On the heels of the first trailer for Avengers: Infinity War, a conversation with Kiri (of Star Wars Anonymous) about whether or not Black Widow had ever been blonde in the comics showed me how shamefully few of her comics I’d read. Naturally, I took the next logical step – I waaaay overcommitted and have spent over two years now figuring out a reading list, finding the titles, and then reading my way through decades of Black Widow stories. Three months back, I wrote a piece looking at Natasha’s most important appearances in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Now it’s time to dive into the ‘80s and ‘90s as I continue my little journey through her comic book history, from Natasha’s first appearance in Tales of Suspense #52 (1964) to her most recent miniseries, The Web of Black Widow (2019-20).
Over the course of the ‘60s and ‘70s, Natasha evolved from a generic Russian femme fatale to a deeply human protagonist. While she did start as a villain and a spy, we didn’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 was a happy, well-adjusted, and optimistic character who was driven by good motivations and always sought to do right by her adopted country and the people within it. Reading these comics I found some great stories and saw where so many key parts of her character were first drafted. However, Natasha was often cast in the girlfriend and/or sidekick role, first with Clint Barton/Hawkeye and then with Matt Murdock/Daredevil. She needed to be saved by the men in her life regularly, too. Even if she ultimately saved the day, it was often her love interest who first saved her so she could then save the day.
Of her time co-starring in Daredevil I wrote, “[Natasha] rarely acts on her own and her agency seems greatly diminished from Amazing Adventures. She often waits for Matt and/or follows his lead.” This would change in the ‘80s. As the Black Widow steps out on her own, she follows no one’s lead and certainly isn’t in need of saving. She is often described as the world’s greatest spy and her agency as a character seems even more fully developed than it was in Amazing Adventures. Her relationship with Daredevil takes on a healthier dimension as well.
Her first notable/essential story from this period comes in Bizarre Adventures #25. This was the first story in my reading journey that felt like the Black Widow I “know” or, rather, who I expect her to be. This story was told in black and white and it was a sort of noir spy thriller. It was also clearly meant to be one of Marvel’s more “mature/adult” comics. Natasha wakes up in her penthouse – after a wild night of drinking, partying, and a one-night stand – to a message from S.H.I.E.L.D. She’s also called a “wise slut” by Soviet soldiers and there’s an agent who calls her “doll” and says how she “was good in the sack.” Despite the tone they were going for at the time, those parts come off way cringy now (thankfully!). It’s all very Cold War-inspired (obvs) with a globe-spanning narrative from South America to the U.S. to Africa. Natasha has to infiltrate a Soviet weapons cache and take out an old mentor of hers.
While there are some parts that really didn’t age well (like the hijab Natasha wears while undercover being referred to as a “Muslim mask” :8), this is the first “spy story” I read where Natasha starts to feel like the character I’ve always associated with her. She is efficient, cunning, and very skilled in her art. This isn’t the woman who kept getting captured on Daredevil covers. Yet she’s still played in the narrative, duped and used to check another agent’s loyalty. Her skills were beyond reproach – she was infiltrating trains and mountain bases and taking down enemy soldiers without breaking a sweat – but she was still largely the tool of the men around her.
In the pages of Frank Miller’s Daredevil however (an author who, full disclosure, I often think is highly overrated), we see this same highly developed lethal physical skill set combined with a competency to match. If Bizarre Adventures started to feel like the Black Widow character I’m familiar with, this era of Daredevil comics offer a Black Widow I find instantly recognizable. While Natasha doesn’t ever again appear in Daredevil with the consistency she did in the ‘70s, she regularly pops in and out over various arcs.
Miller’s first issue writing Black Widow in Daredevil (#187) sees Natasha debut a new look. Gone is her long flowing hair and black jumpsuit from the ‘70s. Natasha has cut her hair short and donned a grey costume with a big spider on the back and one on the front. Her classic Widow’s Bite and Widow’s Line are still part of her arsenal, though. I will always be partial to this costume as this was how Black Widow looked the very first time I saw her. Plus, short hair always made so much more sense for a superhero/spy – nothing to fall in your face, nothing for someone to grab in a fight, easier for wigs and disguises.
Natasha is tailing some ninjas for S.H.I.E.L.D. and she easily holds her own against these Hand assassins. During the fight she gets poisoned and an advanced form of cancer begins growing in her. Yet she’s far from the damsel in distress she often defaulted to in the ‘60s and ‘70s. When the S.H.I.E.L.D. docs tell her there’s nothing they can do, she heads out to find a solution on her own. She begins looking for Matt Murdock, not to magically save the day but because, in her fight, she’s turning to her natural supports and Matt has become that for her.
But Natasha can’t find him at his home. She can’t find him at his girlfriend’s. She can’t find him at work. So what does she do? The Black Widow goes to ask the Kingpin if he knows where Daredevil is. It is SO BADASS. She waltzes into the office of the most powerful/dangerous man in New York City and effortlessly dispatches his bodyguards while conversing with him.
In these issues of Daredevil (#187-190), Miller has the Black Widow go toe-to-toe with some of the Hand’s assassins on her own, throw off the Kingpin’s army as though they were nothing, and then stand beside Daredevil and the team Stick has assembled to battle the Hand and their dark magic. Unlike so many of the stories in Daredevil in the ‘70s, Natasha wasn’t a sidekick here; she wasn’t an add-on. She was essential. The Black Widow more than held her own and it’s clear the Hand would’ve succeeded without her in the fight.
I also appreciate the dimension Miller adds to Natasha and Matt’s relationship. Author Roger McKenzie has her show up earlier in the ‘80s, in Daredevil #159-165. But while Natasha is there, she does very little. She’s upset Matt’s seeing another girl. She gets captured a few times. She swings through the night with DD a few times. That’s kinda it. Miller moves her character beyond this one-dimensional nature of a pining, upset ex.
When Natasha realizes how sick she is she looks for Matt because, “But help I do require – because this lady is not giving up. Matt never does. Maybe that’s why I always come to him – when everything else fails.” She’s not looking for a booty call nor to make sad eyes because he’s with someone else nor for a boyfriend to fix all her woes. She’s looking for Matt because he is a person with whom she has a history and, as complicated as it may be, he’s someone she can trust. If we’re lucky, we all have someone like this in our life – a relationship that’s weathered all sorts of storms but the trust and security with them always remains.
Now, it’s not like Miller completely ignores the romantic longing. After Natasha’s life is saved by good ninja magic (really) and they survive a fight with the Hand, Natasha tries to make a move on him and he tells her he’s getting married in the morning. It’s worth mentioning this happens after a totally needless shower scene. This was true in the ‘60s and ‘70s and it’s true in the ‘80s as well – the Black Widow must be the cleanest superhero ever. Authors will use any contrived attempt to put her in the shower. It’s ridiculous. I don’t have time to read every comic book every written but, in my own limited experience, I’ve never seen a character shower more than she does.
Gratuitous shower scene aside for the moment, the whole her-making-a-move-on-him scene doesn’t really fit tonally with everything else Miller does with their characters. Rather it seemed more as though it was a tie to what had come before with McKenzie’s writing. What does underscore everything Natasha does in Miller’s time writing her is her concern for Matt. She sought him out in her need. Then she was worried about him and did everything in her power to figure out what was going on with Matt and get him help.
I like the depth added to their relationship here. Despite all the complications of their past, Natasha sees Matt as the type of friend she can trust when her world is crumbling. She goes to him when there’s no one else. In that same vein, she will do everything she can to protect and help him, even if he’s not clearly articulating what’s going on. They are close enough that Natasha knows something’s wrong and she’s there to help, no matter what it is.
We have all this brilliant development with Natasha…and then comes Marvel Fanfare #10-13 with Ralph Macchio (writer) and George Pérez (artist). This…this was rough. It felt like a four issue story that tried to give some backstory on Black Widow’s history (before Wikipedia made things like that easy) while also giving her an exciting new adventure. But it just bungled everything.
First, we see a return to a lot of the tropes that surrounded Black Widow in the ‘70s in these comics. She’s told she’s “only a woman” before she easily defeats the assassin who taunts her. Multiple times Natasha fights brilliantly but has to be saved by a male character. These men are often bossy and dismissive of Natasha before she surprises them with ideas that work. Black Widow also fights just the most ethnically stereotypical band of assassins you can imagine. I mean, I know it was the ‘80s but still.
Second, Natasha’s back in her black outfit with her long hair hanging down her back. There’s a little editor’s note at the bottom of the first page of issue #11 that reads, “This story takes place sometime before the Widow changed her costume and hairdo – as seen in recent issues of Daredevil – Editor Al.” Now, flashback or flashforward stories are nothing new to comics. But I can’t help but wonder…was this because Macchio and Pérez felt she was “sexier” with her long hair than she was with it short? Everything else that happens in the story (her being an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., the villains she fights, the places she goes, etc.) fit alongside her adventures with DD. More to the point, the main plot mover in these four issues is how Ivan Petrovich – Natasha’s longtime friend, father figure, chauffer, and such – has gone missing. Natasha investigates if he was kidnapped of defected back to the Soviet Union buuuuuuuut Daredevil clearly shows he’s fine and not a Soviet spy. So why not just make the story “current”? The only answer I can come up with is they think she’s “sexier” with long hair and the black suit.
It makes me sad to think this may be the case but, third, they blatantly and shamelessly sexualize her. In issue #10 Natasha is attacked by agents while she’s – yep, you guessed it – in the shower. So she fights them wet and in her towel before turning out the lights, changing into her costume, and fighting them with her wet hair hanging all around her face. There’s another battle scene where, while clothed, they end up fighting in the sewer so she’s wet the whole time (don’t worry, there are absolutely needless shots of her wet butt, too). It all builds to issue #13 and one of the MOST RIDICULOUS SCENES I HAVE EVER READ. Black Widow ends up in a cell, with her weapons taken, so she strips down to take a secret bow and arrow out of a skin pack on her back, tears her costume up to make a rope, and spends the rest of the story fighting in a ragged bikini she made. Why??
That is, without a doubt, the single most contrived reason I’ve ever found for a female character to end up nearly naked. And who the hell was in charge of searching her? Who doesn’t feel a bow-and-arrow-holding-pack on her back?!!? Also, again, we see her saved in the last moment, this time by Ivan. I was so disappointed. Tonally, the story felt like a backslide in the way they handled Natasha’s character. I know it was only 1983 but, looking at what was being done with her in Daredevil and Bizarre Adventures, this feels redundant in a bad way.
However Black Widow: The Coldest War, one of Marvel’s original graphic novels, written by Gerry Conway and released in 1990, would pick up more or less where Frank Miller left off in Daredevil. Natasha is working for S.H.I.E.L.D., living in her penthouse, and Ivan’s living with and driving her like normal. Soviet spies seek her out to tell her her husband Alexi – the Red Guardian – survived the battle with the Avengers all those years ago, when he gave his life to protect Natasha. If Natasha would be willing to steal classified documents for them, they’d be sure to continue to care for Alex in his amnesiac rehabilitation.
The story is “grittier” in tone as per the route Marvel went with so many of their OGNs during this time period. As a result, it further develops this darker dimension of Black Widow’s character. More and more the shades of the happy, well-adjusted, and optimistic Natasha we saw throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s are falling away.
As Natasha tries to discern the right move, she calls Hawkeye but hangs up when his new wife Bobbi Morse/Mockingbird answers. She then goes to visit Matt but leaves when she sees his girlfriend Karen Page through the window. However, Daredevil was already on the prowl for the evening so he sees her as she turns to leave. On the rooftop Matt asks, “Tell me what’s wrong Natasha.” She replies, “Nothing – I shouldn’t have come. You and Clint – you have full lives. A present. A future. I have only my past…and my memories.” She leaves assuring Matt she’ll be fine – she always survives.
We’re starting to see the dark, haunted nature we often think of when we think of the Black Widow come into focus here. While they aren’t talking about “the red in [her] ledger,” we get the sense of a woman always on the periphery of happiness. Those she loves can move on and find true happiness. They can have complete, full lives. But the Black Widow cannot. That sort of happiness isn’t in the cards for her.
In our Continuing Chronicles of Objectification, in this story we see Natasha change in the back of the limo as Ivan drives. We also have a flashback where she strips and dances naked for Alexi in front of a fire. And of course there are two scenes of her in the shower. For one of them the excuse to have her jump in the shower was as paper thin as she “felt dirty” from her discussions with the Soviets. UGH.
Interestingly enough, nearly all of the versions of the “Definitive Black Widow Reading List” I consulted had a single issue, also from 1990, on them – The Uncanny X-Men #268, written by X-scribe X-traordinaire Chris Claremont. The story runs in two times – 1941 and the present. In ’41, Captain America and Wolverine meet for the first time in Madripoor. They run afoul of the Hand’s assassins who Ivan’s hunting as well, as they have kidnapped a little Natasha. In the present, Natasha runs into Logan again – along with Psylocke and Jubilee – in Madripoor once more. They battle against the Hand which appears to be reemerging, even after she and DD took them out.
It’s a fun story but we have more contrived situations to objectify Natasha. After she battles the Hand, she collapses form exhaustion once Logan and the others arrive. Natasha wakes up either in a safehouse or apartment Logan keeps in Madripoor (it’s unclear which) and he just happens to have that lingerie laying around?? I’ve got questions Wolverine and none of them are good. Let’s begin with why you even have that outfit and move into why it’s okay for you to change women into it when they are unconscious??
Frustrating objectification aside, this story does add a very important dimension to Natasha’s character. Set in 1990, it affirms she was a child in 1941. Aging in comic books is an odd thing, often largely ignored to allow the same characters to have continued adventures for decades and decades. For example, Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider when he was fifteen-years-old, originally in 1962. That means Peter was born in 1946 or 1947! But that’s been retconned again and again over the years. Characters like Wolverine or Captain America can retain their “original” age as their respective healing factor and Super Soldier Serum slow their aging.
In the wake of this story it was developed that while Natasha was training in the Red Room, the Soviets experimented on her with their own version of the Super Soldier Serum and as a result her aging is slowed. This shows the fall of Stalingrad (where Ivan first rescued the young, orphaned Natasha) and the Cold War (where she served the U.S.S.R. before defecting to the U.S.) are important enough to her character that they must remain a part of her history. The cover to this issue famously portrays all three characters – Black Widow, Captain America, and Wolverine. Each are out of time in their own way. Marvel could’ve approached Natasha as they do with almost every other character they have and just keep retconning her age. But this shows how special a character she is and how important her history is. They chose to develop a way to keep it unchanged while also keeping her character appearing to be perpetually in her thirties.
The ‘90s will also see Black Widow’s longest running period of continuous, active Avengers membership to date, beginning with The Avengers #329 in 1991 through the whole Onslaught/Heroes Reborn thing in 1996 with The Avengers #402. While she doesn’t gain a lot of character development in many of the issues (as she’s a part of a very large ensemble cast), we do see her “superhero credit” go up. By and large there is no mention of S.H.I.E.L.D. and she spends her time going toe-to-toe with all sorts of villains from the white supremacist hate group the Sons of the Serpent to cosmic entities like the Collector, the Kree and Shi’ar, and Thanos himself.
Natasha serves as the Avengers’ chairperson/leader for a long stretch during this period – joining the ranks of characters such as Captain America, Black Panther, and Iron Man . She was both their solo team leader as well as a co-leader, when she ran operations and had Dane Whitman/the Black Knight as her field leader.
If the ‘80s began to fully flesh out the covert/black ops spy persona we’re all familiar with in regard to the Black Widow, then the ‘90s did the same with her “big league” superhero status. She’s not dancing with Daredevil baddies here. She’s fighting to save the planet, the universe, and reality itself.
We also see a significant relationship develop between Natasha and Cap, beginning with issue #344. They are not a romantic couple but they become close friends and trusted confidants. It is during this time when she begins to help train and evaluate new members. It is here where Steve starts to turn to her for heart-to-hearts. You see her coming into her own not just as a cosmic-threat-level-facing superhero but as a team leader and confidant, too.
The ‘80s and ‘90s saw Natasha’s relationship with Matt move beyond the superhero girlfriend/sidekick to a more complex relationship of friendship, trust, security, and support. We then see her develop the same with Steve, without even having to go through a romantic relationship first. They become so important to each other as close friends and they share the burden of leading the world’s mightiest heroes, too.
Throughout this era we see Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow, fully developed as a lethal spy and top-tier superhero. In many ways, I’d say the ‘80s and ‘90s most fully formed the Natasha Romanoff we see in the MCU. What will follow will be stories far darker in tone and while it’s clear her character has a dark past in the films, by and large the tone of the MCU fits more with these comics than what the Black Widow faces in the ‘00s and ’10s. Here the Black Widow is the best agent S.H.I.E.L.D. has and an Avenger who often leads the team in her own right. Most interesting of all, we see her relationships grow beyond playing the part of the pining woman and the disregarded lover. It’s not romantic pursuits that most characterize Natasha during this period but her increasingly dynamic friendships, with all the Avengers of course, but most notably with Matt Murdock and Steve Rogers. In so many of these stories Natasha models not just the type of friend we all want but the sort of friend we should all aspire to be.
Also, it’s worth noting she was still never blonde. The Avengers: Infinity War trailer query which began this epic journey still haunts me. Well, I still have twenty years of comics to wade through and miles to go before I sleep. I guess it’s time to grab the next short box…
If you’d like to read more about Black Widow’s comic history, here are the other eras!
While 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. I’ve included where I found each title as well.
Daredevil #155-158 (c/o Marvel Unlimited)
Bizarre Adventures #25 (collected in Black Widow: Web of Intrigue)
Daredevil #187-190 (c/o Marvel Unlimited)
Marvel Fanfare #10-13 (collected in Black Widow: Web of Intrigue)
Black Widow: The Coldest War OGN (collected in Black Widow: Web of Intrigue)
The Uncanny X-Men #268 (c/o Marvel Unlimited)
The Avengers #329-402 (c/o Marvel Unlimited and the single issues in my childhood comic boxes 🙂 )
Note: I scanned the majority of those Avengers issues, only focusing on/reading the Black Widow-centric ones.