Tony: Here… let me help you… wha…? I can’t move!!
Natasha: This paralyzing gas will render you helpless just long enough, my handsome fool!
The next moment, as the sricken Stark slumps to his knees…
Natasha: If it can lift a safe… it can move a wall… ah! It is working!!
Guard: Hold it, lady! That’s a restricted area! Stop, or I’ll… holy smoke!
Natasha: Stay up there a while, little man and do not annoy me!

From Tales of Suspense #53, by Stan Lee, N. Kurok and Don Heck.

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.

IRON MAN EPIC COLLECTION: THE GOLDEN AVENGER TPB
Written by STAN LEE with ROBERT BERNSTEIN, DON RICO, LARRY LIEBER & AL HARTLEY
Penciled by DON HECK with JACK KIRBY & STEVE DITKO
Cover by JACK KIRBY
Marvel had hit after hit in 1963, bringing new characters and fresh concepts to a public primed and ready for heroes with feet of clay. And none touched both that heroic ideal and human reality like Iron Man! A jet-setter, playboy and brilliant scientist, Tony Stark had his life changed forever when a battlefield explosion ripped into his heart — and only the amazing Iron Man armor could keep him alive! Stan Lee and Don Heck built the foundation that would turn Iron Man into a cultural icon. Now, you can experience his earliest adventures in this Epic volume collecting their complete original run. Featuring the evolution of the Iron Man armor, and the first appearances of Hawkeye and the Black Widow, they’re true classics from cover to cover! Collecting material from TALES OF SUSPENSE (1959) #39-72.

Here’s a new paperback reprinting early Tales of Suspense stories. The “Epic Collections” seem to be a replacement for the discontinued “Essential Marvel” line. This volume contains all of Natasha’s early supervillain adventures, so it’s a nice buy for a completist. The Sting of the Widow hardcover skips from Natasha’s first appearance here to Amazing Spider-Man #86, missing a lot of stories and character development. My personal favorite Soviet spy Natasha story, Tales of Suspense #53, is rarely collected except in big volumes like this one.

Natasha: No matter what you do to me! I’m through serving your evil schemes!
Khrushchev: I thought you might react that way! And so, I took the liberty of bringing your parents here! If you have no fear for yourself, surely you don’t want the state to treat them as parents of a— traitor!
Natasha: Mother! Father! Oh, no!
Father: Do not fear for us, my daughter! Do what you feel is right!
Natasha: But I could not let any harm befall my parents! And so…

Natasha: And the warmth of my parents— my… parents… makes up for… no… no, that’s not right…

The classic Black Widow children’s story is Daredevil #88: in the hollows of Stalingrad, 1943, a soldier looking for his dead sister finds an orphan girl in the ruins. But before that issue, when she was bad Natasha had these nameless parents, that her masters threatened to keep her stick straight. This 1965 scene was the first hint at Natasha’s inevitable defection. Strangely, she never thought of her parents again, even after she left the Soviets for keeps. Even though at one point they’d been all that was keeping her for leaving. Then her backstory became something else, and it was easy to drift over this panel. Maybe Natasha had been lying about her change of heart, and about her parents. She’d lied to Hawkeye before.

Several retcons later, Paul Cornell and John Paul Leon wrapped it back into Natasha’s tangled history. Her parents weren’t real, but she thought they were, for a while. Notice how bit from Black Widow: Deadly Origins #2 clearly references Tales of Suspense #64.

From Tales of Suspense #64 by Stan Lee and Don Heck & Black Widow: Deadly Origin #2 by Paul Cornell and John Paul Leon.

Natasha: There is no danger… not to any but the Avengers!! The Swordsman and Power Man are my allies… as you shall be, also!
Clint: You mean… you’ve joined forces with them… against the Avengers?
Natasha: No… they have joined the Black Widow!!

So Newsarama put up a slideshow of an all-female Avengers line-up. It’s worth checking out if you’re into that sort of thing, but all I could think was, hey, Natasha was never brainwashed by the Swordsman.

From Avengers #29, by Stan Lee and Don Heck.

Tony: It might interest you to eavesdrop with me! Here’s a tiny pair of ear-plugs. Tune in and learn your reward for trying to destroy me! It will show you how trustworthy your leader is!
“Leader”: Remember, comrades! Seize Vanko the instant he returns, and machine-gun him! I cannot take any chances of the Crimson Dynamo being more popular than I! So Vanko must be liquidated!
Vanko: The unscrupulous scoundrel! So! Death was to be my reward for serving him!
Tony: Poor Vanko! He doesn’t know he really heard my voice, not his leader’s! When I left Vanko momentarily… I quickly recorded the speech he just heard on my tape machine! I was certain that he’d believe it— because he knows how treacherous all communists are!
Vanko: Thank you Iron Man! You have saved my life! I realize now that my scientific genious has been at the service of a savage, double-dealing system.
Tony: My ruse worked!

It’s tradition for these communist engineer villains to create machines that are bigger, stronger, and bulkier but lack the finesse of their American counterparts, and introduction to Crimson Dynamo rides that off into the sunset. Vanko’s mastery of electricity lets him build a suit of armor that might be a match for Iron Man’s, but the mysterious power of ~transistors~ make the Dynamo’s best weaponry useless. Stark gets Vanko to surrender by cooking up a bit of Mutually Assured Destruction: it becomes plain that Tony is willing to die for his cause, but Vanko is not.

Then Tony gets Vanko to defect by putting on a really good Khrushchev impersonation. Again, apparently the Premier’s secret (but not so secret they aren’t broadcast into Tony Stark’s headset) orders are given in English. The thing that’s really fascinating here is that Tony’s absolutely right— Khrushchev is definitely planning to kill Vanko because he needs to be the most popular boy at the dance. The story has shown us that, indeed, all commies are chronically suspicious of one another, and that there’s no room for scientific innovation under a “savage, double-dealing system.” Tony wasn’t just lying to Vanko, he was also telling the truth.

But he was also lying. And, in fact, when Vanko started sabotaging Stark labs, US government spooktypes thought that since his property seemed to be under perpetual communist attack, Tony Stark might be a communist. Stark had to record Vanko’s confession to clear himself. Governments are a threat to individual genius everywhere! But not as much in America as beyond the Red Curtain. Stark gives Vanko a job at his company, and they feast on communist gold. Meanwhile, in Russia, Khruschev starts throwing vases at his secretary.

When Natasha makes her first appearance, her assignment will be to capture the traitor Vanko.

From Tales of Suspense #46, by Stan Lee, R. Burns, and Don Heck.

Can you recognize the pudgy, scowling figure entering a strange laboratory just outside Moscow?
Leader: Guards! Follow me!
If you don’t, then you know nothing about the Cold War! For this stocky fellow is the “Mr. Big” of the Iron Curtain!
Guard: Here we are, excellency! The laboratory of the Crimson Dynamo!
Leader: How I hate this Professor Vanko… and fear him! But Vanko is the world’s greatest expert on electricity! So I must regretfully use him, and not liquidate him.
Vanko: Ah! Comrade Leader! I am honored by your presence!
Leader: Stop lying, Vanko! I am aware of your arrogance! You think you’re the cleverest man in the nation— even more ingenious and important than I!
Vanko: I, more important than our glorious leader? Surely you jest!

So, I’m starting a new blogging serial, All Commies are Chronically Suspicious. I’m hoping to examine the shifting stereotypes of Russia through the lens of Black Widow’s appearances. It’s not so much about Russia as it was, but Russia how American comic book imagined it.

To begin I’m actually trekking back to Tales of Suspense #46, a land where at least 50% of Russians are large men with larger mustaches, with the introduction of the Crimson Dynamo. Nikita Khrushchev is in this comic! He is pudgey, paranoid, and generally incompetent. Vanko puts together a standard “look what awesome things my robot armor can do” montage, and Khruschev is terrified and basically starts plotting to kill Vanko right there.

He also sends Vanko to destroy Iron Man.

Note that in strange laboratories just outside of Moscow, signs are apparently hung in English.

From Tales of Suspense #46, by Stan Lee, R. Burns, and Don Heck.

Natasha: Very well, then! I’ll defeat you alone! This anti-grav ray makes me completely unbeatable!
Tony: She’s aiming the weapon at me again, with the control set at reverse!! I’m pinned down… can’t move!
Natasha: Farewell, Iron Man! This time my victory will be complete.
Racing outside, the Black Widow finds her cowardly co-spies, and then…
Henchman: You are raising the building! Why?
Natasha: Why? You blind fools! When I shut off the ray, the structure will fall, trapping Iron Man forever.

It’s typical to talk of Natasha’s early days in plainclothes honey-trap terms, but sex was so de-emphasized in those days of the Comics Code that it’s hard to see much seduction in her decoy dinner date with Tony Stark. When Natasha returned for her second appearance, the issue after her debut, she abandoned the womanly wiles routine entirely. Her leading trait in this issue is intelligence, not beauty— she outsmarts Tony Stark multiple times, by his own admission. In the end, she’s mainly undone by the incompetence of the bureaucracy that surrounds her, not because of Iron Man. Natasha gets away in the end, and Tony only gets a Pyrrhic victory.

It’s such an interesting portrayal, to me, especially given the gender politics of the times. The Black Widow of this early era was strangled by her glamour-girl disguise: she wouldn’t be shown entering the fray herself until several issues later, and women weren’t regularly shown to punch stuff until the early 1970s. (The first generation of Marvel superheroines— Jean Grey, Janet van Dyne, Sue Storm, Scarlet Witch— all had mental or utility powersets, nothing that demanded they wade into physical melee.) So, done up in lipstick and pearls, and not allowed to fight, Natasha had to go up against Iron Man using cunning alone. And she was successful— right up until the KGB saddled her with dudely accomplices half as clever and half as brave. Natasha was at her most formidable when she called her own shots, underestimated by friend and foe alike.

Which is so much more interesting to me than any retroactive seduction narrative. When you look at it like this, her defection from Russia becomes a clear metaphor for liberation, even before they realized it.

From Tales of Suspense #53, by Stan Lee, N. Korok, and Don Heck.

Communist: Has Madam Natasha been completely brainwashed, Dr. Yen?
Yen: Ah, so, excellency!
Communist: Then, you may approach me, woman! You, who were known as the Black Widow… who were once our greatest female agent… you have been punished for betraying us! You allowed your decadent feelings for the one called Hawkeye to make a traitor of you! But, now that you have been taught the error of your ways, it is time for the Black Widow to serve us again! Unless you would prefer to return to a prison cell?
Natasha: No! I shall never rest until we have enslaved the free world!
Communist: (Excellent! Dr. Yen’s brainwashing never fails!) Then, listen well, Madam Natasha! You are about to receive your most important assignment. Your first objective shall be… to destroy the Avengers!!

Oh, Silver Age comics and your particular depiction of the “foreboding Far East”…

The moment Natasha decided to turn against the Soviets happened off-panel circa Avengers #16. This is actually the first time Black Widow appeared out of flashback since Tales of Suspense #64, where she actively challenged her masters but couldn’t quite turn away from them. I don’t think it was purely her “decadent” feelings for Hawkeye that motivated her, since she quickly betrayed her relationship with him to stick it to these guys, but I can sure buy that’s what this dude thinks.

It really surprises me that for all they’ve stomped all over her origins this past decade, we’ve never revisited that moment she decided to defect. (And so… we’ve never actually seen it.) It just seems like such a seminal moment for her character.

From Avengers #29, by Stan Lee and Don Heck.