Black Widow: A Comic Book Retrospective – ‘00 through ‘10

Back when the first trailer for Avengers: Infinity War was released, a conversation with Kiri (of Star Wars Anonymous) about whether Black Widow was ever blonde in the comics led me to realize how few of her comics I’d actually read.  Because I had no idea if she was!  This was unacceptable.  Since I’m me, I then waaaay overcommitted.  I’ve spent two and a half years now refining my reading list, finding the titles, and reading my way through decades of Black Widow stories.  Four months ago I wrote the second piece in this series, looking at Natasha’s most important appearances in the ‘80s and ‘90s.  Now it’s time to turn my attention to 2000–2010 as I continue my little expansive journey through her comic book history, from Natasha’s first appearance in Tales of Suspense #52 (1964) up to The Web of Black Widow (2019-20).  My hope is to finish before Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow is released!

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Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

In the ‘80s and ‘90s, the happy, well-adjusted, and optimistic character who always fought for progressive causes yet often found herself needing to be saved by the men in her life before she can save the day herself, developed a far more consistent agency.  Natasha Romanoff’s superspy identity became fully fleshed out as did her status as one of the world’s mightiest superheroes, leading the Avengers for a large portion of the ‘90s.  Her relationships – romantic and platonic – became far more complex with Natasha fiercely and skillfully protecting her friends’ lives as well as caring for their emotional needs, too.  Her character modelled the type of friend we should all be so blessed to have as well as the type of friend we should all strive to be.  Yet all was not smooth sailing.  Some of the darkness often associated with the Black Widow began to be developed as part of her character during the ‘80s and ‘90s as well.

 

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Natasha does her S.H.I.E.L.D. thing, effortlessly taking command on the Hellicarrier. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

This piece begins with perhaps THE defining Black Widow story, Devin Greyson’s Black Widow (Vol. 1, June – August 1999).  Almost every “Best of Black Widow” list you find places this in their #1 spot.  I’d agree with the pride of place it’s given.  It’s only three issues yet, if you could only read one Black Widow story, I think this does the best job of illustrating all Natasha is.  More than any other I’ve read, it best setups the Natasha we “know,” the one we think of when we hear “Black Widow.”  But, unlike some others we find this decade, it does so without ignoring what has come before.  Devin Greyson honors Natasha’s past while setting up her future.  It’s seamlessly done, too.  I’d argue few writers “get” Natasha Romanoff better than Devin Greyson.

Titled “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider,” we see Natasha searching for her identity – who is she really? – while struggling with her own vulnerabilities.  This is something that’s become synonymous with the Black Widow through the decades and, for me, something that’s come to make her such an important character.  These story beats resonate for me.  These are deeply human questions.  Because of the often solitary nature of her life, Natasha is forced to largely wrestle with these issues alone.  Her isolation adds greater existential depth – with hints of despair – to her questions.  She personifies those moments when, unable to sleep and staring into the abyssal darkness of the middle of the night, we wonder if anyone will every truly understand us.  Will we be forever alone?  Is there anyone who can understand let alone care for all that is most precious and vulnerable in us?  Do we even know what that is?  Do we even know who we truly are?  Can we?

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Natasha searches through mementos of her past as she ponders who she really is. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

These existential questions have become the core of Natasha Romanoff’s journey and, while they have been with her since the very beginning (a femme-fatale-turned-superhero-spy certainly creates a few identity issues), they’ve become a far more pronounced part of her character.  The wounds she conceals go deeper.  The vulnerabilities she seeks to hide feel more raw.  And, in that, she speaks to all of us.  No matter how tough we may seem, we’re all fragile in our own ways.  We all have those broken parts of ourselves we want to protect.  We all have the sides of ourselves we’re hesitant to share and show, not knowing who we can fully trust with that part of ourselves. 

Matt Murdock is back as a friend (with benefits) but Natasha won’t let him any closer. Whereas in the ‘70s she wanted him to voice his feelings, now she has walls in place to protect herself.  She’ll happily fuck him…but she won’t let her guard down (hence my use of “fuck” as they aren’t “making love” in any way).  Despite this shift, it’s obvious they’re close friends.  While they aren’t together-together, it’s nice to see they find familiar comfort in each other’s presence.  Guard up or not, it’s clear Nat trusts him.  There’s a reason why, in issue #2, she calls him to ask what he thinks of her, how he sees her, as she wrestles with her own sense of self.  Think of the depth of that relationship.  The people whose reflection of us we trust are rare and valued indeed.

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I love this scene. It not only shows us so much of Natasha as well as her relationship with Matt, but it also illustrates so much of what is vulnerable and beautiful and difficult in our human nature. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

I think it’s safe to say Matt Murdock is the defining (although not in any way the healthiest) relationship of Natasha’s life.  It’s always complicated and often messy between them.  Yet they keep returning to each other.  Sometimes it’s just for fun.  Sometimes it’s because they are in need and there’s no one who can help and/or comfort quite like the other.  There’s a connection between them they can never fully sever.  Nor do they want to.   

But this is not a Daredevil/Black Widow reunion adventure.  Natasha does her brilliant spy thing as she has to track down and stop a new biotoxin weapon being sold to a terrorist organization.  And she is such a badass!  She says they’ll call in the Avengers if she fails.  Ha!  I love it!  The Avengers are her backup and, if she can’t handle it on her own, then it’s clear the threat is so large they’ll need all the Avengers to tackle it.  With all due respect to Wolverine’s originating the catchphrase, I think the Black Widow is the best there is at what she does.  Also, on an aesthetic note, in this series we see Natasha back in her classic ‘70s garb.  She has the black body suit, chain belt, Widow’s Bite bracelets, and her long red hair and bangs again.

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Natasha tries to convince Yelena the life of a Black Widow isn’t worth it. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

“The Itsy-Bitsy Spider” introduces Yelena Belova as the new Black Widow and reintroduces the Red Room as a threat.  Yelena is a recent Red Room graduate who is said to have surpassed Natasha’s marks in all her exams.  Yelena wants to beat Natasha, to be better than Natasha.  However Nat easily outplays her and she tries, with deep sincerity, to warn Yelena away from this life.  Her compassion is a major part of Natasha’s character, developed with her through the decades.  Natasha may be unsure of who she is.  She may be reluctant to let anyone completely in.  She may guard her vulnerabilities.  Yet Natasha cares deeply.  Whether it is being a devoted friend and confidant to someone she’s known for years or trying to save someone she’s just met, like Yelena, from a dark and manipulated life, Natasha’s heart is a major motivator in her actions.

Devin Greyson would return to write another three issue series, Black Widow (Vol. 2, January – March 2001).  This story, titled “Breakdown,” really shows how dark, twisted, and manipulative Natasha can be.  She drugs and kidnaps Yelena, dying her hair red and giving her plastic surgery to make Yelena look like her, and leaving her to wake up in her apartment.  Natasha then cuts and dyes her hair blonde and gets surgery to look like Yelena.

Let’s pause to soak this in.  I FIGURED IT OUT.  AFTER READING 174 COMICS I CAN FINALLY ANSWER THE QUESTION THAT BEGAN THIS WHOLE JOURNEY.  NATASHA WAS BLONDE IN THE COMICS.  And, AND, when you look at Scarlett Johansson in Avengers: Infinity War, you see how much she looks like Natasha in “Breakdown.”  And, AND, as Natasha was in deep cover in this comic AND was doing the same in the film, it looks like the movie stylists were really plugged into her comic history and were going for an intentional nod to this look.  Huzzah!  Way to go MCU peeps for being so invested in the comics and way to go ME for not just lazily googling this and finding the answer out two years ago.  I earned this!  

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Ahhhhhhhhhhhh, YES! BOOM! I figured it out! See??  Natasha in Black Widow (Vol. 2)… / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics


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…and Natasha in Avengers: Infinity War!  See?? SEE?!!?!?  Do you see this?? / Photo Credit – Avengers: Infinity War

Anyway.  Back to the discussion at hand.

As Yelena fights through panic, logic, and instinct trying to discern who she is, she confronts “herself” and “kills Yelena.”  She then goes on the run from S.H.I.E.L.D. as she’s wanted for murder, stumbling from safehouse to safehouse, trying to figure out who she really is.  Ultimately, Natasha (who wasn’t really killed by Yelena (obvs.)) tells Yelena what she’s done.  Natasha underscores this isn’t a game.  They are not superheroes; they are a “tool.” 

This is a total reversal of her ‘60s and ‘70s character arc.  There she worked to intentionally leave the dark world of espionage behind to become a superhero.  Then in the ‘80s and ‘90s, she was both a deadly spy as well as a central Avenger.  Natasha was Captain America’s right hand, close confidant, and friend.  She led several incarnations of the team.  She even led Captain America into battle!  There are no higher superhero bona fides than that!  Now we see a declaration that this was never who she really was or is.  In this, her character is becoming darker.

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A dark, tragic, and traumatic attempt at helping Yelena…but the intent was to help her all the same. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

But this story isn’t just darkness and mind games.  It also showcases her heart, as Natasha does all this to try and “save” Yelena.  Nat is desperate to show Yelena how brutal and difficult the life of a spy can be.  You never know who to trust or who you really are.  Natasha is already lost to this life but she wants to spare Yelena and she goes to extreme lengths to do it.  At the end of it all – with the whole truth out there and their own faces restored – Yelena will leave hating Natasha for what she’s done. 

Really, the modern understanding of Natasha lies at the intersection of these two parts – her darkness and brokenness with her compassion and heart.  Where those two parts meet, we find the Black Widow.  Devin Greyson takes those parts, developed over decades, and pulls them together into a unified whole which will serve as the framework for all the takes – comic book and cinematic – on her character to follow.

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Whether performing dark, spy missions on her own or battling the world’s greatest threats with the Avengers, the Black Widow Devin Greyson compiles remains her

Brian Michael Bendis will bring the Black Widow back into Daredevil’s life in Daredevil (Vol. 2) #61-64.  The Director of Central Intelligence is looking to trade Natasha to the Bulgarians for Madame Hydra, who was captured in their country.  When Fury tips her off, Natasha goes to Matt.  He comes home one night to find her in his bed.  He presumes Fury sent her to mess with his head but she says Fury had nothing to do with it.

Matt – “What do you want then?”

Natasha – “A nice ‘Hello.  Wow.  I haven’t seen you in a long time.  You smell great.  How long has it been?  Remember that time we – ’ wouldn’t be totally out of the question.”

Matt – “What do you want?”

Natasha – “I need a place to sleep.”

Matt – “You’re a rich woman and we do have the finest luxury hotels in the entire world.”

Natasha – “I was in London, on a crap assignment.  And it was getting to me, okay?  I was getting the jitters.  I’ve been on the road for over a year without a break and I’m not doing well in my head.  I kinda needed to just be me for a while.  Even the old me.”

Matt – “I liked the old you.”

Natasha – “See, that was almost nice.  I just wanted to crash for a day or two.  Maybe get the old juices flowing again, you know.  Nothing – no hidden agenda.  I just needed a friend.”

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I love their banter so much :). / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

While she’s not being entirely honest with Matt about the hidden agendas, the rest is very vulnerable and deeply true.  Natasha is a character who is always struggling to find and hold on to her identity.  But her core self is locked away so deep, it’s hard for her to touch let alone open herself and share.  So that’s all true.  She really needs “a friend” in her corner.  But, in the world in which she lives, where do you find a true friend?  This is the Widow’s curse/cross/burden – forever seeking herself while forever at a distance from those she loves.  Matt is a rare person she can confide in. 

After a night out, with the Black Widow and Daredevil stopping crime together again, they come back to Matt’s place.  Natasha kisses him and things start to get a little heated, until Matt pulls away.  He’s feeling conflicted as his wife recently left him and wants an annulment, something he’s not yet willing to grant.  He discusses it with Foggy at work the next day:

Foggy – “That’s a big ‘no’ then?  No on the nookie?”

Matt – “That is a no.”

Foggy – “Wow, that doesn’t sound like her at all.”

Matt – “No, it sounds like me.:

Foggy – “Yes it does.  If by you, you mean it sounds crazy nuts.”

Matt – “I’m married.”

Foggy – “…”

Matt – “I’m married.”

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Natasha and Matt the night before his conversation with Foggy. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

This exchange fascinated me.  When they were together in San Francisco, Natasha was the one telling Matt she loved him, trying to define their relationship, looking to discuss their feelings…while he refused to do any of that yet he was ALWAYS looking to have sex with her (and every other woman he met in those issues).  This is an interesting reversal of her character.  Natasha has always been a sexual character, comfortable with her sexuality and her sexual desires.  She understands the power of her sexuality, too, and she’ll use it when she needs to.  There’s nothing new about that.  But the idea of Natasha as the sensual seductress who is only there for sex while Matt is the reserved one who won’t have sex with conflicted feelings is entirely new.

Eventually, after dealing with an assassin, Natasha opens up to him.  After sharing the truth with Matt, she says, “There’s a lot of people to whom I have done wrong in my life.  This I will admit.  I very well may have – whatever this is – I very well may have it coming.  But I do not care.  I have done bad things but I have done much good, too.  Real good.  I will not go out quietly.  And I will not go out this way.  I will go when I want to go.  When I want to.  I am glad I’m here.  Matthew – I do miss you.  And I do love you.  You know that.  I miss us.  I do.  But I’m sorry, that’s not why I came.”  Bendis continues Greyson’s work of bringing together all these different parts of Black Widow into a modern whole.  She owns the bad she’s done yet she sees and honors all the good.  She loves Matt and misses their relationship, yet she can’t have (or allow) herself that joy (at least not yet).  We should all strive to be able to view our lives with such courageous honesty!    

Once the conflict is resolved, Natasha says goodbye to Matt and moves on.

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Natasha – “Matthew Murdock, please find a way to be happy.  It makes me happy when you’re happy.”

Matt – “You too.”

Natasha – “You know what?”

Matt – “What?”

Natasha – “Next week you’ll be lying in bed…and all of a sudden it’ll dawn on you…You should have slept with me when you had the chance.”

This is a cute way to end but it also reveals something else important about Natasha.  “It makes me happy when you’re happy.”  Here is this woman who’s whole life is lying, deception, danger, and combat.  She is surrounded by so much darkness.  She is so broken…but she finds happiness when those she loves are happy.  And THAT says a lot about Natasha Romanoff.  Happiness may be out of her reach but she wants it for those she loves.

 

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Their goodbye is one of my favorite exchanges of dialogue in any comic ever. And Natasha delivers THE BEST exit line EVER. Every time I read it I love t

Richard K. Morgan picks up Natasha’s story next in six issues apiece for Black Widow (Vol. 3) and Black Widow: The Things They Say About her.  I…don’t’ care for these stories.  They were part of the Marvel Knights Imprint (a series of comics that were intentionally written to deal with “more mature themes”[1] in “edgier” stories that were “more grim and grittier” as well as more violent[2]) and it certainly delivered a darker (yet terribly immature) tone.

Morgan does create one facet of her character we see reflected in the MCU.  In issue #5, Natasha finds Lyudmila Antonovna Kudrin, the “mother” of the Red Room applicants.  When Natasha asks her why Stefanya Melnikova (another Red Room graduate) would be taking “system suppressant” that weakens her “repair and immune functions,” a dark truth comes to light.  When Natasha tells her Melnikova was pregnant, the pieces come together. 

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Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

Lyudmila – “We rewired you all biochemically, gave you ramped up immune and cell repair systems.  All the Black Widows have it.  Your wounds heal four, maybe five times as fast as a normal human’s would.  You hardly get sick, you don’t age as fast…your hair doesn’t fall out.  You skin can take wind and sun without…”

Natasha – “Lyudmila, what the hell has this got to do with Stefanya being pregnant?”

Lyudmila – “Natasha, pregnancy is an illness, a weakening.  The fetus grossly distorts your body’s functions at a physical and a biochemical level.  It sucks as much nourishment from the mother as it possibly can.  It even runs hostile biochemistry that tries to turn you into a diabetic, to force up your blood sugar by suppressing insulin production.  The systems we built into you will recognize all of this as an attack, and respond accordingly.”

Natasha – “You mean…”

Lyudmila – “Yes.  Miscarriage.  Automatic.  As a failsafe.  No Black Widow can ever have a child.  I’m sorry, Natasha, it…the Black Widow program…we wanted warriors, not mothers.”

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Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

Morgan provides a detailed explanation about what was revealed in 1990’s The Uncanny X-Men #268 – how Natasha, like Captain America and Wolverine, ages so slowly.  We also see where the forced sterilization plot point from Age of Ultron comes from yet here it is far harsher, far darker.  In the film, the Red Room performed a surgery leaving the Black Widows sterilized.  In the comics, the key to their healing and aging is also what forces a miscarriage.  This seems like a deeper violation, too.

If I’m being honest, it feels like Richard Morgan tried to write an “adult” Black Widow story but didn’t know what makes an adult story.  All he did was add lots of sex, violence, misogyny, and masochism throughout.  The stories came to feel uncomfortable at first and insulting as it went on.  I’d recommend anyone who isn’t looking for an embarrassingly underdeveloped adolescent vision of “mature” stories to pass on these.  In his service of faux-adulthood, he also made Natasha cold, cruel, and unrepentant.  She seemed to not just embrace but revel in the darkness that flowed in her wake.  The character I’ve come to know over almost 200 comics felt completely lost here.  If Greyson best understands who Natasha Romanoff is, I’d argue Richard Morgan understands her the least.  I’ll not read these again.

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This is 1,000,000% the look they go for with Black Widow in the MCU. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

But then comes Ed Brubaker’s Captain America and we find the comics I’d say are most single-handedly responsible for inspiring the Natasha Romanoff Scarlett Johansson gives us in the MCU.  In addition to the feel of her character, these issues give us the Black Widow look most familiar in the MCU as well.  She has her hair cut into a short, wavy bob and dons a black jumpsuit lacking the ‘70s gold and embellishments.  In Captain America (Vol. 5) #29-36, it’s the wake of the First Superhuman Civil War.  Tony Stark is acting Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Bucky Barnes is trying to find the men responsible for assassinating Steve Rogers.  Sam Wilson/Falcon and Sharon Carter are trying to do the same while Natasha, in S.H.I.E.L.D. spy mode, is tasked with bringing Bucky in.

Natasha and Sam are successful in bringing Bucky in (incidentally, I love the Black Widow and the Falcon working side by side in these comics – their superhero chemistry is great) but Tony surprises them all by asking Bucky to take up the mantle of Captain America.  Steve left Tony a letter, in the event of his death, asking Tony to save Bucky from himself and asking that there always be a Captain America to protect the American Dream.  Tony uses S.H.I.E.L.D.’s resources to cleanse all the Winter Soldier programming from Bucky and sends him off, free and unregistered, not in the employ of S.H.I.E.L.D. or the Initiative, to be Captain America.  Natasha is by Bucky’s side every step of the way. 

 

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Black Widow and the new Captain America in action! Taking out Nazi and white supremacists wherever the find them! / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

On his first missions as Captain America, Natasha fights beside him, guides him, advises him, and helps feed him the information he needs when he’s on the ground solo.  Just as she helped Steve run the Avengers, so she’s there beside Bucky as he figures out how to be Captain America himself.  Together they chase down the Red Skull and his forces which are sowing discord across the country.  Once news of the new Cap goes public, the government turns to Tony, wondering if he has anything to do with this mysterious unregistered hero.  Tony denies it but Natasha tells Bucky she’s going to have to keep her distance from him for a little bit until the heat dies down, so as to not implicate S.H.I.E.L.D. in his actions.

As they say their goodbyes in issue #36,  Natasha asks him if he remembers all of their time together, when she was young.  Bucky says he still has those memories and they are the one bright spot in that period of his life.  Natasha kisses him before she leaves, telling him she remembers it, too.  And with this exchange we find the third great, iconic romantic relationship of Natasha’s life – and the healthiest, by far, too. 

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Photo Credit – Marvel Comics


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“Oooo, la la! Oui. oui!” as Grandma used to say ;D. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

But development of this relationship will have to wait as Natasha’s attention turns towards her Avengers duty and, ultimately, the Skrulls’ Secret Invasion.  She will appear as a primary member of the Avengers in Brian Michael Bendis’ The Mighty Avengers #1-20.  She’ll play a pivotal role in his Secret Invasion main title, too.

In the wake of the Superhuman Civil War, even with registered heroes in each state care of the Initiative, Tony decides the world still needs the Avengers.  He asks Carol Danvers/Ms. Marvel to lead the team and he says, for the first time in history, instead of coming together by luck, chance, or circumstances, they can plan a dream team, the mightiest Avengers ever.  Their roster features Ms. Marvel in command with Iron Man, the Wasp, Wonder Man, Sentry, Ares, Spider-Woman, and, of course, the Black Widow.  Black Widow’s once more wearing her short pixie haircut and a more S.H.I.E.L.D.-esque modified version of her classic black jumpsuit.

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Given the choice, I’d’ve swapped out Ares and maybe Sentry…but this is still a pretty bad@$$ Avengers team! Especially given the fact this was after the Civil War and they could only choose from registered heroes… / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

Before the Skrulls, these Avengers face some heavy hitters.  Ultron returns.  There’s an invasion of Venom symbiotes that turn everyone in Manhattan into a symbiote-clad monster.  They tangle with Doctor Doom and a hoard of Doombots.  What’s so interesting is to see how these stories underscore Natasha’s courage and her capability.  She is standing beside some of the strongest Avengers ever (Ms. Marvel, Sentry, Wonder Man, and the newly recruited Ares) and going toe-to-toe with some of their most formidable foes.  Yet she is always there, on the front line, guns blazing.  The fact that she has no powers isn’t even a plot point.  It’s a nonissue.  She’s the Black Widow so of course she can handle herself. 

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Photo Credit – Marvel Comics


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Egad! There are Venoms EVERYWHERE! / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics


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Photo Credit – Marvel Comics


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And, not only does she hold her own against all those major threats, but (ridiculous, needless, and gratuitous hot tub scene aside) she was the only Avengers to realize something was fishy with “Spider-Woman” before the Skrull invasion was revealed. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

The size of the guns she uses is interesting, too.  They seem (until the Skrulls come at least) to just get bigger and bigger.  Is it to underscore the size of the threats?  Is it to illustrate how much “power” she can carry?  Or is it just to look “cool”?  I don’t know.  Regardless, it’s a stark contrast to the sort of weapons she traditionally carries.  Natasha always has her Widow’s Bite and will use guns when needed.  But she tends toward more traditional spy-fare.  She’ll use handguns most regularly, or sniper rifles when needed.  She uses knives a lot.  And hand-to-hand combat is always her go-to.  But, in The Mighty Avengers, she’s the woman with the MAJOR blasters. 

After Ultron takes out Tony Stark and Maria Hill, Natasha – the only Level 10 ranking S.H.I.E.L.D. agent around – automatically assumes control of the Hellicarrier.  Her skill and confidence are so precise that, despite it being Carol’s team, Natasha instinctively starts calling the shots and they ultimately defeat Ultron and rescue Tony.  Bendis does a great job of showing how seamlessly Natasha fits in both worlds – she’s a spy, an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., an Avenger, and a superhero and she can do all of those things at the same time.  Few characters could do this and do this as effectively as the Black Widow.

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You need someone to run S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Avengers at the same time? While Ultron is taking over the world? Don’t worry. Nat’s got this. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

When the Skrulls’ Secret Invasion is discovered, Natasha stands alongside her fellow Avengers.  However, her most character-revealing moment comes when the Skrulls begin playing head games with Tony.  They try and convince him he’s a Skrull sleeper agent, programmed to forget he was a Skrull to better play his part.  Everything he’s done – the Registration Act, the Civil War, becoming the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. – was done to serve the Skrull Empire. 

As the Skrull Queen is getting in Tony’s head, it’s Natasha who shows up to rescue him.  She holds him by her side as she’s fighting off Skrulls and figuring out who around them she can trust and constantly sooths and reassures him.  In this one moment we see her as protector, warrior, and compassionate caregiver.  It’s a sequence that sums up Natasha’s character very well.  She’s harder than she was in the past.  The edge that’s been added to her over the course of the decade remains intact.  But we still see the core of her character.  Her heart is still driving her.  Amidst all the chaos, it’s the Black Widow who is single handedly responsible for tracking, finding, and saving Tony Stark and thus getting Iron Man back in the game.

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The woman is unflappable and a helluva multitasker. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

With the Skrulls defeated, Natasha’s story falls back in line with Bucky’s.  She will feature prominently again in Ed Brubaker’s Captain America in issues #43-48, 50, 600, and 607-619.  With issue #43 we see Natasha and Bucky are sleeping together and have picked up the relationship they had in the past.  Bucky refers to Natasha as his “best friend,” too, so they aren’t just enjoying the fun of a casual hook-up or a regular booty call.  In these comics, Natasha isn’t in a co-headlining role like she was in Daredevil and the Black Widow back in the ‘70s.  This is absolutely Bucky’s story.  But their relationship is so much healthier! 

We see real tenderness between them.  We see them laugh and joke and banter.  We see Natasha share not just her knowledge, spy skills, and sweet ninja movies with Bucky, but her softer side as well.  She throws him a surprise birthday part.  They call each other “girlfriend” and “boyfriend.”  We see that she knows him so well she can predict his actions and she’s always there to help him when he needs it – even and especially when he doesn’t ask for her help.  But, unlike with Clint and Matt, she’s never seen as an annoyance nor is her involvement underappreciated.  Bucky knows she’s saving his life and he not only appreciates her for it but he thanks her for it.  Their communication is open and honest.  Their support is mutual.  This is by far the healthiest relationship I’ve seen Natasha in.  Bucky rounds out her big three iconic relationships – Clint Barton/Hawkeye, Matt Murdock/Daredevil, and Bucky Barnes/the Winter Soldier/Captain America – and he is the only one I’d like to see Natasha with. 

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Photo Credit – Marvel Comics


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This makes my heart so happy :D. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics


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Photo Credit – Marvel Comics


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He deserved it XD. Seriously, they are not only a cuter couple than her and Matt or her and Clint, they are SO MUCH HEALTHIER together. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

She helps him transition from his Winter Solider life to picking up Steve’s mantle and becoming Captain America.  Then, as he is haunted by and tries to face all the ghosts and demons his time as the Winter Soldier left him with, she’s there beside him in that, too.  Then, when he decides to go on trial for his crimes, Nat’s right by his side again.  The support they show for each other is brilliant.  Also, Natasha always calls Bucky “James” and he always calls her “Natalia.”  I love the familiarity in that.  There are no nicknames or codenames between them.  I love the intimacy in using their full/real/given names.  It speaks both to the length of time they’ve known each other as well as how close/comfortable/intimate they are.    

During their time together, we see her slide back into her super spy mode.  Gone are the heavy artillery blasters from her Mighty Avengers days.  Now she is back to the covert ops stuff.  On the aesthetic note, as we move into the latter half of these comics (issues #600-619) her costume and hairstyle change back to her classic ‘70s look, which seems to be the default Black Widow style.  Also, I know technically this run goes through June of 2011 so the latter half (issues #600-619) should be saved for the next installment of this series BUT I felt it was important to look at the whole of Natasha’s relationship with Bucky as it’s presented in here before picking up the next chapter in the next series as issues #43-50 and them #600-619 are pretty much one consistent story in which Natasha is with Bucky.

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Photo Credit – Marvel Comics


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I enjoy watching Natasha battle supervillains but her doin’ her sleuthin’ thing is so cool, too. And Ed Brubaker delivers that wonderfully. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

Lastly we have Paul Cornell’s Black Widow: Deadly Origin.  In the lead-up to Black Widow’s MCU debut in Iron Man 2, Marvel ran this series as a primer on her past.  Cornell attempts to take all the different bits of her origin from the last 40+ years and craft one coherent story.  Much of it is convoluted but I really appreciate his addressing the whole “Natasha Romanoff” vs. “Natalia Romanova” thing because she’s been called both, with no consistency, over forty years.  Cornell writes that “Romanova” is “the female form of Romanoff” as well as saying “Natasha” is something Bucky calls her (even though this series is the only place he doesn’t say “Natalia”) because he’s, “enough of a boyfriend to use her nickname.”  I was a bit confused so I did some googling.  It turns out, that’s partially right.    

What I found was “Romanov” is the masculine form of the surname with “Romanova” being the feminine form.  Today, “Romanov” is the most common spelling while “Romanoff” was the “official transliteration under the monarchy.”[3]  So, most likely “Natasha Romanoff, ” the more common/widespread (and westernized, in “Natasha”) form, was what her writers in the ‘60s and ‘70s would’ve used.  Now, in the comics, it appears to be the difference between her “given name” and the name she adopts/uses/an alias/etc. once she was in the states. So the intimacy with which Bucky used “Natalia” in Ed Burbank’s Captain America makes sense as it’s her “real”/non-Westernized name, just as she calls him “James.” 

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I really just adore these two together. /

But the series went off the rails when it was revealed Ivan Petrovich wasn’t dead and was, in fact, the villain.  He faked his own death so his brain and spinal column could be put in a huge robot body and he wanted to destroy everyone in Natasha’s life because…are you ready for this?…I sure as hell wasn’t…CRINGE…he was in love with her and was pissed she kept choosing other guys over him.  Ivan, who found Natasha when SHE WAS A CHILD and then RAISED HER is saying he never wanted to be her father, uncle, mentor, or friend – how, we should note, he was consistently portrayed since the 60’s.  He wanted to be her lover.  Because that is TOTALLY NORMAL and in no way SUPER FUCKING CREEPY AND COMPLETELY UNCALLED FOR to have Ivan be in love with Natasha.  They basically made him a fucking supervillain Woody Allen and that’s just fucking gross.  BLAH.  In trying to do something clever and pull a twist that made Natasha go back and look into all her past relationships, they ended up creating a story that made reading all those other comics uncomfortable because they are trying to say Ivan was romantically in love with Natasha and wanted to have sex with her that whole time.  Like Richard K. Morgan’s Black Widow (Vol. 3) and Black Widow: The Things They Say About Her, Paul Cornell’s Black Widow: Deadly Origins is a HARD PASS.

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Since this comic was SO creepy, I decided not to include any art from it an instead to just throw in another picture of Natasha fighting alongside the Avengers. Huzzah! / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

Still, the rest of this decade gave us some brilliant Black Widow stories.  We see Natasha Romanoff is a woman divided, constantly trying to figure out who she really is in a world of always-shifting allies.  Her lack of certain self-knowledge brings understandable self-doubt, yet she never avoids this dissonance.  She faces it and tries to find her way through it.  In this, we find a character who resonates deeply with all of our own personal, existential struggles while also inspiring us to face them honestly – no matter where they may take us.  Regardless of how much internal division she may feel, or how tightly she may guard her vulnerabilities, the Black Widow always stands as one of Earth’s mightiest heroes, facing the gravest threats in the Avengers’ roster with an unfailing confidence.  She doesn’t run from the complicated relationships in her life, appreciating them for all they bring, and she manages to find something resembling healthy and happy romance in all that, too.  Devin Greyson, Brian Michael Bendis, and Ed Brubaker knew what they were doing here and they gave us some of the best Black Widow stories of all time in this decade.  With the exception of those noted above, I’ve loved all the Black Widow comics I’ve read so far for this research project.  In fact, in reading so many of her comics and in learning so much about Natalia Romanova, I can legitimately say she’s become one of my all-time favorite comic characters.  Now I’ve just one decade left to read through…

 

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Though the Avengers are teasing Tony about being trapped in the female body of Ultron, I’m going with this picture to close as reading over 200 Black Widow comics certainly seems like something to toast! / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

 

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 ‘60s and ‘70s to learn about her origins as an Iron Man villain, her joining the Avengers and S.H.I.E.L.D. for the first time, and her romantic relationships with Clint Barton/Hawkeye, Alexi Shostakov/the Red Guardian, and Matt Murdock/Daredevil.

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 – ’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.

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 own “Black Widow Reading List 2000-2010,” as it were.  I’ve included where I found each title as well.

Black Widow (Vol.1) #1-3 (collected in Black Widow: The Itsy Bitsy Spider)

Black Widow (Vol. 2) #1-3 (collected in Black Widow: The Itsy Bitsy Spider)

Daredevil (Vol. 2) #61-64 (collected in Daredevil Vol. 10: The Widow)

Black Widow (Vol. 3) #1-6 (c/o Marvel Unlimited)

Black Widow: The Things They Say About Her #1-6 (c/o Marvel Unlimited)

Captain America (Vol. 5) #29-36 (c/o Marvel Unlimited)

The Mighty Avengers #1-20 (c/o Marvel Unlimited)

Secret Invasion #1-8 (c/o Marvel Unlimited)

Captain America (Vol. 5) #43-48, 50, 600, 607-619 (c/o Marvel Unlimited)

Black Widow: Deadly Origin #1-4 (collected in Black Widow: Deadly Origin)

 


[1] “Marvel Knights (Imprint),” Marvel Database, Accessed September 28, 2020. https://marvel.fandom.com/wiki/Marvel_Knights_(Imprint)

[2] Rosie Knight, “How MARVEL KNIGHTS Changed the Face and Fate of Marvel Comics,” Nerdist, Published May 23, 2018, Accessed September 28, 2020.  https://nerdist.com/article/marvel-knights-history-importance-punisher-black-panther/

[3] “What is the Romanov Family Association?,” Russian Legitimast, Accessed September 29, 2020.  http://www.russianlegitimist.org/what-is-the-romanoff-family-association#:~:text=Romanoff%20(1922%2D2014)%2C,with%20the%20Russian%20Imperial%20House.&text=The%20second%20is%20the%20Russian%20dynasty.

 

 

4 thoughts on “Black Widow: A Comic Book Retrospective – ‘00 through ‘10

  1. As always. Absolutely STUNNING write up. I feel like by reading your content, I have my own personal comic interpreter. Plus, it’s nice to know the back stories to many of these characters without committing to decades worth of issues when I can just read your summary of them 🙂

    Black Widow is FASCINATING. I do really wish that Marvel had taken more time to flesh out her character during the original hype. I’m worried that her movie is going to get lost and that she won’t get the true recognition and screen time that she deserved.

    Again, as always Michael, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your thoughts and insights, and may need to go back and read the other ones in this series (I definitely don’t remember her relationship with Clint which has always been an intrigue of mine). I think I may have missed a few on my own personal blog hiatus with this clusterfuck of a year 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ooo, I like that! I think I may add “Personal Comic Interpreter” to my resume ;D.

      I’m with you on the Black Widow love, too. I always hoped she would’ve been the first solo film after the original Avengers movie, instead of them jumping straight into ‘Iron Man 3.’ I still wish it would’ve went that way. Heck, if they gave her the spotlight she deserves, then this could be rounding out a Black Widow trilogy instead of it being her first solo movie. Siiiiiiiiiiigh, if only…

      As a character, she has such a rich history and Scarlett Johansson plays her brilliantly. I’ve always felt her Natasha was the true heart of the Avengers, even over Tony and Steve. Tony may’ve been their brains and Steve their soul, but Nat was their heart. And I get worried about her movie getting lost, too :/. I so, so, so hope they wait until she can get the big theatre rollout and that whole exciting experience as opposed to just popping up on Disney+ one weekend. I’ll happily wait longer if it means I get to see her in the spotlight with the, as you so perfectly put it, true recognition and screen time she deserves.

      Natasha dated Clint back in the ’60s so that will be covered in the first entry of this series. And I’m with you on the clusterfuck of a year, too. I say a hiatus counts as a win! The blog’s still standing, right? I say ANYTHING that survives 2020 is a MAJOR WIN. Breaks and hiatuses are more necessary than ever for us to keep our sanity now.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Right?? Every time I hear a new story of some exec pushing to “premiere” it on Disney+ I get a little nervous, too. Because I can’t wait to see it! But I also think the character, as well as Scarlett Johansson, deserve a big screen extravaganza on the other side of this pandemic.

      Like

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