As rumor milled two months ago and suspected a long time before then, Mark Waid and Chris Samnee are moving to Black Widow post-Secret Wars, with Matt Wilson on colors. Entertainment Weekly has the announcement, which you can read, and to which I’ve attatched some thoughts:
This Isn’t Just Daredevil pt II
Waid and Samnee are most famous for their brightly-colored, antigrim portrayal of sad radioactive ninja Matt Murdock. I’ve always thought “happy Matt” was a simplification of Waid volumes, which tackled depression with an honesty unknown in mainstream cape comics, and a shallow read on the Daredevil canon as a whole. Matt has always had that swashbuckling side, and the mythology is compelling because it mixes red-knuckle street crime, Catholicism, and bad lawyer jokes. Why limit yourself to only one of these things? Still: Waid/Samnee on Black Widow had people imagining another San Francisco era.
But reading the interview it’s clear they see Matt and Natasha as separate personalities. Their Matt talks a lot, their Natasha will keep her cards close to her chest. This is a spy story, which makes me wonder if the vibe will be more sixties S.H.I.E.L.D. than seventies Champions. Plus, they seem determined to ruin Natasha’s life again, so weirdos who are worried about Black Widow being “too happy” should chill a little.
Parts of the Last Series Will Be Mentioned
Like all sense-making comic books, #1 of this volume will be a true starting point with no further reading required, but it sounds like some parts of the last run will carry over in still ambiguous ways. If I had to guess, Natasha’s still dealing from the fallout of quitting S.H.I.E.L.D. in Black Widow #18. Hopefully, Isaiah and Liho also make appearances, because Isaiah was one of the better parts of the last run, and I like cats a lot.
Parts of the Other Black Widow Stories Will Also Be Mentioned (Probably)
Waid and Samnee are doing new things and introducing a new Big Bad, which is fine and good, but I care about the important things here, and that’s continuity I can nitpick. Samnee calls this his “love letter to Gerry Conway and Gene Colan”, the creators who helped define Natasha in the early 70s as Marvel’s first “liberated” heroine. He also mentions reading Black Widow’s appearances from the beginning to prepare for this book. Mark Waid is a notorious Silver Age trivia beast. What does this mean? I don’t know.
But the line from this interview that intrigues me most is: “It’s spy craft and secrets and all of her pasts, and it all ties together in ways that it couldn’t be anything else.”
This Creative Team is a Big Deal
Here’s what Axel Alonso had to say about it: “Black Widow’s a great character, an important character. An award-winning team like this sends a message how important she is.”
I don’t believe “big names” always produce the best work. Marjorie Liu came to Black Widow having never written an ongoing comic before, and she turned in my top run of all time. But I do think big names get attention, and that more people, especially people who write about comics for major websites, will treat a book more substantially with hyped names attatched. (See also: the folks who saw this announcement and thought Black Widow might “finally” become a character with substance.) This creative team was nominated for every major comics award for Daredevil. It matters that Black Widow is going to be their follow-up.
When the first Avengers movie came out, Marvel released a three-issue tie-in miniseries starring Black Widow. It featured like eight different fill-in artists, and no cohesive visual program. The story was designed to fit into the back of Russian Maxim magazines, the action was contrived so that Natasha would fight twice every issue in some state of undress. At the time, it was the only female-led book Marvel was publishing. It was disposable, and that told me Marvel found Natasha disposable.
When the first Avengers movie came out, Marvel launched a Hawkeye series by Matt Fraction and David Aja, who had previously won an Eisner together on Immortal Iron Fist. That book was a critical darling and runaway smash, and it raised Clint’s profile something major. They had Clint guest star in seventeen different titles in the build-up, including having him lead the Secret Avengers for some reason. Despite getting half the movie screentime and a fourth of the lines, Clint wasn’t disposable. Marvel cared enough to put one of their most-loved creative teams on his comic, and let them make it their own. I wondered when Natasha would deserve the same treatment. It turns out: four years and two movies later.
The All-Dude Creative Team is Also a Deal
The chief complaint I’ve heard about this announcement is that there’s zero women on this, a book starring a female character. I’m sympathetic to the concern, but it actually doesn’t overstress me. Two of Natasha’s most major writers are female, and she has a novel coming out next week by Margaret Stohl, so women are definitely shaping her mythology. But maybe more importantly: all-male teams on female-lead books are not actually the norm at Marvel. Comics Alliance reports that of 14 female-led solo titles, only four have an all-male team.
What does stress me is that there’s probably not a female creative team in comics that would have the same name and critical clout as Mark Waid and Chris Samnee. Over at The Mary Sue, Carolyn Cox makes the point that “the gender divide in comics often doesn’t allow for women to be assigned passion projects,” and that’s true, but I don’t actually think it applies to books that feature female leads. These are the only books women consistantly get work on and maybe the only books they get asked to write. It’s much, much harder to find girl names on books like Iron Man or Captain America. And it’s extremely difficult for female creators to develop an A-list reputation when they’re limited to lady books.
Celebrating an A-list team on a female-led book feels a little wonky because of that.
I have spent too much time telling people they are wrong on the internet. With the new Avengers film there are more #opinions about Natasha than usual, and my investment is higher than normal, and this is a bad combination. Not long ago, though, someone told me this:
Natasha’s origins is heavily influenced by men (Red “I forgot his name” Guardian, Clint, Matt, and, yes, Bucky). She was written back when misogyny wasn’t an issue people carried about, so, Natasha’s agency often came from her boyfriends. It’s more recent arcs, that deal with her as her own woman. But her origin? All men.
This is, of course, straight crooked. Alexei Shostakov was introduced as a complication in Natasha’s past, as a way to get to know her better. Clint Barton was Natasha’s minion, and not the other way around. She got her own series before he did. When Natasha joined Daredevil it was because that book was lagging in sales: the title was transformed in her wake, becoming Daredevil and the Black Widow. Matt’s supporting cast was replaced with her own. If, like me, you are hyper-critical of Steve Gerber’s later run and how Natasha was handled there, you also can’t ignore that contemporary writers, like Chris Claremont and Tony Isabella, immediately tried to do her better.
Natasha was Marvel’s first female lead and Marvel’s first female leader, and women were writing into letters columns in 1971 to say how much they appreciated her, because female fans are not a twenty-first century invention. So why is it so easy to collapse entire decades into a litany of misogyny?
It’s her, all right— Madame Natasha! Now there’s a woman with her own mind— definitely the Gloria Steinem of the jump-suit set!
Canon is a double-fiction, a narrative made up first of adventures and then secondly of how we chose to make them matter. 1950s issues of Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen will tell you: Not a hoax! Not an imaginary story! But they are all imaginary stories. And so, to discover which ones are true is a labor of imagination.
Richard Morgan, too, was another who saw Natasha’s past as nothing more than a series of men who manipulated her. His opinion was much more dangerous than the usual kind you find on the internet, because he actually wrote her for a time.
Here you have this immensely tough and resourceful woman, and she always ends up being a pawn. It’s practically a metaphor for sexual oppression. What you see happen over and over again in the stories is that she gets used by all the male figures around her, whether it be her old KGB masters, her more recent SHIELD masters or just the men she ends up sleeping with… For me, this was a paradox – why should a woman this tough, talented and trained allow this to happen? More importantly, what could we do to redress the balance?
The thing about this “always” is that it cuts out every time she was not. It ignores that Natasha was meant, even in the 1970s, especially in the 1970s, as a liberation story, empowering precisely because her freedom never came easy, because it was worth fighting for. It ignores all those times she told Nick Fury to screw himself, that she led the Avengers for years. There is always a lot that doesn’t fit into always.
You would do well to watch your tone, Fury. The Black Widow does not take orders from anyone.
Morgan’s way of redressing the balance was to strip her of her gauntlets, her compassion, her agency and her past. He was the one who decided Natasha’s memories of herself were implanted there by the KGB. To explain Fury’s history of being, sometimes, a manipulative jerk, he decided Nick had a mind-control perfume that only worked on Natasha, that she had only ever defected from the KGB because of the way he smelled.
Without Natasha’s decision to defect— her choice to make her own choices— her whole character falls apart. The heroic impulse is gone, and with it, a narrative that celebrates female choice as superheroic. What does this fix? What do we gain?
It’s not the only time something like this has happened: noting that Ivan was always kind of a little creepy and ill-placed and only grew moreso with retrospect, Paul Cornell & co. turned him into a robot would-be rapist. Kevin Smith gave Felicia Hardy a rape backstory so that he could make the point that rape is wrong. Superhero women are threatened with sharply gendered trauma, with more of it, to remind us that old comics were misogynistic, and that we are better now. We’ve redressed the balance.
These stories might work on their own, kept sealed up and frozen away. But all cape stories are context. Characters become important by accumulating stories, by dint of their history, and so dismissing that history almost always diminishes a character. It cannot build her up.
There are, of course, successful reinventions: Z-list heroes who find a new, unique significance under a certain writer or direction. But Natasha Romanov and Dinah Lance shouldn’t be treated like Catman, obscure and mostly a joke, or Bucky Barnes, dead for forty years. They have been here the whole time. Moreover, successful reinventions work with a character’s past, and not against it. Frank Miller’s fundamental run on Daredevil added shadow and texture without taking anything away but Karen Page’s good name. Kelly Sue DeConnick is putting Carol Danvers through her whole history again, not moving away from it. (And still, knowing the stakes, I am skeptical about a woman forgetting her past entire.)
As the fight progresses, she reaches deep inside herself, drawing on her indomitable will… And by touching that unique corner of her soul, she finally, truly knows who she is. Not Nancy Rushman— but Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow. The best secret agent in the world. Against her, Viper doesn’t have a prayer.
But the original reinvention belongs to the reader. Stories are made the in the listening and the telling together. They are transformed by the emotions they beget. And comics have so many stories— stories that are supposed to matter, to build each other up, but too many stories for one person to know. (Except maybe Mark Waid.) And so fans tell each other about the stories, find ways to fill in the gaps. We tell each other which stories are essential, which ones count the most. We invent the canon of canon.
And one of the things we say with some regularity, is that comics write women poorly.
I am going to tell you a secret: comics write men poorly. A great number of superhero comics are not terribly well-written. I would call these comics “the majority.”
Once upon a time, Steve Rogers was a werewolf. He was a sexist jerk who demanded his girlfriend quit her job, he has love interests retroactively inserted into his past and timelines stories can’t keep straight. Once it was revealed his entire past was a lie artificially implanted by the US government, which also caused him to think his middle name was Grant. Thor once teamed up with Hitler. Iron Man once went on a murderous rampage and had to be replaced by an alternate universe teenage version of himself. Then it was brainwashing. And I didn’t even have to bring up Civil War, or that Civil War was fixed by having Tony delete his brain.
If you like any comic book character that’s kicked around long enough to carry weight in the universe, you are picking out the “good” stories and ignoring the rest, embracing inconsistency, or a little bit of both. This isn’t a rule that only applies to women, but women have a unique reputation of being poorly written.
Here is another secret: most of the time, the driving storytelling engine in comics isn’t plot or dialogue or texture but how much you already care about the character. Because they exist in shared universes and as global trademarks, because you have read about these characters before, superhero stories get to assume you want to see Peter Parker triumph. They don’t have to prove it to you. Sometimes, when they do try to prove it to you, it feels pushy, and overwritten. And a lot of the time, if you are not already invested, the story won’t work.
So, if you don’t care about superhero women, their stories will seem thinner.
This is my last secret: there are no characters with agency. Each of them is shaped by creators, by the lines they are drawn with and the words put in their mouths. And each of them is shaped by us, by what we take away from them, and what we put back.
A few weeks ago, Comics Should Be Good did a feature about a scene in Guardian Devil where Matt Murdock beats Natasha savagely. I’ve written about Guardian Devil before, and as with comics in general, my feelings are long and rambling. That isn’t what struck me about this blog post, though, which is not meant to be a meditation. Brian Cronin knows his business, and he posted scenes from Name of the Rose and Marvel Two-in-One #10 to round out the taste of Guardian Devil. In those scenes, Natasha is fierce and capable. In those scenes, she does not go down easy.
But the truth re more people have read Guardian Devil than Two-in-One #10, or anything Marjorie Liu as written for Marvel. Guardian Devil was a best-selling story by a Hollywood writer, the start of a new era for Daredevil. It will appear now, in the flurry of articles written about Matt, in spotlights and 50 Bests and Where Do I Starts. Guardian Devil will never go out of print.
Name of the Rose is recommended by everyone, these days, as a seminal Natasha story, but was released to little fanfare and small sales. The trade paperback costs $40 on Amazon now because they didn’t print enough of it. Marvel Two-in-One #10 is one of my favorite Natasha stories of an era, but even I don’t have it on my recommended reading. Essential Marvel Two-in-One is out of print, black and white, and still forces you to buy twenty issues to get one. It’s not on the digital store, or frequently collected with other comics.
The result of this is that it is easier to see Natasha as she exists in Guardian Devil as the sort of essential Natasha, to frame it as one of her important arcs. It is vastly more accessible than many stories that run through Natasha, instead of by her. The comments section on Cronin’s blog bear me out. Even though a superhero passing out because she cannot bear the pain of a broken limb is ridiculous and contrary to every example of the genre, that Matt Murdock is drugged out of his mind, and even though Kevin Smith is striking at something else entirely, there are a few commenters that say that Liu’s story must be the real retcon. Guardian Devil is the truer fake truth, because it came first, though of course, that requires you to see right past Marvel Two-in-One #10, release date 1975. It requires you to see past, say, Daredevil #370, Natasha’s last DD appearance before Guardian Devil. It is easy to see past things you never saw in the first place.
And the hours pass, and the Widow bites again, and again, and again. The odds had been a hundred-to-one against her when she’d started… and now they are seven-to one. Three-to-one. One-to-one.
There is an entire comic fan subculture devoted to who could beat up whom. They go on message boards and assemble “feats” in “RESPECT” threads, online collections of carefully curated panels of violence. We see a character’s most impressive demonstrations of skill, from major crossover arcs to obscure 1990s miniseries, added up to the kind of consistency superhero comics have never possessed. And the point is: RESPECT. This character can beat up this character. Here are the receipts, the proof.
Natasha’s RESPECT thread on comic vine is instead a mess of her failures. Someone thought it would be funny to post pictures of her being humiliated, brainwashed, and that hilarious joke comic about how her contribution to the Avengers is mostly cleavage. This isn’t because Natasha’s entire history is boobs and failure, it’s because that is the history some internet dude chose to post. And canon, and respect, are more bound up in what internet dudes are posting than we often like to think.
What would happen if we chose our canon differently? What if we judged the best Avengers arcs in terms of how they handled the Scarlet Witch, and not how they handled Hawkeye? What if the stories that gave Karen Page a voice were the influential, essential part of Daredevil? Thor’s best runs and Sif’s best runs are not necessarily the same, but only one of those is never going to go out of print.
I’ll give you an example. Recently DC Comics came under fire for soliciting a variant Batgirl cover that clearly reference the Killing Joke. The argument for the cover is that the Alan Moore/Brian Bolland story is a classic, something every fan knows and recognizes the worth of. (Never mind that Alan Moore has denounced it.) This is how io9 describes the The Killing Joke, which just had a new animated adaptation announced.
Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s 1988 graphic novel is one of the most influential Batman stories ever made—famous not just for its depiction of The Joker’s origin, but also a now-infamous scene where then-Batgirl Barbara Gordon was shot, paralyzed, and sexually abused by the Joker. Although the storyline went on to have a major influence on Batman in all media, this will be the first time it has been directly adapted into DC’s animated universe.
The current creative team on Batgirl, however, has tried to run as far away from Joker as possible. DC pulled the cover, at the artist’s request. The controversy faded, and twitter moved on. But the problem wasn’t solved. Because the problem isn’t just a cover, and it’s not even the Killing Joke, ghoulish and cruel though it may be. Yes, many, many years ago DC editorial gave that infamous “cripple the bitch” go-ahead. But the problem for our latter-day selves is that we keep returing to it. DC still sees the Joker’s history as more important than Barbara’s. We keep feeding that canon, the one where The Killing Joke is brave and important and iconic. The one where it’s an essential Barbara Gordon story, necessary to the fabric of the shared universe. “Some stories,” Dan Didio once said, “Some stories… are so strong that undoing them would be a crime. The DCU would be a lesser place without… the crippling of Barbara at the hands of the Joker.”
My classic Barbara Gordon story was printed in Batman Chronicles #5, and is called Oracle: Year One, written by John Ostrander and Kim Yale. They were outraged by the Killing Joke’s casual mistreatment of Barbara, and worked hard to bring her back into a (quasi-) heroic role in Suicide Squad. They invented Oracle, and in 1997, they finally told Oracle’s origin story.
This single issue is, I think, more significant and more groundbreaking than The Killing Joke ever was. If The Killing Joke got iconic by exploring the darker impulses of superherodom in the late 1980s, when the grim and the dark were still on the bleeding edge, Oracle: Year One goes further than that: it shows how a hero with scars, real scars, can still be heroic. How cape comics can emerge from an era of xtremes changed but meaningfully deepened. Astro City, Kurt Busiek’s creator-owned superhero universe, came out around the same time, and it too used the late-80s deconstruction of superheroes to put them back together again. But because Oracle took place in the DC Universe itself, it could interact directly and answer the dehumanization that came before it.
Richard: Good afternoon, Babs. You look radiant today. Babs: I am. I think I’ve found— well, not the answer but a start of the answer to my question. Richard: Then you no longer need me. You know the forms. Keep practicing. Grow great, little spirit.
Barbara’s self-reinvention made her into a distinctively modern hero that still echoed with the power of myth. Her story grappled with disability in a way few superhero comics have been allowed to, since. It is very rare, still, to find a happy ending that leaves its hero physically unhealed but profoundly whole, to treat disability as something lived and not overcome. Moreover, Oracle: Year One was a profound and early statement on the treatment of women in comics, a protest of the way Babs had been made into an afterthought for someone else’s anguish. It put the story into her perspective, a firm middle finger to the refrigerator, years before refrigerator became a watchword. It is speaking to a conversation we are still having today, on this blog, right now. It is a more important comic than The Killing Joke, but somehow less remarked and less recognized.
It’s at least mildly troubling that when reconfiguring its universe, DC chose to keep The Killing Joke canon but erased the feminist response to it. In taking away Oracle, editorial decisions also took away the legacy of Barbara Gordon and Batgirl, Cass Cain and Steph Brown. We are only beginning to get them back. I would argue that universe is less without them, the same way Didio says their fiction would be smaller without The Killing Joke.
It’s not just Yale and Ostrander who poured their efforts into Barbara Gordon, making her character brilliant and sharp and compelling. Babs was a congresswoman back in the old days, not just lipstick and a character void. So many writers have made Batgirl: Gail Simone, Barbara Kessel, Kelly Puckett, Brian Q. Miller, but none of them with names that inspire the arcane reverence of Alan Moore. Comic book storytellers, by which I mean we, the people who keep the stories of comics, think that Alan Moore legitimized the superhero genre. So we legitimize every story that Alan Moore ever did.
And that is how Alan Moore became the most iconic writer in Batgirl’s whole history, the thing that variant covers return to, the editorially-mandated flashback. It is the canon that keeps being created, but not the canon we have to keep choosing, not the way the story has to go or the way the story always went.
I do not want to make superhero comic books into a secret feminst paradise, to say that female characters have not been mishandled in ways particular to female characters, and that we cannot talk about these things. But we do the industry and their narratives a disservice when that is the major thing we talk about. Superhero comics posess few narrative consistancies, and “women suck” is definitely not one of them. When we talk (and we do talk) about the time-before-now as a vague sexist past we have to move away from, we sometimes obscure and erase the efforts of a whole host of creators that have tried to give women a voice. Marvel’s first major female-creator push was in 1972, not 2012. The shape of comic book continuity depends not just on stories that get told but the stories that get remembered.
I think we do a great disservice to superhero women when we pretend they would be better off without their history, rebooted and reimagined instead of treated as seminal and iconic. It isn’t enough to tell new, exciting stories— we have to let them count.
Panels from Daredevil #93, Daredevil #122, Marvel Team-Up #85, Marvel Two-in-One #10, and Batman Chronicles #5. Much of this was inspired and honed by a long discussion with fuckyeahbatgirls, so credit to them as well.
Writing posts or tags about female characters being flawless and wonderfully and how they take no shit and all that, that’s good, that’s important, but at some point we have to produce fanwork about them. Like fic or meta or fanart or fanmixes or prompts or comments on stuff about them or rec lists or ANYTHING, because I’m not here to tell you how to do fandom (I say in a post where I’m telling you how to do fandom) but there’s just this gap that’s happening between the “yay ladies!” rhetoric that happens across fandoms (we’re not even gonna address the “boo ladies!” factions, we’ll have to save their souls in a different post) and the amount fic/meta/graphics produced for them.
And also the kinds of works produced for them—I’d rather have works centering on Pepper’s kidnaping and forcible injection of Extremis than another gifset of her fresh from the flames, not because I want to romanticize her pain or devalue her strength but because I’m wary of romanticizing her strength and devaluing her pain. Pain is how we connect to characters. Their suffering and their mistakes are what make them dynamic, and interacting with the difficulties of these characters’ lives is what creates a vibrant fandom. It’s like when suffragettes were agitating for votes and men were like, “but it would corrupt women to enter politics! You’re too flawless and pure to be tainted by the outside world!” And the ladies were out there marching and screaming, “Sometimes we want fucked up h/c about Natasha too!” Or something like that.
Supporting female chapters for being awesome and flawless queens something I’m so here for, especially for the kinds of women that fandom is so quick to demonize, but I’m not about this pedestal.
First, some groundwork: he ongoing Black Widow series is collected in six-issue TPBs, but it doesn’t fall quite as neatly into six issue arcs. The storytelling engine is introduced in issue #1: Natasha starts taking independent espionage jobs, in order to settle literal and metaphoric debts. While the first few missions take one issue each, complications develop and one story overflows into the next. Bucky appears in #8, #12 (briefly), and #14, each appearance borrowing meaning from the place it has in the wider narrative.
So in Black Widow we see Natasha’s “days off”, but also the small and larger labors of making good, being good. It is also very concerned with Natasha’s loneliness. While the last Black Widow ongoing began during the Heroic Age, with Natasha in a strong, pre-established relationship, by the time this book kicks off, the Avengers are spinning slowly towards extinction and one of the great loves of her life stolen from her by an evil wannabe mastermind and also bad plot twists. We shouldn’t be surprised Natasha begins in a lonelier place. The book doesn’t address the specific shapes of Natasha’s lost memories, focusing more on the things Natasha has done and not the things done to her. But, though the story is told largely from her POV, it still makes use of the meanings that came before.
Black Rose: I hear things about you, Natasha. Things I would not have imagined, all those years ago. You have friends now. I am happy for that. And scared for you as well.
In The Name of the Rose, after escaping from the hospital, Natasha says to herself, “I should have known this would happen. But I got happy, and soft.” Black Rose tells her one issue earlier, “You have friends now. I am happy for that. And scared for you as well.” Spycraft is lonely work, inherently alienating. And as Natasha turns back to spycraft, ostensibly to help others, refusing money for herself, she is nonetheless drawn back to solitude.
The legend goes that in Ancient Sparta, soldiers were told to love each other, that they would fight more bravely for their shieldmates. This is what Natasha’s comic book Soviet masters believed too, except they always meant to widow her. They arranged a relationship between Natasha and Alexei and then arranged for it to end, so that Natasha, a hard-loving person, could fight for a hole in her heart. To control her, and to christen her, they had to make her lonely.
This is why her relationship with Winter Soldier was so dangerous, why it had to be undermined.
Edmondson and Noto’s Black Widow begins with Natasha alone, then spins outward. In the first six issues we are introduced to the little world the book builds for itself, to Isaiah Ross, Ana the neighbor, and Liho the cat and Maria Hill, Natasha’s principle SHIELD contact. Then the book spins into the wider curves of the Marvel Universe, and then even further into time travelling future universal wtf-ery and I am not even sure what is going on there yet. Different superhero figures come to represent different aspects of Natasha’s life, her connections.
Daredevil, in issue #7, embodies the self-righteousness of the superhero community. Clint, in a recurring role, represents her connection to the Avengers and her advocate there, and the possibility that her past mistakes can be made good. Tony gets called a philanthrobot. Despite the gripping solitudes of her profession, Natasha in fact makes connections everywhere she goes, means something to everyone she meets: she is exceptional.
Bucky, I think, in this matrix of superhero relationships, represents his own category. While Matt Murdock can’t see Natasha in the shadows she’s slowly returning too, Bucky Barnes already lives there. In fact, when they meet, it’s because they catch each other on a mission.
Occasionally… a client hires me to recover something they’ve lost. Or something that was stolen from them.
This is a clear reference to the memories that Leo took from Natasha. The intro blurb, in fact, describes it like this:
Over the years, the Winter Soldier, James “Bucky” Barnes, has been Black Widow’s comrade, enemy, fellow Avenger and one of the great loves of her life. But ever since a madman messed with her mind, she doesn’t remember the relationship. He does.
Bucky doesn’t parachute in expecting to meet Natasha, I don’t think, but because he’s trying to stop the bad guys that inevitably show up to complicate things and make this a team up. “Nat— Black Widow?” he says, seeing her again for the first time.
But even with the missing pieces, it’s clear that the two of them work well together. There’s a deliberate sexual tension between them, unresolved because of the circumstance, but not erased by it. They were never together because of the brainwashing. So they flirt and shoot bad guys.
Bucky: It’s been a while. …Not that I don’t hear stories… Natasha: Stories of my failures, no doubt. Bucky: Of your charm.
They run around on the tops of trains and seek shelter in a nearby house, abandoned for the winter. The scenario is basic, but allows for moments of nearness. It’s all supposed to feel easy and familiar. Natasha even smiles— small, but more than once.
The way Noto paints them, the moments fit together like snapshots.
It’s so natural that Bucky almost thinks she might remember him after all. He tries to say something, but the words never get their chance.
Natasha: Spit it out, Barnes. Bucky: Nothing. Stay warm, is all. Be careful. Natasha: I will.
Natasha no longer knows to call him James. Bucky looks like he’s been stabbed. Later, he runs out into the white cold and enemy fire, like an idiot, like he does, and jumps on top of a plane with death in his eyes. “You shot at Natasha,” he says. “That was your last act on earth, pal.” Maybe the Spartans knew what they were talking about. Maybe the Red Room did too.
Presumably after this, Bucky returns to the all-mothering void to become Space Bucky, or something. Stay warm.
I want to call attention here to the metaphor of winter. The title of this issue is Bitter Cold, and both of them are dressed to match a blizzard, whites over black. The snow is an the obvious visual reference to Bucky’s codename— he is the Winter Soldier— and Karpov’s line in Captain America #5. “We Russians… we have nothing but our winter.” Bucky and Natasha discuss the seasons while they regroup briefly in a vacant house, before they both return to the cold.
Bucky: I’m guessing the residents are somewhere warm for the summer. Natasha: I’ve never understood that compulsion. Bucky: Neither have I. Clear night skies, cold mornings… it must make New York feel so far from home for you. Natasha: It gets cold enough there.
In spy fiction, “the cold” is another name for the isolation of espionage. If we are going to borrow another line from the series— “home is where the hurt is"— then they’ve both made their home out there in the frost. Existing, like her, Bucky doesn’t scold Natasha, or need to know what she is up to. She can lend him ammo. That’s why everything is so easy, because they stand in the same blizzards.
Maria: Can you arrange your own transport? Natasha: Of course. Maria: I’m sorry we can’t be behind you. But we’re with you. You have allies out there. Natasha: I work better alone.
Noto uses different line and coloring techniques to set different moods for his story. In these panels his coloring is soft, the lines are thin and sketchy. It gives Natasha a vulnerability she doesn’t necessarily posess in the rest of this issue, even though this is the end, when she is finally safe and inside. It’s not true what she says to Maria, staring out at the snowfall, but she does what she has to to keep herself warm.
The next time we see Bucky is during the Anderson Cooper Special Report Issue, where the CNN silver fox reveals on national TV all the shadows Natasha has been lurking in. He doesn’t tell an untruth, and he is not unfair, but the broadcast is still a turning point in the series, forcing Natasha further and further away from her friends and contacts. Neither the Avengers or SHIELD can acknowledge her, reporters are searching for her, and Natasha has to be less of a person than usual.
Natasha: The world is a nasty, complicated place full of riddles and shadows. Chaos lives up to its name, it’s wreaked havoc on my life, it’s made everything miserable. There’s no defense against pure chaos. There’s nothing for it, except to slowly turn up the light on its shadows. Facts are few, friends are fewer… and rarely worth the effort.
This is when things really start going south for Natasha, the turn of the seasons. (Somehow from winter to autumn, but roll with it.) While her life was being broadcast one of the bad guys’ accountants tried to murder her friend. Natasha, desperate, turns to desperate measures. "I am exceptional. I am the exception. I do not belong. Not in SHIELD, not in the Avengers. The world may not have a place for me. I’ve been pushed out.”
As with so many things about Natasha, this is the truth and the lie together. Natasha doesn’t fit in to the Avengers or SHIELD; she has decided to be the exception to both of their categories. She’s always, I would argue, thought of herself as above the rules, or beyond them. That instinct was what allowed her to defect, to tell her heart yes but her mission no, to do missions money but not keep it, to do better, and not just survive.
Because Natasha is exceptional, people do care for her, even as Chaos tries to push them out. Even as she travels further and further off the map, her friends are there to follow her. Maria Hill sits with Isaiah in his hospital bed. Clint brings flowers. And Bucky, well—
Natasha: How long have you been watching me, and where from? Bucky: From… far away. And I have kept an eye on you since Prague. Natasha: Why? Why me? I don’t believe in two coincidences.
Bucky, free from the politics of SHIELD and the Avengers, and with his own resources, is the first one to come to her in person. The actual team-up this time isn’t much, since Natasha is intent on rushing straight-on into danger. But it’s revealing none the less.
First, there’s the fact that Bucky has been watching her. Some people consider this creepy, and it is, a little, but all of her friends are watching her. Natasha is a spy and understands that her privacy will be taken if she does not protect it. She expects her movements to be tracked and tracks the movements of others.
Some people (okay, one guy on CBR) have said that it doesn’t make sense for Bucky to show up here, now that he’s become Space Bucky. But I don’t buy that, either— Invaders shows him keeping tabs on Steve and his old war buddies, even worlds away. If he has some relationships deeper than what status quos dictate, then, well, so what? Bucky is exceptional too.
You’ve got this. …You always did impress me.
There are a lot of moments in these Black Widow issues that call back to previous stories, except this time Natasha is playing Bucky’s part. The line above.overflwoing the panel grid, echoes “she always amazes me” line in Winter Soldier #1, but it comes from her lips and not his greyboxed inner monologue. They ride a motorcycle together, just like they used to, but now Natasha is the one who is driving. Natasha’s past midseeds are broadcast to the world via supervillain meddling, just as in the No Escape arc of Captain America. Natasha runs headfirst into danger, now, and Bucky has to catch her. Even the cover of Black Widow #8 positions them as two parts of the same person.
I want to put the lie to the idea that Natasha was ever Bucky’s simpler, stronger half. She is not his perfectly crafted, perfectly supportive girlfriend. She does— did— try to support him, not because of the clarity of her compassion, but because she knows what the cold feels like, and how you can learn to make your home there.
Bucky: I know you don’t need me. But please, Natasha. Whatever else we are… let me be your friend. Natasha: You’re a good man. Bucky: Not really, no. But you’re the only one who understands that.
Consider: this scene doesn’t work if Natasha doesn’t harbor her own cruelties, if she doesn’t carry her own secrets inside her. She has had to learn some lessons so hard she has learned them over again. And that is what she could impart to Bucky, and why he is doing his level best to help her, now.
When asked about romance in Black Widow, Nathan Edmondson responded: “We early on — our whole team — decided we didn’t want this to be an oversexualized portrayal of the character and we didn’t want Natasha to be defined by who she slept with or what men were in her life.” Certainly the story that has played out is more about why Natasha isn’t with anyone: the distances and depths of the cold.
Edmondson goes onto mention the “fleeting” romance of Black Widow #8 as important to the story, worked in. Natasha is not loveless, then, only isolated. It’s a lonely, lethal world out there. To get through it, she— and he, and they— need to be the exceptions.
Panels from issues #8, 12, and 15 of the current Black Widow volume, and issues #1 and 4 of the previous.
They’re not that different. Wanda shares way more thematic space with Natasha than she does with, say, Steve, and that doesn’t stop those two from hanging out, making out, whatever. Of course, Wanda doesn’t really show up in his solo unless it’s a group shot of all the Avengers so maybe it does stop them from hanging out, making out, whatever.
They’ve been in quite a few of the same issues, like you said, but often, they’re on different trajectories, dealing with different subplots. For example, Natasha shows up in Avengers vol 1 #29, but Wanda is losing her powers and leaves the team the next issue. They’re both consistently in Avengers for about a year in 1967, but Natasha’s got her own thing going on and then she quits being a superhero and Wanda gets kidnapped. Then you get into the Korvac Saga where they’re both there, but neither one is the focus.
There a couple of moments where they say hi to each other. That’s about the depth of their interaction in those early issues of Avengers. Later on, there’s this, which I posted a couple of weeks ago, but it isn’t much. They also have a couple of panels of small talk in Avengers vol 1 #112.
NATASHA: You’re acting much more girlish these days than the Scarlet Witch I remember, Wanda.
WANDA: Well, I’m much more in love these days.
Avengers Vol. 1 #112 by Steve Englehart & Don Heck
Funny story about these panels: they exist because a girl wrote a letter to Marvel saying Wanda was acting too masculine and should be more feminine now that she was with Vision. There was a big fight in the letter columns about this, and Marvel felt the need to throw in a few lines in different issues about how feminine Wanda was all of a sudden. Can’t have anyone thinking your lady characters aren’t girly enough.
There is also the period in the early-mid ’90s where they were leading separate teams and interacted a little because of that. Most of that is very minor. One panel of coordinating whose team is going to do what and whether or not the other one knows anything type of thing. What may be of interest to you is Force Works #13-14, assuming you can tolerate the Force Works-iness of it.
WANDA: We have two concerns here — the immediate problem of the escapees and this extradition order! Let’s go with pooling resources and draw up two mission teams. One goes after the fugitives. The other can… discuss the Skrull proposal.
NATASHA: Agreed. That should calm things down, at least. I can see why Anthony put you in charge.
WANDA: It’s a shame he can’t.
NATASHA: Ouch. Did I just hit a raw nerve?
WANDA: Skip it.
Force Works #13 by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning & Dave Ross
They’re both leading their respective teams and trying to work together despite disagreeing. It’s not a catfight, just a disagreement. Eventually, Wanda concedes that Natasha was right, and Natasha is impressed with Wanda’s… Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning Wanda-ness. (Have I mentioned lately that these guys write a very good Wanda? Because they do.)
So, no, they don’t talk about anything personal. Not their romantic lives or their past villainy or men trying to control them or having their memories messed with or Communism or how strange it must be to them that Western men want to wear spangly outfits and call themselves “Captain America” (and sure, you love the guy but it’s so weird that he’s doing that).
If you’re looking outside of 616, there’s Black Widow & the Marvel Girls #2, which presents about as distinct of a relationship as you’ll find for them, but it’s negative. In that, Wanda thinks Natasha is humorless and untrustworthy. I don’t know what their relationship should be, if anything, but I’m going to go with, probably not like it was there.
After the issue of All-New X-Factor that had Wanda in it came out, I had it in my head that I should write about how Wanda and Natasha can sometimes represent a take on the Madonna/Whore Complex as applied to Eastern European women. Wanda is, from time to time (like in that issue of All-New X-Factor), written as this naive, foreign farm girl who doesn’t understand all your modern Western ways. She’s a wide-eyed, old-fashioned ingenue, innocent and child-like, probably a milkmaid or a mail order bride whose only desire in the world is pleasing you, both through food and sex. And then you have Natasha who can, on these rare occasions, get shoved into this box of godless Commie honey trap. It doesn’t happen often and that isn’t who Natasha is at all, but people like their stereotypes.
If you look critically not just at the way they’re written but at the way they’re viewed by real people despite how they’re written, you see this perfect example of how we reduce women, especially women who are Other, to exaggerated versions of Good Girl and Bad Girl. Natasha is a spy, and people seem to think that means she’s only useful for her ability to seduce men, which she doesn’t actually do much of. Natasha is glamorous and mysterious, whereas Wanda is, well, a farm girl. She wears a peasant dress in all her origin story flashbacks and married a man who some don’t think has, ahem, certain equipment, which makes her almost sexless by extension in some people’s eyes. Yeah, Wanda is presented as sexy, but there is this over-the-top innocence that gets added to it (not always, but we’re talking about not so great portrayals here). She’s desirable; it’s just tempered with the implication that she is somehow still a little girl. Which is super creepy.
Anyway, I didn’t write the essay because I couldn’t figure out what to write, beyond what I just said. It just ended up being “sexism is bad, y’all” and that didn’t seem worth the effort.
Bixby: Wait…that’s it? You didn’t even tell me your name. Who are you? Yelena: I’m the Black Widow.
Yelena Belova came into comics in 1999, after a decade of pouches and ediger, contemporary replacement heroes. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the miniseries which crashed Yelena to Natasha also returned her to the 1970 all-blacks and half-bouffant, after near to two decades of short, angular hairstyles. Yelena had her middriff bare, Yelena used rifles instead of gadgets, Yelena was very 1999. She was also post-Soviet, young and hungry. Natasha was getting older, getting old; that 1999 mini saw her pass a birthday unremarked and unremembered. It also gave her an archfoe, something she hadn’t had for a while.
Yelena Belova was all these hard worn comic book trope: the edgy nineties replacement, the dark mirror. But because she was the Black Widow, none of that was colored in binaries. Natasha didn’t want to defend her codename— she wanted to save Yelena from it. Yelena wasn’t only the villain— she was also the wronged.
Natasha: We are not like Daredevil or the others, Yelena. We are not heroes. We are tools. And tools get used. I had to make you see that. It was not cruelty for cruelty’s sake. Yelena: Tell me, Natasha… if I pull the trigger, will I kill me, too?
While Grayson’s first volume drew Yelena as Natasha’s shadow, her second story moved from Yelena’s point of view. From this angle, Natasha seems impossible, inhuman, legendary. But also cruel.
What Natasha does is switch their faces around, making Yelena into the “real” Black Widow, unmaking Yelena. The shock of deep cover and careful training and unkind mirrors take all of that away from her— she breaks down into her human parts. Natasha reveals her ruse eventually, saying that she was moved by mercy. She wants teach Yelena that to be a spy, to be Black Widow, is to be used. Yelena in her ambition and naïveté believed, perhaps, that she could be better than replaceable. But she is also justifiably angry, to have her identity ripped away for the sake of a lesson she did not ask for. And in the end, it is personal, not because the two women share a codename, but because their relationship with that codename sets them at odds.
Yelena is the Black Widow by choice. Her past might be keeping secrets from her, and she might not understand the full dark of where her orders take her, but Yelena knows she wants this, still. She likes the danger, she likes to see her mission succeed. She knows she likes the feeling of completing a mission, winning. She likes to play the game, and likes that she is good at it. Yelena is a hero with no known and wounding trauma, nothing bleeding under her own skin to make her unsuited for any kind of life. She has a mother at home, waiting with messages on an answering machine, waiting to set her up with boys. When Natasha tells her to get out, it comes with the implication that she can.
Natasha is the traditional Marvel hero, filled up with ink and noble melancholy, gifted and cursed in one breath. She fights because she has to, because if she does not use her training someone else will use her. She did not choose to be Black Widow, that chose her. Natasha’s choice is to do good or something like it with the shapes of her old trauma. She made herself a hero, but she did not make herself.
They are both agents, holding on to agency.
Nikki: Maybe it’s your kink, that’s why. Starkovsky always thought you were a lesbian… so I thought I should ask. Yelena: No, I’m not a lesbian… I’m not… anything…
In 2003 Yelena appeared in a miniseries of her very own, a prequel story under the MAX imprint. The plotline reflects Natasha’s origin. Yelena’s superiors staged the death of a loved one to glue her loyalties together. But in a modern twist, the whole thing takes place in a sex club.
Yelena isn’t comfortable with any of it. She has never known romance, never let those emotions into her life. Yelena started training at fifteen, and she is not the sort to look sideways. Not every young girl wants romance, builds their lives around that first love. But even if Yelena’s outlook is agendered, asexual, the world she traps herself in, the world she wants, is not.
The book is set in a sex club because comics are obvious and there are many ways to be used. The madame, Nikki, turns out to be a high-ranking GRU agent in disguise; the whole thing is a masquerade. But it’s also, I think, a commentary on what the espionage genre wants from its women. Lady spies are meant to trade sexual favors for information, to use their thighs as much as their minds to extract information. Natasha’s canon is full of men like this, men who are usually super villains but sometimes fellow Avengers. Sometimes women, fictional women spin sexy poses into power. But Yelena finds none of this empowering, only uncomfortable, violating.
Igor Kordey’s art is voluptuous but rough, the women are differently and realistically proportioned, they stare back with sure lines and individual expression. (The covers, by Greg Horn, are another story.) The art’s humanity helps sell the anger Yelena feels when people take her uniform for bondage gear. If she has become a spy to leave a world of blind dates and gendered expectations, she has not left them all the way. But significantly, in none of these early stories does she use batted eyelashes to get her way. When Daredevil mistakenly kisses her, she pushes him away, spouting threats instead of instead of playing along. She tries to keep her own boundaries.
Yelena’s unbatted eyelashes mattered to me, in a genre pile-up where women’s weapons are their looks. This is a Black Widow blog, and I don’t mind the femme fatale tropes. But if every woman is flirty and dangerous, there’s no power left there, it becomes something that they have to be.
After Grayson and Rucka stopped writing Black Widow stories, Yelena disappeared. She also, somehow, kept appearing in comics.
Yelena: Thing is, Natasha, you’ve never known how to handle men right. You’ve got to learn to play them. Like with a big fish. They need to feel important, like they’re in control. You just find other ways to get ‘round them. Natasha: I don’t like games, ‘Lena. I never have. And I’m tired of deploying my body to get what I want. Yelena: Then, my dear, to quote Doctor Johnson, you are tired of life. Life as a woman, anyway.
Richard Morgan stripped Yelena of all her connections to the “real” Red Room, making her a mistake instead of a successor. “Oh— her,” says one of his expository devices. “Belova was an aberration. Nothing to do with the real Black Widow. I believe she models fetish lingerie these days.” When we do meet Yelena, her nipples are poking through a sheer evening dress, out of the spy game, Natasha’s chatty ally, and mistress of a soft-core porn empire.
Morgan wrote a potentially interesting character. A potentially interesting Black Widow, even, a woman who helps sex-trafficked women find ways to find medicine and work, whose way to beat the spy game is to not play it. Black Widow is all about the dangers and mean necessities of using the system to escape the system. But none of it felt like Yelena, whose passion was spying, who was troubled by sexual power, who had no reason to forgive Natasha and no reason to listen to her.
In any case, no other comics ever acknowledged the events of that mini, as though it were never in continuity in the first place. Yelena appeared around the same time in Bendis’s New Avengers series, part of a group of rogue SHIELD agents. The Avengers are confused, and don’t know who she is. Spider-Man helpfully informs us that “Black Widow’s a redhead with bigger—” but the identity crisis is done with quick. Yelena is burnt extra-crispy in a matter of pages, her mission remaining mysterious. She returns a few stories later, now armed with a set of Super-Adaptoid powers that turn her multicolored, and soon turn her into a pile of goo.
Yelena: Help m—
The sad thing about it, apart from, you know, Yelena dying in a storyline that had nothing to do with her, is that it could’ve had a lot to do with her. Yelena leaving her Russian masters for SHIELD is logical, given the place we last really saw her; even if Fury was using her, he makes a great sales pitch. Yelena taking on whoever would pay her, choosing to be loyal to nothing, as a way to beat the game, I could buy that, I could be interested. But Yelena thought she was better than Natasha because she was loyal, truly Russian, and there’s nothing thick to connect the dots and no space for them to matter.
The Super-Adaptoid powers are tragic, awful and fitting— Yelena gets a new codename, but again it is already someone else’s. She gains all the powers of her enemies, but none of her own, and when she fails, she is disposable. Her handlers, mysterious as always, mean as always, hit a self-destruct button, and she dissolves. Finally, in the end, she is not a person who made a choice, but a weapon to be disarmed. And given the heart of all Yelena’s old complications, that’s heartbreaking. But it isn’t this story that makes it so, this story makes her a villain-of-the-week, fighting the good guys because she is bad.
Yelena didn’t stay dead for long, something I work up to the simple appeal of her concept. She first showed in a Marvel Comics Presents twelve-parter in an expansive team-up no one read. Her adaptoid powers were gone, her return from the dead acknowledged but unexplained, and she performed the rote role of tough spy lady. Next Yelena turned up in Thunderbolts, seemingly the leader of Norman Osborn’s Dark Reign killsquad. Except that wasn’t Yelena, it was Natasha, using Yelena’s face again, making someone else’s identity into her own weapon. A few plot twists later and Osborn had the real Yelena trapped in artificial stasis. The stage was set for two teams of Thunderbolts, led by two Black Widows, for Yelena to earn some measure of revenge. But a new writer came on board, and that final panel of Yelena in stasis is the last we saw of her in that book.
Then comes the recent Secret Avengers volume, where Yelena was fished out of stasis by A.I.M. and invested as Minister of Defense in their new security council. Her reasons for joining A.I.M. are left unclear. Recall that in her first appearances Yelena was not a terrorist, but a Russian patriot, a ranking officer affiliated with a legitimate government, and that all of that was a source of pride. She had no connection to the entropy cult that seemed to move her new leaders. Yelena owed whoever saved her from that status tube, maybe. The spotlight issue on the A.I.M. security council does not show Yelena being recruited— it shows Yelena dealing with the expectation that she’d sleep with her boss.
But at this point, harassment, weird sadomasochist flirting with Nick Fury Jr, still-unexplained adaptoid powers, or not, I was glad to see Yelena again. I was glad to see her on panel.
Then, of course, Marvel went and killed her again.
Yelena’s cause of death: a labyrinth of plot twists that have nothing to do with Yelena. Bobbi Morse is rescued by Clint Barton, Bobbi Morse is escaping, the bad guys don’t want Bobbi Morse to escape, Bobbi and Yelena fight, Bobbi uses camotech to switch their appearances, bad guys shoot Bobbi, Clint Barton cries, and then, on the escape boat, the ruse is revealed. Yelena is dead, not Bobbi. Yelena is dead, so we can get a few fake-out panels of Clint Barton sobbing over his ex-wife’s corpse.
This issue promised the death of a Secret Avenger, and fans were worried Bobbi Morse was going to bite it. Bobbi Morse, you see, is a lot like Yelena Belova— a character who thrived under a few dedicated caretakers, but has since fallen into a chaotic non-direction. After Hawkeye and Mockingbird was cancelled and Widowmaker ended, Bobbi was beaten within an inch of her life and given a souped up Super Soldier Serum to save her. This could have been interesting— Bobbi spent time as a SHIELD biologist trying to duplicate the Serum, never intending to use it on herself. But that plot wound up nowhere. Secret Avengers decided to do something totally different, making her maybe psychic, maybe an A.I.M. sleeper agent all along. None of the questions this raises have been answered. When the book relaunched, Bobbi was left out of the line-up.
When Bobbi was going to die, her fans were irate: why end a character so hooked with potential, instead of exploring that potential? In this era of Marvel Now, we are being kinder to our women. More lady-led ongoings are being printed now than ever before, with more on the way. Some complain that they are the same female characters, over and over. Me, I don’t mind repetition. If Moon Knight gets a bunch of relaunches, why not Captain Marvel, why not Spider-Woman? But the Marvel Now woman fits a certain profile: she first hit it big in the 1970s or early 1980s, she has a very physical powerset, either martial arts or super-strength. She is probably white and probably straight.
I don’t suggest we take down the Marvel Now woman, but I do think the MU is a richer place when more sorts get to live there. Natasha is sitting relatively pretty right now. She has her own book, a hit movie out now and another one filming, membership in two different Avengers teams, and space in the current Avengers cartoon. But she’d be even better off if Yelena was still alive. Natasha is thirsty for a rogues gallery, and Yelena is her very best villain, her most personal, and most complex. If you want to launch a Black Widow comic, isn’t it better to have that card in the deck?
Instead, Yelena is dead and unmourned, and she has had a dagger of an ending. Natasha tried to tell Yelena that she would be used, that she’d be replaceable. And that is what she came to be— grist for the mill of other characters’ plot twists. She has died now, not once, but twice, wrapped in someone else’s powers, someone else’s appearance, killed by her own superiors. Secret Avengers #15 does not care enough about Yelena and her history to even show Natasha’s reaction to her death, even though Natasha is in the issue. We only see Clint’s temporary tears for Bobbi, so thoroughly is Yelena erased and unmentioned.
It is how comics work, I know. Characters, good characters, get drifted off to limbo all the time. The Marvel Universe is a wide and wonderful place but not large enough to contain all of its multitudes. Characters get introduced, they get developed, they get misused, they get forgotten, appearing first in bloodless cameos and then never appearing at all. I get it. I understand. Not every story can be every thing to every character. The Avengers need their casualties to remind us that these stories have stakes. That these stories matter. But to me, Yelena mattered, too. I wanted to remember her, so that someone would. So that maybe, someone will.
Disclaimer: I have been requested to write a name primer for Buckynat Week. Take my words with a grain of salt, as I am not an expert in linguistics, I haven’t been to my home country for eight years, and this year is a special milestone that marks my having spent exactly the same amount of time in America that I have in Russia (13 years). It would be more accurate to describe me as an immigrant rather than a Russian.
However, I do take special joy in telling everyone about Russians, whether they want to hear it or not. The tags that result from this hobby are Ask A Russian (specifically for questions), Russian Things (volunteering information no one asked for), and the catch-all I Am Filled With Russian Feelings.
You may also notice that this primer is a very cursory overview, full of generalizations, as well as some ranting.
Not so long ago I fell in love with The Losers: I bought the comic books, watched the movie, cried about its everything, and ended up making some really cool friends (hi there, hi!). One of the characters (Carlos “Cougar” Álvarez) speaks in Spanish and there’s a particular sentence that he says in the comics that has always bothered me because it’s wrong. (And If you are one of the cool friends I’ve mentioned, you’ve already heard about that.)
I usually try not to be too bothered about inconsistent Spanish grammar when I’m reading American comic books. But lately Marvel has been putting Spanish dialogue in some of their issues and the Spanish, to be honest, is bad. Really, really bad.
(And let’s not forget the fact that most of the characters that speak Spanish are drug dealers and/or smugglers. What’s wrong with you, Marvel?)
After yelling about this on twitter for a while and getting particularly frustrated at today’s new Black Widow issue, one of my friends was like “I hope you’ll write a tumblr post about this!!!!”. So here I am, trying to be coherent while talking about some of my problems with the Spanish on Black Widow #3.
You’re going to have to do what I say, claro?
This above is a problem of context. I think the writer meant “you’re going to have to do what I say, clear?”, and “claro“ is one translation of "clear”, yes, but I definitely wouldn’t use it in this context.
Instead, I’d say: “you’re going to have to do what I say, entendido?” (meaning, “understood”) or, if I wanted to stick with “claro”: “you’re going to have to do what I say, está claro?”.
Is this enough to make me angry at a comic book? Probably not, but there’s more.
Para! Manos en su cabeza!
Because of the subject-verb agreement, we can know that when the guard is yelling “para!”, he means “para, tú!“ (aka second person, singular: "you”). But then he says: “manos en su cabeza!”. “Su” is a possessive that’s used for third person (“his” “her” “their”, in English) when the thing that’s possessed is singular (for example: “his house” = “su casa”, but “her houses” = “sus casas”). “Su” is also used as the possessive for the honorific “usted”. So the problem we have in the panel above is that the guard is using two different pronouns to address the guy he’s talking to. And that’s… not a thing you’d do.
My solution would be to use “usted” as the subject for both sentences, as in: “Pare! Manos en su cabeza!”. But to be honest (and to make things simpler) that sounds kind of forced, so I’d also drop the whole “hands to your head” thing and just go with “manos arriba!”.
Matador, como nos mismos.
I’m going to guess this was supposed to mean “[she’s a] killer, like ourselves”. I have many problems with this sentence, and it literally has four words and a comma, what the hell.
First: “matador” is a word reserved for bullfighters and, as far as I know, ONLY bullfighters. The character that’s speaking it’s supposed to be Argentinian, and maybe they do use this word to mean “killer” or “murderer” in Argentina? (I doubt it, but if someone from Argentina wants to say their two cents, please be my guest.)
Second: okay, let’s say that we’re going to use “matador” as in “killer”. The guy in the panel is referring to Natasha, who is a woman. And because in Spanish nouns have different endings depending on gender, it should read “matadora”. (Which, I’m sorry to add, sounds awful.)
Third: “como nos mismos” is a translation of “like ourselves”. Only then it should be “como nostros mismos” or even “como nostros”.
(Side note: I could ignore that “nos”, even though it sounds really weird to me. I can’t ignore the rest.)
Lobo Blanco, hemos entusiasmo que esperaba.
And this one is my absolute favorite, because it doesn’t make sense at all. Sure, the “Lobo Blanco” thing does make sense, but I stared too long to “hemos entusiasmo que esperaba” and I’m still not 100% sure what the writer was trying to say. “We’ve been waiting enthusiastically” maybe? Because let me tell you something, that sentence above would literally be something like this: “have enthusiasm that waited”. Right.
I’ve chosen to do this with the last Black Widow issue not because I don’t like the character or the series. Far from that: I love Natasha, and I’m looking forward to issue #4. But I’m not going to lie and say that the things I’ve pointed above don’t bother me, because they do.
There’s also the fact that this isn’t an isolated example. There was the last issue of Avengers Assemble, which was great, but had Bad Spanish. And then there’s also The Punisher #1, which I haven’t read yet but which showed some very stilted Spanish in its preview pages (and the writer is also Edmondson, so my hopes are not high at all.)
What I mean is: it’s great that Marvel wants to show more diversity in comics! That diversity is a fact IRL, and it’s about time it gets reflected in media. But, because media representation really matters, it’s frustrating that they don’t seem to bother with getting someone to go through the Spanish bits and to make sure everything is correct before they release/publish the comics.
So I’ll keep throwing my money at Marvel, yes, but I do wish they’d do better.
Hi, tumblr. Let’s talk about covers. Let’s talk about this cover.
Bill Sienkiewicz painted this cover, and he is one of the best in the business. Elektra: Assassin is one of the most important female-led books Marvel has ever published, and a lot of that is his evocative art, his willingness to draw its heroine as something angled, something other than superheroic. I admire his use of line and color and weight and if I had to guess the double ass shot through-the-crotch action in this cover is meant to play (cheekily) on the sexual tension that tends to come with these characters’ team-ups.
But I’m not here to defend this cover. The shiny rubber butt thing is a bridge too far, and I’d really like to pretend it never happened. But this is a pretty infamous cover. And I want to talk about the comic that came with it. Because the interior art looks like this:
I’m sure I talk too much about women’s issues for some readers’ comfort, but I’ve got reasons. Reason the first is, obviously, as a lady who reads comics I find it interesting how comics treat ladies. But the other just as big reason is: Black Widow comics are often about gender. Natasha was cast as a feminist, liberated hero in the early 1970s, and since then, when her stories wanted to go there, from Ann Nocenti to Joss Whedon, they have. The Richard Morgan volumes are no exception. Gender politics are a big thing for Morgan: he has Natasha ditch her trademark Widow’s Bites because he found it demeaning that a super heroine’s power was made to be jewelry. Here’s how he describes the volume on his website:
A brief foray into sequential art, feminist subtext and overt political anger – welcome to a twenty first century reinterpretation of one of Marvel’s iffiest ‘heroes’. Just how does a superannuated Soviet female super-spy feel about life in the era of corporate power, glossy marketing and lad mag sexuality?
I didn’t like his answers, necessarily— I don’t like many of his ideas for Natasha, if you wanna know the truth. But I can respect that he was asking these sorts of questions.
Morgan was joined by Sienkiewicz, Goran Parlov, and Sean Phillips on interior art, and the result was a book filled with scratchy lines and heavy blacks. Natasha wore bulky jackets and baseball caps, she pulled back her hair and put bandages on her face. She was still an attractive woman, but the story wasn’t afraid to make her something besides sexy.
The covers weren’t like that. It’s not just this one, with its boobs and butt at the same time tango. The entire first volume of the series was given covers by Greg Land, who is very good at making sure that all his female characters look like the exact same airbrushed supermodel. There’s really no artist further from the tone was trying to set.
It doesn’t stop there. Marjorie Liu has written Black Widow has said she dislikes the cleavage-plungey & impractical way some artists draw her uniform. She’s written Natasha with a varitey of visual collaborators, and even in some states of undress, but the panels always turned out restrained, fitting. Except the cover of the very first issue of Liu’s Black Widow run, and therefore the most iconic image from it, is thoroughly unzipped.
Covers, especially first covers, need to be drawn before the rest of the book. So maybe Daniel Acuña drew the cover without Liu’s input or guidance. Or maybe not. He’s one of my favorite Natasha artists, and I can forgive one cover I’m not crazy about for five beautifully painted issues. But it doesn’t stop there. Compare Deadly Origin #2 with some of the panels inside it.
It’s not just Black Widow, either. A few years back Marvel published a book called Marvel Divas, which focused on a group of superheroines, their friendship, and their personal life. The interior art was by Tonci Zonjic, an artist who is great at acting and layout and clothing choices, and whose character designs looked like this. Marvel slapped that book with a kind of wince-worthy “Divas” title and then put a J. Scott Campbell cheesecake cover on it, and behold, the internet was mad. Quesada, then Editor-in-Chief, explained himself:
More often than not, I ask my editors to direct their cover artist to give me at least a first issue cover with the characters in costume. Why? Because it will help launch a book that will most likely have trouble latching onto a large audience. We want to give every title the best possible chance to be successful. Marvel Divas is no different and that’s why you’re seeing our strong female leads in their super hero personas. Let me try an example outside of comics. I’m a huge fan of Pink… I would say that she’s an amazingly strong and intelligent female performer and song writer in the pop genre. s. But when you look at Pink’s CD covers, while she’s looking strong and like she’s looking like she’s having fun, she’s also looking really sexy. The reason is simple, she’s trying to grab people’s attention and sell some albums. Comics are no different and as much a part of the entertainment business as any other medium, and the cold hard truth is that if we were to launch Marvel Divas with a “quiet cover,” I guarantee you the book would be canceled before it hits the shelves. That’s it in a nutshell, I could sugar coat it for you and give you a million other reasons that would sound plausible, but that’s not what I do.
Covers are very afraid of being something besides sexy.
There’s a tension in superhero comics, then, where the interior panels might be focused on storytelling, but the covers focus on selling, and sex sells and that’s what they say. That tension can be hard to appreciate on tumblr, which is all about freeing images from their contexts. I get frustrated seeing these covers, loosed from their contexts, freed from that tension, being used to explain everything that’s wrong with Black Widow, as a wannabe A-list heroine. More people got angry about Marvel Divas on the internet than actually read Marvel Divas, I’m pretty sure, and they missed some cute moments and a lot of Patsy Walker. But I can’t blame anyone for not picking a book whose cover made them uncomfortable. Covers are there to be judged.
So I’m glad that a new Black Widow ongoing has launched with the confidence to focus on her face. I know the major criticism of the book so far is that it’s “too safe"— but this is one risk I was really hoping for.
Covers by Bill Sienkiewicz & Phil Noto. Panels from Black Widow: The Things They Say About Her #1, by Richard Morgan, Sean Phillips & Bill Sienkiewicz.
"I don't think you'd ever say you expect something to be 'the next Hawkeye.' It's like saying you expect something to be the next pet rock." - Axel Alonso
Hawkeye by Matt Fraction, David Aja, et al., just passed its one year anniversary and its thirteenth issue. Both of those are milestones for Hawkeye books in general – the Avenging Archer usually makes it to miniseries, or to solo endeavors that are cut short by sales or waning interest. In fact, Brian Michael Bendis cites the poor reception of 2008’s Hawkeye as one of the reasons he was allowed to kill Clint Barton during Avengers Disassembled. Heroes live and die based on their book’s sales—literally.
So what makes this iteration of the Hawkeye book different? And, more to the point, what’s to stop Marvel from launching a whole slew of books with similar concepts, backing, and fanfare?
Turns out—nothing. Over the past month and particularly at this year’s New York Comic Con, Marvel announced a new wave of books – All New Marvel Now!. Amongst the announced team books, the rebranding of current titles and the relaunch of some recently concluded were a new line of solo titles. And, much like Hawkeye, these books aren’t about Thor, Captain America, Iron Man or Wolverine (though the house staples got their regular share of news). These are series about characters who haven’t existed as purely solo characters for much of, or most of, their histories.
Does that mean they can’t succeed? She-hulk and Carol Danvers have both had multiple volumes dedicated to them, and many of those series have crossed benchmark issue numbers. Rhodey has been a popular part of the Iron Man mythos for decades, and now has his appearances in three movies backing him up. Elektra and Black Widow both come from histories and connections with various Marvel franchises—Daredevil, the Avengers, Wolverine. These characters have always been popular, and some of them have headed successful solo series before, even if they ultimately didn’t last. But if not being able to maintain a solo act over decades is the sign of a bad character, then Hawkeye would’ve been a scrapped concept long ago. But he’s still around, with the “year’s best breakout book” dedicated to him. So what’s stopping any of these others from achieving the same?
A large part of Hawkeye’s success is its artists and covers—David Aja, Matt Hollingsworth, Javier Pulido, Annie Wu and the rest of the team bring style, consistency, and great character work to the book.So what about the new contenders?
Black Widow, the star of 2012’s Avengers movie, is getting a book with moody, artistic covers and interiors by Phil Noto. Jennifer Walters, the original She-Hulk, is focusing on the law and her personal life with fashion-forward Kevin Wada on covers and Hawkeye notable Javier Pulido on interiors. Carol Danvers, Tumblr hero and Captain Marvel, is getting a second wave with another Hawkeye alum on art—David Lopez. James Rhodes is also catching movie buzz, his series branded as Iron Patriot. And then there’s Elektra, who’s coming off a Wolverine-crossover and has Mike Del Mundo giving her an abstract and inventive art direction. Each of these books has the potential to be an artistic masterpiece.
The thing of it is, lightning doesn’t strike twice. Some people are still baffled by Hawkeye’s success, even if they can map out why it occurred. Hawkeye is not what people expected it to be. It’s design and character-focused, quiet and offbeat. Its covers have attracted more conversation than any in Hawkeye’s considerable history. Its creative team engages with its fans and have a fan following unto themselves. Hawkeye just had an appearance in a major movie, he’s got toys and TV appearances and Marvel’s backing. Take it or leave it, like it or hate it, Hawkeye has captured attention. And maybe that’s why the book is still around, thirteen issues and going strong.
This has been a roundabout way of saying that these other solos, these other characters, have all the same elements and all the same chances of success. They have interesting, attention-grabbing covers. They have writers who care about the characters they are writing, and have interesting concepts for them. They have interiors by artists with distinctive styles and a wealth of potential. And, they’re launching as part of Marvel’s line-wide initiative, which is a treatment Hawkeye didn’t get.
If Hawkeye changed something in comics, or brought something back, or just brought people’s attention to something that was always there… it was character, and concept. Easy-to-access but not dumbed-down stories that can be read and enjoyed for themselves and not how they fit into Marvel’s grander designs. Hawkeye is easy, it’s fun, and it’s good. And nothing makes me happier than seeing people get into the wild, wide world of cape comics through this book and this character.
But you know what would be even better? If there were a dozen books like that. If the characters headlining those books weren’t all just blonde men with blue eyes. If women with all kinds of skills—secret agent, assassin, lawyer, pilot—and men from all kinds of backgrounds could have an equal shot at books that last, that are read, and that are loved. I want a million Hawkeyes out there, so anyone can find the fun, beautiful book that sticks with them and makes them love this medium as much as I do. And I want that to come through diversity, ingenuity, and care.
Marvel doesn’t always have a great track record with diversity. Just a few years ago, they cancelled all of their female-led books, and just over this year they’ve ended multiple series headlined by women. But they’ve also launched a good number, and no less than four are launching with new #1’s in 2014. I want to see those books do well. I want to see a POC-led book do well, and POC and women-led teams doing just as good as those led by Captain America and Cyclops.
So here’s the question—did you like Hawkeye? Did you expect to? Do you want to read more books like it? Axel Alonso thinks Hawkeye is an anomaly, a “pet rock.” If that’s what you want in your comics, show him. Buy new books when they come out, give Marvel feedback about what you did and didn’t like.
And maybe, this time next year, we’ll be celebrating the start of the second year of Black Widow, and shelves full of pet rocks and diversity.