Before Avengers: Infinity War came out I was having a conversation with Kiri (of Star Wars Anonymous). We were discussing several aspects of the trailer, including Black Widow being blonde. Was it because Cap and his band of Avengers were undercover and off the grid? Was it because, as their time in the MCU was coming to a close, Scarlett Johansson got to be a blonde Black Widow as Chris Evans got to be a bearded Captain America, more closely resembling their real life looks? Kiri said she didn’t remember ever reading a blonde Black Widow in the comics when she was a kid. Nor did I. During the conversation I realized the number of comics starring Natasha Romanoff – the Black Widow – I had read was shamefully small. One thing led to another and, as usual, I overcommitted. What follows is the first part of a little journey through Natasha’s comic book history, from her first appearance in Tales of Suspense #52 (1964) to her most recent miniseries, The Web of Black Widow (2019-20).
Natasha Romanoff first appeared in Tales of Suspense # 52-53, which were released in April and May of 1964. The title was written by Stan Lee and often starred Tony Stark as the invincible Iron Man. Interestingly enough, while she is called “the Black Widow,” Natasha’s last name is absent. She’s referred to only as “Madame Natasha.” It is a very Cold War-inspired story and Natasha is pretty much cast in the mold of your basic femme fatale character.
In the story, the Soviets are angry with Vanko, a defector who is working alongside Tony Stark in America. Seeking retribution they call for the Black Widow, the deadly Madame Natasha, and her associate Boris (…I know) to finish him off. The pair sneak into Tony’s company and, in the ensuing skirmish with Iron Man, Vanko sacrifices himself, killing Boris along with him. The Black Widow tries to help but flees when she can’t turn the tide. Her role was basically to seduce/distract Tony while Boris took down his factory. To get back in the “Commies” good graces, the Black Widow successfully steals an anti-grav ray Tony accidentally developed. She and a few Soviet spies use it to run circles around Iron Man until, eventually, he figures out a way to neutralize the ray. The Black Widow escapes with the broken ray but Iron Man still saves the day.
It was fascinating to read these stories knowing how she’d develop because this character is so unlike the Natasha we know and love today. Obviously, her exploits and motivations were far more campy – but that’s par for the course with a story written in ’64. But she is a straight-up villain, albeit not a fully fleshed out one. There’s no sense that she’d ever be redeemed in these stories either. Also, stylistically she’s very different from the “classic” Black Widow look. First, her hair is short and black as opposed to her more iconic red, often long hair (although the first Black Widow I encountered in the ‘80s and ‘90s had super short red hair). Second, she has no black body suit nor her “widow’s bite” gauntlets. Instead, she more or less wears evening wear. She isn’t much of a hand-to-hand fighter either.
Black Widow would continue to harass Iron Man in Tales of Suspense, which is where she’d first encounter Clint Barton, the archer Hawkeye. Clint designs his costume because he was annoyed people were paying attention to Iron Man flying around Cony Island and not him shooting arrows and he becomes a supervillain literally because he thinks Natasha’s cute and she tells him whoever destroys Iron Man will win her love (issue #57). She totally plays Hawkeye as he always says things like, “I’d never thought I’d commit treason but…” and then raids Stark’s factory and fights Iron Man because she says so (#60). In the first instance of her getting into the “superhero action,” the Soviets outfit her with a costume and “suction cup” boots and a nylon line (also complete with suction cups) she can fire from her wrist gauntlet so she can continue to menace Iron Man, now with spider-ish powers. Natasha designs her mask to look like Hawkeye’s because…I guess that’s how supervillains love?? (#64).
Ultimately her love for Hawkeye would cause her to defect from the Soviet Union. As Clint tried to go straight and become a legit superhero, Natasha would follow him to the pages of The Avengers where she would be written by Stan Lee (again!) and Roy Thomas. She’d appeared intermittently from issue #29-76. This period of her character’s journey would add a lot of iconic dimensions to her character even though she was very much a bit player/cameo character through these issues. Primarily, we see her as Clint’s romantic interest who he keeps trying to Yoko Ono into the Avengers (and I say that with respect, I love Yoko (but John was straight-up wrong to try and bring her into the Beatles)). These issues would be her first time working alongside the Avengers, even if they never formally offered her membership on the team.
But, cameo character or not, we do see Natasha’s character develop in The Avengers. We learn she has a strong social conscience as, after encountering the Avengers first when brainwashed to battle them, she returns to superheroing upon encountering the Sons of the Serpent. This group is seeking to expel all “foreigners” from the United States, just as the serpent once expelled Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. Despite choosing the civilian life, Natasha can’t let this hateful ideology grow unchecked so she suits up and gets back in the game (issue #32).
Other iconic facets of her character begin to be fleshed out in the pages of The Avengers. We see Natasha is the one willing to do the “dirty work” the Avengers won’t to protect the world (#37). We also see Natasha recruited by Nick Fury to work for S.H.I.E.L.D. for the first time (#38). Here is where we first learn of her husband Alexi – the Soviet answer to Captain America – the Red Guardian as well (#43-44). It’s a quick two issue story but it’s significant as it adds an important dimension to Natasha’s past and it introduces the character who will be played by David Harbour in the upcoming Black Widow film. While we learn Alexi’s mysterious “death” is the reason Natasha joined the program that will lead to her becoming a Soviet super spy, the name “Red Room” isn’t applied to her training.
Stylistically, we see Natasha is still very different from the redheaded, black jump suit wearing superhero we’re all familiar with. Through the entirety of her first liaison with the Avengers, her hair is short and dark and she’s wearing a costume I’d never seen before I read these comics. It’s interesting to imagine what Scarlett Johansson would have looked like bringing this version of Nat to the big screen…
Despite her relationship with Hawkeye being the first of her three iconic comic book romances, Natasha is often on the sidelines here and, while Clint spouts some very romantic lines to Natasha, he ends up being kind of a jerk to her. When she leaves to work with S.H.I.E.L.D. he gets all pissy she’s doing her own thing even though he’s always bouncing around the world or even leaving the planet with the Avengers. I was not sad when, after an inexplicably large absence from the title (issues #64-72), she returns to tell Clint she can’t be with him anymore. Obviously Nat and Clint will reconnect again and again through the decades but I didn’t really think she was missing out on much.
Her next significant appearance would be in the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man #86, another Stan Lee-penned yarn titled, “Beware…the Black Widow!” which was released in July 1970. After her time with the Avengers and S.H.I.E.L.D., Natasha had retired to the socialite scene. However, it wasn’t cutting it for her so she wanted to get back to superheroing. This is significant for her character development. During her time in The Avengers in the ‘60s, the other characters (*cough* Hank Pym/Goliath *cough*) doubted her loyalty to their country and cause. While Natasha seemed to have feelings for Clint and she did seem to want to fight alongside the Avengers and do right when Nick Fury recruited her to S.H.I.E.L.D., it seemed motivated by questionable reasons. She was with the Avengers because she was still digging Clint, but she played the quiet girlfriend role, barely talking in most scenes she was in and letting Hawkeye talk for her. Also, the Avengers did most of the world saving work. And with S.H.I.E.L.D., it seemed she took Nick Fury up on his offer more to prove her loyalty to the U.S. than because she was interested in being a spy again. But here she is actively choosing the superhero lifestyle because it’s who she is.
Granted, Natasha goes about it in an odd way, as a one-time Soviet super spy and regular enemy of Iron Man, trying to test herself against Spider-Man to learn the limits of his powers and embrace them in her own array. It’s the sort of thing that screams, “Hey! I might still be a villain!” It’s a confusing approach is what I’m saying. But along the way we see her design what’s become her “classic” look in this issue. Here Natasha dons her black jumpsuit, picks up the “widow bite” gauntlets, and her hair’s now red and long.
The next character-defining appearance for Natasha comes in Amazing Adventures #1-8, running from August 1970 to September 1971. More than any other comic yet, Amazing Adventures would add dynamic, defining dimensions to her character. Gone is the femme fatale or the girlfriend-turned-hero. Now Natasha starts to come fully into her own as four very important traits are developed for her character here.
First, the Black Widow seeks to prove that just because she’s Russian it doesn’t mean she’s a bad person. This is a remarkably progressive move during the height of the Cold War in the ‘70s. Her character doesn’t ring with the same sort of warmth and relatability as Chris Claremont would give Colossus in The X-Men a few years later but they are laying the groundwork Claremont would follow. The message, at the heart of this story, is it doesn’t matter what country you’re born into. What matters is what’s in your heart and how you act.
Second, the Black Widow isn’t just a superhero. She is a champion of the oppressed. Nat isn’t fighting supervillains or aliens or evil spies or robots or anything like that in this arc. In Amazing Adventures #1 she gets involved with Maria, her cleaning lady whose son Carlos owes money to some bad guys. Natasha travels to a poorer area of New York and muses to herself, “In the past I’ve always been involved in government affairs. Perhaps that’s why I now feel so compelled to take an interest in…in the affairs of the common man…for without him – there can be no government! Look at this neighborhood…the way these people are forced to live!” This story still casts her as a wealthy socialite who seeks superheroing as a means of adding excitement to her life but she also embraces a sort of “populist hero” identity, tangling with those goons on behalf of the “poor and downtrodden.”
Anthony Scarola, a corrupt politician running for the House of Representatives, is trying to force Carlos and the Young Warriors – a group he’s a part of who are seeking to clean up the city – out of the building he owns in Spanish Harlem. They took it over, kicking out some mobsters so they could turn it into a center for underprivileged children. As Natasha fights on their behalf, there is no regard for her “secret identity.” She announces to the mobsters that “Madame Natasha” is the Black Widow. Paul Hamilton, a reporter for the New York Press, tells Natasha the city has already painted her as a “red-eyed radical” who aligns herself with the radical militant Young Warriors. She’s concerned about that, saying she was just trying to help/do the right thing, and fears what this may do to her reputation as she “loves my adopted country.” She battles back against her attackers and ultimately the kids listen to Black Widow and come out of Scarola’s building. The mayor tells them he’ll invest in their program and the Black Widow leases them a building. Plus, Scarola will be called for an investigation into his unethical practices.
Despite her fear for her reputation, the Black Widow doesn’t back down. She battles against “the establishment” to aid the Young Warriors and comes out victorious.
Third, these comics set Black Widow up as a hero cast in the Women’s Liberation mold…albeit with varying degrees of success. There’s lots of “she’s still only a woman”/”don’t underestimate her” rhetoric alongside Natasha continually going up against and triumphing over forces who do. Between the feminist undercurrent to the stories as well as the idea of her siding with the “Puerto Rican youths” who have been radicalized, there’s clearly a political edge to these stories. As a character, Natasha stands for and symbolically represents some very important causes.
While all of this is admirable, we still see lots of inexplicable scenes of Natasha showering or crawling out of bed to pull her costume on over her naked body. We also see her presented in needlessly sexualized poses the male characters aren’t depicted in. So while the “Women’s Lib” movement is a spirit the authors seem intent on tapping into, there’s still clearly some confusion about just what that means and how best to present it in a comic book narrative. Also, while her chauffer Ivan or the intrepid reporter Paul Hamilton don’t come to Natasha’s rescue every time she’s in trouble, it still happens enough to be frustrating.
Lastly, we get the introduction of Ivan in Amazing Adventures. By issue #5, we learn he’s more than just her chauffer. Ivan’s been with Nat “since Stalingrad” and he’s got some military/combat training too. In addition to driving her, he fights by her side and does his best to protect her. He’s also become something of a father figure to her. They also introduce an oddly literal take on her name. As several people die around Natasha – both those she’s fighting and those she’s trying to protect – she begins to worry her “Black Widow” codename is more truth than intimidation. Natasha’s time co-headlining this title (each issue also featured a story of the Inhumans) ends with her wondering if all the death is her fault, if she’s cursed.
This brings us to Daredevil and perhaps the most significant – certainly the most high profile – chapter in the first two decades of the Black Widow’s story. It’s also where “Romanoff” is first added to Madame Natasha’s name. Natasha would star alongside Matt Murdock, the blind lawyer-turned-vigilante from Daredevil #81, released in November 1971, through Daredevil #124, released in August 1975. This is unquestionably the longest, most sustained time in the spotlight Natasha gets through the ‘60s and ‘70s. The title would be renamed Daredevil and the Black Widow starting with issue #92 (until, inexplicably, it becomes just Daredevil again with issue #108 and Natasha gets a “co-starring the deadly Black Widow!” credit on the covers).
The Black Widow saves Daredevil’s life in issue #81 and, when Natasha finds herself wrongly on trial in a wave of persecution because she’s Russian, Matt Murdock defends her. They hit the “just because she’s Russian doesn’t mean she’s bad note” pretty heavily in these first few issues but, once it’s dropped, it’s dropped for good for the rest of this run. Their paths continue to cross until Matt reveals his secret identity to Natasha (issue #84). A romance blossoms and they move to San Francisco (#87). The bulk of their adventuring and romancing will happen in the City by the Bay.
Except here’s the thing, Matt Murdock is an absolutely terrible boyfriend. Natasha’s relationship with Matt is the second of her three iconic comic love interests. And, given how long they were together and how much time she got to spend in the spotlight during this run (not to mention how often they interact later (but those are stories for future posts)), this is arguably her most important, character-defining romantic relationship. But he’s a TOTAL ASS to her.
First, while they still talk of Natasha as “the hero of women’s lib” or “the women’s lib poster girl” – Matt calls her as much, often with a passive aggressive slant to it when she’s sad or frustrated – she’s often relegated to the girlfriend/sidekick roll over these four years. She rarely acts on her own and her agency seems greatly diminished from Amazing Adventures. She often waits for Matt and/or follows his lead. A disturbingly high percentage of the covers of Daredevil and the Black Widow have Natasha in some sort of peril with Matt coming to save her too – scenes which rarely show up inside the comic story itself. She’s often pining for and crying over Matt. She’s also often depicted as being more emotional than Matt and those emotions are often depicted in a negative light.
So this relationship sort of erodes some of the character development we saw during her time in Amazing Adventures. But more than that he’s just a terrible boyfriend. They move out to San Francisco and Natasha uses her inheritance to rent them a huge mansion to live in. Matt gets a job at a prestigious law firm out there…and then proceeds to never contribute anything to their rent at all ever. Even when Natasha talks of her money running out! He goes to work every single day and never offers up any money. Also, while Natasha will often profess her feelings for him, Matt tends to just talk about how “complicated” things are. He’s living with her. He’s kissing her on the regular. They’re doing…other things on the regular too…but it’s a comic in the ‘70s so we don’t see it but it’s still pretty clearly implied. But it’s all “too complicated” to define. And he tosses Nat on the backburner to flirt with anyone with a uterus who happens to walk by – Moondragon, Shanna the She Devil, his best friend Foggy’s sister Candice Nelson, the list goes on.
Let’s not forget he physically hits her when he thinks she’s being too rough with some thugs they are battling. THEN he doesn’t understand why she’s distant from him afterwards!!!! HOW ABOUT BECAUSE YOU HIT HER AND THEN CHASTIZED HER FOR BEING TOO EMOTIONAL, MATT?!? Could that have anything to do with it?? So, while this is a post about Natasha, my research taught me two important things about Daredevil. First, I always thought he was a Batman rip-off, since his modern incarnation is always so dang glum. But he’s really more of a Spider-Man rip-off as he swings around the city being quippy with his villains. Second, HE IS A HUGE ASSHOLE. I was really, really happy when they broke up.
However, while I cringed at much of their relationship, there were some exciting stories during the four years the Black Widow swung around with Daredevil. And, even though I was often eager for her to end it, I also have to say staying in a relationship where you find yourself sacrificing your needs for the needs of your partner, struggling with confusing emotions when you’re not sure if the one you love is the one you want or even should be with, and not knowing quite who you’ve become while living inside a relationship you really want to work out but don’t understand anymore are all deeply human and deeply relatable experiences. So these stories show a new level of humanity to Natasha. No matter how strong or brilliant or daring or clever she is, she’s still human. And she’s shared this very real confusing pain with us.
As we look at the life of Natasha, the Black Widow, over the first twenty years of her character in the comics, we see a generic Russian femme fatale evolve to become a deeply human protagonist. During that time period she was cast as a wealthy socialite, a populist hero of the oppressed, and a model of women’s liberation. While she began as a villain and a spy, we don’t see anything of the dark, broken character who haunts the pages of modern comics nor someone desperately looking to atone for the “red in [her] ledger” we see in the MCU. By and large she’s a happy, well-adjusted, and optimistic character who is driven by good motivations and seeking to do right by her adopted country and the people within it. She loves fully, giving her whole heart to men who don’t do much to show they deserve (or even appreciate) it. But love is confusing and never rationale and the heart wants what the heart wants. And Natasha follows her heart! Through it all – villains, monsters, hate groups, persecution, doubt in herself and those around her, bad boyfriends, heartache, and fear for those she loves – Natasha always stays standing at the end. She’s tough and there’s very few things she can’t handle.
Also, it’s worth noting she was never blonde. She was a brunette at the start and then she became a redhead, as is her classic look but she was never blonde. So I’m still no closer to solving the Avengers: Infinity War trailer query that first led to this odyssey into her comic history. Good thing I still have another forty years of comics to wade through and miles to go before I sleep. Time to grab another short box…
If you’d like to read more about Black Widow’s comic history, here are the other eras!
Black Widow: A Comic Book Retrospective – the ‘80s and ‘90s sees Natasha’s character begin to take on a darker tone in some stories as her best there is at what she does spy status is solidified. We also see a real growth of Natasha’s friendship with Steve Rogers as she helps him lead the Avengers before becoming the team’s leader on her own.
Black Widow: A Comic Book Retrospective – ’00 – ’10 has arguably the defining Black Widow story in this era as well as the introduction of Yelena Belova, a reconnection with Matt Murdock/Daredevil, and she helps train Bucky Barnes to take over as Captain America after Steve dies. We see the beginning of Natasha’s romantic relationship with Bucky while she superhero-s with the Mighty Avengers and a superspy-s with S.H.I.E.L.D.
Black Widow: A Comic Book Retrospective – ‘10 – ‘20 sees Natasha’s relationship with Bucky continue to deepen but tragedy strikes…and continues to as Natasha dies during their battle against Hydra’s Secret Empire. She will be resurrected through a Red Room clone body and memory implants and then begin a journey of discovery to try and figure out who and what she really is.
So researching for these posts, it was a struggle to track down where all these stories where and I found myself consulting and comparing information on a lot of different sites. If you’d like to know what I read for this piece, here’s my Works Consulted, as it were. All of these titles I accessed through Marvel Unlimited:
Tales of Suspense #’s 52-53, 57, 60, and 64
The Avengers #’s 29-30, 32-33, 35-47, 52, 57-59, 62-64, 76
The Amazing Spider-Man #86
Amazing Adventures #1-8
Daredevil # 81-124