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.
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.)