MMMOBW 6: To Avenge the Avengers

I want to talk about Thunderbolts #9.

In 1996, Marvel moved all the Cool Kids to a special table inside Franklin Richards head. The Fantastic Four, the X-men, Avengers Classic— they were all sent to this pocket dimension of blockbuster Loeb/Liefeld creative teams. The rest of the Marvel Universe thought they’d all died, perished in some climatic battle, the sort that must happen every other week when the sliding timescale kicks into play. It was called Heroes Reborn, and it was kind of like the DC reboot except they cancelled it after a year. For a while, there were two Marvel universes: the one with the FF, the X-men, and the Avengers Classic™, and the one with everyone else.

The most successful book coming out of this whole event-stimulated reshuffling was Thunderbolts (which, it seems, has yet to escape event-stimulated reshuffling.) Since the big time hero teams were missing presumed dead, it only made sense that Marvel would come up with an XTREEM new team to take their place. That was the Thunderbolts, and they showed up in Hulk before getting their very own ongoing. They were a brand new team of brand new heroes, and were promoted that way.

Spoilers: they were actually the Masters of Evil.

The last page twist was that the Thunderbolts weren’t heroes at all— they were villains pretending to be heroes. And they were good at it, it wasn’t long before they were teaming up with Spider-man and moving into the Baxter Building. (The Fantastic Four were dead, and I guess Zemo called dibs.) That was the second twist, the twist that kept Thunderbolts going long after the villains in disguise gimmick lost its novelty. Being good felt good. The public adored them. The superhero community accepted them. No one suspected.

Except Natasha.

Abe: Black Widow! Er, hi!
Melissa: Is there something we can—
Natasha: No. But I saw you take down that creature— and I thought perhaps I might help you. You see, I’ve recently reached the conclusion that I may not be all that good a superhero— but I’m still a very, very good spy. After meeting you, I wondered how such experienced super-types came out of nowhere, so I did some investigating— and came up with some very good possibilities.

About not being “all that good a superhero"— I’ll come back to that. Natasha makes it clear that she knows exactly who the Thunderbolts really are. More importantly, she knows exactly who Songbird and Mach-I are.

Natasha: Take you, Mach-I. If I’m guessing right, you got into the game because you wanted respect. You wanted to be somebody. So a scene like that one, just now— it must feel pretty good. And you, Songbird, your trail doesn’t go that far back, and it’s harder to follow, but it seems like you got a lot of bad breaks. This one— it’s a good one, isn’t it? The question is— what are you going to do with it? You’d like to become what you pretend to be, that much is pretty clear— but can you?
Abe: Look, Widow, we—
Natasha: Do yourself a favor, Mach-I— shut up and listen. The subject at hand is, can you change? Well, I have. And so have others. Let me tell you a story…

I’m gonna repeat: the Masters of Evil were running around dressed in slightly friendlier costumes and everyone believed they were completely new made-up heroes. Except Natasha, who not only suspected, but had figured out exactly who they were, their individual motivations, and had correctly guessed that Abe and Mel were the ones who wanted to be heroes for real.

So what was her story? It turns out circa Avengers #16, all the founding members left and the NEW SQUAD was Captain America + three until-then BAD GUYS Hawkeye, Quicksilver, and the Scarlet Witch. The gist of it goes: the public hated the line-up switch with all the furor of an internet fanbase, until Radioactive Man attacked and the former villain trio saved the day. After that, the public still hated the line-up switch.

Abe: So what are you saying? Hawkeye and the others, they turned over a new leaf— they became Avengers, for cripes sakes— and they still got treated like dirt?
Natasha: And do you think they should have been welcomed with open arms— after what they’d been before? You’re not getting the point, Mach-I, the point is, they overcame the fear and suspicion. They proved themselves.

The Marvel Universe is basically populated only with Internet Comic Fans, people who will never be content with the spandex set no matter what they do. Yeah, maybe there’s temporary floods of good feelings, but in general the MU citizen is happy to crawl into its stoney cave of hate and think mean thoughts about men who wear tights.

You can’t be a hero because it feels good, because you enjoy the fame, because it’s nice to be looked up to. You have to help people even when they hate you, even when they don’t deserve it. You have to do the right thing because it’s the right thing, that’s all, no fringe benefits. And you have to take responsibility to make amends.

Natasha was suspected, not just by the public at large, but by her own would-be teammates, who spent issues debating her membership while they let Hawkeye/Wanda/Pietro in within panels. In her first outings as a solo hero, the press decided she was teaching Our American Youth how to be communists. There’s a not insignificant portion of comic book readers convinced that Black Widow is an opportunist double agent always playing all the sides— despite being on one side for 40+ years of continuity. But she doesn’t complain. (I do.)

Natasha: Now, some advice. I don’t have anything to go to the authorities with, not now. But I will, and soon. So you’ve got some thinking to do, and a decision to make. Your boss, if I’m right, is the lowest of the low. The worst it gets. My advice is, take him down. Take him down, and use the chance you’ve got to redeem yourselves. Because trust me, he will go down, and if you’re still there when he does— you’ll be going with him.

She’s not very nice about it. She doesn’t inspire— she just tells the truth. It is raining and cold and Mel and Abe don’t want to be there, but Natasha tells the truth. "You see, I’ve recently reached the conclusion that I may not be all that good a superhero— but I’m still a very, very good spy.”

The Avengers that “died”, they were Natasha’s team. She was their leader, and she was stuffed to the gills with survivors guilt. Natasha threw herself into dangerous solo SHIELD missions, taking down Avengers foes one by one. That was how she grieved. And she convinced herself, for a time, that she was no good as an Avenger, no good as a superhero.

Well, I disagree. And this whole sequence is exactly why.

The Masters of Evil are primarily Avengers villains, a team of bad guys created to foil a team of bad guys. If Natasha really wanted to “avenge the Avengers” they’d be somewhere near the top of the list.

Avengers is actually a pretty anti-heroic name for a big time hero team. It emphasizes punishment, not justice. Vengeance is a monster that eats its own tail; it creates new enemies from the ashes of the vanquished. You attack them because they attacked you, and then they attack you because you attack them. It’s cyclical, it’s black and white, but it’s the way of the rogues gallery. We have a genre that demands a lot of punching the same four-color people over and over again, and a genre that demands they keep coming back for more.

And I’m not saying the villains don’t deserve the face-punching, because they do. What I am saying is that there’s only one way out of that ouroboros. I don’t speak Shakespeare but I can if you like: the quality of mercy is not strained. Natasha proved she was a damn good spy when she uncovered the Thunderbolts’ secret. But she was a hero when she gave Songbird and Mach-I a way out. Her solitary quest to take down Avengers villains one by one was her living up to their name. This moment, this celebration of a team that didn’t welcome her, is living up to their legacy.

I’m not sure there’s anyone else in the Marvel Universe who could have done both.

Natasha never did get to go to the authorities with the information that she’d gathered. Zemo beat her to it, and revealed the Thunderbolts ruse right as the big name Avengers returned to real earth. Songbird and Mach-1 stood against him. They did reform. They made the switch. And that’s better than avenging.

From Thunderbolts #9, by Kurt Busiek and Mark Bagley (with Roger Stern and Ron Frenz.)

MMMOBW 5: Natasha’s Last Word

Look within yourself for that peace before you look for it in someone else. Because you’ll only be setting that someone else up to disappoint you.

Hi, I’m going to be talking about Kevin Smith’s run on Daredevil. So, if you don’t want to read about slut-shaming, go, scroll past in peace.

I want to talk about Smith’s Daredevil because it’s important. It was a relaunch that relaunched, emblematic of the late-nineties sea change. Now, I’m not an expert on Kevin Smith, but I’ve seen Dogma like seven times on cable reruns and I feel pretty confident pinpointing two of his favorite themes as sex and Catholicism. Guardian Devil is about both. I sort of like to call it Faith and Fridges.

It starts when Karen Page leaves Matt.

Not a day goes by when I don’t marvel over how someone I so completely wronged could let me back into their life so blithely. But that’s just it, Matt… there will always be that feeling that you let me back into your life. It will always have been your choice. And as such, that disparity will always gnaw at me…

Here’s another thing Karen says: “I know you’ve always been able to forgive, Matt— it’s one of the aspects of your faith that I’ve long admired. But forgetting, well, that’s never been your strongest suit.” Remember that. It’s important.

There are a lot of women in Guardian Devil. Not just Karen and Natasha, long-term ladymembers of Daredevil’s extended cast. There’s Gwenyth, the teen mom whose strict Catholic parents made her feel like dirt for getting pregnant, even if she can’t remember having sex. There’s her baby, who Matt becomes convinced is the anti-Christ. There’s Lydia, Foggy’s new client, who turns into a monster when the two of them get naked. And there’s Rosalind Sharpe, Foggy’s boss-slash-mother, who turns her back on her son when he is framed for murder. There’s Sister Maggie, Matt’s own mother, who abandoned her family for the church. And then there’s this incidental street-walker in a throwaway rescue scene.

Still, I pick up the stink of violent need, the erratic pulse of someone who’s disregarding all that was instilled in them as a child… for a carnal release. Lord, every night you put on an immorality play for me. You show me the disparity of man’s magnificence to his actions. Eons of evovlement, and we’re still seeking the darkest corners of our lowest impulses.

I don’t think there’s a single panel in this arc you can compltely dismiss as unimportant. There might be too much importance, which is really just what you get when you mix Christian imagery with hallucinogenic drugs. There’s a similar street scene in the next issue that foreshadows and encapsulates the entirety of Smith’s run.

Matt: What is it with you people? Haven’t I given you enough of me? You want to invade every corner of my life…leaving me with nothing sacred. Well, I’ve had it with all of you! You’re all going to pa…
Kids: Hey, mister! You gonna kill that guy?
Matt: Oh god, what am I doing?
Kids: Hey, mister— are you okay? What kind of mugger wears a suit?

About the Christian imagery and halluciongenic drugs: I wasn’t joking. Guardian Devil revisits an experience many of my friends had their Freshman year. Mysterio pumps Matt full of comic-book vapor, and Matt thinks he’s found God. It’s a play on blindness, because the truth isn’t as it appears. The kids take the mugger for the victim and Matt mistakes a baby girl for the anti-Christ. For now we see through a glass, darkly.

Matt can’t trust his eyes and he can’t trust his super-senses; he has to take things on faith. But instead of heaven, he only sees hell. He runs around in a devil suit, remember? That the kids on the street see him as villain more than hero only highlights the ambiguous space Matt occupies in this story, and how deceptive appearances really are, how much they depend on our own preconceived notions. I mean, the only thing odd, for the bystanders, about this mugging, is that the mugger is wearing a suit.

The women I mentioned, earlier, Matt judges them all, and finds them in each case wanting. And things don’t go gently for them. Sister Maggie’s convent gets a visit from Bullseye, dead nuns everywhere. Matt tries to kill the baby a few times before he finally decides she’s not the anti-Christ. Lydia, Gwenyth, and Karen Page die. And Natasha— well, you were probably wondering when I was gonna get around to her.

When Karen leaves him and Matt gets all mopey, he decides Natasha’s going to be his rebound bootycall. “Still, I pick up the stink of violent need, the erratic pulse of someone who’s disregarding all that was instilled in them as a child… for a carnal release.”

Natasha: Your girlfriend left you, and you started feeling…nostalgic…about us? We haven’t seen one another in quite some time— you haven’t actually tried to contact me in I can’t remember how long. But the little woman sends you packing, and suddenly you remember my number after all this time?
Matt: Uh, well, that is to say… I didn’t mean…
Natasha: You’ll never change, Matthew. You’re so unable to face the fact that— heroics aside— you’re just a man… no different than the rest. My self-respect almonst demands that I pummel you for your presumptuous borishness. But unlike yourself, I can embrace the baggage of my own humanity. Couch or roof?

So I don’t much like this scene, and I think, to a degree, Kevin Smith wrote to his own Kevin Smith archetype than to Natasha’s continuity. Natasha left Matt, not the other way around, and she left him because she figured out that he wasn’t treating her as an equal, he wasn’t giving her the understanding she so craved. And she decided she couldn’t stick around for that, continuing to make herself less so that Matt could feel more comfortable. That was why they broke up, so my eye-roll is set to severe when writers use her to remind us that hey, Matt tapped that, and hey, the door is always open with Black Widow, wink wink. And the residual eye-roll keeps me side-eying this scene, which reframes that whole tired sequence with one extra, supremely important line.

“But unlike yourself, I can embrace the baggage of my own humanity.” Because this isn’t about Matt, not really, it’s about Natasha’s desires, desires she refuses to feel sorry for.

All this doesn’t matter because Matt’s not in the mood for patronizing make-outs. Circumstances have changed, and now he’s offering a whole new kind of patronizing.

Matt: Aren’t you forgetting something? I trust you know what to do with one of these? Could you keep an eye on him for a bit? I have to go to my office. I’m going to check out the city’s hospitals’ birth records from the last few months— see if I can dig up anything on the mother.
Natasha: But…
Matt: I promise, I won’t be long. Would you mind checking it’s diaper, though? I couldn’t muster up the guts to change it, yet. Thanks, ‘Tasha.
Natasha: But… good God— I was an Avenger!

Matt eventually returns for the baby, which he’s now become convinced is the anti-christ. Natasha, concerned that he thinks the baby is the anti-christ, decides she’s better off watching her. The baby’s sex is female— Natasha is the first one to check. Matt had been using male pronouns by default.

She keeps the baby. Not, on a permanent basis, but for as long as Matt’s convinced she’s the anti-christ. Things go well until Matt decides he wants the baby back.

Natasha: Matthew? Matthew, are you listening to me?
Matt: They’ve always been my downfall. It’s the curse of the Murdock men… always falling in with the wrong women, often with poor results. Always with poor results.
Natasha, how have you been? Nothing unfortunate going on in your life?
Natasha: What do you mean— no, nothing’s wrong with me, Matt. You’ve got to let me get you to…
Matt: And Natasha… what makes her any different than the rest? She’s never proven very faithful. How many times has she thrown herself at Tony Stark? “Liberal” some of the Avengers have called her. I bet they’ve called her worse behind her back.

I should mention— the reason Matt and Natasha meet up again is because Natasha rescues him from an oncoming re-enactment of his origin story. She saves his life, and this is his immediate reaction.

Matt: How much did they get you for, Natasha? What price did they offer for your soul?
Natasha: Don’t make me do this, Matt… please…
Matt: Should’ve never trusted her. She’s a spy. A one-time communist. Sent to this country years back by a godless government to infiltrate and report on our nation’s secrets. She turned on Mother Russia, didn’t she? And don’t old habits die hard? Who’s to say she’s not betraying mankind?
You certainly had me fooled. I didn’t even think to question the timeliness with which you showed up at my apartment.
Natasha: You called me! Matthew, I love you!

This scene makes me profoundly uncomfortable. It makes me more profoundly uncomfortable when I consider that editorial toned Smith down— he wanted a graphic, brutal beating.

His editor was a woman, and I wonder if that had something to do with it.

People point to this scene as evidence that Natasha can’t fight, that she is some small excuse for a superhero. It’s true— Matt demolishes her and steals the baby. She doesn’t even put up a fight.

But really,this scene is really about how Natalia Romanova is a better person than Matt Murdock.

For now we see through a glass, darkly. Remember how I mentioned, that when you can’t trust appearances, you need to see by faith? All the drugs and the illusions are feeding Matt the colors of his heart. Natasha saves his life, and he believes the worst of her, despite appearances. Matt attacks Natasha, and she believes the best of him, despite appearances. She doesn’t strike back because she chooses compassion over violence. It’s a declaration of faith.

I should mention, when Matt shows up at her door at the end of the arc, to apologize, she has him pinned in a panel.

But what’s really worth mentioning is what happens, after.

I’ll allow, Matthew, that perhaps whatever toxin Mysterio poisoned your logic with exacerbated your rage against me. But I think there was something there to begin with. I think beneath your noble, quiet exterior, lies the heart of a man who feels betrayed by women.

The heart of a man who feels betrayed by women. Not the heart of a man who was.

Look within yourself for that peace before you look for it in someone else. Because you’ll only be setting that someone else up to disappoint you.

This scene is important. Smith puts it at the end of his last issue, almost a parting statement, definitely a hammer to the nail of what he was trying to say. Which is that men can’t go looking for women to solve them, and they cannot expect to get what they aren’t willing to give. It’s important that Natasha says this and it’s important that the narrative gives her room to be right. It’s important that she tells Matt to sort himself out before looking for new love, and it’s important that she’s motivated by compassion, not jealousy or spite. She tells Matt this for his sake and for the sake of the women he winds up hurting, the women he cannot find faith in.

She calls him out on his bullshit. And it is some copious bullshit.

I think that ultimately Guardian Devil was really about Karen; how Karen Page saved Daredevil. It’s frustrating, because as it so often happens, the arc that was meant as her redemption was also the one that got her killed.

After Karen dies, Matt has a crisis of faith. He thinks of hanging up the tights and settling down to a nice, quiet something— he goes to Peter Parker for help.

Matt: Because with Beck and all of his victims of the last few weeks dead and buried, can you just tell me one thing— just one thing— that makes any sense in that mess whatsoever??
Peter: You saved that baby girl’s life, Matt.

The idea is that one ounce of mercy is worth more than ten tons of evil. And that heroism is not measured in the bright colors of avenging violence but in the lives saved from its cycle. Matt visits Natasha next, and the words she has aren’t as comforting. But they don’t need to be.

I mean, think about it. Who was it who protected the kid from Matt, way back at the beginning when he was afraid to change a diaper?

Panels from Daredevil #1-8, by Kevin Smith and Joe Quesada.

MMMOBW 4: Natasha Becomes Leader of the Champions

I’ve seen it said more than once that Storm taking over as leader of the X-men in 1980’s Uncanny X-men #139 was the first time a Marvel superheroine found herself HBIC. Not to deny one iota of Ororo’s awesomeness (that is not something we do around here) but— false. Natasha was leading the Champions in 1975, which I am pretty sure is the “first” where Marvel continuity is concerned. (Saturn Girl at the Distinguished Competition was heading the Legion in the sixties. Would that we all could inhabit the distant future!!) But the Champions themselves exist as sort of a well-loved punchline: something Spider-man can make quips about as he bemoans his place on the Avengers. “At least it’s not the Champions.”

It was a weird line-up. Black Widow, Hercules, Iceman, Angel, Ghost Rider, and later the new Russian defector Darkstar and Black Goliath, sorta. It was obviously a hodge podge catchall for those characters with some popularity who no longer had a place on a regular title. But that became its raison d’etre, in the still-socially-relevant seventies. In 1975, at Marvel, the only team a woman could lead was a team of outcasts, but she did it by design.

Natasha has always exhibited bossy tendencies, which translated into a combative temper when they moved her to straight superheroics and gave her red hair. In her original appearances, though, Natasha was a non-powered non-combatant, whose real weapon in her battle against Iron Man was her cunning. The Stan Lee era reluctance to show an unpowered woman as a physical combatant meant that most of Madame Natasha’s schemes had to be hatched through intermediaries. She was a woman with plans, but she had to rely on others to enact them.

But that threat of tactical brilliance faded with her reformation and her assertion of physical power. By 1970 Natasha was an acrobatic martial artist who fought her own battles, and so the master planner aspect fell to the wayside. The Champions brought that back.

She takes charge of the team reflexively, seeing where all the pieces on the battlefield have to go before anyone else does. I mean, they were battling Zeus’s evil scheme of arranged marriage. Her brain was probably gonna be more helpful than her fists.

Free, of course, from the tyranny of Scott Summers, the Champions embraced Natasha’s leadership in ways that surprised her. Though she was clearly the boss of things from their first encounter, it took them a few issues to sort themselves out and formally elect a leader.

Warren: Pay attention, Frosty. I’m about to be right for a record second time. We got our tails kicked just now because we all went off half-cocked without planning our attack. People… the Champions need a leader. Not me, pal. I haven’t got the experience to command a Boy Scout troop! No, I was thinking more in terms of— the Black Widow!
Natasha: What?! Are you serious, Warren?
Warren: Look at the way you took command during our battle with Pluto, Natasha. You’ve got the know-how to lead us, I’m convinced of that. What do you say, Hercules?
Hercules: By my beard, Angel! I say: aye! There be no quest Hercules would not dare for a leader such as this.
Natasha: How about you, Iceman?
Bobby: It’s fine with me, Lady. I’m probably a better spear-carrier than a general, anyway. I don’t think Ghost Rider will object, Widow. So I guess you’re in.

The notion of a flaming skull voting in absentia has a beauty all its own.

Natasha’s surprise at being chosen leader is not all that strange, when you realize that she’d just left Daredevil because he wanted a sidekick more than a partner. To go from that antagonistic partnership to a team where a bunch of semi-shirtless men were asking her to be their general was quite the transition. It’s still a bit subversive, but that was what the Champions were.

From the kooky Los Angeles location to the totally random line-up, again, brought together by the evils of Olympian arranged marriage on the UCLA campus, the Champions were totally bizarre. And they were okay with that.

You’ve palled around with enough other superhero types to know that most are involved in their own affairs— vital as those may be— to be of much help to the average man. I think we— the Champions— can change that. I’m talking about extending a needed hand when ordinary people face out-of-the-ordinary problems.

They were aiding the unaided: the people in the Marvel Universe who didn’t live in New York. The Champions stopped mad scientist types from experimenting on homeless people. They fought Rampage, a sympathetic villain whose motivations were tied up in economic recession. They let the Crimson Dynamo escape, instead of defect or die. When the entire Greek pantheon wrecked the UCLA campus and got the mythology prof fired for inviting them all there, the Champions gave him a new job. And if they had to punch some Nazi bees to do it, by god, they were going to punch Nazi bees.

Warren: This team just doesn’t make sense.
Johnny: Why should such disparate people stay together?
Natasha: Because we’re not “disparate” at all. For this town, we’re typical! Half-god, half-demon, half-human, half-westerner— out west to seek our fortune! Why settle for being superheroes! We should found a movie studio!

The series struggled to find consistant art and sensical plots, but the basic premise still appeals. The Champions were strange as only comic books can bring you, but we’re all strange and so we trust in comics to glorify that strangeness. To make strangeness heroic, add explosions, and in doing so unmask ordinary perils and ordinary insecurities.

And that was the point of the Champions, that because they’d fallen through the cracks themselves, it was up to catch those who’d fallen through the cracks. In short, it was exactly the kind of team that would be called a joke years later, and exactly the kind of team that would welcome a female leader in 1975.

I mean, when the incomparable Janet Van Dyne pushed to lead the Avengers nearly a decade later, what was their reaction?

Jan: I’d like to propose that our first order of business be to elect a new chairman! You’ve done a wonderful job… but I think it’s time someone else had a turn. As you know, we’re way overdue for an election!
Steve: Quite correct! All right, the floor is now open for nominations! Anyone? Jan?
Jan: Thank you Cap! I nominate myself!
Tony: You want to be the chairman, um, chairperson, Jan? Well, I… guess that’s okay…
Jan: So second the nomination!
Tony: Sure… I second…
Thor: You have had much turmoil in your life of late, Janet! Surely the responsibility… the burden of..
Jan: Yea or nay, please, Thor… okay?
Thor: Thou art bold, woman! Yea, then! So be it!

Sure, they let her have the job, but you can tell they were surprised she was even being considered.

Natasha didn’t stop bossing people around after the Champions disbanded in an insult of a break-up after their title was cancelled. She’s got maybe the widest leadership experience in the whole of the MU, chairing the Avengers for 50+ issues, Thunderbolts field leader, taking over the ambiguously named Marvel Knights, being Director of SHIELD for about five hours that one time. It’s an aspect of her character that’s always appealed to me. She’s given orders to Thor and the Punisher and everyone in between, and they listened. I mean, who wouldn’t, right? And part of that’s because of the generally underrated Tony Isabella’s writing on the Kookier Quintet. I mean, where else you can find a woman asserting her right to be considered equal while pulling apart giant bees?

Yeah, sometimes the world needs Champions.

MMMOBW 3: Natasha Walks Out of a Refrigerator

Natasha sits, naked in a meat locker, her breath fogging up in the cold. 'Tired of all these games?' Imus asks.  'Hardly, Imus,' Natasha responds.  'This is the first time in days I've been able to relax.  My only complaint is these restraints.  I'd like them a little tighter please.'

My only complaint is these restraints. I’d like them a little tighter, please.

In 1999, Gail Simone, with the help of a few other fans, compiled a list of female characters who had been raped, killed, tortured, depowered as a plot device within superhero comics. She called it, “women in refrigerators.” You see: violence against women is far more likely to have a sexual context than the gobs and gobs of violence against men in superhero comics. Sometimes it’s even drawn to titillate— I’m reminded of Ultimate Wasp’s cannibalized corpse, her still-perky breasts.

Women in refrigerators is a memification of the superheroic glass ceiling. With one obvious exception, the most a superheroine can hope for, thanks to factors of history, is the upper B-list. Any reader will tell you: that’s where comic book characters go to die. Characters who are well-liked but don’t sell comics on a regular basis are the perfect crossover-fodder, see also the curse of the Giffen League. That’s why, when it comes to summer blockbuster finale deaths, Steve Rogers became a saint and Janet Van Dyne (my personal top Avengers leader) became an afterthought. Basically, Women in Refrigerators is a memetic way of saying that women will be harmed in service to a male-driven narrative far more often than a female-driven narrative will throw dudes under the bus.

I repeat what you probably already know because Marjorie Liu decided to put Natasha in a refrigerator. And she didn’t go halfsies: she put Natasha naked tied-up in the hands of the enemy. Inside a refrigerator.

There's a fat bald dude interrogating Natasha in the refrigerator.  'I must admit to having a somewhat inappropriate deside to discover whether or not Imus' robot avatar is fully functional.'  Natasha smiles.  'Why, you dirty little bird.  Hear that, Imus?  Someone has a crush on you.'

Evil Bald Dude: I must admit to having a somewhat inappropriate desire to discover whether or not Imus’ robot avatar is fully functional.
Natasha: Why, you dirty little bird. Hear that, Imus? Someone has a crush on you.

While the art is remarkably restrained in its depiction of a lady tied up and naked, the characters aren’t. (I really do love the art in this run. Not only did Acuña give Natasha a sense of glamor, not only did he give the book a dark-but-not-gritty tone, but when the time came for it he drew bone crushing action that let Natasha be unpretty. He drew a woman whose face broke before her composure.) This mostly-unvieled rape threat is the worst of the bunch, but when Natasha finally trolls Evil Bald Dude into knocking her over (and thus escaping) what he says is you whore. The Imus that appears in this scene is a robot surrogate: the real Imus has surrounded himself with red-headed prostitutes. His next-to last words are: just do it, you bitch.

So, even if the art isn’t, these dudes are sexually fascinated with Natasha. In Imus’ case, his refusal to see women as anything more than vessels for his penis or his violence is indicative of the refusal to love and be loved (it’s not a coincidence he wears himself in robots) that will play a key part in his inevitable defeat. Bald Dude is just a petty misogynist who has wormed his way into government power. And though this is nothing Natasha has cultivated— she hasn’t once tried to flirt or seduce them— it’s something that she can use, and does. Leering sexism translates into homophobia, and like being called a girl, implying that someone is gay is only an insult to those begging to be insulted.

And this guy is profoundly threatened by a woman he can’t shame into silence. A woman with a reputation that he can’t wave away. “I’m the Black Widow. I could eat you for lunch.” So it’s inevitable that he breaks composure and strikes her, and it’s inevitable, too, that that only weakens them enough for Natasha to set herself free. Turning the tables that were already turned.

What? You let yourself be captured?

Readers of issue #4 could probably guess that this kidnapping went just according to keikaku (ed note: keikaku means plan). But it’s an important reaffirmation of Natasha’s agency. It’s not that the villains haven’t hurt her, but there’s nothing they can do to destroy her self-confidence, which comes from places they can’t hope to understand or touch. Bald Dude doesn’t have the imagination to look outside of his own sexist narrative: there’s no way he could’ve seen this coming. Perhaps then, it’s significant, that when Natasha leaves him in his own refrigerator-prison, tied up, wearing his clothes, a perfect inversion of where we first laid our scene, his final cries is a simple “You can’t do this.”

“Don’t be silly,” Natasha responds. “It’s the least I can do.”

Natasha walks out of the refrigerator, and meets Wolverine and Captain America, who are waiting for her outside.  'I thought I told you boys to wait in the parking lot,' Natasha says.

At the end of the sequence Natasha strolls on out of the refrigerator, where Wolverine and her boyfriend, Captain America, (i.e. guys who sell more comics than she does) are waiting. “I thought I told you boys to wait in the parking lot,” she says, demonstrating the awesomeness of the men in her life who let her save herself before trying to save her. It’s also the final Liu’s final, important, inversion— so often women are thrown into refrigerators to motivate and deepen the men they’re associated with.

When I started writing these “Memorable Moments of Black Widow” things up, it was partially in response to a list of Memorable Moments of Marvel Women, nominated and voted on by fans, that totally excluded Natasha. (Partially it was just because I love talking about how awesome Natasha is.) I think the only Black Widow moment mentioned in the preliminary polling was one having mostly to do with Rikki Barnes. The blogger’s comments: “I was interested to see the variety on the list and some of the minor characters that got a mention. Equally as surprising were characters that got almost no mention!”

This was the moment I was most surprised to not see mentioned. There’s probably more historically important moments for Natasha, that I’m gonna write about in the future: her 1970s self-fashioning, becoming the first Marvel superheroine to go solo, becoming the first Marvel superheroine to lead a team, her continued mentorship of other female heroes throughout the last decade, figuring out the Thunderbolts secret before anyone else did, leading the Thunderbolts while in disguise. There’s a wealth of awesome moments because I think this character is awesome, and if I had been around to nominate things maybe they’d have shown up. See, I know Bronze Age Daredevil is a weird canon to be fluent in and I don’t expect anyone else to share my unabashed love of continuity. I don’t post much from the recent Black Widow runs because I figure most people who follow me have already read them. They’ve been tumbled before, and I’m in the position to post stuff that hasn’t, so that’s what I try to do.

But maybe I’m wrong. I mean, this scene as fine a metapanel middle-finger to the way women are treated in superhero comics as you’re ever going to see. On top of that, it is just a kick-ass scene of a hero kicking ass, which is the real go-to for spandex comics. And it was written last year. But in a book that failed to crack the top 100, a comic people didn’t buy, in spite of (or maybe because of) a big movie appearance. I refuse to believe there isn’t a market out there for this kind of awesome, and I’ll never give up, never surrender, so don’t even start trying to convince me otherwise. Obviously, though, there’s a problem connecting the books with the audiences. I mentioned, initially, the superhero glass-ceiling, that incidentally, doesn’t just apply to women, but to LGBTQ characters, to characters of color. The question is, remains, always be: how do you make an A-lister? And the answer there is some heady mix of history, relevance, and luck, something unpredictable and impossible to channel because if they could Marvel and DC would have channeled it over and over.

Incidentally, Natasha isn’t on the original list of refrigerated women. Not because there’s no part of her vast continuity that qualifies, but because we don’t really talk about it, it’s stuff that’s mostly been forgotten. Those moments aren’t the things I feel like enshrining, though. I’m gonna see this, whenever I think about Black Widow and refrigerators. Cancelled, unread, whatever, I bought three copies, and I am going to remember.

From Black Widow #5, by Marjorie Liu and Daniel Acuña.

MMMOBW 2: The Widow Smiles

Woman 1: Christine, look— it’s the Black Widow!
Woman 2: 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!
Narration: And for the first time in many days— the Widow smiles.

Superhero comics had an uneasy relationship with second-wave feminism. During the controversial Diana Prince era Wonder Woman ran a special “Women’s Lib” issue where Wondie infamously declared, “In most cases, I don’t even like women…?” Avengers #83 introduced the Lady Liberators, an all-female team fighting for equal treatment, who were really just brainwashed by the Enchantress who was angry her boyfriend left her.

But at the same time, the very first issue of Ms. magazine showed Diana looming giant and inescapable over the American landscape. Wonder Woman for President.

These panels are from Daredevil #91, 1972. The next issue the comic would be retitled Daredevil and the Black Widow.

For days, Natasha had been suffering extreme panic attacks, random episodes of intense weakness. She wondered if she was going insane, if she was finally cracking under the pressure. Natasha decided: hell to the no. This had to be some supervillan hijinx, because the Black Widow knew herself, and the deer-in-headlights-sobbing just wasn’t her style.

It turned out Mr. Fear was drugging her.

But that’s the context of this scene— “now there’s a woman with her own mind.” Natasha knew it was true, and knew that other people could see it. More importantly, she knew that other women could see it. There are so many scenes that speak to what men see in Natasha, and spoilers, it’s usually a superhot redhead in a supertight jumpsuit. This scene is about what women see in her, and that’s an inspiration, a role model, and a reminder that we can make up our own minds. And Natasha embraces that. After days of fearful questioning, this is how she finds her validation. She is unapologetically feminist; not because she hates men, but because she loves women.

I frequent several of the larger comic book forums. I talk a lot about diversity, how I want to see more heroes that look like me and more heroes that don’t. I say that not every superhero nerd was crafted in the image of the Simpson’s Comic Book Guy. I get asked: why does it matter? why do you care if it’s all straight white adolescent male fantasy? That, after all, is what superheroes are for. I’m reminded of a Kurt Busiek quote:

The complaint which never fails to charm me is that superheroes are limited. They’re inherently juvenile, I’m told. They’re simplistic. They’re just an adolescent male power fantasy, a crypto-facist presentation of status quo values … what charms me about that objection to superheroes is the way it points out in the guise of criticism, what to me is the greatest strength of the superhero genre – the ease with which superheroes can be used as metaphor, as symbol, whether for the psychological transformation of adolescence, the self-image of a nation, or something else. A genre that can do something like that – is that really a limitation?

I love this moment because it shows why Gloria Steinem would stick Wonder Woman on the cover of her magazine. Superheroes can be a “crypto-fascist presentation of status quo values” but they can also be about women deciding for themselves when society tells them they can’t. They can be a song for outsiders, how we are all beautiful in our freakishness. They’ve been that. They are that. And I refuse to constrain the genre to a single metaphor. I love it when the Widow smiles.

From Daredevil #91, by Gerry Conway and Gene Colan.

MMMOBW 1: Natasha dissolves the UN Charter

So recently I read a nice collection of Memorable Moments of Marvel Women. The write-ups are definitely worth a read, but from my totally-biased lifeguard throne I’m gonna have to call a “where’s Natasha?” partyfoul. I’ll assume this was an omission of ignorance rather than a refusal to admit her copious awesome, because the one disease I can cure and the other I will never understand.

In that spirit I have decided to start a new feautre, Memorable Moments of Black Widow in which I highlight historic moments of Natasha’s superhero career and then blather on about them with my usual teal deer panache. First up is a trip to X-men of the early 90s.

Description: A series of brightly colored blocky panels.  Black Widow is addressing the UN Security council, and hundreds of people are looking on, including most of the West Coast Avengers.

Natasha: Distinguised ladies and gentlemen of the general assembly. As chairperson of the Avengers, I have been asked to order immediate and complete withdrawl of our active roster from the nation of Genosha. I have also been instructed to formally apologize for ignoring the United Nations sanctions placed upon our membership— which would have barred us from an active role in the cessation of hostilities between human and mutate forces of that country. In effect we have been ordered to turn our backs on the citizens of Genosha… to turn a deaf ear to the cries of its children… and blind eye to the continuing slaughter of the entire race. I am hear to tell you the Avengers will not— we cannot— take part in the politics— one could even say the cowardice— that appears to have gripped the hand of this august assemblage.

Natasha was actually Avengers chairperson for more than fifty issues during the first half of the nineties. It’s an accomplishment that often goes unsung becuase it was the first half of the nineties. Plotlines ranged from Teen Tony to incomprehensible X-overs to the interminable Sersi/Black Knight/Crystal lovetriangle, and through it all they wore leather jackets. But Natasha was shown to be a competent leader. She took up chairing the team when Steve took a leave of absence. She kept the job even after he came back.

This sequence takes place during a major Avengers/X-man crossover, Bloodties, which as you can tell had something to do with Genosha, where a Magneto-inspired civil war was rumbling which the UN refused to deal with on the basis of muties suck. As chairperson Natasha was in charge of political fallout and inspirational speechgiving, do or die, and this is what she delivers.

Natasha's speech continues, and people of many nations continue to look on.

Natasha: I will, however, tender an apology… to all the citizens of the world. On behalf of everyone to call themselves an Avenger, I apologize for perhaps losing sight of who we are— and why we do what we do— what we stand for, what it means to assume the mantle of “earth’s mightiest heroes.” Over the years we allied ourselves first with the United States government— and later with the United Nations— because we felt it would facilitate our efforts. But being heroes, being Avengers, is not supposed to be easy. In our haste to do good, perhaps we forgot that. Being an Avenger means having the courage to make the though choices… and the strength of conviction to act upon those choices. From this day forward, people, the Avengers are out of politics. And back in the business of avenging. Thank you.

Natasha had throughout the eighties and nineties identified herself more closely with SHIELD, and she acted as an occasional proponent of government-sponsored superhero work. The apology, the entire speech, is personal— she is admitting her mistakes. It’s probably the harderst and most courageous thing a leader can do.

This was a unilateral decision by Natasha. She was cut off from the bulk of her team. The Avengers were divided on the issue of the UN charter— it wasn’t something they wanted to throw away casually. But all of those who saw Natasha speak was sure that she did the right thing.

From Uncanny X-men #307, by Scott Lobdell and John Romita Jr.