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February 1, 2018

Mockingbird and Hawkeye, Part 1

Mockingbird and Hawkeye: A love letter to love

Super heros hate marriage.

Or at least the men who run the major superhero comics hate it. Joe Quesada famously obliterated Spiderman’s charming, logically consistent marriage to Mary-Jane (though the current “Renew Your Vows” series may correct that mistake). DC lost the award winning Batwoman creative team in 2013 in no small part due to their refusal to allow her to marry her female lover. Aquaman’s marriage was ret-conned out of existence; Storm and Black Panther are divorced. Practically the only married couple left is Sue Storm and Reed Richards: the picture of bland, perfectly traditional heterosexual wedded bliss. (Full disclosure: until Fraction started writing the Fantastic Four I found them unbearable).

So how is it that in 1983, Mark Gruenwald presented the Marvel universe with a truly adult marriage between equals? And why has everyone seem to have forgotten it?

In 1983 Hawkeye was still a fairly new Avenger, conflicted and contrary, uncertain about his place as a superhero and bitter about his disastrous love life. His last two love interests had been Black Widow (who manipulated, lied to and dumped him) and Scarlet Witch (who rebuffed him). During the four issue mini-series bearing his name he met, fought with, had his ass kicked by, kicked the ass of and saved the day with a virtually unknown hero named Mockingbird.

Mockingbird was Barbara “Bobbi” Morse, a genius scientist, brilliant spy and formidable stick fighter (consistently ranked as one of the most dangerous close combat fighters the Avengers have, despite having had no actual superpowers until relatively recently). Her love life was almost a match for Hawkeye’s in perfect hideousness: she had been paired off with Ka-Zar (who dumped her for Shanna the She-Devil) and Dr. Paul Allen (AIM double agent).

And in the last panels of the mini-series, they are sipping champagne in a heart-shaped tub, celebrating their marriage. She asked him.

I discovered the mini-series in my early adolescence. Even then I was a strange girl, more interested in football than dolls; pretending to be a Transformer, not a princess. Too smart, too awkward and not pretty, I watched in envy and terror as my peers began to learn the little dances of courtship that begin around then. Quietly, silently, I despaired of ever being part of a couple. I was certain I was alone, a solitary freak, unlovable and destined to be alone.

Hawkeye and Mockingbird saved me.

Here was a woman who was strong, tough, smart–much smarter than her high-school drop out husband–who had found what seemed almost a perfect guy. Because from the moment he met her Hawkeye never treated Mockingbird as an equal…he treated her as though he never considered she wasn’t his equal. They fought as equals, both against each other and as a team against enemies; they each had roles and responsibilities as heroes that the other partner respected, acknowledged and facilitated. That they weren’t real didn’t matter. Someone had imagined that they existed (they were both normal humans, unaltered, un-mutated) and that was what mattered. If they could be imagined, they could exist. (There’s a logical fallacy there, yes, but I was still a child; even now, I hold out hope).

They went onto to form the West Coast Avengers together. And for four years (real-time) they were that rarest of things: a fully sexual, deeply loving adult married superhero couple. They fought, yes, these were both passionate, high-tempered warriors living dangerous, conflicted lives. But they kissed at least as much–nearly every writer and artist who has handled them together shows them making out, often passionately, in their spare time. In moments of joy or sorrow, they embrace, they stand together, intertwined. Fight scenes and interstitial moments with other heroes are peppered with sexual double entendres; silly sweet nicknames (“Moxie!” “Hawky-poo!” are two of my favorites) fly in the midst of combat.

Combat faced together, with faith in each other’s abilities, with respect and trust. Hawkeye never sought to protect Mockingbird any more or less than any other comrade; Mockingbird never expected to be treated as anything other than an equal and an Avenger, with all the responsibility and danger inherent in the job.

I’m not going to get into a blow by blow of their history together, though I do have to mention at least in passing the ill conceived, misogynistic debacle that was the Phantom Rider saga. In short, the West Coast Avengers are sent into the past. While there, Mockingbird is stalked, kidnapped, drugged and coerced into a sexual relationship by Lincoln Slade, the Phantom Rider.

Let me be more blunt: she is drugged and raped by a sexually obsessive psychopath who thinks she is a goddess. When she breaks free of his control, they fight and he falls off a cliff. She doesn’t push him. She doesn’t stomp on his hands. She simply watches as he slips and falls to his death.

(Note: I will speak at length about the Chelsea Cain Mockingbird series and the Phantom Rider therein in a later post)

And the most despicable part about the whole thing?

When Hawkeye finds out (months after her ‘rescue’)…he gets angry at her. Because she ‘let him die and Avengers don’t kill’. In fact, he chooses to believe the words of the clearly demented ghost of the man who kidnapped and raped his wife. Rather than talk to her.

Even in my youth-befuddled state this whole situation rang as false as a life model decoy. While it seemed possible-if unlikely-that Mockingbird would conceal the extent of her abuse from her husband (super heroes can be victims too, with all the undeserved shame and pain of any abuse victim) Clint Barton’s reaction to her lying to him might be upset disappointment or sadness over a lack of total trust.

The only thing that Clint Barton–as written by Marvel in general, throughout his erratic, extensive history–would be angry about upon learning his wife’s rapist was dead would be “Why didn’t I get the chance to put an arrow in his face first?”.

The laziest and most common way to inject “tension” into any romantic relationship is to break it up via a third party. It seems almost that writers have come to think this is the only way to make a relationship interesting: have someone cheat, or lie, or be seduced.

Add that to the long tradition of “fridging” the female (usually civilian) half of a superhero couple to cause the hero man-pain and you see why someone in the head office thought “Well, they’ve been married for years, these stories must be getting boring. Time to have something terrible happen to the woman! It’s horrible, and trite and out of character, and just plain stupid but if we don’t what are we going to do for drama?”

Let’s pause here, though. Let’s cue the wavy lines of the way back machine and think about a hypothetical. Instead Hawkeye and Mockingbird breaking up over her assault, let’s say they worked it out…maybe they go away for a few “months”, find some little cabin in the woods. Maybe they talk it out and realize that love is enough, and she shouldn’t have lied and maybe he failed her by being someone she wasn’t sure she could trust one hundred percent. And maybe this is the (still undisclosed) moment that their failed pregnancy miscarries. Because I’m basically evil, I’d have them get attacked as they are mourning the loss of the child, by AIM or Hydra or a biker gang or something. They win, obviously, after set-backs and seeming defeat, because in the end they were always a great team (Jim McCann uses that trope in his ‘New Avengers: Reunion’ mini-series that brings them back together in the modern age, post Secret Wars. They’ve since been broken up again. Sigh.)

Now think about what spreads out from there. Think about thirty years of Marvel quietly having them stick together, fighting foes and each other, arguing, kissing; snark and love in the same sentences some times. All the ups and downs of their lives, all the extraordinary dangers and triumphs of being a superhero. All the pain, and fear and joy.

Imagine this modern couple making their way in the Marvel universe. Childless by circumstance and then choice (for there can be no humane, logical way active heroes could raise a child). Equals in many ways though not all: at their first meeting, even the bad guy thinks Mockingbird could kick Hawkeye’s ass hand to hand.

Hawkeye never seemed to care about that. He always seemed proud that she was so accomplished (and to be frank, proud of himself that she wanted to be with him). He never sought to make her less than what she was: powerful, independent, resourceful, clever (acknowledged as genius multiple times as well as one of the best fighters the Avengers have). He loved her as both a hero and woman; not separate things but one whole, complete entity.

In return, Mockingbird is the only woman Hawkeye has ever been paired with for any length of time who never used, manipulated, rebuffed, belittled or diminished him.

Even the Black Widow, whom he himself acknowledges as his “best friend” mocks him regularly. His most recent girlfriend, Spiderwoman (a weak, self-pitying waif–yeah, I’m not a fan) treated him like a misbehaving dog. That quickly broken-up pairing never had a ring of truth beyond the obvious physical attraction.

Hawkeye at his best is a character who epitomized the difference between masculine and macho (as was/is Steve Rogers). Masculine men know they are men; macho guys are terrified they are not. Clint was never threatened by his wife’s skills; he relied on them as part of his mandate to lead the West Coast Avengers and then the New Avengers during the Dark Reign event.

Mockingbird, at her best, is a woman who knows her worth, her strength and will hold her tongue for no man’s comfort. She still watched Hawkeye’s back and supported his decisions when he was the leader, not trying to second-guess or usurp him.

It’s heart-breaking to look at the potential they had together, and then watch it be immolated on the pyre of ‘maintain the status quo’.

But behind all the mistakes and all the mis-steps there still gleams this light, this diamond buried in the ash. Marvel had the gem in its grasp and let it slip back into the mud, to be covered over by time and stomping feet. It’s still gleaming there, waiting. Hawkeye’s profile is high, since Matt Fraction’s brilliant series (with gorgeous Aja artwork in many of the issues) and the character is a mainstay on Avenger comics teams. In the cinematic world Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye actually gets something to do in the last few MCU movies and is taking on his ‘Ronin’ persona for Avengers 3 and 4. Apparently.

Mockingbird was introduced to live action on the ‘Agents of Shield’ television series, portrayed by Adrianne Palicki. It’s a good take on her character: she seems physically formidable and tough-minded but friendlier than Ming-Na Wen’s Agent May. They even shoehorned a Clint-Analogue ex-husband into the mix. She was back for a while in print with the Secret Avengers–and although written out of that series she was treated with respect and never shown as a victim, even when the Scientist Supreme of AIM was messing pretty severely with her head (her cry of “**** your mansplaining!” as she punches him out is one of the more beautiful moments Marvel has printed recently).

The late lamented Cain/Niemczyk/Moustafa/Rosenberg/Caramagna/Jones will be getting more than one post from me in time. Wait for it.

I respect the work Marvel has done to both move forward its own agenda and do good service to their fans. I respect their commitment to diversity and change. And I would have even more respect for them if they could look backwards into their history and resurrect Mock and Hawk as a couple. If someone could pause and reflect on a beautiful might-have-been than can still be a now-is.

One of the arguments against married heroes is that it somehow “ages” them, making them less relevant or relatable to the children who read comic books. Except that adults read them too…and children understand that there are married people who are not their parents. In any case, having one second-tier Avenger married to another (and yes, for all that I love him, Hawkeye until recently was very second-tier–thank the Marvel Cinematic Universe for his uptick in relevance) would hardly be earth-shattering or heavily disruptive to the canon.

What it would disrupt, or at least have a shot at disrupting, is some of the still heavy-handed treatment of female heroes. I would love to meet a young man who had grown up with Hawkeye and Mockingbird as role-models for how to be part of a couple, of how to love a woman, how to be a man. This would not be a boy who would harass women on Twitter, or tolerate someone else doing it. This would not be a boy who would only see a woman’s worth in her body.

I would love to meet a young girl who grew up on comics that taught her she could be loved for who she is, not what. That being tough, brave and intelligent were sexy in their own right. To expect that any man, any partner, worth their time was one who would treat them as an equal. That she could be a hero, not just a hero’s girlfriend.

This is why Hawkeye and Mockingbird still matter.