Natasha: I crave excitement… suspense! And I must have it… as only the Black Widow can!

This seemingly innocuous panel, first printed on page three of Amazing Adventures #1, provoked a red reaction in one Lester G. Boutillier:

“The Black Widow’s statement in panel 3, page 3, indicated a character trait entirely alien and removed from the personality she was depicted with in the Avengers’ stories, and one which I personally find offensive and unladylike. I remember the complaint of a female fan some months ago about the absense of any solo strips of female characters, but you didn’t have to give half a book to a feminist.”

It’s a wonder that someone so long ago had such a strong reaction to such a generic panel, but it’s even more of a wonder how little the comics discourse has changed. In 1970, letters colums were arguing about whether women had too few appearances or too many; today the comments sections are increasingly divided over whether diversity has gone too far. It’s easy to imagine the modern Lester G. Boutillier. “I know that the tumblr sjws always complain… but you didn’t have to make Thor into a feminist.”

But this panel isn’t particularly feminist, and with a few exceptions here and there Marvel and DC both have aspired to mass-market centrism rather than speaking truth to power. Most of their “political” arcs in recent years commit to an aesthetic rather than a position. Civil War seems to be about gun control or the Patriot Act, but those metaphors fall apart if you squint at them, because it is actually about a man in an American Flag body-condom punching a man pretending to be a robot. Most superhero stories, in fact, are about punching, about the possibilities of righteous violence, which only leaves room for certain types of allegories. Some argue that diversity in superhero comics is oxymoronic, impossible, that the ink is too deep to wash out.

Still, the superhero is an empowerment fantasy, something that speaks bold-print to the marginalized. And that empowerment symbolism is weaved in deep enough that the mere ritual of donning a costume is understood as a feminist act by the self-identified enemies of feminism. When fans complain about Marvel’s “political correctness” today, it is mostly because they read threatening feminist symbolism into the way Carol Danvers cuts her hair. The radicalism of the “diverse” superhero is one invented by the reader, by the meanings we invest into four-color avatars. It’s a testament to the superhero’s power as icon that so many feel a claim to it.

From Amazing Adventures #1, by Gary Friedrich and John Buscema.

The city is a bright, beaming bauble in the night… a maze of tinker-toy towers, a plaything for simple-minded giants, and made to order for the less hung-up of the superhero set… for those who bear not the whispered name and the inescapable curse of… the Black Widow!

From Amazing Adventures #8, by Roy Thomas, Don Heck & Bill Everett.

Ivan: Natasha… I came as fast as I could. There was this wrecked car…
Natasha: Ivan…? Ivan!
Ivan: Everything’s okay, little lady. It was either you— or the Astrologer. If only I’d been here—!
Natasha: I’m glad you weren’t, Ivan… I set out to capture the Astrologer— and now he’s dead. And… that boy, earlier. If you’ve got a brain beneath those tousled locks, old friend… you’ll run for your life… because it seems… that to know the Black Widow… is to die!

I’ve read some critiques about the current Black Widow run as being too much “manpain"— and I don’t think they’re wholly unjustified. The earlier issues, especially, with their droning inner monologue that didn’t always fit sensibly to Natasha’s actions. Natasha saying, over and again, that she couldn’t let anyone in. Natasha seemingly emotionally stunted in ways she’d never been before, building walls she had never had.

I was (and continue to be) much more willing to roll with this than many other Black Widow fans, and I have thought a few times about why. One thing I know about myself is: I will try really hard to like any comic about Natasha Romanov. This is an old trick of superhero comics. They cultivate a loyalty to the character and use that loyalty to paint over plot holes. Another old trick of superhero comics is leading you around in circles so wide they might make you think you were going forward. But you’re not. Progression in hero comics is possible but usually accompanied by a complete shift in symbols. A new costume, a new codename, that is how you get new stories. Otherwise, characters will tend to renew their origin stories, to wind up back in the situations that got them those costumes and codenames in the first place.

Natasha is the Black Widow— mad, bad, and poisonous to know. She has always been surrounded by death and secrets and her power over these two things has always kept her isolated from the world. The victory of her compassion is that she is not wholly closed off, wholly unfeeling, that there is still something burning under all that ice. But without the threat crushing loneliness those victories do not mean anything. At least, this is what I tell myself to explain why Natasha is furious and confident and kind in some books, and then distant and damaged and hard in others. Somehow all these patchworks create a deeper, more compelling character, if I look from the correct angle, if I am willing to squint.

Another thing about me is that I really love the Bronze Age Black Widow stories. This might also fall under that thing where I’m really biased toward stories about Natasha and will myself to see the good things. Because there is a villain who is called the Astrologer and just as nonsense as you might think, and nothing more overwrought and brightly melancholy. I mean, just look at these panels. Next issue: The Silent Curse. What could be more manpain?

Here is something about manpain: it is an essential ingredient of that thing Tom Brevoort doesn’t want us to call Marvel six one six. Sometimes critics will pitch the Lee/Kirby/Ditko Marvel Revolution as the thing that made superheroes relateable, and gave them ordinary problems. Really though, what those stories did was make the ordinary superheroic. High school was just as tough as fighting commies and lifting cars, love was just difficult, just as dangerous as having an iron heart protected by magnets. Powers made things better but also made heroes tragic. Everyone fell in love in the space of two panels, and cried about it. It was all very self-indulgent.

Here’s something else about manpain: it is fundamentally gendered. We expect women to suffer, I think, to be emotionally vulnerable. We expect them to hurt, and we do not expect that hurt to make them noble. This all goes like triple for comics of a certain age. Which explains why these goofy old Black Widow comics, where Natasha thinks she’s cursed some dude named the Astrologer accidently blew himself up, were a revelation to me. Natasha had dead lovers that filled up her dreams, friends she pulled herself away from. She felt sorry for herself by loudly not feeling sorry for herself and going out and punching something instead. And her pain was meant to ennoble her. Maybe she did deserve the Marvel Universe, after all.

From Amazing Adventures #7, by Gerry Conway and Don Heck.

Natasha’s original living situation was penthouse, Fifth Avenue. It made sense, in the nonsense way that comics do. She is something of a tower, you know, high and strong and difficult to scale, beautiful from a distance but difficult to see all of from up close. But one curious thing that comics left is that Natasha didn’t stay there. She was restless, she had to punch things. She posed in Daily Bugle pictures with the sort of people who society never lets climb towers.

The sjw street justice direction for Natasha has come and gone, but she doesn’t live in a tower anymore, either. She lives in an immigrant neighborhood, close to the ground.

From Amazing Adventures #3, by Gary Friedrich and Gene Colan.

womeninmarvel:

Comicbookresources is doing a pretty fascinating voter-created list of the top 70 Marvel panels in history. Clocking in at 59 is this panel of the Black Widow from Amazing Adventures #5 (Roy Thomas, Gene Colan and Bill Everett).

For the unfamiliar, Amazing Adventures features Black Widow’s first solo run in history as she transitioned from a side-character in the Avengers to her own superhero based in NYC. It was also around this time that comics started being so afraid of the fabled Comics Code and you started getting more risque cheesecake shots like this. So it makes sense that this panel would have struck out as memorable with young het male readers at the time. 

(I personally would have voted for the panel that compares Black Widow to Gloria Steinem from Daredevil, but hey, what do I know?) 

I talked about this a bit when I ran through Amazing Adventures #5, which is actually a wonderful Natasha story, melancholy and seasonal, and how it’s really amazing that this story is remembered for this panel and not how it set up Natasha’s bittersweet mythology for some years to come. It’s not how Colan drew Natasha as balletic in the action sequences. Or the fact that this run of Amazing Adventures was Marvel’s first real try at a solo lady protagonist. This is the issue where Natasha joyously exclaims, “there’s nothing so only about being female, fellas!” as she spins around and karate kicks goons in the face.

Natasha’s black-bodysuit makeover was the Carol Danvers to Captain Marvel of its day, a rebranding aimed at solidifying her as a true solo protagonist. Amazing Adventures is important to me because of that, important because there were letters columns demanding more leading ladies even then. What we remember, what we call “iconic” is this panel, notable mostly because she’s not wearing any clothes. But all that other stuff happened. There are so many other things to remember.

We talk about the misogynist past in superhero comics, how up until a vaguely defined recently the superhero women have really gotten a raw deal. And that’s true. But I suggest to you that wrapped up in that raw deal is what we decide to save, what we decide is memorable.

Teenage Boy: She’s down! And— Willie’s gonna— no! She can’t die for me! She can’t!!
Natasha: Ivan— did you see? He— he just—
Ivan: Easy, kid. Come away from there. Come away… please.

This is the origin of the “Widow’s Curse,” the idea that Natasha is doomed to kill anything she tries to save, brought to you by Bronze Age melodrama and the letter B. Paul Cornell brought this idea back and recrafted it into a nano-STD and an easy analogue for slut shaming, but the original thematics came from a chaste place, cut with the sharp and spectral knife of irony.

So here goes Natasha’s Gift of the Magi: on Christmas Eve she stops a young man from jumping off a bridge, only to habe him fall to his death saving her. And just to twist the knife, she didn’t need to be saved— her suit clings to walls, her gauntlets and stacked with grappling hooks, she’s done daring roof-dive after daring roof-dive in the regular pursuit of a superheroic career. She’s fighting to keep her attacker from falling off the ledge, not just to keep herself on it. But Junior can’t see that. (Remember, True Believers: Natasha is meant to be a mystery.)

This issue is cover dated a few years before the death of Gwen Stacy, so the theme of teen suicide is a bit radical, and the ending, where the good guys lose, is keener in its context. This is where Marvel first tried to craft stories of what Natasha might be, alone, and what she is and where she comes from is loss.

From Amazing Adventures #5, by Roy Thomas and Gene Colan.

Max: This oughta— Hey! Somebody’s waitin’ for us, Willie— out on the terrace!
Natasha: Nobody down here but us defenseless women and children, boys.
Willie: Don’t sweat it Max… it’s only a female.
Natasha: There’s nothing so only about being female, fellas. You ought to try it some time.

I’m planning at some vague future blogging point to talk about Natasha’s past as a ballerina— that was introduced along with a background as an Olympic gymnast, back when she was trying to be a fashion designer or a college professor or, well, the Bronze Age was a hell of a place to seek employment. The ballerina bit was revived a decade later, though, and then stuck in ways none of her other 1970s ??? career paths have since.

My guess, though, is that the ballerina thing really goes back to panels like these ones, to the way Gene Colan drew her moving. Colan drew some of these Amazing Adventures issues and a fair chunk of the Daredevil and the Black Widow issues— he’s, without question for me, the Natasha artist supreme. (He’s also who Butch Guice was referencing in his Captain America run.) Colan’s style is distinct in his fluid figures and fluent use of shadow. You can see the kinetnicsm he gives Natasha, the grace of her arms, the way she twirls, the sweep of her hair. It’s an almost joyful way of moving, so at odds with her grim business. You can look at these panels and that movement and see why she had to be a ballerina, and why that story would stick.

From Amazing Adventures #5, by Roy Thomas and Gene Colan.