Great comic books are pretty common these days. Saga, a family drama set in space, is winning raves and readers. Batman 66 has picked up where the Adam West series left off, bringing back campy Batman for a new generation. Afterlife with Archie is a genuinely terrifying mashup of Archie Andrews and the gang with zombies. There’s a wealth of exciting work in comics, from self-published web comics to Marvel, DC and Image.
But when the time came to name the best single issue of a comic book published in 2013, both the Eisner Awards and the Harvey Awards (named for comics legends Will Eisner and Harvey Kurtzman) selected the same one: Hawkeye 11, otherwise known as the Pizza Dog issue. This incredible piece of art—written by Matt Fraction, illustrated and lettered by David Aja, and colored by Matt Hollingsworth—wowed the comic book world. It’s also an issue every dog lover would enjoy, offering a remarkable level of insight into our best pals.
Hawkeye has been raved about since its first issue, which also introduced Pizza Dog. “Pizza Dog” is the nickname for the pooch who was named Arrow when he was owned by the “Tracksuit Draculas,” a group of gangsters who menace the residents of Hawkeye’s building. Hawkeye saved Arrow—literally, taking the poor dog to the vet after he was hit by a car—and renamed him Lucky after adoption. Just like other superheroes and adopted dogs, Pizza Dog has several names.
Unlike comic book pets of the past—such as Krypto the Super-Dog and Ace the Bat-Hound—Lucky isn’t a superpet, and Hawkeye isn’t really a superhero comic. Hawkeye (Clint Barton) is a member of the Avengers, but he’s just a regular guy who shoots arrows really well. He’s no god like Thor or super soldier like Captain America. Hawkeye takes advantage of Barton’s status as a regular guy by following his life during his off-hours, when he’s not being an Avenger fighting for the fate of the world. The result is the superhero equivalent of an indie comic, both in terms of the everyday, relatable content and the art influenced by independent comics legend Chris Ware.
The story of Pizza Dog fits right into this already off-kilter Marvel Comic. Hawkeye 11—titled “Pizza Is My Life”—is told entirely from the point of view of Lucky, as Fraction and Aja make readers experience what Lucky sees, hears and (especially) smells. As we all know, dogs live in a world of smells that puts our puny noses to shame. Aja’s art depicts Lucky’s smell-based world through pictograms. For example, when Hawkeye meets with a police officer who is investigating the murder of neighbor Grills, we see Lucky’s mental flow charts for both characters. Little images of a cop car, a gun and the crime scene are linked to the cop. For Hawkeye, there are pictures of beer bottles and a figure getting out of bed—a very subtle way of suggesting that Hawkeye had a few beers last night, just got out of bed, hasn’t showered and smells like it. Similar smell maps exist for other characters (such as Kate Bishop, who is also called Hawkeye) and the whole building, showing Lucky’s internal map of his world.
Like a lot of great ideas, this issue started as a joke. As Aja recounts in Comic Book Resources, he was talking to Fraction and editor Steve Wacker and said “[M]aybe we should draw one issue from the dog’s point of view and I can draw it like how a dog sees. It was a joke. Suddenly, Steve and Matt said yes, let’s do it.” Aja planned to use the dog issue to catch up on deadlines, thinking it would be an easy issue for him: heavy on text, light on illustrations. As it evolved, it became the exact opposite, and Aja ended up doing even more work than usual, including the lettering. Remember the Far Side comic where Gary Larson showed how dogs hear English as a bunch of gibberish plus a few select words, like their names? That’s the same approach taken by Aja. He wrote in the dialogue, then erased the words that would be Greek to a dog, figuring it would be easier to do that himself than to explain it to Hawkeye letterer Chris Eliopoulos.
Lettering tricks and pictograms aside, Aja’s skill in drawing the body language of dogs is astounding. Every issue of Hawkeye is impressive, as Aja brings a far more humorous, human feel than can be found in most superhero comics. You can tell he obviously has a dog or has been around dogs. Aja captures Lucky’s curiosity, anger, happiness, sleepiness, sadness and shock perfectly as our hero dog investigates Grills’ murder, falls in love with a neighbor dog, barks at his abusive former owners and lives up to his nickname of Pizza Dog by rummaging through the trash for a blessed slice.
The commitment to portraying Lucky’s world also extends to the colors. Via email, colorist Hollingsworth told me, “The issue was approached entirely differently from any other comic. It was colored using only the color range that dogs see. So, I always had a reference image open that showed that range and stuck to that, which is basically yellow and blue to blue violet—so, sort of a two-color palette. That was Matt Fraction’s idea.”
Hollingsworth also took the opportunity to have a little extra fun with this unusual issue: “At the time that I was coloring it, I perpetuated a hoax on Facebook and Twitter. I faked up an image of some goggles and posted that picture. I live in Croatia, and I wrote that these had been made for me by Nikola Tesla’s great-great grandson. Tesla lived in Croatia at certain points of his life, and I said that his descendent had made these goggles for me which replicated dog-vision colors, and that I was wearing them the entire time I was coloring the issue. Everybody was taken in by this for about one day, and they were retweeting it. Funny.” Even without magic goggles, Hollingsworth’s colors are impressive.
So if you’re looking for the perfect gift for one of the dog people in your life, hunt down Hawkeye 11—or, even better, the collection Hawkeye, Vol. 2: Little Hits, which includes the Pizza Dog issue.
They say you don’t need a cape to be hero. Pizza Dog proves that statement applies to hero dogs too.