I DID IT. I DID IT. It took me three years but I read over 300 comics and have successfully walked through all fifty-seven years of Black Widow’s comic history! Natasha Romanoff has gone from a character I was familiar with from Avengers comics and team-up stories to one of the comic characters I know best of all. I AM SO HAPPY I DID THIS! Now, with a month left until Black Widow finally hits theatres, I’m examining the stories marking Natasha’s journeys from 2010-2020. As usual, kudos goes to Kiri (of Star Wars Anonymous) for casually asking if Black Widow was ever blonde in the comics (she was! see ’00-’10) waaay back when the Avengers: Infinity War trailer came out and kudos to my over-committing parts for deciding to read everything from Natasha’s first appearance in Tales of Suspense #52 (1964) up through Web of Black Widow (2019-20) instead of just googling it.
From 2000-10, the darker edge added to her character in the ‘80s and ‘90s takes on an intrapersonal dimension. 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. 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 a healthy and happy romance with Bucky in all that, too.
Reading this last decade of Black Widow comics was difficult at times. Her heart, her compassion, her fierce loyalty and unwavering courage was all still here. But the darkness she faced grew, too. I’d argue this decade saw the heaviest losses and blows befall Natasha and…it hurt my heart to read. Since learning in therapy how developed my empath nature is, my response to certain stories makes more sense. In reading 300+ Black Widow comics over the last three years, I’ve come to truly know and love Natasha Romanoff as a character. I just want her to be happy! And when she hurts, I do too. This decade had plenty of brightness and beauty for her, plenty of amazing heroic moments. But there was a lot of heaviness and a lot of pain, too. My heart hasn’t fully recovered.
The decade begins in brilliance! Marjorie Liu helms the first five issues of Black Widow (Vol. 5) and I absolutely adored this story! The pacing of “The Name of the Rose” is so fun! Natasha is deep in spy mode and, after she’s drugged and cut open in an alleyway, it becomes this twisty mystery thriller. It features Logan/Wolverine, Tony Stark/Iron Man, and Bucky Barnes/Captain America. Natasha relies on her natural supports for help – there is none of that ridiculous and unhealthy “I’ve gotta do this on my own, you wouldn’t understand” trope – but this is still very much her solo story. Tonally it feels darker without ever feeling oppressive. And, unlike some of the stories from the previous decade (*cough* Richard Morgan’s *cough*), it wasn’t dark and violent for the sake of being dark and violent. It had levity as well as sincere heart. It had some cute moments, too. Natasha and Bucky’s relationship continues to be a shining part of her character’s history and I love it more and more each time I see them together.
As the spy/noir story unfolds, it becomes clear someone’s trying to frame Natasha. One of these men does a fantastic job of summing up her abilities as he talks to Tony, Clint Barton/Hawkeye, and Bucky (who don’t yet know he’s a bad guy) saying, “She’s a former Russian spy, the very best that program ever produced. My experts call her the most dangerous woman in the world. The Black Widow. Running circles around men and women who possess ten times her strength. She led the Avengers for God’s sake – without superpowers.”
This story added new dimensions to Natasha’s past, as well. We learn, while fleeing Nazi forces during WWII, a seventeen-year-old Natasha falls in love with an eighteen-year-old Russian soldier. They marry in the woods and have a child together, although the child doesn’t live. It’s a new tragic twist on her past…however I don’t know exactly where it fits in with the Romanov child/Red Room implanting all of her memories/Red Room operating on her so she can never have kids, thing. Although, with the implanted memories point, I’m not sure how canon this Richard Morgan addition is. That seems to take away all of Natasha’s time with Ivan which seems to be corroborated with all they talked about in the comics while they were together in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and early ‘80s.
Marjorie Liu became one of my favorite Black Widow writers – alongside Devin Greyson, Ed Brubaker, and Brian Michael Bendis. I just loved how she handle Natasha. And the story ended with the most gorgeous narration! Natasha says:
I discovered the writer, Leo Tolstoy, in a muddy ditch that held more blood than rain. One of the soldiers loved his words – and then, so did I. ‘All, everything that I understand,’ he wrote, ‘I understand only because I love.’ But words on a page didn’t teach me that lesson. I learned it on my own. I learned it in trenches with bullets flying overhead; pressed back to back with grizzled starving men who would have laid down their lives for mine. I learned it from a ribbon tied around my ring finger. I learned it from a kick inside my belly. I learned it from death, and hardship, and brief acts of inexplicable kindness. I learned love from sacrifice. I learned love from living. And no matter where I’ve gone, or what I’ve done – all the dark things I do not regret, but will never speak of – that is the one part of me I have always kept safe. Tolstoy will live forever. Some people do. But that’s not enough. It’s not the length of the life that matters…just the depth of it. The chances we take. The paths we choose. How we go on after our hearts break. Hearts always break. And so we bend with our hearts. And we sway. But in the end…what matters is that we loved…and lived.
How GORGEOUS is that?? I’d like to forever enshrine that as how I see the Black Widow. What’s captured in those words is how I always want to see Natasha and her relationship to her life.
Alas, there is serious tragedy coming for her in this decade…
In Hawkeye & Mockingbird issues #7-8 and Black Widow (Vol. 4) issues #9-10, Natasha’s path crosses with Clint Barton/Hawkeye and Bobbi Morse/Mockingbird’s as they investigate murdered spies – spies, it turns out, who were murdered by Natasha’s ex-husband Alex who is back from the dead (again (because, comics)) and he’s taken on the identity of Ronin. It’s another globetrotting exploit and it’s a lot of fun. Also, seeing Natasha and Clint together in modern stories is nice. Here we see Natasha employing the I-can’t-believe-I-dated-you sort of wit and Clint’s humor serves as a nice foil for her more serious demeanor. So we get all of that without the HORRIBLY neglectful and patronizing boyfriend Clint was to Natasha back in the ‘60s. I didn’t like them together – at all. But as friends and exes? This is great.
Most of Natasha’s Avenger time this decade comes with different incarnations of the covert black-ops group the Secret Avengers. They operate from the shadows, to strike preventatively and keep the world running. Steve Rogers explains their purpose in the narration that opens the first issue, “Our world is out of control. The 21st Century moves too fast and its threats are too big for most to even acknowledge. I worry about the insane villains in masks and the insane dictators with nuclear weapons…but the things I worry about most are the threats we don’t know about. The threats that hide in the shadows. The trouble with secret threats of course…is finding them before they become problems. But in a world like this, that moves so fast and so ruthlessly…where so many artifacts or experiments can be turned into W.M.D.’s…someone has to tackle this job. Someone has to stop mankind from destroying itself.” OF COURSE a team like this would feature the Black Widow! Most of this series is the Avengers taking down covert organizations, drug runners, and seedy cabals – particularly a group known as the Shadow Council.
Ok, stop reading now if you don’t want your heart ripped out. Ok? Ok.
Natasha will have a central role in Ed Brubaker’s fourteen issue Winter Soldier title. I was simultaneously super excited and super nervous to begin reading this series. I was excited because I LOVE Natalia and James together in Brubaker’s Captain America and I couldn’t wait to see the next phase of their relationship. I was scared because I know they weren’t dating come Secret Empire and I thought this series would be a good place – and a logical place – to expect that impending break-up. And that idea breaks my heart…
Fears aside, I love Ed Brubaker writing Natalia and James :). Unlike Captain America where it was a Bucky solo story with Natasha in a strong supporting role, in Winter Soldier they are a team and it’s a team book. It’s like Daredevil and the Black Widow from the ‘70s except Natasha has all the agency you’d expect as her character developed over the intervening thirty years. So basically, I love it.
After a near-death experience, Nick Fury lets the news out that Bucky Barnes is dead. It was Natasha’s idea, to allow James his own life with Steve Rogers back to wield the shield as Captain America. Once he was conscious, Bucky seconded the idea so he could return to the shadows and clean up some loose ends as the Winter Solider. It’s more globetrotting and daring spy adventures. But what shines again and again is their relationship.
The intimacy, the trust, the knowledge of and respect for each other’s boundaries – it’s all so refreshing to see. Natasha and Bucky share a true partnership, both in their superhero spy exploits as well as in their romantic relationship. Their playful banter is back, too. There’s a joy in their working together, even when the world is at stake, and they are having fun with each other along the way.
Reading these stories – and with Marjorie Liu’s closing narration still fresh in my mind – it makes me wonder…is the Black Widow really as dark a character as we think? Yes, there is plenty of darkness to her and plenty of darkness that surrounds her. But outside of more sophomoric stories like Richard Morgan’s Black Widow (Vol. 3) and Black Widow: The Things They Say About Her, that’s not all there is to her. In reality, Natasha is a character who owns the darkness in her without ever letting it consume her. She struggles with who she is. She struggles with the internal contradictions she feels in her life. But she never runs away from any of it and, in always seeking that balance, she finds moments of great harmony in her life and in herself. Her time with James is certainly one of those times. And it’s beautiful!
BUT I GUESS WE’RE NOT ALLOWED TO KEEP BEAUTIFUL THINGS, ARE WE?? The second story arc in Winter Soldier (issues #6-14) revolves around Leo Novokov, the third and final sleeper agent still left unaccounted for from Project Zephyr. Novokov kidnaps Natasha in issue #8 and then the lynchpin of this plan is revealed in issue #10 when Professor Rodchenko, the former Red Room brainwasher Novokov kidnapped to do Novokov’s dirty work, tells Bucky there were two levels to the brainwashing Novokov wanted done to Natasha. She was programmed to believe she was always a Red Room sleeper agent embedded with the Avengers and S.H.I.E.L.D. and all her memories of Bucky and their relationship were erased. Not buried. Not tampered with. ERASED.
In addition to being a horrendous example of fridging, I just…I can’t even handle it. Even in comics where crazy things like this tend to happen, this hit hard. I’ve written about how beautiful their relationship is…was. I’ve even had another post in mind about how I wished we could’ve seen Scarlett Johansson and Sebastian Stan bring it to life in the MCU. They were becoming one of my favorite comic couples of all-time. But it hits deeper than that.
I keep thinking of it, not just in how it affects the characters, but how that would affect me. I can’t stop putting myself in their shoes. My mind drifts back to the healthy, strong, life-defining relationships I’ve had in my life. What would that be like for one of my central, loving natural supports to lose all of their memories of what we shared?? Or what would it be like if I lost all the memories of what we shared?? It feels like such a dark, twisted, brutal violation. Even when things end, you still have the memories. But to have those ripped away…that’s a loss unlike any other. My stomach was sick thinking about it. And it’s not even just her relationship! It’s all the good she’s done! Ugh, fuck this and fuck you Mr. Brubaker for making me feel this. Why are you such a good writer and why did you do this to me?!!?
The end of this story and this series ripped my fucking heart out. After Novokov is defeated and taken into custody, the S.H.I.E.L.D. techs get to work restoring Natasha’s memories. Everything is recoverable…except her relationship with Bucky. Those memories have been permanently severed.
No. Just NO. I was scared at the start of this and the conclusion ended up being even worse than I could have imagined. No, I’m sorry Mr. Brubaker, but you can’t break my heart like that and expect me to just move on. You can’t take that from Natasha! From Bucky! From Me! GAH…I hate this.
After this, Natasha is in a few more Secret Avengers titles but I found Vol. 2 and Vol. 3 to have diminishing returns. Secret Avengers Vol. 2 began as a Black Widow/Hawkeye story, designed to play off their chemistry in The Avengers (2012) movie but the lynchpin of the series involved them willingly taking a drug to completely wipe their memory after every mission. Given Natasha’s history with people tampering with her mind, I can’t imagine any reason she’d agree to that. She was very cavalier about it, too, when Clint started to have second thoughts. It felt very out of character to me. I didn’t finish Vol. 2 and never began Vol. 3.
Nathan Edmondson’s twenty issue run with Black Widow (Vol. 5), however, is another story. It’s the longest running Black Widow solo title to date! Yay! And I LOVED IT.
This series is centered around atonement. In between her time with the Avengers and her time with S.H.I.E.L.D., Natasha is taking jobs to atone for her past. She’ll only kill bad men and will take jobs from bad men, so long as who she’s killing is worse. She’s become not just a woman with a checkered past but a woman devoutly seeking to correct it. Also, as evident from her interactions with the stray cat, Liho, whom she feeds, she won’t let anyone in.
We see Natasha switching between paying jobs, money she funnels to families to help her atone, and her work with S.H.I.E.L.D. under Maria Hill’s leadership. It’s fun! The spy action is great, very cinematic. This is the James Bond/Ethan Hunt/Jason Bourne Black Widow story. Natasha’s wit is here as is her precision and skill. We see the story arc of her not letting anyone in to her growing and letting people in (her lawyer/manager Isaiah, the cat, etc.) which seems to be the core drama/story point/character development for Black Widow post-2000.
However, in it all, one thing kept striking me. There’s all this talk of atonement, right? What does she have to atone for? They allude to it all the time. The lives she’s taken. How she’s become colder. How she’s compromised who she once was. But I’ve read 300+ Black Widow comics going back to her first appearance and there’s nothing, at least nothing remotely close to what would explain how haunted and driven she is, to atone for.
Sure, she was a supervillain for a while…but even then most of her time as a villain was her being manipulated into doing so. She was brainwashed for a while, too, but that hardly falls on her. In Richard Morgan’s Black Widow and Black Widow: The Things They Say About Her she was a cold-blooded killer, merciless in her actions and reveling in the violence and harm she caused. But that was an isolated incident (in the hands of one immature author who wrote an embarrassingly poor story, all masochism and sex and violence for the sake of it). So Natasha is always talking about all she has to atone for but, in the fifty-seven years of her comic history we, as readers, haven’t seen her do anything that would drive this compulsion. And we’ve certainly not seen her do anything for the length of time she keeps referencing.
The series really tells one consistent story over the course of twenty issues. While Natasha’s doing different for-hire jobs on her own and running missions for S.H.I.E.L.D., it largely focuses on the growing threat of Chaos…until Nat brings the whole organization down around their heads. During that time, they leak information to the press of her actions, leading the world to social media speculate on whether people like Black Widow need more oversight which leads S.H.I.E.L.D. to disavow her for some time, until the heat dies down. Ultimately, of course, Natasha is vindicated. It all leads to her character-redefining choice of quitting S.H.I.E.L.D. and devoting all her time to her work with the Avengers. The final scene is Natasha, with Liho the cat on her lap, sailing off into the sunset for a more balanced sense of…if not happily ever after but of life in general.
Lastly, I LOVED the tone they used for Natasha’s character. Nathan Edmondson has become one of my favorite Black Widow writers, up there with Devin Greyson, Ed Brubaker, Brian Michael Bendis, and Marjorie Liu. He gives us a Natasha who we see has a dark past but who isn’t dark and oppressively broken herself. She lets people in, after a time. She can be funny while also being focused. She can be compassionate while also being the best there is at what she does. In short, we see a nuanced and complex human being in his rendering of Natasha, a character who isn’t taken too far into the dark in the interest of making her seem edgy. We see someone who may’ve had a dark and troubling past but who is working to atone for it and who has made progress in her atonement. We grow. We change. Sometimes, in the service of the darkness of tone, Natasha can be painted as a static character in that regard. However, I love the dynamism Edmondson gives her.
Next up, Mark Waid will deliver a twelve issue Black Widow (Vol. 6) series. Natasha is back working for S.H.I.E.L.D. as this series follows “Secret Wars” which sort of just reset the main Marvel Universe where everything was basically the same…except some things were different. Miles Morales and his family and friends now lived in the main 616 Marvel Universe. Deadpool was a billionaire and funding the Avengers. Tony was sorta poor…rich enough to be super cool but poor enough to complain about money sometimes. As a result, the character-defining decision at the end of the last series was ignored/null and void.
Lots of spy/twists/on-the-run-while-framed action happens but the emotional centerpiece is the Black Widow learning there’s a new version of the Red Room – the Dark Room – in operation. It’s run by Anya/Reculse, the daughter of their former Red Room Headmistress, who is helping Anya run the Dark Room. The second half of the series (issues #7-12) sees the Headmistress take her own life to prevent Natasha from learning the missions she sent the new young girls on, Anya stepping into her mother’s place trying to run the Dark Room, and the Black Widow working to shut this down and save the girls. She wants to protect them from the life she had.
This run is particularly notable for Bucky showing up! He was tailing Natasha for much of her journey, helping her out and trying to protect her. It’s clear he’s still in love with her – Anya refers to her as his one, true love – but Natasha still has no memory of their time together. She does kiss him though but Bucky (and the reader) are left wondering if that was just a flirty thanks-for-saving-my-life-I-know-you-dig-me-kiss or if her memories have been unlocked/returned somehow. I really want it to be the latter!!!!! But only time will tell, I guess.
Natasha prevents Anya from initiating S.H.I.E.L.D.’s total self-destruct protocol and the girls choose to go with her over Anya, because they can tell she cares about them. Tony reminds Natasha her friends are always there to help and Maria tells her she should “come in out of the cold.” While her lone wolf act is productive, she needn’t live that way all the time. Natasha agrees. This seems to be a new arc trope for Black Widow – the “acknowledging she needs others and will give up her loner life at the end of the story” thing.
Ok, if you kept reading after the last warning but don’t want your heart to hurt any more than it already does, stop reading now or your heart will be ripped out again. Ok? Ok.
Natasha plays a pivotal role in Marvel’s 2017 “Secret Empire” event. Captain America was corrupted by a Cosmic Cube-wielding Red Skull to believe he had always served Hydra. He becomes a white supremacist fascist dictator who topples the U.S. government and sits at the head of a Hydra regime. The story is darkly visceral. It was the first time I ever felt the real, crushing pain of hopelessness in a comic narrative. Marvel’s heroes are broken and beaten on every front – physically, emotionally, and spiritually. The desperation radiates from the page. The hopelessness, the defeat feels so real. This doesn’t begin as a story of resistance, rebellion, and plotting the path to victory. This begins as a story of survival under the new world order.
In Occupy Avengers #8-9, Black Widow and Hawkeye join the resistance, working out of the Mount in the Nevada desert. They have some “hey the world may be ending and we don’t know how to save it from a crushing dystopia delivered at the hands of our oldest, most trusted friend” sex in a storage closet, too. Natasha enjoys it as a way to blow off some steam. Clint is a little conflicted about the whole thing.
In Secret Empire #2, as Hydra’s power grows more complete and things become more desperate, it is Natasha who first says Steve Rogers has to die. Everyone else pushes back so the Black Widow goes out on her own to kill Steve Rogers. Think of how close they’ve always been! All they’ve shared! They were inseparable as leaders of the Avengers in the ‘90s. It’s heartbreaking.
Miles Morales/Spider-Man follows her, as he had a vision of himself killing Captain America. He knows he is involved in all this, wherever it leads. Because the Champions stay together, Riri Williams/Ironheart, Viv Vision, Amadeus Cho/the Hulk, Nadia Pym/the Wasp, and Joaquin Torres/the Falcon follow.
Natasha – “Hh. The little revolutionaries. And you – all of you – you’re willing to get blood on your hands now?”
Riri – “Nobody is saying anything about killing anyone. But where Spidey goes…”
Nadia – “…we all go.”
Joaquin – “To the end, homie.”
Natasha – [cutting her hand and smearing the blood on the wall] “Very well then, children – welcome to the Red Room.”
The last Black Widow solo series saw Natasha actively trying to rescue the children taken into Anya’s new version of the Red Room. Now she’s reforging it. Seeing Natasha revert to her Red Room training makes all the sense in the world. She is desperate to restore the world Steve Rogers championed. But the world has gone to hell and Steve has been taken from them. What has always worked is now broken. So she reverts to far darker methods to deal with a far darker world. Her allowing the Champions to stand by her side, her training the Champions in her own version of the Red Room, shows with painful clarity just how hopeless and desperate Natasha is.
Natasha hits her breaking point in Secret Empire #6. Word comes that Hydra attacked the Mount with no reported survivors. Crying, Natasha drinks alone on the porch of their safe house in the woods. Then she wakes the Champions, gives them the news, and tells them tomorrow they will kill Captain America. In this moment, hope is truly dead for Natasha.
When the showdown comes, despite how bleak her worldview has become, Natasha Romanoff will die to protect another child from becoming what the Red Room made her. Natasha’s death in Secret Empire #7 is one of the most powerful death scenes I’ve ever encountered in a comic book. It hit me much, much harder now than the first time, having read so much more of her comic history. I cried as I read it, tears falling freely as the weight of the scene played out. It wasn’t just that she died but it was how she died that affected me so deeply.
Natasha had trapped Miles in the back of a commandeered prison transport. Vision or not, she wasn’t having him anywhere near this. She would kill Captain America, not Miles. After she neutralizes the would-be threat of the Punisher who finally tracked her down, she prepares for the kill shot…and sees Miles standing before Captain America. With an unrelenting pace Black Widow jumps from the building she’s in and fights her way through all the Hydra soldiers standing between her and Spider-Man and Captain America. As they begin to battle, she pushes Miles out of the way…and Steve hits her in the neck with his shield, the angle breaking her neck. Natasha silently falls to the ground and, with that, the Black Widow is dead.
Despite all the hopelessness and all her work to put the Champions through her version of the Red Room, to teach them what they need to survive in this new, cold, cruel world…Natasha died to prevent Miles from becoming like her. She gave her life to stop him from becoming a killer. Her compassion, her concern for others, her fierce loyalty as a friend and mentor and leader were all on display in this one heroic act. This is who Natasha Romanoff is. Love or hate Nick Spencer’s “Secret Empire,” he understood Natasha Romanoff and he wrote a death scene worthy of her 50+ years of comic history. In this death, he truly honored her as a character. For all that, I cried.
But, tragically in some ways, Natasha’s story doesn’t end there.
Ok, if you kept reading after both of the last warnings but don’t want your heart filled with deep existential anxiety and sorrow that may (or may not, depending on how you read it) be tinged with hope, stop reading now. Ok? Ok.
In Tales of Suspense featuring Hawkeye and the Winter Soldier #100-105, a series of former Hydra high command officials being assassinated after the war has Clint convinced Natasha’s returned from the dead. Bucky is also investigating these deaths, not because he believes Natasha’s back but because he believes someone is killing in her name/style and he wants to figure out who. As Hawkeye and the Winter Soldier crisscross the globe looking for answers, they eventually run into Natasha herself.
But she wasn’t brought back by magic or some divine being or time travel or super medicine or hidden supports we didn’t know in her battle suit so she could go deep undercover while presumed dead. No, after her death, she was brought back by a new version of the Red Room. We learn the Red Room keeps clone bodies on hand for all their operatives. If they die in action, the Red Room psychic – Yurgei Ivanov/Epsilon Red – inserts their memories into a new clone body. Unbeknownst to the Widows, Ivanov maintained a constant psychic link to all Black Widows to constantly backup their memories in case of a disaster. However, when Natasha is brought back, Mikhail Ursus/Ursa Major bribes Ivanov to give Natasha all her memories back. The Red Room want their assassin back but Ursa Major tells Natasha saving her life doesn’t mean they own it. So he ensures she remembers being an Avenger, a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, and all her time as a hero. With these memories, and while trying to make sure Clint and Bucky don’t mess up her plans, Natasha brings down this new proto-Red Room and disappears into the mist.
The last two years of this decade will see two five issue miniseries, Black Widow (Vol. 7) by Jen and Sylvia Soska and Web of Black Widow by Jody Houser, where Natasha tries to sort the emotional fallout of what happened to her. The question at the heart of Natalia Romanova, Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow – in some ways since her inception as a femme-fatale-turned-superhero-spy certainly creates a few identity issues but especially from Devin Greyson’s Black Widow (“The Itsy-Bitsy Spider”) in 1999 and on – takes on a horrifically new, literal meaning. Who is she? Is she who she thinks she is? What’s real? Who is the real her? She wasn’t just “brought back.” This is a clone with an exact copy of her memories. What does that mean? Is this the same Natasha Romanoff I’ve been reading about since 1964’s Tales of Suspense #52? Or is this an entirely new character?
Black Widow (Vol. 7) is dark but that’s to be expected. First, it’s written by Jen and Sylvia Soska, also known as “the Twisted Twins.” The Soska sisters are horror movie writers/producers/directors. Their production company, Twisted Twins Productions, just celebrated it’s twelfth anniversary and they are most widely known for “grindhouse horror.” Second, this is a tale of the new Natasha trying to figure out who she is. Is this clone with memories the same Natasha who died to save Miles Morales? That sort of deeply existential journey is the stuff of nightmares so it makes sense the Soska Sisters would be given the helm at this stage in Black Widow’s journey.
To the world at large, the Black Widow is dead. Natasha is living in the shadows, a ghost. After helping Steve take down some terrorists in Times Square on New Year’s Eve 2018, Nat realizes she needs to get out of town. She’s back from the dead but…different. The darkness in her needs to be unleashed. So she goes to Madripoor, an island in Southeast Asia and Marvel’s no holds barred land that law forgot.
There she runs into Jessán Hoan/Tyger Tiger. If there’s any sort of law in Madripoor, it’s Jessán. She tells Natasha she could use her help. Nat tells her she’s no longer an Avenger, no longer a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, no longer anything. She’s just a ghost with violent urges she’s looking to exorcise. Jessán then shows her a website, No Restraints Play. It’s a dark web site where people can bid in to watch young girls, kidnapped on the streets of Madripoor, be raped, tortured, and killed. The top bidder gets to “direct” the event. Horrified, Natasha also finds herself a little relieved. In this, the Black Widow can let herself loose. In stopping such a horrifically exploitative evil, Black Widow can step out of all her restraints, too.
Black Widow cuts a swath of vengeance through Madripoor, brutally beating anyone she finds attached to No Restraints Play, and seeking information on those who run it. She allows herself to be captured in order to take the arms of the man who cut the hands off a young girl and then literally burn the place down from the inside out. Perhaps an Avenger has never embodied their name in a more chilling, accurate way. Her brutality is balanced by the compassion and tenderness she shows the children she rescues. She takes all the money invested in N.R.P. by the monsters who watched those hideous live feeds and gives it to Jessán to care for those children for their entire lives and to try and make Madripoor a better place.
Ultimately she returns to New York and surprises Steve, waiting in his apartment for him to return home. Natasha tells him he has to forgive himself for what happened during the Secret Empire’s reign. She told him she’s forgiven him for what happened to her and she tells him that the world needs him, needs his symbol. Here there is the light of what they shared leading the Avengers in the ’90s coming back. Steve asks Natasha when she’s coming back. She tells him her work isn’t yet done; she’s still a ghost. Then she disappears into the night.
Is this Natasha? Is this the real Natasha? Regardless of if this can be seen as the Natasha who’s been active in the Marvel Universe since her introduction in 1964, in this story she does as Natasha has always done. This is Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow, regardless of whether or not we’d say it’s still the original one. She faces the extreme darkness she is capable of. She owns it. She protects those who are most in need of protection. She shows them the warmest compassion just as she shows those who threaten them the coldest fires of vengeance. Then she forgives the unforgivable and proves herself a friend in a way many of us would struggle to emulate. It is clear the Soska Sisters get Black Widow and, regardless of how we feel about the whole clone-with-implanted-memories thing, they make it clear this is Black Widow. Natasha Romanoff is back.
Also, as this story illustrates so damn well, perhaps the best word to describe Natasha Romanoff from 2010-2020 is resilient. She handles more than I could ever imagine anyone taking and then she takes it, gets back up, and reclaims the person she’s always been no matter the horror visited upon her. There are few characters in modern comics who can do what Black Widow can.
The decade ends with Jody Houser’s Web of Black Widow. In it, Natasha is still wrestling with whether or not she is really Natasha Romanoff. Also, she begins to take out people who have in any way, shape, or form profited from her work in the Red Room. Once more she’s seeking to balance her ledger. It’s funny, as the Black Widow is one of the most dynamic and heroic characters in the Marvel Universe (which is really saying something), to give her this haunted past she is always seeking to atone for, modern writers have to continually go back to her time in the Red Room and continually increase the violent and morally bankrupt actions she did then. They keep creating a worse past for her in the name of writing a haunted story in the present. Where the ’00-’10 stories began to really play up her dark past, the ’10-’20 stories began to present all those sins to the readers.
On the road to atonement this time, she finds Anya trying to resurrect the Red Room (…again – I think it’s safe to say “shut down new Red Room” is another ‘10-‘20 trope for Natasha) but the Black Widow is able to stop her by doing the one thing she’d “never” expect Natasha to do, call in her friends. So Yelena, Tony, Bucky, Clint, and Steve are there to fight beside her. Then Tony is able to help Natasha regain all of her memories – the good and the bad.
This series also definitively reveals that Natasha now remembers her relationship with James! Yay!
It was a nice note to end on but, admittedly, a bit confusing. This idea that Natasha is never quick to trust her friends or always has to do everything alone is an entirely modern addition to her character. In fact, when I was reading her stories from the ‘80s-‘90s I saw that her being an exceptionally good friend was perhaps the defining piece of her character over those twenty years. So that felt a little forced to me. Also, this was very much another story like Black Widow: Deadly Origin in that the main thing driving the plot was how many cameos and callbacks they could do from her past. Unlike Black Widow: Deadly Origin, this story wasn’t pervy or a waste of time and worked really well even if it seemed to mainly be motivated by callbacks instead of being a convoluted piece of rubbish.
So…how do I sum all this up? I’ve spent three years reading over 300 comics starring the Black Widow. I’ve come to love Natasha Romanoff so much. I’ve come to ache at her trials and revel in her triumphs. She has become a character forever stamped upon my heart. And I think it’s best to let Natasha have the final word, the words Marjorie Liu put on her lips, the words which capture her character and her journey so perfectly.
“I learned love from sacrifice. I learned love from living. And no matter where I’ve gone, or what I’ve done – all the dark things I do not regret, but will never speak of – that is the one part of me I have always kept safe[…]It’s not the length of the life that matters…just the depth of it. The chances we take. The paths we choose. How we go on after our hearts break. Hearts always break. And so we bend with our hearts. And we sway. But in the end…what matters is that we loved…and lived.”
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 – ‘00 through ‘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.
While researching for these posts, it was a struggle to track down where all these stories were 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 2010-2020,” as it were. I’ve included where I found each title as well.
Black Widow (Vol. 4) #1-5 (collected in Black Widow: The Name Of The Rose)
Black Widow (Vol. 4) #6-8 (collected in Black Widow: Kiss or Kill)
Hawkeye & Mockingbird issues #7-8 and Black Widow (Vol. 4) issues #9-10 (collected in Widowmaker)
Secret Avengers (Vol. 1) #1-10, 15-16, 19-20, 22-25, 29, 31-32, 34-37 (c/o Marvel Unlimited )
Fear Itself issue #7.1 and Winter Soldier issues #1-14 (collected in Winter Solider: The Complete Collection)
Secret Avengers (Vol. 2) #1-5, 7, 12-16 (c/o Marvel Unlimited)
Black Widow (Vol. 5) #1-20 (c/o Marvel Unlimited)
Black Widow (Vol. 6) #1-12 (c/o Marvel Unlimited)
FCBD 2017 Secret Empire (c/o single issue)
Occupy Avengers #8-9 (c/o Marvel Unlimited)
Secret Empire #1-3 (c/o single issues)
Secret Empire: Uprising #1 (c/o single issue)
Secret Empire #4-7 (c/o single issues)
Tales of Suspense featuring Hawkeye and the Winter Soldier #100-105 (c/o Marvel Unlimited)
Black Widow (Vol. 7) #1-5 (c/o the single issues)Web of Black Widow #1-5 (c/o single issues)