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 AVENGERS OMNIBUS VOL. 2
Written by ROY THOMAS with STAN LEE & GARY FRIEDRICH
Penciled by JOHN BUSCEMA & DON HECK with WERNER ROTH & GEORGE TUSKA
Covers by ALEX ROSS & JOHN BUSCEMA

One of the Avengers’ greatest eras has been assembled for this amazing Omnibus collection! Beginning master Avengers storyteller Roy Thomas’ run, it’s cover-to-cover watershed moments: the first appearances of Ultron and the Vision! The Black Widow’s surprise connection with the Red Guardian! Hercules’ epic battles with Sub-Mariner and Dragon Man! The Avengers vs. the Super-Adaptoid! Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch defect! The Black Panther joins the team! The Avengers fight the X-Men! An all-new Masters of Evil! The first-ever full telling of Bucky Barnes’ tragic death! A reality-bending battle between the new Avengers and the original Avengers! And more! Featuring breathtaking artwork by John Buscema and Don Heck, this Omnibus is a must-have for every Avengers fan! Collecting AVENGERS (1963) #31-58 and ANNUAL #1-2, X-MEN (1963) #45, and material from NOT BRAND ECHH (1967) #5 and #8.

This volume of Avengers contains almost the entirety of Natasha’s most significant Silver Age arc, and the conclusion of the original story of her defection from the KGB to the Avengers. The omnibus reprintings are expensive but generally high quality— something to keep an eye out for if you’re interested.

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.

Natasha: His kiss is so warm… so thrilling! Yet, I can’t help but compare it with that of Hawkeye! …or with that of my late hustband, the only man I loved enough to marry… the Red Guardian!
Natasha: I… I’m sorry, Roman! I’ve suddenly developed a terrible headache! Will you please— excuse me? I must be alone—!
Roman: Well, I… certainly! I’m a gentleman, even if I don’t understand you!

Since I just got into an internet argument about this the other day— there are fans and writers alike who, well, according to me at least, play up the sexy like it’s her defining characteristic. The thought process seems to be lady + wears a catsuit = turboflirt turboflirt faster pussycat, kill kill kill.

And there are characters who are cheerfully forward and sexual, and who I love for that. (There should probably be more, tbh.) But Natasha isn’t one of them. If she occasionally affects a vampy persona, it’s in the same manner as Bruce Wayne, billionaire playboy— it’s a façade that helps her accomplish her secret mission. It’s also not the only façade on tap. She’ll dress up as a non-descript dude if that will help her do the job better.

But her true inner life is generally introverted and melancholy. She’s been trained to be a dispassionate cold warrior, and her capacity for love has been callously manipulated all her life. It’s not that she is an unfeeling automaton, but that’s what her life has tried to make of her. Natasha’s greatest strength is her continuing ability to make honest human connections in spite of that— but it wouldn’t be a strength if it weren’t a struggle.

One of the things I really liked about the 1970 Amazing Adventures series was that it did show her on a series of high-society dates and almost affairs, and it didn’t shame her for it— instead they were celebrated as a perk of her glamourous lifestyle. But she didn’t find fulfillment in any of them; she always wound up turning these rich hunks down to brood solitary about the past. And to punch things. There was punching.

From Amazing Adventures #2, by Gary Friedrich and John Buscema.