So she was awesome in The Avengers movie, yes? But who is Natasha Romanoff/Natalia Romanova? I’ll admit that I knew next to nothing about her before seeing the movie. I had come across her character in The Ultimates, as a SHIELD agent in a relationship with Tony Stark who… well, I don’t want to spoil it, but let’s just say that her character doesn’t have much of a positive arc in those books.
Neither did I pay much attention to her in her first appearance in Iron Man 2 (in which Natasha wasn’t even named as Black Widow). But I loved her fiercely in The Avengers, as the character of greatest interest to me in an overly strong ensemble. I enjoyed the fact that she built strong and different friendships/relationships with her male comrades, even if the lack of a Bechdel-passing script meant she never got to interact with the other women in the film – I really want to see a SHIELD movie now in which Black Widow and Hawkeye get to have many, many scenes with Maria Hill and Abigail Brand. I reckon Katee Sackoff’s hair would dye up into a nice green colour…
But I digress. I recently inhaled a bunch of different Black Widow trade paperbacks, based on the ones I was able to find in print that looked most interesting, in the hopes of finding out a bit more about what makes this character tick.
The impression I’d got about Natasha from The Ultimates (and from The Avengers movie) was that she was a non-super powered SHIELD agent/assassin/hero/occasional Russian double agent – which is sort of mostly true, but only skimming the surface of her story. Thanks to the extra content in each of these books (the Marvel Girls includes a reprint of an old Spider-Man story in which Black Widow first debuted her black catsuit instead of more traditional super villainess costume, the Liu & Cornell books both include detailed timelines/essays explaining her character’s backstory going back to the early 20th century) I was able to get a much better idea of what is going on.
I’m not going to explain it all here, as I’d be sure to get a bunch of the details wrong, but suffice to say, Natasha is a lot older than she looks (like Captain America old, but she took the long path), thanks to having her metabolism messed with a certain Super Soldier serum, she’s been brainwashed by some of the best in the business, and has at least two versions of her own history held in her head, one in which she had a career as a ballerina rather than being trained as the world’s best spy.
Despite the silly title, I think that the Black Widow and the Marvel Girls is probably the best all-around book to introduce the character, because it consists of a collection of short pieces, each covering a different period of her life, one dealing with the ‘Red Room’ where she was brainwashed, one when she had just joined the Avengers and hadn’t earned their trust yet (specifically Wasp’s trust) and so on. It’s also aimed at an all-ages audience (though my 7 year old found it a bit mature for her) and so isn’t quite as gritty and violent as many of the Black Widow stories tend to be.
The Name of the Rose, for instance, I loved – I thought it was a fantastic, dark action story, which really showcased Black Widow as a character, and used her history to great effect (especially the role of Wolverine in her childhood) – but it was so grim and so violent in places, that I did find it a bit of a gruelling read.
Deadly Origin was the book released as a tie-in when Natasha debuted on the big screen in Iron Man II (though as I mentioned before, she wasn’t name-checked as Black Widow, which meant the comic was probably not going to attract as many readers coming from the film as they all hoped) and I liked the way that it used Natasha’s past and present colliding to tell an epic, fun story. She is portrayed throughout as a highly competent, empowered character, who is cool under pressure and capable of mighty, mighty things – exactly what I saw in the character as depicted by Scarlett Johanssen in The Avengers movie. I was less keen on the jokes about her sexual past and the number of current superheroes she’s had relationships with – sure, it’s true, but it’s sure for Tony Stark and a bunch of the men, too.Having read several versions of Black Widow, while I appreciate the use of her complex history and backstory to inform her current character, it’s often this history which makes me roll my eyes about the treatment of women in comics. This is the the big trouble with characters who have been around a long time – especially in the Marvel Universe, which never reboots and thus keeps almost every element of past stories – is that they take on legacies of earlier eras. So even characters that are being written brilliantly now have problematic aspects in their history, or issues that come out of that history being compressed. I do think it’s a bit rich for the Marvel Universe to be openly joking about the sexual histories of Black Widow when Tony Stark is around (or, let’s face it, Peter Parker, who has probably got as many notches on his bedpost as Black Widow over the last 30 years). And I’d much prefer Natasha to be facing foes who are motivated by more than being cranky that she never got around to sleeping with them.
I tend to prefer the stories that focus on Natasha’s practical abilities as a spy, agent and/or assassin rather than those which feel the need to emphasise her feminine wiles, and the seduction-and-death aspect of her backstory.
And while I enjoy her deadpan, professional relationships with various male superheroes including her various exes, I’d love to see more of her partnered with other women, as she is in the Marvel Girls book. I enjoyed her appearance in the first volume of Matt Fraction Invincible Iron Man, alongside Rescue and Maria Hill, and am hoping for more along those lines.
As far as art is concerned, Both The Name of the Rose and the Deadly Origin single issues have some of the best female-centred covers I’ve seen in recent years (my favourite being the astronaut suit). Since the 60’s, Black Widow has been wearing pretty much the same all black catsuit, with various degrees of practicality (sometimes edging towards a combat suit). I’d prefer it if they zipped Natasha’s catsuit up all the way, as I’m not convinced that having boobs spilling out isn’t likely to get in the way of your gun, and there are times when the artists depict her ridiculous high heels, but at least it’s a costume that can be drawn sensibly.
I have opinions about her hair. There are times when it is far too long, bouncy and frivolous-looking, as indeed it was in Iron Man II – too much to hope a trained spy and assassin would tie it back during combat conditions? But there is something undeniably iconic about the sight of Natasha as Black Widow, all in black with her hair an artistic red splash against the page, holding a gun. I love how often cover artists make a thing of that particular red-black colour combination, often with white to provide contrast. She walks grimly in the snow a *lot*. Sure, a more restrained shade of hair would make Black Widow less of a target for snipers, and less memorable to other spies, but this is comics, and it’s all about being noticed, not about being practical.
There’s a second Black Widow, a blonde one: Yelena Belova, whom I haven’t read anything of, though from what I can make out she’s an antagonist character who has been through the same Soviet training regime as Black Widow, and given the same code name, which means of course that they have to fight “for the title.” Also, she’s referred to as ‘pale little spider’ in one comic which is kind of insulting – it’s not her fault that her hair isn’t as awesome as Natasha’s!
Thanks to the Avengers movie, Black Widow is shooting rapidly up the table of iconic, recognisable female superheroes. She’s even a Lego minifigure – the first of the Marvel superheroes to be female! (Lego Black Widow flies the Quinjet) But it all depends what they do with her next… she’s not always going to be scripted and directed by Joss Whedon.
So… SHIELD movie? Hill, Romanov and Brand? Someone call Katee Sackoff’s agent. I’ll wait.