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 city is a bright, beaming bauble in the night… a maze of tinker-toy towers, a plaything for simple-minded giants, and made to order for the less hung-up of the superhero set… for those who bear not the whispered name and the inescapable curse of… the Black Widow!

From Amazing Adventures #8, by Roy Thomas, Don Heck & Bill Everett.


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.


Comicbookresources is doing a pretty fascinating voter-created list of the top 70 Marvel panels in history. Clocking in at 59 is this panel of the Black Widow from Amazing Adventures #5 (Roy Thomas, Gene Colan and Bill Everett).

For the unfamiliar, Amazing Adventures features Black Widow’s first solo run in history as she transitioned from a side-character in the Avengers to her own superhero based in NYC. It was also around this time that comics started being so afraid of the fabled Comics Code and you started getting more risque cheesecake shots like this. So it makes sense that this panel would have struck out as memorable with young het male readers at the time. 

(I personally would have voted for the panel that compares Black Widow to Gloria Steinem from Daredevil, but hey, what do I know?) 

I talked about this a bit when I ran through Amazing Adventures #5, which is actually a wonderful Natasha story, melancholy and seasonal, and how it’s really amazing that this story is remembered for this panel and not how it set up Natasha’s bittersweet mythology for some years to come. It’s not how Colan drew Natasha as balletic in the action sequences. Or the fact that this run of Amazing Adventures was Marvel’s first real try at a solo lady protagonist. This is the issue where Natasha joyously exclaims, “there’s nothing so only about being female, fellas!” as she spins around and karate kicks goons in the face.

Natasha’s black-bodysuit makeover was the Carol Danvers to Captain Marvel of its day, a rebranding aimed at solidifying her as a true solo protagonist. Amazing Adventures is important to me because of that, important because there were letters columns demanding more leading ladies even then. What we remember, what we call “iconic” is this panel, notable mostly because she’s not wearing any clothes. But all that other stuff happened. There are so many other things to remember.

We talk about the misogynist past in superhero comics, how up until a vaguely defined recently the superhero women have really gotten a raw deal. And that’s true. But I suggest to you that wrapped up in that raw deal is what we decide to save, what we decide is memorable.

Teenage Boy: She’s down! And— Willie’s gonna— no! She can’t die for me! She can’t!!
Natasha: Ivan— did you see? He— he just—
Ivan: Easy, kid. Come away from there. Come away… please.

This is the origin of the “Widow’s Curse,” the idea that Natasha is doomed to kill anything she tries to save, brought to you by Bronze Age melodrama and the letter B. Paul Cornell brought this idea back and recrafted it into a nano-STD and an easy analogue for slut shaming, but the original thematics came from a chaste place, cut with the sharp and spectral knife of irony.

So here goes Natasha’s Gift of the Magi: on Christmas Eve she stops a young man from jumping off a bridge, only to habe him fall to his death saving her. And just to twist the knife, she didn’t need to be saved— her suit clings to walls, her gauntlets and stacked with grappling hooks, she’s done daring roof-dive after daring roof-dive in the regular pursuit of a superheroic career. She’s fighting to keep her attacker from falling off the ledge, not just to keep herself on it. But Junior can’t see that. (Remember, True Believers: Natasha is meant to be a mystery.)

This issue is cover dated a few years before the death of Gwen Stacy, so the theme of teen suicide is a bit radical, and the ending, where the good guys lose, is keener in its context. This is where Marvel first tried to craft stories of what Natasha might be, alone, and what she is and where she comes from is loss.

From Amazing Adventures #5, by Roy Thomas and Gene Colan.

Max: This oughta— Hey! Somebody’s waitin’ for us, Willie— out on the terrace!
Natasha: Nobody down here but us defenseless women and children, boys.
Willie: Don’t sweat it Max… it’s only a female.
Natasha: There’s nothing so only about being female, fellas. You ought to try it some time.

I’m planning at some vague future blogging point to talk about Natasha’s past as a ballerina— that was introduced along with a background as an Olympic gymnast, back when she was trying to be a fashion designer or a college professor or, well, the Bronze Age was a hell of a place to seek employment. The ballerina bit was revived a decade later, though, and then stuck in ways none of her other 1970s ??? career paths have since.

My guess, though, is that the ballerina thing really goes back to panels like these ones, to the way Gene Colan drew her moving. Colan drew some of these Amazing Adventures issues and a fair chunk of the Daredevil and the Black Widow issues— he’s, without question for me, the Natasha artist supreme. (He’s also who Butch Guice was referencing in his Captain America run.) Colan’s style is distinct in his fluid figures and fluent use of shadow. You can see the kinetnicsm he gives Natasha, the grace of her arms, the way she twirls, the sweep of her hair. It’s an almost joyful way of moving, so at odds with her grim business. You can look at these panels and that movement and see why she had to be a ballerina, and why that story would stick.

From Amazing Adventures #5, by Roy Thomas and Gene Colan.

Teenage Boy: I— I acted like I’d go along with ‘em— but I just— couldn’t. Still, I couldn’t rat on ’em— guys who’d been my raps— so I— who’s that?
Natasha: I’m… not sure. Downstairs lobby? Yes, this is Madame Natasha… the Black Widow, yes. What can I do for you?
Goon: It ain’t what you can do for us, lady. It’s what my buddies and me’re gonna do to you. You, an’ that stool-pigeon hippie we know is spillin’ out his guts to you. See ya soon, bye.

So, Natasha’s new friend is a scared kid from Utah who hitched a ride into the big city and fell in with a bad crowd, just like on Law and Order. Enter the ridiculous hippie-themed villain the Astrologer, who has a gang of near brainwashed beatniks he uses to perform heists and stuff. He’s going to steal all the o-negative blood (?) but as you can see, our blond friend couldn’t go through with it and cut out.

Natasha is never more than five feet away from a telephone in this issue, the true sign of wealth run amok. How did the goons know where Natasha’s apartment was, that she had the kid, and that the kid was just finishing up his life story interlude? Pay no attention to the plothole behind the curtain.

From Amazing Adventures #5, by Roy Thomas and Gene Colan.

Natasha: Good evening… and Merry Christmas.
Teenage Boy: Yeah, sure. It’s a blast. Okay, I’ll admit it. You got me curious, y’know? I can’t figure out why an uptown queen like you cares if I swan-dive off a bridge or not. An’ this whole set-up! You both got Russian names, but he sounds like Breshnev tryin’ to do a a Bogey— and you got almost no accent.
Natasha: In my case, the result of long, expensive hours at Berlitz— while Ivan learned all his English watching old movies on TV. Now, want to tell me about the bridge?
Teenage Boy: Yeah, okay, why not? A guy that can’t even pull off a suicide— what’s he got left to do but talk? Y’know, where I made my mistake— I shouda looked up that bridge first day I got here.

It’s striking to me how friendly Natasha is in these panels, how super smiley she is in her body language. She’s still painted as a ~mystery~ and (spoilers!) this isn’t a happy story, but that doesn’t mean she won’t pretend to be carefree, or that she has no space for kindness toward strangers.

Note also that even in 1970 Natasha didn’t talk with a cartoon Russian accent (although lol “I learned at the Berlitz!” is a smooth criminal of a cover story)— and this makes sense, because she’s a master secret agent, told over and over that she needs to blend in. If I see one more person whining about her lack of accent in the films…

From Amazing Adventures #5 by Roy Thomas and Gene Colan.