Saturday, August 6, 2022

Black Widow - Beware The Black Widow!

The Black Widow has become an immensely popular character in the Marvel movie universe. Played by actress Scarlett Johansson the former Russian spy Natasha Romanoff always seemed to be the smartest player in the game, two or three steps ahead of her enemies and often her allies as well. Portrayed wit pluck, wit and no mean fighting skill she often stole the Iron Man and Avengers movies she was in despite being surrounded by Norse gods, WWII legends, high-tech playboys, and even terrifyingly angry green giants. The romance between Natasha and Bruce Banner was one of most elegant storylines in the series. But it took the character a long time to get so good that when she finally sacrificed herself to save everyone it mattered more than a little bit. 

The Iron Man series was always the one which had the most "Cold War" aspects to it and so it made sense for Tony Stark's outfit to get spied upon. The spy they chose was the Black Widow, at the time a classic Mata Hari type who along with the Crimson Dynamo tore up Stark's plant for the benefit of Mother Russia. 

But despite that first failure she's back in the very next issue of Tales of Suspense to tackle the Golden Avenger yet again. She was created by Don Heck on the art chores and Stan Lee and Don Rico, a writer from Marvel's Golden Age writing under the name "N. Korok". 

Sometime later she takes advantage of a hero ones sideways by the name of Hawkeye the Marksman. Wowing him with her feminine charms he gets Clint Barton to team up with her but yet again she is on the losing side. 

Both Hawkeye and the Widow return some months later to take on Iron Man again. This time the Widow has been recalled to her homeland to retooled and refitted with weapons and a striking new costume featuring Marvel's best fishnets. But yet again the duo of misfit lovers is trounced. 

We get a snippet in Avengers #16 which inducted Hawkeye into the Assemblers and we are told that Black Widow was injured and captured by her Soviet masters. 

She doesn't turn up for quite some time but does eventually in The Avengers when she leads Swordsman and Power Man against the team in a story by new Avengers scribe Roy Thomas. She has presumably been brainwashed by the Chinese under the authority of General Ling. She becomes aware of this and tries to go straight, confessing to Hawkeye. Don Heck draws an attractive Widow for certain. 

We are updated on Natasha's doings while the Avengers are battling the original Sons of the Serpent. 

The Widow moves front and center when the Avengers are trying to repel the invasion of the Ultroids. She ends the threat when she threatens to kill the leader of the invasion. Now Natasha is concerned that her bid to join the Assemblers will be quashed if they learn she made such a lethal threat, which is contrary to the team's attitude toward such things. Felt a bit small-minded to me a bit since she didn't actually follow through, but anything to stir up angst was the order of the day for the writers. 

We then get several small scenes from several issues of The Avengers in which we are updated on the Widow's attempts to work for SHIELD. She is eventually put on as a double agent with the mission to return to her former masters. To do that she must break up with Clint and seemingly betray her new country. 

The truth of her mission is finally revealed in The Avengers #43 and #44. Big John Buscema has taken on the art chores joining Roy Thomas. Buscema is a great comic talent no doubt, but I never found his   Black Widow as compelling as Don Heck's, who after all designed her costume. Heck drew some fetching women and would return to the character again and again. The battle to stop General Ling and his Soviet partners unleashing their "Psychotron" is a ferocious one and all the team is needed. Widow is nearly mortally injured. 

The Black Widow then falls into a regular supporting character role in many issues of The Avengers as she recovers from her injuries. We follow her up and down romance with Hawkeye. Eventually Hawkeye abandons his role as archer to become Goliath II in an attempt to save Natasha who has once again taken a mission from SHIELD.  Somewhat later she confronts Hawkeye and effectively breaks up with him. The sets the stage for the next version of the Black Widow. 

It is in Amazing Spider-Man #86 that we meet the new improved Widow. She loses the fishnets, lets her auburn hair reveal itself (without explanation) and slips into as sexy an outfit as any superheroine ever slithered into. This story by Stan Lee is illustrated with aplomb by Johnny Romita and his Widow is stunning. There is little doubt that this new look in sleek black leather was inspired by Emma Peel from that other The Avengers pop-culture offering. After this reveal and promotion, she is ready to strike out on her own at last. 

The Black Widow gets her own series at last in Amazing Adventures, a new comic which co-stars The Inhumans. The latter are produced by Jack "King" Kirby as he exits the bullpen, but the Widow gets writer Gary Friedrich and artist John Buscema. 

With the third issue Gene Colan takes the reins with Bill Everett on inks. It's important to note that Natasha seems to be quite well off and employs a chauffeur named Ivan, who like Natasha is Russian. A gag is that he talks a bit like James Cagney since he learns English by watching old movies. 

Mimi Gold steps in to finish up Friedrich's story about the Widow helping a Puerto Rican militant group try and fend off the predations of a corrupt politician and his thugs. The politics are rather complex, and the Widow finds herself stuck in the middle of the strife between the protestors and the cops. 

Roy Thomas takes over the writing on Gene Colan's last issue in which the Widow begins a struggle against a Fagin-like villain named the Astrologer who uses local youth to commit his crimes. 

Don Heck is back for the rest of the run in Amazing Adventures. Heck still draws a gorgeous Natasha and neither he nor Colan before him miss an opportunity to show the Widow getting into and out of her costume. Poor Ivan must avert his eyes on a regular basis. 

The battle with the Astologer at last comes to an end as does the Widow's series in Amazing Adventures which will briefly feature the Inhumans alone before welcoming Killraven and his War of the Worlds

But what of the Black Widow. Well in a surprising turn Gerry Conway brings her back along with her driver Ivan in the pages of Daredevil. Natasha saves DD when he is stuck down in a battle with his longtime nemesis the Owl. This issue drawn by Gene Colan and Jack Abel kicks off the Widow's long tenure in the pages of Daredevil as DD's partner and lover.  The Black Widow's journey from the heart of the Cold War to the era of detente has been a long and winding one. She has been a important part of the Marvel story, but her role will get more significant as the 1970's beckon. More on that next time. 

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  1. Some time back I posited on the very wonderful Peerless Power Of Comics blog that the "new" Widow was more likely based on Modesty Blaise than Emma Peel....I still stand by that!

    (I can only surmise that the Modesty Blaise strip is not so well-known in the US as elsewhere)

    1. It is not well known by me for certain. I am aware of Modesty Blaise, but I've never read a full continuity, only a few panels here and there. A quick check tells me Modesty Blaise was created in 1963. The Avengers with Emma Peel hit the American TV tubes in the late 60's. Both the new Wonder Woman and the new Black Widow were concocted in 1968 and 1969 respectively. From my limited American perspective, it seems more likely that was the inspiration. The question I'd ask is did Modesty inspire Emma?

    2. As I pointed out in the Peerless blog..."Natasha is an heiress, Modesty a former crime gang leader = both are independently wealthy. Natasha is Russian, Modesty is undetermined but Middle-to-Eastern European = exotic origins. Natasha has Ivan (quotes old Hollywood movies), Modesty has Willie (quotes psalms) - of course the younger woman/older male "mentor" motif goes way back."...and Mr Peerless added that both lived in a penthouse apartment and found the quiet socialite life tedious, seeking relief through adventure.

      Doesn't really matter ultimately - what counts is that she was a more interesting character for it.

    3. Can't disagree with that last sentiment. Much more Black Widow to come this month.

  2. Good history. I'd forgotten that the cover to the Widow's first appearance showed her levitating stuff with apparent super-powers, whereas the actual story has her using a science-gizmo.

    1. I love reprint volumes that do what this one does, collect appearances across many titles. It's a narrative just waiting to be presented in coherent form. I wish they'd do the same for Ka-Zar.