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.