Editor’s Note: We have been assisted in the writing of this article by Tawny O’Brien, our resident ASL expert. She has been signing for six years.
It had been months since a new issue of Matt Fraction’s “Hawkeye” had been released. So when issue 19 was finally on sale a few weeks ago, comic fans were ecstatic to finally find out what was happening with our favorite purple clad archer. They’d been left with an image of Clint and Barney Barton lying on the floor in a puddle of blood for months. The latest issue covers how the Barton brothers are coping with their injuries from Kazi, the man hired by the tracksuit Draculas. Barney is now in a wheelchair and Clint is deafened.
At the beginning of the issue, we learn that Clint was deaf as a child. It seems it wasn’t permanent considering that he could hear in previous issues and series. Barney is shown to be communicating to Clint using American Sign Language. He tells Clint’s neighbor, Simone, that even as a kid, Clint wouldn’t use ASL. He could read lips fairly well and understands ASL, but won’t use it to reply to others. He wouldn’t speak, either, until he was standing in front of all of the people in his apartment building, telling them that he was deafened.
A large part of this issue was told from Clint’s point of view. Because of this, we don’t see what the others are saying. Since Clint is good at reading lips, the readers get a good idea on what’s going on and can easily fill in the gaps when he doesn’t know one of the words that someone is saying. But when Barney is signing to him, there are no captions or text letting the reader know what he’s saying. Diagrams of the signs that Barney is using are shown, but seem unhelpful to those who don’t know ASL. This is obviously going to make parts of the issue confusing if the readers don’t know what is being said. But there’s a good reason for it. David Aja, the artist for #19, tweeted:
“If while reading Hawkeye #19 you feel you don’t get it all, if you find obstacles, congrats, you’re starting to learn what being disabled is.”
For those of you who may not know, here’s a little bit of Deaf history:
Deaf people have faced severe oppression in the past, and they still do today. In America, deaf children weren’t allowed to use sign language to communicate until the past few decades. They were placed in schools that forced them to speak English, and if they were caught using sign language, they were usually beaten. Many schools and medical professionals still continue to discourage signing, claiming that it will inhibit the ability of a deaf child to communicate. Because of this, many deaf people are deprived of a proper education. They spend so much time learning to speak a language they can’t hear that there’s no time to teach them anything else.
American Sign Language wasn’t recognized as a real language until the 1960’s, but a lot of people still view it as a broken imitation of English. ASL is its own language with its own grammar and syntax that is completely separate from English, and it is a major part of American Deaf culture. It’s a different way of communicating, but it is not less. It’s very complex and extremely important. That’s part of why Marvel introducing signing into their comics is so important. The hearing world needs to be educated about sign languages and Deaf culture. Deaf people aren’t inherently disabled. Many of them don’t consider themselves disabled at all. Instead of trying to force them into our culture, we need to learn about their culture and language, and we need to adapt for them. Representation of d/Deaf people in a mainstream media format like this is a really important step toward that, we need to make sure it continues.
Note: deaf (little d) is a medical term that describes a lack of hearing. Deaf (“capital D Deaf”) describes people who strongly identify with and have pride in their community, history, and language, and who generally consider themselves as part of a linguistic minority, not as a disabled group. Not all deaf people are Deaf. A lot of deaf people who use assistive technology (hearing aids, cochlear implants) consider themselves part of the hearing community, not the Deaf community. The inclusion of this deaf character who uses sign language does not represent all deaf people.