Christy Admiraal’s previous work for The Toast can be found here.
When you’re 18 and diagnosed bipolar after years of struggling with keeping your emotions in check, it’s hard to find a hero to relate to. I didn’t find mine till I was in my mid-twenties, and by then I’d learned to cope with the stigma that can come along with being bipolar. But just because I could often cope didn’t mean I didn’t want someone to look up to, someone who could take what could be perceived as brokenness and turn it into something good through sheer force of will.
The first example of a movie character dealing with mental illness that comes to mind, for me, is an obvious one: The Royal Tenenbaums’ Richie. He’s chronically depressed, whether he acknowledges that or not. He alters his appearance and attempts suicide to the tune of Elliott Smith’s “Needle in the Hay.” This is a painfully cliché suicide scene. Ultimately, Richie seeks comfort in romantic love rather than himself. It’s disheartening, and though the movie is a favorite of mine for other reasons, Richie doesn’t ever really land as a character you can admire. None of them do.
Years later, in The Silver Linings Playbook, I found Pat: a raw, vulnerable character whose relationship is more incidental than restorative. He becomes reliant on himself, forms friendships, strengthens his connections with his parents, and pursues healthy hobbies. He does what every cognitive behavioral therapist wants his or her patients to do. When the movie draws to a close, it’s obvious that he’s found healing; sure, his issues with mood swings and angry spells aren’t erased, but he knows how to work around them. And he has a girlfriend, though that simply happens to be the case. (Tiffany’s arc is more problematic — the implication is that she may not be able to heal without Pat, so it’s hard to hold the movie in high esteem, at least in this regard.)
There was still something missing with Silver Linings: that magical, larger-than-life element that accompanies those stars of our modern myths—our superheroes. Today, my hero of choice isn’t Superman with his single weakness, or Batman and his grief compensation via vigilante justice. It’s not even Black Widow, who overcomes years of abuse and transforms herself into a well-oiled machine, a singularly talented fighter with fabulous hair. Instead, it’s the character that one of his own writers, Matt Fraction, describes as a “human crapsack tire fire of a human being,” the one who can’t keep a girlfriend to save his life, who finds strength in his countless weaknesses. As a (self-described) human disaster who’s been battling (self-perceived) weaknesses her entire life, my hero is Hawkeye. And I couldn’t feel more right about it.
Clint Barton is kind of a mess, and he always has been. When he first showed up in the Marvel movies (and the MCU still hasn’t nailed that character and likely never will, but at least we all have the Hulk, right?), there was some confusion surrounding his inclusion in the Avengers roster. Hawkeye’s not a superhuman. He doesn’t come equipped with super serum or genius intellect. He’s good at one thing, really good at it. But that doesn’t cancel out his poor success rate when it comes to friendships, relationships, and generally behaving like a well-adjusted adult.
I didn’t truly love Hawkeye until I read Fraction’s take on the character in early 2014. I was coming off a couple years of reading Y: The Last Man and countless Batman titles. I’d discovered comics thanks to a professor’s inclusion of The Dark Knight Returns on our Communication & Culture reading list in summer of 2006. I was still fairly fixated on movies at that point, having declared a major in film—a major that changed not long after, when my school started offering a broader major in media studies. It was at that point that I started viewing other media as art, too; mainly TV and comics.
The Dark Knight Returns was only the beginning. Soon a good friend of mine persuaded me to read Watchmen; she was the only person I knew who was qualified to explain just how much the movie fell short of the source material. My final semester of school involved more than one graphic novel as required reading; Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (which I’d read years before, around the time I realized graphic novels could be every bit as good as run-of-the-mill, picture-free novels) and Gene Yang’s American Born Chinese earned valuable real estate on my overstuffed bookshelf. By the time I graduated in 2009, I was well-versed in graphic novels and skewed more toward DC than Marvel comics. That was Batman’s fault and, more specifically, the fault of the supporting cast. Barbara Gordon’s a longtime favorite, dating back to the hours I spent eating s’mores Pop Tarts and watching the live-action ’60s show in high school, and her father is heroic in his own right: flawed but competent, trusting the Caped Crusader just as much as he should and no more than that.
When I moved to New York in 2012, no longer as enamored with Wes Anderson movies as I was with Scott Snyder comics, I reconnected with Elizabeth, the friend who’d sold me on Watchmen years before. She and her roommate Rebecca let me treat their IKEA shelves as a lending library, telling me which Batman titles were their personal favorites and gently nudging me in the direction of Marvel Now! when I grew tired of Batman and finished Y: The Last Man. By early 2014, I was ready for something new, and that’s when Elizabeth told me that Hawkeye was a lot more interesting in comic book form than he’d been in The Avengers.
If you’ve never been into comics before, Hawkeye is as good an introduction as any. It’s a book about what Clint Barton does when he’s not an Avenger, exploring his relationships with his teammates, friends, family, and the fellow tenants of his apartment building. There aren’t maudlin soliloquies or extended fight scenes on every other page; for the most part, it’s a real-world drama (or tragicomedy, depending on Clint’s mental state in any particular issue). And in my opinion, it’s infinitely more approachable than the sprawling universe of the X-Men, the trials of Captain America, or the ongoing brooding of Batman.
I’ve never found a comic character more relatable than Hawkeye. The Clint that Fraction wrote falls prey to the same mistakes, time and again; when someone cares about him or wants to help him, he pushes them away, insisting he can do everything on his own. He’s not canonically neurodiverse, but he suffers from some of the same patterns I see in my own life. And when that happens, he’s called out by his exes and—perhaps more importantly—his protégé, Kate Bishop.
When I read the comic, I found myself wishing I’d had a Kate Bishop of my own in high school and college—someone to tell me they’d be there when I felt useless, when I’d convinced myself I couldn’t do anything right. Then I realized, with a pang of leftover sadness, that I’ve always had a support system, perhaps less superhuman than Clint’s, but a support system nonetheless. If one of Clint Barton’s anti-powers is failed self-sufficiency, I can relate all too well. When I’m off my meds or I haven’t slept or I’m experiencing an outsized amount of stress, I become someone very much unlike the person I try to be. I regress in a way that’s borderline profound, forgoing sleeping and eating and, often, leaving the house so I can spend my time half-watching Law & Order: SVU while dwelling on my flaws. These are the times when I recognize that my resolve could crumble at any moment, the times when I know I should call my doctor but don’t have the strength to pick up the phone, the times when I feel the need to apologize to my husband every time we speak because this wasn’t what he signed on for six years ago.
In the penultimate issue of Hawkeye, Clint experiences a moment of clarity that hits painfully close to home for me. He’s on the edge of reconciling with sometimes-girlfriend Jessica Drew and tells her that he thinks he wants to be the person “all of you people seem to think [I am].” When I was 16, a friend’s grandmother passed away, and I asked if there was anything I could do to help. She said to me, “Just be Christy.” That’s what I’ve been trying to do—successfully sometimes, others, not so much—ever since. And it’s the new leaf Clint turns over at that moment. He begins to realize that he needs people, just like every person ultimately knows but doesn’t necessarily acknowledge. He needs to be able to lean on his fellow Avengers, Jessica, Kate, and his motley crew of neighbors.
Since early evaluations in elementary school classrooms, I’ve been told I don’t ask enough questions. I like gaining knowledge on my own, and I can’t be bothered to bother others with whatever thing I’ve forgotten or have yet to learn. It’s a hang-up that followed me all through college and into the workplace. At some point—I’d put it around December of last year—I began to realize that asking someone to give you a hand isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s an acknowledgment that you’re a human being who’s looking to better themselves and can recognize that they might not have it all figured out just yet. Clint got there, too; as a reader, you always knew he would, and it’s something that, despite all the pain he experiences, adds some lightness to his life.
As far as support systems go, Clint’s can’t be beat. Tony Stark’s there for financial advice. Steve Rogers is an expert when it comes to moral fortitude, and Natasha Romanov helps him figure out where he’s gone wrong and how he can make it right. More important than the other Avengers, though, are Kate and Barney. Kate has a set of issues of her own to work through, and her relationship with Clint is a true partnership; they’re ready to rely on each other when they’re in a jam, and she’s not afraid to let him know when he needs to adjust his attitude. Barney Barton isn’t really who anyone looks to for support; he’s Clint’s brother, forever messed up with some criminal activity or another, but he’s extremely loyal to Clint. And in Clint’s darkest hour, that’s exactly what he needs.
I don’t have superheroes on my side. But I have people I greatly admire and trust and love, a team that’s there when I need them to prop me back up after I’ve fallen prey to old habits. These habits do die hard; some, I’ve come to understand, won’t ever really go away. I don’t bury them now — I embrace that they’re part of me, things I’ll never stop working on and working through, and having others around who see what I’m doing makes it that much easier to bear.
In Fraction’s Hawkeye, Clint’s actions ultimately lead to a permanent injury: partial deafness in both ears. Because I have never been a comic book hero and, as such, have not been pursued by a violent gang of tracksuit draculas, I’ve not gone through this kind of personal tragedy. I’ve been reckless, though. I’ve treated people—both others and myself—poorly. I’ve missed out on opportunities due to a formerly unshakeable combination of apathy and sadness. I’ve toyed with the idea of suicide, laying out plans that I believed would do the least possible amount of harm to my family and friends. This sort of thing isn’t easy for me to own up to. But one of the most reassuring things about Clint is that he’s bad at admitting weakness, too—and, more importantly, he grows past that. At some point, I had to learn how to do the same. Suicide hasn’t been on my mind for over a decade. Is that a superpower? Not by standard comic book definition, no. But it feels pretty damn super to me.
There’s no doubt in my mind that in future Hawkeye titles, Clint’s going to regress. He’ll return to his stubbornness, his old ways, and continue devaluing himself. And inevitably, so will I. I’ll go through rough patches, even as I get older and smarter and wiser to my own weaknesses. There will still be parts of who I am that I’ll never love or even really like. But Clint helped me understand that everyone is fighting their own insecurities, however major or minor they may be. If mine are a little more obvious every now and then, that’s okay. I’ve watched my hero come out on the other side, and I know by now that I can do the same—provided Clint and my support system are along for the ride. And I know they will be.