the news without seeing further proof of the deepening political, economic, environmental, and psychological crises at the heart of modern life. Oh, wait, excuse me, if you turn on the TV what you really see is a bunch of talking heads and millionaire entertainers whistling past the graveyard of rapidly crumbling western civilization, with massively rich playboys running for president who might as well be speaking Swahili for all their words hold any relevance to the life that is being lived (endured?) on the ground not just across the country but across the world.

 So what zombie shows like The Walking Dead - and Armageddon fantasies in general - actually offer is a way out. This is something demagogues have understood for thousands of years: the idea of immanent disaster, a final tally, closing of accounts, confrontation between good & evil, holds immense appeal for people who feel completely trapped and helpless in their own lives. As strange as it may seem, the end of the world is an empowering fantasy: if everything you take for granted about the world you live in and the life you live suddenly disappeared, if there were no rules, well, you'd have the freedom to do anything you wanted, wouldn't you? Sure, you'd be scared and running for your life and probably wouldn't be able to think straight because you couldn't close your eyes without seeing the faces of all the loved ones you left behind to be eaten, but you'd be on your own with no one responsible for your life but yourself. (Putting aside the fact that these kinds of "end of the world" scenarios actually do happen and have happened across the planet with depressing regularity - hell, are currently happening as we speak in far-off lands we only hear about on late night BBC World Service broadcast.)

Because - here's the thing - the modern condition is one of abject helplessness. People know things aren't going well. Although people across the spectrum disagree and the hows and the whys, there is a broad consensus among a surprisingly diverse array of interests that things are falling apart. Debt levels keep rising higher and higher - and, yes, that bothers the far left just as much as the far right, but for entirely different reasons. Summers and winters are weird now. The lockstep advance of corporate and bio-political coercive power continues unabated. Politics as we know it is essentially a null category and even people who still line up their ballot to vote for the right-center rats over the even-further-right rats are aware of this fact.

The difference is that the crises and emergencies we encounter in our daily lives have no immediate cause. We can't shoot "capitalism" in the face; we can't fire a crossbow shaft through "democracy" or "liberal consensus"; we can't take out "student loan debt" at the knees or run over "environmental degradation" with a truck. Action to change the world around us is long and arduous, and the forces arrayed against even the most gossamer possibilities of substantive change are truly formidable. How much better to imagine a fantasy wherein real actions do matter, where all politics have been radically reduced to local action - nothing is more local than the space between a barn and a farmhouse. What if you were in a life-or-death situation where what you - you personally - did actually mattered? You know, as opposed to the real life-or-death situation we're all in now when even the concerted effort of millions of people across the planet can't even dent the stalwart opposition of multinational corporations and banking conglomerates. Just like now, as many people feel helpless and frightened as feel active and empowered. The difference is that it's so much easier to understand just why the world is falling apart when zombies have killed 99% of the population, as opposed to now when our real enemies are not individual or even collective people but systems, vast dysfunctional "isms" whose collective death grip threatens to strangle the planet nigh unto asphyxiation.

You could say that the zombie plague genre - long since having surpassed its status as a micro-genre and having grown into a significant and lasting fixture on the pop-culture landscape - has become for the 21st century American psyche what the Western genre was to that of the 19th and 20th. I say this not necessarily as a die-hard fan of the genre: it's very rarely done well, it's prone to a lot of in-jokey silliness, and it's just as formulaic - if not moreso - as westerns were in John Wayne's heyday. But bear with me: the western was a genre of hope and national triumphalism, the endlessly reiterated story of strong individuals making their way through a chaotic landscape, creating order through strength and wit, carrying the "virtues" of civilization in the wake of the gunslinger. At the core of the western was either the implicit or explicit promise of manifest destiny, the understanding that the fantasy of the untamed west had receded into the pages of history books, because the west had been tamed, the wilderness had been mapped, the savages definitively routed. This has been the explicit subject matter of the most significant "revisionist" westerns of recent years - Unforgiven, Deadwood, almost Cormac McCarthy's entire oeuvre.

The flip side of this is the zombie apocalypse (and it's worth noting that McCarthy produced his own end-of-the-world tale - if not exactly a zombie story - with The Road). Instead of inherently hopeful, the zombie apocalypse is inherently pessimistic. There is no longer the promise of immanent civilization, a political and social order made possible by the exertions of stolid and courageous individualists. Civilization is gone. Instead of cowboys leading wagon trains in advance of the coming expansion of the commonwealth, you've got small bands of survivors fleeing the ruins of cities and towns - what were once the great symbols of progress are now the infested warrens of cannibalistic killers. The only chance for heroism is survival. Rome has fallen, and those poor bands of stragglers left to huddle together for warmth can't look to the east for the sudden arrival of horse cavalry to save the day. It's a profoundly, sickeningly hopeless myth, eschatological pornography, inherently humorless and implacable.

Is The Walking Dead a great show? Perhaps not. It strains against the limits of hour-long television production. The performers are game and the stories are certainly timely but there is doubt whether or not the formula - which, if the show follows the book, will prove crushingly fatalistic and inescapably depressing over the long run, with no solution or resolution in sight or ever provided - will prove tiresome over the course of however many seasons the series will run. For the moment, it succeeds because it has caught the updraft of a definite mood - a certain vein of crushing despair welling up under the facade of a soft recovery, the indeterminate knowledge that even if it feels like things might be getting better, the augers of future hardship simply don't lie. For now the audience seems to relish the slow suffocation and gradual whittling of the main cast. We'll see how things stand when the show is on season eight and the characters have turned into hardened killers with thousand-yard stares. The inherent humorlessness of the show is a necessary concession to the source material, but already the show veers towards sententiousness and self-parody. But if you accept that the show will always be deathly serious, there are also moments of profound beauty livened by the never-dissipating atmosphere of existential dread.

Horror is customarily a finite genre - you will have to look hard for example of horror fiction that can be successfully sustained in serial format. If the villain / monster / menace can't be dispatched at the end of the movie, well, what is left? The sense of cathartic release one customarily expects to find at the conclusion of a horror narrative never arrives, replaced with a hard, grinding anxiety elicited by the certainty that the threat remains unvanquished, unvanquishable. We never get to see these people enjoy a moment of hard-won peace, it's just one damn thing after another, nauseous uncertainty punctuated by recurring moments of blinding white-hot terror. Is it any wonder that the characters on this show walk around half in a daze, unable to think straight, making mistake after mistake? You would too, if you were in a horror story from which you couldn't wake up and from which there was no promise of release - oh wait, you already are.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Tao of Iron Man

The most important thing to remember about Tony Stark is that he is first and foremost an engineer. He's not some generic comic book super-scientist, he's not a theorist, and he's not an explorer. He's a man of science, but even more to the point he's a practical thinker: he sees problems and he solves them.

Tony Stark has control issues. He has trouble relating to people - one of the hallmarks of his character since all the way back in Stan's day, when he was cold and distant towards the people in his life, burdened by the terrible secret of the heart problem that was slowly killing him. He's never been one to let others in. He appears as imperturbable as his metal armor. Time and again he is pulled up short by his inability to trust other people, even his closest friends and lovers. This is pretty much the oldest Iron Man story formula in the books: Tony thinks he has the situation under control, he refuses to ask his friends for help, and things only get worse the more headstrong he becomes.

As many problems as there were with the execution - and boy were there ever problems with the execution - the core idea at the root of Civil War was a sound one. Anyone who had a problem with conceiving of Iron Man and Captain America coming to blows over the finer points of ethical behavior should just think back to the last few times Iron Man and Captain America came to blows over ethical behavior. This is right at the heart of why these characters play off each other so well: Cap is an idealist, Iron Man is a pragmatist. It's the difference between ends and means. Cap has seen too much war and too much death to ever believe that any good can come from compromising your beliefs in the name of expedience. Iron Man believes in nothing so much as his own ability to solve problems. Captain America goes through periodic crises of confidence, wherein his resolve is tested by the discrepancy between his ideals and our reality; Iron Man goes through periodic crises of distrust, wherein his failure to fully control the consequences of his actions and his inability to trust the people around him alienates friends and allies.

This is why, as fun as the movies can be, Robert Downey Jr.'s portrayal of Tony Stark is completely wrong in a few crucial aspects. Downey plays Tony Stark as if Stark were a version of himself - hyperactive, ebullient, sarcastic. He's a happy man, secure in the knowledge that he's the smartest asshole in the room, and smug enough to know that everyone else understands that fact perfectly well. In the movies Tony Stark is funny, and perhaps more importantly he's sexy. The character has a great appeal and it's not hard to understand why the immense success of the movies has influenced the character's portrayal in the comics.

The problem is that while the movies certainly do a good job of filling in a general outline of Stark's character, they miss something very important: Tony Stark takes himself very seriously, and furthermore, he's very serious about having dedicated his life to helping others. He took himself seriously before receiving a chestful of shrapnel in Vietnam, and he took himself even more seriously when he had to plug his armor into a wall socket every few hours in order to stay alive. He took himself so seriously that when he had trouble keeping his act together, when circumstances threatened to become overwhelming, he turned inward and self-medicated with alcohol. And when he did that, he lost control of everything. He's not someone who would throw a massive party in his Iron Man armor and show off for some pretty starlets. He's not a happy drunk, not at all - when he falls far enough to drink, he's a self-pitying, melancholy mess.

Movie Iron Man is a loose cannon, distrusted by the government and impossible to control. In the comics, of course, Iron Man has been cast as a humorless straight-man more-or-less since time immemorial. Tony Stark takes his responsibilities very seriously. It's important to remember that Tony Stark was a full-grown adult when he became Iron Man, with an established world view and personality. The one important thing that changed in Stark as a result of the circumstances that led to his becoming Iron Man was that he became a philanthropist, someone who dedicated his time and resources to helping others - someone who believed it was his duty to help others, because he was the only one worthy to be trusted with the secrets of his armor. Compare that to Captain America, who is defined primarily by his ability to inspire the best in others, or even Thor, who considers his duty as a hero to be a function of his inherent nobility of a warrior, and you see why Iron Man stands apart. He's a bleeding heart, but it's coming from a very weird place - born rich and privileged beyond most people's wildest dreams, when he comes to responsibility he comes to it as a kind of individual mandate. There's always something just a little bit condescending in Iron Man's tone - something inextricably WASP-y and old-money - that stands at odds with the egalitarian language utilized by Captain America or the honor code that motivates Thor. He's not motivated by anything as fancy as ideals or honor, but plain old ethical pragmatism. He sees problems and tries to solve them, because he sees himself as the most qualified person in the room when it comes to solving problems.

Which is not to say for one second that his desire to help the world is anything less than entirely sincere. The problems are that he isn't entirely selfless, and he isn't capable of identifying his own shortcomings. He ends up making the same mistakes over and over again, because while he may be one of the smartest men on the planet he's still not smart enough to recognize his own hubris.

Stan Lee always says that Iron Man, of all the original Marvel hero books, was the most popular with women. They received more fan letters from women for Iron Man than any other character. It's not hard to see why: originally, Tony Stark was drawn by Don Heck as pretty much the spitting image of Clark Gable, down to the pencil mustache on his upper lip. He wasn't a lothario by any means, but he was a grown adult who carried himself as a grown adult, albeit an extremely attractive and powerful adult, and one who also carried the strange secret of a literally wounded heart. Is there any metaphor more likely to win a young girl's fancy?

For decades Iron Man's gimmick was that Tony Stark had some kind of disability. First, he was dying of heart failure because there was shrapnel suspended near his heart. Then, after his heart was fixed, he developed a problem with alcohol, and his battle with alcohol eventually led to him losing complete control of his company, his money, the Iron Man armor, and even his life for a significant amount of time. After he regained control following that he was shot by a jealous lover and spent a year in a wheelchair, after which he was cured by an experimental surgical implant that enabled a group of villains to take control of his body - the upshot of getting free of that situation was that he was left almost entirely paralyzed and near death. He faked his death after that, a decision that (sing the chorus!) alienated his closest friends and allies for years. (And then, well, it was revealed that he had been mind-controlled by Kang since 1964 and turned into a murderer before being replaced by his teen counterpart from an alternate Earth . . . well, the less said about that the better.)

The point is that he has always been a "hard luck hero," but he was never obsessed with self-pity. He didn't mope around like Spider-Man - certainly an attractive identification figure for insecure male readers but hardly a romantic ideal for young women to lionize. (At least not initially - I know plenty of women have fictional crushes on Peter Parker, but compare the portrayal of the male protagonists in Lee & Heck's earliest Iron Man stories with Lee & Ditko's Spider-Man and you'll see a world of difference - which of those two characters do you think you most resemble, and which do you want to actually be?) He was / is attractive to women because he was vulnerable but not obsessed with his vulnerability - that his confidence is often belied by reality is perfectly besides the point. His lack of self-reflection was always the root of his greatest problem. It's been years since Tony Stark has had an actual physical disability, and in that time it's become sufficient merely to assert that Stark's greatest weakness is his poisonous self-regard.

Would people otherwise have trouble identifying with an insanely wealthy protagonist, if he weren't on some level a highly dysfunctional person? Batman is rich as Croesus and people have rarely felt that this attribute made the character less relatable. Batman is a wish-fulfillment fantasy par excellence - his money is a means by which he achieves his goal of avenging his parents and fighting crime. Iron Man, however, isn't working from any kind of primal trauma. He's actually kind of insufferable - and this is true of every Iron Man, in any medium. The character is less approachable than Batman or Spider-Man or even - I would argue - Superman, because there's something in Tony Stark's character that keeps him from ever being the purely selfless heroic ideal. He's a businessman and an engineer, a man of rationality with a supreme confidence in his own ability to fix any situation, no matter how seemingly insoluble. He's not a family man like Reed Richards and he doesn't have the family trauma of Peter Parker or Bruce Wayne (although it was explained in hindsight that his family was cold and distant, it was hardly a defining trait), so the only things that keep him grounded are his own feet of clay. His model of do-gooding is profoundly philanthropic - sincere and serious-minded, but vaguely condescending for all that.

Iron Man is unique in super-hero comics because he's a protagonist the audience is often encouraged to dislike, either obliquely or explicitly. His greatest conflicts usually involve overcoming his own highly inflated sense of importance, and dealing with the repercussions of bad decisions made in the name of utility. He will always be the "cool exec with a heart of steel," a plutocrat who has perversely dedicated himself to the betterment of mankind - but on his terms and no others.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

The Tao of Hawkeye

I find it slightly disconcerting that there are people out there who may not understand the appeal of Hawkeye.

It is almost certain that the forthcoming Avengers film will get Hawkeye exactly wrong. From all indications - and from the brief preview of the character we got during Thor - the Hawkeye who joins the filmic Avengers is a SHIELD agent whose speciality just happens to be the bow and arrow. This is certainly in keeping with the Ultimate version of the character but - again! - that wasn't really Hawkeye.

The reason why this is important is that Hawkeye isn't just a character in a garish purple costume who shoots a bow - his personality is his defining trait. Meaning, his attitude, his chutzpah, his arrogance and matching insecurity. When you give us a character who is a SHIELD special agent who has spent years training in the military with all the baggage that entails, you've warped the character beyond recognition. Hawkeye may be relatively obscure next to the likes of Captain America and the Hulk, but that's all the more reason to make sure his personality is well defined. I'm sure movie Hawkeye will crack a few jokes and maybe be impulsive, but the movie's very premise precludes Hawkeye being anything actually resembling the rebellious SOB he is in the books.

Or, to put it another way: the context of the movies being what it is, the basic dynamic between Captain America, Thor, and Iron Man should remain largely unscathed (and the Hulk, being a slightly disconnected wildcard in the comics, should come across well as long as he remains essentially a loose cannon). But Hawkeye's hook is almost completely effaced by the conceit of the Avengers being a super-powered special-forces team assembled by the government. SHIELD isn't the kind of outfit where an ex-carnie can waltz in, tie-up the butler, and sweet-talk his way into the major leagues.

Who is Hawkeye? If you haven't read many Avengers comics, you might not have a good handle on his character. After all, he has never been able to support a solo book, he's never been a particularly prolific guest star, and he hasn't really done much of anything in the last ten years other than die and come back as a ninja (sigh). But it's absolutely vital to understand two things about him: 1) he's not Green Arrow and 2) he's kind of an asshole.

The first point might seem obvious, but it bears further scrutiny. Green Arrow is a character who, for large portions of his existence, has had very little reason to exist. Go back and read any Golden Age Green Arrow story, any 1950s Green Arrow story - even Jack Kirby's very weird Green Arrow stories. He was a mystery man in the Batman mold, complete with expensive toys and a youthful ward. Nothing at all original about him. Then in the sixties, they hit on the great idea of making him a lefty, and that characterization has stuck ever since for better or for worse. The post-Silver Age Green Arrow is a memorable character for a number of reasons: he's a principled individual who is nonetheless a callow heel in his personal life; he's a man with a deep awareness of the insoluble complexities at the root of crime who nonetheless regularly uses violence as a means of conflict resolution; he's a rich man who feels a great deal of guilt at his life of privilege. These are all very interesting hooks, and most good Green Arrow stories have used this template as their starting point (also, it should be noted, any number of terrible preachy faux-pretentious stories about Eastern religion and super-spy espionage claptrap, but whatevs).

The one thing that Green Arrow hasn't really been very good at since the late sixties was actually being a super-hero. Sure, he wears a costume and fights crooks, but the moment he started talking about fighting the causes of problems like drug abuse and poverty and dealing with issues on a street-level basis, he stopped making sense as a dues-paying member of the Justice League. Sure enough, although he remained in the book throughout the sixties and seventies, creative teams since then have faced an uphill battle in terms of providing a convincing rationale for someone like Green Arrow to be on the team. By the time the eighties rolled around most writers gave up trying. Green Arrow remained a mostly inactive member of the League - his history with the team was never erased. But there was always tension between the (real-world) fact that Green Arrow was a big enough name that he could never be cut out of the franchise entirely, and the inescapable conclusion that the character himself often wanted very little to do with fighting world-beaters and alien armadas.

Hawkeye, on the other hand, doesn't really work outside the context of the Avengers. People have tried, certainly: he's even developed a small but respectable solo rogues gallery, mostly composed of people from Clint Barton's past who have a mad-on for whatever reason. But he doesn't have any projects, any real reason to operate, outside his team. He doesn't have Green Arrow's social conscience to propel his characterization. Hawkeye grew up a poor orphan, a boy who literally ran away to join the circus and learned everything he needed at the feet of some extremely dubious characters. For Hawkeye, being an Avenger is the best job in the world, certainly more than almost anyone else in his position could ever have dreamed of accomplishing. Whenever he's left the team - to have his own "hard traveling hero" moments, or to gain perspective on whatever recent setback he suffered - it's always been temporary, and often when he's left the main Avengers group it's been for the purpose of founding or joining another group, such as the West Coast Avengers or the Thunderbolts.

But if we've established that Hawkeye doesn't work outside of the Avengers, we still haven't ascertained exactly why he does work in the Avengers. The answer to this question relates back to my second assertion: Hawkeye is an asshole.

On the most elementary level, this is Group Dynamics 101: if you're writing a group - any group - you need to have one member who is excessively abrasive and undeniably unpleasant, someone for the rest of the group to spark against and to incite interpersonal conflict. But there's more to it than that. Hawkeye starts off as a wild-card, a former criminal who bluffs his way onto the Avengers by breaking into the team's headquarters and tying up the butler. He becomes part of the famous "Cap's Kooky Quartet" incarnation of the team, alongside Captain America, Quicksilver, and the Scarlet Witch.

At the outset, Hawkeye didn't get along with anyone. He resented Cap's experience and command, he took an instant dislike to Quicksilver's officious egotism, and insisted on putting the moves on the Scarlet Witch even though it made her brother see red. Remember: Hawkeye started out as a crook. He was tricked into theft and espionage by the Black Widow, who was using her sex as a means of controlling the archer. (This was back in 1964, mind you!) He barges his way into the Avengers based on nothing more than his facility with a bow and arrow and an absolutely enormous pair of brass balls.

This has been the one constant of Hawkeye's character from his very earliest appearances. How else do you think that a normal dude, with just a bow and some fancy trick arrows, could ever actually believe he was worthy to stand next to the likes of Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man - a Norse god who can level mountains with a throw of his magic hammer, a super-soldier who fought in World War II, and a brilliant engineer who was able to build the most powerful suit of armor on the planet out of old car parts and transistor radios while bleeding to death in a bamboo shack in Vietnam? The answer to this question is that Hawkeye gets to stand next to the most powerful beings on the planet simply because he's earned the right to be there. He simply doesn't quit: even after all these years he's still got something to prove. He'll always have something to prove. He covers it up with jokes and an attitude, but he's got an absolutely indomitable will, and alongside it a willingness to do anything - even cheat! - to win the day.

His relationship with Captain America is one of the most complex in comics. Hawkeye has essentially built his career out of trying to impress Cap. Biologically, Cap isn't that much older than Hawkeye: he's hardly a father figure, more like a slightly older, more responsible brother. The difference is that whereas Hawkeye spent his late teens and early twenties working as a carnival roustabout and falling into a life of petty crime, Cap spent his formative years fighting Nazis. Captain American came out of the ice prematurely old: he may have only lived twenty-some years, but he had spent four years in a war, seeing his friends cut down by the hundreds and witnessing some of history's worst atrocities firsthand. He came out of suspended animation ready to fight and lead, disciplined and driven. Here comes Hawkeye: brash, loud, uncouth - talented and yet profoundly irascible. Hawkeye knows he isn't half the man Cap is, not yet, but he will be damned if he'll ever tell him that.

And so even when Hawkeye grows and changes, matures into leadership roles as the chairman of the West Coast Avengers and later with the Thunderbolts, he can't shake that little voice in the back of his head constantly comparing himself to Captain America. He will never cease to want to impress Cap, while at the same time resenting himself for still striving for Cap's approval. This is something that Rick Remender definitely understands in Secret Avengers: no matter how seasoned and experienced Hawkeye may be, he still gets a little torked around Cap, he acts out, he mouths off. Kurt Busiek got it, too, during his run on the Avengers: Hawkeye was the leader of the West Coast Avengers for ten years but the moment he was back on the "real" Avengers with Cap he couldn't help but feel inferior again, like that kid jostling with Cap for leadership of the team back in the mid-60s, spouting off like a hothead besides the fact that he damn well knows better.

But despite all that, there's no doubt that - of all the Avengers - Captain America and Hawkeye are probably the best friends. Cap, Thor, and Iron Man are all close, no doubt, but it's the kind of closeness built by respected professionals after years of working on an intimate basis. They still all have their separate lives and adventures - it's hard to imagine them relaxing together in the same way that some of the more tertiary Avengers do. Brian Michael Bendis - of all people! - captured this dynamic quite well in the Avengers: Prime mini-series. When they're fighting side-by-side, they are close as any three people can be - but when the fighting stops and they have to interact as people, their speech can be a bit stilted, their small talk tentative. They're not quite sure how to shoot the shit with each other. But you get the idea that, all things being equal, Hawkeye is one of Cap's closest real friends - right next to the Falcon, Sharon Carter, and Nick Fury (although, maybe not Fury for a few years since Fury's been written as such a doggedly unlikeable character), and probably more so than even Bucky (whose relationship with Cap is even more complicated and ambivalent than Hawkeye's). They've got more in common than just about anyone else - two senior Avengers who rely on little more than skills and their wit to allow them to hold their own next to the most powerful beings on the planet.

This is why Hawkeye is such a wonderful character: he's a hotheaded, arrogant, completely insufferable prick who nevertheless manages to back up every word (whether he's actually bluffing or not, you'll probably never know). He manages to hold his own in the Avengers through sheer force of will: he's always said he belongs there, and people just believe him. He's always going to be smiling because he knows, on some level, he's basically living every kid's dream: he gets to play Robin Hood and save the world, and sometimes he even gets to date the most beautiful women. What's not to like about that? He loves his job, and you would too.