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.

Hercules: Still the mortals stop to stare at me! Is my appearance somehow amiss?
Wanda: On the contrary, Hercules! As the slogan says, you must be doing something right!
Clint: Well, pretty lady, it looks like you get stuck with nothing but a plain-clothes archer!
Natasha: I shall try to survive, my darling… as long as you keep paying me compliments!

From Avengers #46, by Roy Thomas 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: This may be my one chance to fulfill the mission for which I have risked all— to sabotage the dreaded Psychotron! But, only a slight charge yet remains in my restored Widow’s Bites! Colonel Ling said the nerve center of the machine is above. I must hope one blast can destroy it! Luckily they let me retain my suction boots!
Ling: So— the Black Widow somehow deceived the lie-detector! Thus, I find her guilty of treason and and sentence her to…death—!
Alexei: Stop! You must not kill the woman I lo— ohhhhhh!
Natasha: Must chance a shot… now!!

So, if you’ve been paying attention for a while you know that I wasn’t the biggest fan of the late Secret Avengers mindwipe twist. I don’t think it makes a ton of sense for Natasha to agree to routine memory tampering, and Spencer’s explanation— that she’s done it before, in Secret War, doesn’t hold up for me. Secret War took place before readers and Natasha herself learned the full extent of all these brainwash retcons, so it’s likely her views have changed. Plus, there’s nothing in Secret War to suggest she was in on all the memory blanks— if I were Nick Fury, I wouldn’t have told her.

But there is one time Natasha did brainwash herself voluntarily that I think works: to destroy the Psychotron in Avengers #44. Natasha has only recently defected, is desperate to be loyal to something— her life has been in her missions. In her rudderless zeal, then, she volunteers for the most dangerous mission they have, goes undercover and brainwashes herself to fool their lie-detectors.

Her mission is the Psychotron, a four-color Cold War allegory machine that turns patriots into paranoid drones, fleeing helpless from imaginary enemies. It is not a coincidence, I think, that Natasha takes a part of her own mind so that others do not lose theirs. The stakes and her determination are evident in these panels, where she desperately fires her one shot at the awful machine, sparing the world the kind of evil she herself fell into. Alexei and Clint both tumble over themselves to save her, but Natasha’s eyes stay on the Psychotron.

It’s worth noting, too, that this mission cost Natasha a lot— her chance to join the Avengers, Alexei, and eventually her relationship with Clint. In the fallout, she gave up action altogether, and after a brief stint with SHIELD, Natasha quit to go solo. She couldn’t just exchange one set of shadows for another; she had to make her own missions, too.

And it’s nice to look back at these very old comics, and pretend that the characters in them have maybe learned something. Have maybe moved forward.

From Avengers #44, by Roy Thomas and John Buscema.

Since there’s been a lot of talk lately about how women are drawn in superhero comics, anatomy, costume design, and the ongoing case of the disappearing spines, I thought I’d show you how Natasha used to be drawn, in panels dated 1970-73.

Note with wonder and amazement the fully functional all-the-way-up-thank-you zipper, the lack of gratuitous, lovingly detailed asscrack, and the sheer possibility of this anatomy. These panels aren’t perfect, or free from exaggeration or awkwardness (what illustrated story of adult human beings dressed in really tight pyjamas and swinging from rooftops is?) but they are typical.

One of the most bizzarre claims I hear about superhero comics is that objectification is an inherent part of the genre, like powers or capes or everyone in Gotham being too stupid to figure out that Bruce Wayne is Batman. While sexism has always been a part of the superhero stuff, it’s hardly been a constant. The Liefeldian nipple-guard aesthetic couldn’t have survived under the strictest days of the Comics Code, when Marvel editorial had Jim Steranko actually erase the cleavage lines from his pencils. I’m not dreaming of a return to a rigid house style, or a return to Bronze Age dialogue, but man, I’d love it if artists today all suddenly, collectively realized that the zipper on Natasha’s costume goes up all the way.

There’s nothing about the way she’s “always” been drawn that says that they couldn’t.

Panels by John Buscema, Don Heck, and Gene Colan.

Clint: What’re you talkin’ about, ‘Tasha? You come in outta nowhere after all these weeks… and read me a dear John letter just like that? There’s gotta be some reason… something!
Natasha: Nothing that I can say! Nothing that won’t hurt even more than a simple goodbye!
Clint: Okay, lady. I’ll let you go, and I won’t try to stop you… and all you gotta say is that you never loved me!
Natasha: If that’s what it takes, then I’ll say it! I never loved you! Never!

And so their relationship ended as it began— melodramatically.

From Avengers #76, by Roy Thomas and John Buscema.

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.

And now, lest you suspect that we’ve forgotten the vengeful Valkyrie and her newly-formed Liberators, lift your startled gaze skyward, and behold—
Wanda: The town of Rutland should be directly below us, Valkyrie!
Valkyrie/Enchantress: Excellent! Now does each of you know what she must do?
Medusa: Yes! But— I see some sort of battle going on in the streets— and the Avengers are involved!
Valkyrie/Enchantress: What? Then— someone else— no! We must not be robbed of our chance!
Jan: I’ll zoom ahead— see if I can slow things down a bit!
Valkyrie/Enchantress: Hurry, wench— hurry!

I’m not very fond of this issue or the Lady Liberators, but I can’t deny the awesomeness of their mode of transportation. Every superteam should ride a flying chariot!

From Avengers #83, by Roy Thomas and John Buscema.