I’ve just read your “Name Game” post and from what I’ve learned, Alianovna/Алиановна can also (uncommonly) mean “aliased” in Russian. Could this mean something? Is Natalia Alianovna Romanova even her real name?

So, apparently Chrome will translate Алиановна as aliased which I just discovered by googling to this page. But looking at the actual website, it looks like a table of forms of the name Aлиан—  Alian / Alianovich / Alianovna, and then plurals and declensions, not alternate meanings. So I don’t think it actually does mean aliased, and that google translate is handling that strangely because English doesn’t have patronymics, or grammatical gender. (If I’m wrong about this lmk, my Russian is very basic.)  Anyway, I wouldn’t be surprised if Claremont tried to give her a name that meant “unknown” or “alien” or something clever and thematic.

N.B. that if someone lacks an obvious patronymic for whatever reason— an unknown father, for example, standard practice is to invent one rather than do without.  Since we really don’t know anything about Natasha’s family, except that she was separated from them at a very young age, it’s possible that Alianovna is a made-up surname. She could have plausibly been born with a different name altogether, though her connection to the Romanov dynasty is attested to by comic book mysticism.

Even if she was born Nadia Lupova, though, I’d argue that Natasha Romanov— however you want to spell it— is her real name. That is the name she knows herself by, which matters more to her story, than whether it was the name she was given.

A Black Widow solo movie is going to exist. How badly do you think Marvel will screw it up? What are your fears? (Mine: they will just use her and not Clint or other superheroes so it will end up being called boring by the audience. The best Marvel movies have other superheroes as supporting characters, IMHO.)

It’s usually more fun to be the type of fan excited for things than the type of fan who lives in dread about how their favorite things will be ruined, so, you know, I try.

@darklabrynth replied to your post: So do you prefer the more solidified history or the more malleable one?

Short answer: it depends.

Long answer: I’m a historian, so I like having dates. And I do think that Brubaker’s approach, with everything precisely dated, set in specific time, instead of vague time, adds a sort of narrative heft— it gives you a when and a where, and not just a long, long ago. So I understand that impulse.

With the Winter Soldier retcon specifically, I think Brubaker laying out a specific timeline like he did was almost necessary. You have to remember, there was a time when Bucky stayed dead, and when people thought he should stay dead. Bucky coming back wasn’t like Wolverine coming back after being “dead” since the last big event. Bucky was coming back after being dead since the modern Marvel universe began— his death was the loss of innocence that brought Steve into the current timeline, with all its complications. A storyline that brought Bucky back therefore had to preserve some sense of that original tragedy but also provide an engine for future stories— a story where Bucky was found amnesiac, ancient, and in a hospital bed, presumably to die shortly thereafter doesn’t really provide something new, does it? But if Bucky survived the war and is active enough in the present day to be interesting, you also have to explain how he hasn’t aged in that time.

So the dates were— I’m not totally sure they were necessary, but they were convincing, which is what the story did need to be. They also helped answer some of the other questions that inevitably arose from bringing Bucky back. How come Steve hadn’t run into him before? Well, he’d been decommissioned since the eighties, well before the Avengers fished Steve Rogers out of the ice. See, even though Brubaker’s story was defiantly nailed to a time, it made use of the sliding timescale. Because of the sliding timescale, the fifties through the eighties are basically dead years in the Marvel timeline— everything that was actually published then now happened in 2010. So Brubaker could plant a whole character there and it made sense that no one had met him. The exceptions, like Nick Fury, were few, and could be explained specifically in the comic itself.

There are also thematic reasons I think it also worked— Captain America is already a “man out of time” story, and Cap and Bucky are both obviously pinned to the a historical era. Because of this, a the Captain America mythology already features lots of temporal alienation and lots of Nazis who have somehow survived WW2.

Moving Natasha’s origin back to the 1950s is trickier. Paul Cornell’s Deadly Origin builds off of Brubaker’s plotlines and uses a similarly dated approach— we see Natasha as a child in 1928, for example. But while Brubaker was essentially creating a new story and plopping it into an empty timeline, Cornell was mushing a lot of existing stories together and then sticking dates on them. This doesn’t work nearly as well, because most of these stories are things that happened onscreen already. By fixing Natasha back to the Cold War, many of her older stories read differently. Like, for example, her romance with hotshot rookie Hawkeye might come across strange if read with the knowledge that she’s actually sixty years older than him. Or the constant death and rebirth of her ex-husband Alexei— is he also, then, unaging? Is Ivan? By pinning his story to specific dates Brubaker could avoid plotholes like this, pinning Natasha to specific dates creates them.

Natasha had never previously been concieved of as a timelost, immortal character, and her many decades of prior stories weren’t necessarily equipped to handle a retcon of that scope. To his credit, Paul Cornell really tried to make it work, but he also had to use mind control and false memories to do it, which are plot devices I’m not very fond of. Creators, though, are still running into this problem, because while temporal alienation isn’t an important theme for Natasha, her past is. A good example is the recent Samnee/Waid run with Weeping Lion, someone who lost a relative to Natasha as a child, and has nursed a grudge since. The way the story is told he’d have to be around Natasha’s age— but instead of explaining his apparent immortality, the comic just ignores that and presents the parts of his story that matter. I think that was the right call. Fans like me, who know and care about continuity, and how Natsha’s actually 88, can no-prize themselves an explanation. And fans that don’t know or don’t care aren’t subject to a narrative aside that clutters the story and makes things more confusing, as explaining Marvel timelines always does.

I think that’s the approach I’m most in favor of for Natasha for now: be vague enough about flashbacks to let people imagine the origin story they want. Dating will make things confusing. Explicitly retconning the “Natasha is secretly 88” thing will also be confusing, because then how does she know Winter Soldier? Best avoid it unless you have an good reason, and imo continuity porn is not a good reason.

On the flipside, Nadia Pym is an example of the storytelling opportunities the sliding timescale brings. Hank’s first wife, Maria, died a very long time ago, but because Marveltime is really compressed, you can introduce a character with an interesting legacy built in. And you wouldn’t really get that if you played strict with the idea that the Red Room shut down in the 1970s. She can just be a teenager and it works and doesn’t need to be impossibly complicated, like this answer.

I’ve asked this question to someone else before, but I was wondering if you knew anymore. I was doing some research on the red room to learn more then just the basics, and I noticed that it was apparently shut down towards the late seventies. It made sense to me, but then I realized that Nadia Pym was also in the red room and that would make her in her fourties. I’ve always seen her as someone who is much younger, so did they retcon the red room timeline or am I just mistaken?

Yes, they retconned the Red Room timeline.

To review: Red Room was introduced with Yelena in the late 90s and was shown to still be active, then.  This was a retcon: we’d seen Natasha’s origin story quite a few times before and it didn’t involve anything called the “Red Room”, though it was an easy enough thing to work in.

In 2005/2006 Morgan retconned the Red Room further to make it sort of an orphan assassin school for young girls— which it wasn’t shown to be in the Yelena comics.  Morgan explained the apparent contradiction by implying that Yelena was trained by a later knock-off Red Room, and not the “real” old line Soviet program. This contradicts the spirit of the original Grayson story, where Natasha clearly knew Yelena’s superiors, but it’s the kind of handwave you have to be on board with if you want comics to fit together at all.

Later, in an unrelated retcon, around 2008 or so, they decided that Natasha was much older than she appeared, and that she’d been trained in the 1950s specifically instead of the vague beforetime of the sliding timescale. That idea was floated in a 1990s X-Men issue, but it only really crystallized in the late 2000s. This sort of makes sense, because 2008 is when a Soviet origin for Natasha became untenable by the sliding timeline.

The biggest factor here was Ed Brubaker’s Captain America. Brubaker likes dealing with exact dates— Captain America v5 #11 is basically just a timeline, in a way that’s very rare for a comic that operates within a nebulously dated shared universe. But I think this exact dating adds a kind of veracity to it, and lets people swallow the whole “Captain America’s primary colored sidekick has been a frozen cyborg assassin the whole time” retcon pill. Brubaker wrote a lot of Red Room flashbacks and set them in the 1950s, and he also wrote the timeline that had the Winter Soldier project decommissioned in the early 80s, after the head of the project died in exile.

Now, some people will chalk this whole chapter up to Brubaker mucking up Natasha’s past for the sake of his pet romance, but historical conspiracies are a huge theme in his Marvel work, and Natasha was far from the only character swept into his attempt to tell and codify 1940s and post-war espionage stories.  More importantly, Brubaker’s stories were actually popular, which means other creators are way more likely to play with their concepts, and that fans are more likely to care when something about them gets changed or contradicted. Right now, I think most Black Widow writers want Natasha to go back to being “not secretly 90″ because it makes more sense and also makes storytelling a lot simpler. But they also want to keep her relationship with the Winter Soldier, because that’s also a useful storytelling hook.

Now, to return to the Nadia Pym paradox, it’s actually Brubaker’s Winter Soldier stuff that her story contradicts. Despite Natasha’s Red Room existing in 1950s, as you can see from the above, it’s a pretty inconstantly handled concept, and we know versions of the Red Room have been active much more recently. Hell, the very recent Tales of Suspense mini featured the Red Room currently operating. Morgan usefully introduced the concept of imposter or knock-off Red Rooms, so it’s easy to say that this or that appearance was a breakaway group or shadow cell, and the inherent ambiguities of the spy genre makes the contradiction easy to swallow.

But Nadia Pym’s story features the Winter Soldier, too, as her recruiter or trainer or whathaveyou. And because Brubaker was a stickler for actual dates, we know he was decomissioned in the 1980s, and we know Nadia Pym was probably not alive in 1982. So?

The problem is, of course, that Nadia’s story really begins in the Silver Age, with Hank Pym’s first appearances, which were heavily influenced by the then-contemporary Cold War. Pym’s first wife, Nadia’s mother, was a communist defector who was then killed by Russian spies— and while that still happens today— it was a lot more cutting edge in 1962, when it was actually published  But there’s no easy way to pretend seventy years of Marvel stories actually happened in only fifteen. The wage of keeping characters ageless is a very complicated timeline.

Bobbi: Nat, what the hell?!
Frank: What’s Fury’s play here?
Natahsa: That was my play. Now pick up that armor. We’ve got men to kill.

So here’s the follow up to Tales of Suspense: Bucky and Natasha teaming up with Frank Castle to presumably kill a bunch of HYDRA agents to revenge Secret Empire. This is the last arc before the book relaunches with a more back-to-basics approach, so we’ll see where it actually goes. I’m not super in love with this even more brutal direction for Natasha— especially since that’s been, like, the last four directions for Natasha— but Tales of Suspense at least did the storytelling groundwork to make it believable.

Sidenote: even more unsure about the white gloves and knee-high boots.

From Punisher #226 by Matthew Rosenberg and Stefano Landini.

I’ve always been interested in the gender dynamics of Nat’s training/life in the Red Room. Something I’ve always found a little confusing is how in some stories the Red Room has an older female headmistress (like the latest series and Nat’s MCU flashback in aou) while other comics imply that the Red Room was controlled entirely by men. Does it undermine the point that the idea of the Black Widow’s being rooted in sexism is there’s a woman in charge of the Red Room?

Not really?

Richard Morgan’s version of the Red Room was probably the most explicitly “it’s all a metaphor for the way men control women!  with literal pheromones!” and even his version had a prominent female collaborator in Lyudmila.  Who is the one who justifies (and possibly originated) the idea that Black Widows need to be sterile so that they can be warriors instead of mothers.  Because the two things are opposites, you see.

Setting aside the fact that this might be something Richard Morgan Actually Believes, women are perfectly capable of being complicit in the oppression of women.  That’s part of Natasha’s story too— the degree to which she can make up for a life of violence and espionage by doing more violence and espionage?

Samnee/Waid’s Headmistress is implicitly part of a larger Soviet/KGB operation. She’s getting her orders from men, and we know this because the USSR was run by men.  Even when all the major players we see on panel are female, we understand that the Red Room isn’t Themyscira, that it is part of Man’s World, operating within a socio-political context where sexism exists.

Recluse’s operation is an exception to the rule in that she is, from what we see, operating independently, but Recluse is still very much the product of a cruel system, the comic book embodiment of the cycle of abuse.  She’s obviously not over any of it.

So, I think the symbolic framework is flexible enough that women can be in positions of power in the Red Room even as the Red Room remains sort of an allegory for the ways the patriarchy turns women against themselves.  It might muddy the metaphor a bit, but I think that’s probably a good thing, because it lets these stories be more than allegories, and leaves creators space to explore slightly different themes.