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Sunday, 17 May 2020

Comics Explained: Black Widow

Black Widow, thanks to her regular appearance in Marvel movies since Iron Man 2, has made her one of Marvel's best known heroes. Debuting in Marvel's soar to supremacy over the comics industry in the 1960s Black Widow has become one of Marvel's major characters - she's appeared in most major Marvel-wide events, been part of the Avengers, dated Daredevil, and even led SHIELD. Today we'll give an overview of the main Black Widow, Natasha Romanova, and some of her appearances. I would also highly recommend watching Variant Comics' video on her here for some recommended reading. 


Black Widow was co-created by Stan Lee himself in a story written by Don Rico, and drawn by Don Heck. Her original design was quite different from her now iconic design - she had black, middle-length hair instead of her long, red hair, and she wore dresses/cat-suits instead of her black costume with wristbands. Arris Quinones from Variant Comics has pointed out how her design bore a stark resemblance to that of Catwoman from the Batman TV show - this show was incredibly popular and had a major impact on comic books. As a result, Black Widow was a Catwoman-esque femme fatale, although sexism of the period meant that even if there was no Catwoman in Batman, she would likely have been created as a femme fatale. Black Widow debuted in 1964, during the Cold War, so the paranoia associated with the Cold War resonates in her story. Natasha Romanoff, later Natasha Romanova, first appeared in Tales of Suspense #52 in a story straight out of an Ian Fleming novel. Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow, was sent by the KGB to capture industrialist Tony Stark, and to assassinate defector Anton Vanok, the first Crimson Dynamo. Allied with fellow spy Boris Turgenov, who had his own Crimson Dynamo suit, they got into Stark Industries. Natasha tried to seduce Stark as Boris went to kill Anton, but it went wrong. Stark realised the plot and used gas to escape from Natasha, while the Crimson Dynamo shot Boris's suit blowing it, and him, up. A few issues later, Tales of Suspense #57, she encountered the incredible archer, Clint Barton aka Hawkeye, who was wrongly accused of robbing a jewelry store. Teaming up they fought Iron Man, and this initial team-up would set the stage for a long history together. 


There have been several contesting origins for Natasha Romanova, which have actually been worked into her character. With a contested past which she herself doesn't fully know it very much fits into her whole character arc. Her original origin, from Daredevil #88 from 1972, has her being saved by a Russian soldier Ivan Petrovitch during the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942. Ivan raised the baby as his own daughter, that is until she is picked up by the Soviet authorities who trains her to be a super-spy and a ballerina. The KGB even got her married to another operative, Alexei Shostakov, until he became the new Red Guardian, and she was told that he 'died' so she wouldn't go after him. When Black Widow got another solo title in 2005 her origins were retconned; her original story was still quasi-canon, but it became consumed in the brainwashing which she experienced. A fire broke out in a house in Stalingrad in 1928, and a dying mother passed her baby daughter to Ivan Petrovitch. However, Petrovitch wouldn't be able to solely raise the young Natasha. Instead, she was taken and inducted into the 'Black Widow Program' where she and another 28 young girls were taken to the 'Red Room' to be trained. In the Red Room they would be brainwashed in order to become efficient spies, trained to become deadly fighters, and bio-technologically and psycho-technologically enhanced. This way her ageing was extremely slowed so, by the 2010s and 2020s, she still looked like she was in her thirties. These enhancements also made Natasha reach peak physically fitness that a human can have without being classed as a superhuman. During her training she also met Bucky Barnes, the Winter Soldier.

Joining the Avengers

After her debut Black Widow was an antagonist of several Marvel characters as she tried to take down Iron Man to win back favour with the KGB. Some of them had her fighting alongside Hawkeye, and fighting against Spider-Man. Her superiors brainwashed her again in Avengers #29 to use other villains to wipe out the Avengers, but in the next issue she shook off the brainwashing and helped her former foes. In Avengers #32-33 to prove herself to the Avengers, and to a reformed Hawkeye whom she started seeing, she helped the team fight a fascist group called the Sons of the Serpent. The Avengers were willing to accept her, but there was an issue. The Avengers had a no killing policy, something which has since changed to an extent, and, as she refused the have the same policy, Natasha was not made a full Avenger. Instead, she was made a 'reserve' Avenger - while affiliated and fighting alongside the Avengers Natasha was not a formal member of the team. While this was happening she continued having romantic interests with Hawkeye forming a 'power couple' in the media of the Marvel Universe. Imagine Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie just fighting aliens and robots. While part-time with the Avengers the head of SHIELD, Nick Fury, would approach her to become an agent of SHIELD. This began a long history of Natasha Romanova being a member of the super spy organisation, and at times she would even lead the group.

In The Amazing Spider-Man #86 from 1970, with her popularity increasing, Marvel decided to give her a costume re-design. Gone was the Catwoman inspired outfit. She now had her iconic long, red hair, and a black suit with accompanying wristbands. Called her 'Spider Bites' the wristbands could release tasers, tear gas pellets, explosives and knock out gas. Accompanying that, Natasha was still physically deadly being an expert marksmen, a master in various hand-held weapons, and knew various fighting styles ranging from jiu jitsu to sambo. Throughout the 1970s she would be a member of SHIELD taking missions to disrupt organisations, like Hydra, and allying herself with 'street-level' heroes, like Spider-Man. In 1970 she somewhat got the first of several solo titles - The Inhumans and Black Widow. This comic was split into two, with half focusing on stories about the Inhumans by Jack Kirby and the other half focusing on Black Widow by Marie Severin. However, the comic didn't last long. After the eighth issue Black Widow was dropped, and two issues later it was cancelled altogether. Meanwhile, she continued fighting for social justice issues. Writer Les Daniels, in 1971, noted how Marvel used her Left-wing upbringing to fight for oppressed people in the US. This was a greater reflection on how Marvel started moving away from the fairly conservative Comics Code Authority which restricted what comics could or could not write about. Among her adventures she helped Puerto Ricans fight against police brutality and hippies against organised crime.

Daredevil and the Champions

In Daredevil #81 in 1971 Black Widow started teaming up with Daredevil, this was during a time when he had started to become an alcoholic. She helped him start to recover, and the two formed a romantic relationship. They actually made comic book history by being the first romantic couple in comics, who weren't married, to cohabit. The Comic Codes Authority had frowned upon non-married couples living together, so, as soon as the Authority's influence started to wane, Marvel jumped at the chance to experiment with stories. It was during this period that Black Widow began helping oppressed people, part of which was facilitated by Daredevil. Although Daredevil has regularly become involved with the Avengers he is very much a street-level hero; with Natasha regularly appearing alongside Daredevil this gave her the chance to tackle real-world issues. Marvel also decided to tackle misogyny. Natasha became angered by how Daredevil kept on trying to protect her; quite ironic considering that she was a near-superpowered super-spy. As a result, in 1975 she left to go to the West Coast, and she co-founded the Champions in Champions #1. This was a smaller version of the Avengers, based on the East Coast, consisting of Black Widow, the former X-Men Iceman and Angel, the Spirit of Vengeance Ghost Rider, and the literal god Hercules. In their debut they teamed up to stop the Greek/Roman god of war Pluto from taking over Olympus. However, the team did not last long. They were bankrolled by Angel's fortune, and, unsurprisingly, funding a super team is expensive. Due to bankruptcy the Champions had to fold - in real life sales were low so Marvel canned it. Since then the Champions have occasionally reformed, and characters have regularly made fun of it. In the 1990s Iceman called it an embarrassment...

2000s - Marvel Heavy-Hitter

After the folding of the Champions in the 1970s Black Widow remained a big Marvel character, but it was largely through appearances alongside the Avengers, SHIELD, and Daredevil. That is until the 2000s. Black Widow, especially since the resurgence of her own title which began in 2004, has become such an important character in Marvel - she has played a major role in most of Marvel's universe-wide events. In her own title, her past came back to haunt her. After seeing her husband, again, (he was constantly believed dead and turning up alive), she retired to Arizona until the other Black Widows were soon being found killed. It was here that we found out her new origin. Natasha had to hunt down who are killing off the other Black Widows, and avoid being killed herself. In 1999 we were introduced to another Black Widow who was also trained in the Red Room - Yelena Belova. The two have since had a somewhat antagonistic relationship - while occasionally working together they have an intense rivalry. Later, she took part in the Secret War event. Supervillains had somehow been getting new, improved weaponry, and Nick Fury found out the new leader of Latveria was using the master engineer Tinkerer to fund American supervillains. She went on a covert mission with Fury, Luke Cage, Wolverine, Daredevil, Spider-Man, and Daisy Johnson to take her down. During the Superhero Civil War she sided with Iron Man, and when Norman Osborn (the Green Goblin) took over SHIELD she knew that he would use it for his own means. Osborn formed his own Avengers, and hired Yelena to be his version of Black Widow. However, it wasn't Yelena - it was Natasha. 

Death and Resurrection

In 2017 the Secret Empire event happened - you might remember it from the now infamous image of Captain America saying 'Heil Hydra'. For my sins as a comic fan I have still yet to read Secret Empire, so most of this next part is what I've learnt from later comics and general discussions. To basically summarise, Captain America has been replaced by a copy created by the Red Skull manipulating a Cosmic Cube - this version lived a life where he had been raised by Hydra. A fascistic Captain America helped Hydra take over the US, so many heroes formed a resistance called the Underground. Black Widow, however, was angry at the Underground for not adopting more direct, and lethal, methods. Following the events of Civil War II the new young heroes re-formed the Champions, and they followed Natasha with the hope to talk her out of killing Cap. She decided to train the Champions in order to fight, and they went after the fascist doppelganger. However, trying to protect Miles Morales she was killed by the evil Cap. Because comics there turned out to be a clone with all her memories. So, as usual, comics ended up reversing the emotional impact of death for characters and readers.

Thank you for reading. For other blog posts please see our Facebook or catch me on Twitter @LewisTwiby.

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