By Brendan Jones |
One of the greatest strengths of comics (and for the sake of this column, I’ll be speaking specifically about American mainstream comics) is their flexibility. The art form itself is obviously one of the most wide-open and unbound by rules, encompassing and blending written language and visual symbology, both supporting and/or contradicting each other. Put succinctly, in comics you can do anything, go anywhere, tell any kind of story you can imagine, deeply personal or shallowly commercial and every shading between the two. “Comics” (or graphic storytelling if you’re in art school) is an umbrella that covers both Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi and the ten-page adventures that came packaged with my classic Masters of the Universe action figures (miss you, guys).
Let me narrow the focus of my thesis a bit more, because what I really want to talk about with you folks are the superheroes (or “underwear fighters” as my friend Todd hilariously dismisses them). Just as the art form that birthed them is highly mutable, so, too, are the characters that, for better or worse, still dominate the medium. Superhero comics are a unique model of long-form storytelling; a serialized adventure tale that rarely acknowledges the true passage of time or the absolutes of age and death. But the more enduring a hero proves itself, the longer their stories stretch back into the past, the more that character will be molded and reconfigured by multiple creators/editors and the funhouse mirror of Culture itself into shapes that barely recall the original. Even the most iconic are not exempt from change. Yes, even Superman is a Man of Silly-Putty.
But I’m not here to talk about Kal of the House of El today (oof, and you should be glad because I’ve got a lot to say about that guy). Instead, in honor of the upcoming, long-awaited release of her first solo cinematic outing, let’s take a look at the beguiling and iconic Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow, through the ages. Readers who only know the character of Black Widow through the MCU films and Scarlett Johansson’s portrayal will no doubt be surprised to note how long it took the multitude of creators - writers, artists, editors - to mold this iconic character into the heroine we know and love today.
To start, let me just make one thing clear, as much as I, personally, love this character, we cannot forget that she is first and foremost Commie scum.
As much as historians of the explosion of the Marvel Age of Comics like to peg radiation, or more accurately, our country’s post-A Bomb respect and fear and general lack of knowledge of radiation, as Stan and company’s easy one-stop shop for superhero origins, I’d say you should also toss in that trendy bugaboo of the era, The Red Scare. Reed Richards and friends shot themselves into orbit to beat the Russians in the Space Race. Bruce Banner’s gamma bomb test was sabotaged by a Communist agent. Tony Stark created the Iron Man armor to escape a Vietnamese Communist warlord. Henry Pym’s first outing as Ant-Man had him facing off against Red agents after his scientific discoveries. Like the Nazis twenty years before, Communists were the default bad guys of postwar America.
The Cold War, which saw the US and Soviet Union eyeing each other warily for decades and which was conducted primarily through espionage, could not help but seep into the collective unconscious. In the American pop culture of the time you had Cyd Charisse as the humorless, dedicated operative Ninotchka in 1957’s musical-comedy Silk Stockings, on TV the cartoon show The Adventures of Bullwinkle featured the bumbling Commie agent duo of Boris and Natasha, and of course, if we’re examining the romantic idea of spies and spycraft of the day, you have to give full weight to Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels which were hugely popular and were followed by a film series that would be just starting as Stan Lee, Jack Kirby et al were changing the stagnant course of Marvel Comics with the publication of Fantastic Four #1. A couple of years into that Marvel boom, the concept of a slinky, beautiful Communist Mata Hari was a natural one for the comics and that’s how we initially encounter Natasha Romanoff.
Only, in 1964’s Tales of Suspense #52, who we actually meet is “Madame Natasha,” a stylishly dressed femme fatale sent by the Russians to steal the secrets of Tony Stark and to stop Iron Man. But she’s just the honey trap as the real muscle comes from her beefy partner Boris. Yes, writer Don Rico and artist Don Heck introduce us to bad guys Boris and Natasha and, no, I don’t think that’s a cute coincidence. She’s no fighter in these first appearances (or a redhead; in fact it would be six years before she would appear with her signature hair color), just sheer seductress (and ballerina with the Bolshoi Ballet - more on this later) who keeps being sent to the States with impossible missions. Failed to take down Iron Man? Disappointing. Now, we want you to destroy the Avengers! Boris wasn’t her partner for long, instead Natasha quickly finds a local she wraps around her little finger and uses for the grunt work, a carnival performer with amazing archery skills named Clint Barton a.k.a. Hawkeye. They meet completely randomly and, in time, fall in love. A weird East-meets-West Bonnie and Clyde.
The dedicated Soviet spy soon gets her own costume, complete with fishnets, a mask complimenting Hawkeye’s and, Lord help us, monogrammed earrings (two “B”s) and cape clasp (a “W”). Not only that, but she gets a back story in which we learn that Natasha doesn’t really want to be an enemy agent, but is being forced to by the KGB who are using her family as blackmail/incentives and then, not too long after, they dangle the fate of her husband Alexei Shostakov whom she had believed dead but had really been conscripted by the state to be the new Red Guardian. Obviously, the more “page time” she received, the more room her writers had to flesh her out. Unfortunately, due to the era, this often meant having the hard-as-nails spy start spewing dialogue like, “Oh, my darling! Did you think I would ever harm you...ever turn against you?? It was the Reds! They brainwashed me into betraying you!!” But, on the plus side, she finally started showing signs of being a formidable hand-to-hand combatant, a worthy anti-hero soon forgiven by her adopted country and courted by both The Avengers (it takes a while for her to become a full-fledged member) and Nick Fury of SHIELD.
In the ‘70s, Natasha struck out on her own (briefly) as a character no longer tied to a team or a boyfriend. Her hair finally becomes fiery red and her biggest costume change yet, clearly influenced by the sleek catsuits popularized by Diana Rigg as Mrs. Peel of a different Avengers, became, essentially, what we recognize as the Black Widow today: a skintight black bodysuit accessorized with high-tech wristbands for firing cables or her electric “widow’s bite.” Simple, deadly, and instantly iconic.
Around this time she also acquired two new accessories, a rough and tumble assistant/guardian/mentor/conflictingly flirty father figure named Ivan Petrovitch who, we are told in later years, rescued her as a baby from during the Battle of Stalingrad (in 1942!) and raised her as his own. But - but what about that family we saw her have? And the Bolshoi Ballet? The contradictions of her past would only multiply over the years and would end up resolved in the most comic book (but apropos) way possible: false, implanted memories. The other thing she picked up around this time was the short-lived idea that she was cursed to bring ruin to any man that loved her. “Black widow,” get it?
Sadly, her solo stories (in anthology title Amazing Adventures which she shared with the Inhumans - now there’s an interesting combo) didn’t last long but she soon found a home and a new love interest in the pages of Daredevil - a co-bill that lasted two years during which time the passionate commingling of two historically emotionally tortured characters was explored as much as the ongoing soap opera-level scripting of the time would allow. Natasha and Matt Murdock would be cemented as one of the great, if troubled, romances of Marvel history.
But soon, as these things happen, there was a breakup and Natasha would rebound with a brand new team: the L.A. based Champions! Not romantically, of course, though they have Nat lusting after teammate Hercules for the entire brief run. The Champions remains one of the most egregious examples of a “clearing house” super team where a publisher throws together random title-less characters and hopes for a miracle of chemistry. To be fair, the Avengers and the Defenders started much the same way, but any team consisting of Black Widow, Hercules, Iceman, Angel and Ghost Rider is clear evidence that a dart board (and cocaine, possibly?) was involved. Luckily for Natasha, her time on the West Coast came to an end and she retreated once more to Avengers Mansion.
During the ‘80s and ‘90s, Natasha’s status quo had been established and she was rarely seen outside of The Avengers except for a couple of notable miniseries and graphic novels. She had settled into being a stalwart heroine and leader with only occasional glimpses of the complicated world of espionage from which she had sprung. She was “just” a superheroine now.
That is, until writer Devin Grayson and artist JG Jones introduced the character of Yelena Belova in 1999. Another Russian agent styled as a rival and replacement Black Widow, Yelena’s introduction and that of the concept of “The Red Room” veered Natasha back to an admittedly darker, more mature version of her roots as a master spy. The Red Room, we discover, is a training and indoctrination “academy” where the Russians, as far back as WW2, have been crafting the perfect agents of the State.
Here we find out, young Natasha, in the 1940s, learned her craft and was submitted to biological experiments in which she gained a prolonged lifespan and retarded aging. Her personality was molded too with memory implants. Her past recollections of the Bolshoi Ballet, her family, even her true age were altered to fit whatever the Russians deemed necessary for her to carry out her various missions. And those missions were a lot more brutal than seducing Tony Stark as “Madame Natasha.” The Black Widow we now read about was no longer just a former spy, but also a master assassin for the Soviets. This also allowed later writers like Ed Brubaker to retcon in a simpatico early romance with “Bucky” Barnes a.k.a. The Winter Soldier during his years of brainwashing and terrorism.
In the 21st century, espionage, infiltration, disguise, seduction, wetworks, black ops, and spycraft have been reintroduced as essential elements of Black Widow’s character, enriching her and clearly delineating what sets her apart from her fellow “underwear fighters.”
It was also clearly the take on Natasha that appealed to Marvel Studios when the time came to bring the Black Widow to life in 2010’s Iron Man 2.
Though, in the comics, Janet Van Dyne a.k.a. The Wasp was the first woman Avenger, the MCU Powers That Be (Feige!) chose the already introduced character of Black Widow to be a founding team member in 2012’s The Avengers. And, thanks to the talents of Scarlett Johansson and writer-director (and sterling human being) Joss Whedon, it was a natural fit and great success.
Not that they needed to, but I, as the longtime (read: geriatric) nerd I am, appreciated the little nods the filmmakers gave to certain touchstones of her comics continuity:
Although her first solo film, Black Widow due July 9th, will also likely be her last (Nat’s death in Avengers: Endgame requires this movie to be a prequel), I know I’m not alone in greatly anticipating this further cinematic summation and distillation (something at which Marvel Studios has unfailingly surpassed) of this fifty-seven year old character whose contradictions have almost always fit her like that black sheath of a costume.
In the end, despite her gadgets and retconned-in extreme longevity, Natasha’s real superpower has always been supreme competence. Determination, loyalty, a chess master’s brain, and the mastery of her perfectly honed body, these are the weapons that have allowed a completely mortal, non-super woman to go toe-to-toe with, stand with, and occasionally lead the “enhanced” heroes of Marvel for the last five decades. Not bad for a filthy, filthy Commie.