Natasha: I can do it.
In a flash, the Widow’s moving, scrambling up the gantry towerwith a grace and ease that would have shamed Olga Korbut… remembering suddenly, absurdly, that she’d once told a man she loved that the Black Widow used to be thebest spy in the world… the best! Now was her chance to prove it.
Natasha: You know I used to be the most dangerous spy in the world, Matt? Men used to tremble at my name. I didn’t like myself much back then. Then I met Hawkeye, helped the Avengers, joined SHIELD, and did a few other noble things. I liked myself better. Then I met you. Didn’t you see it happening? The liberated lady you fell in love with became your— sidekick. I used to be so darn strong, Matt—and I feel it slipping away from me.

There was actually a time when I think Matt was good for Natasha, when he offered her something she needed— a fresh start, no judgements, action and adventure and chance to do good. I can see why she fell for him, why she needed to remind herself she could love somebody and not have it all fall apart. When Conway moved her and Matt to San Francisco together, it was an era of comics that if not good were at least interesting— comics that let Natasha be heroic, compassionate, and vibrant.

Then Conway left the title and was replaced with Steve Gerber.

Gerber didn’t want to write Natasha. He liked Matt best as a loner, and so he kept coming up with increasingly humiliating ways to write her out. Natasha couldn’t find a job, became homeless, was sidelined for a whole parade of new and otherworldly women for Matt to flirt with. A running storyline, then, was Natasha’s jealousy. When Gerber wrote an earlier issue of Marvel Two-in-One (#3, starring Daredevil), Natasha appeared as a brainwashed goon for Matt to angst over. In his final humiliation, Natasha was literally wedded to a misogynist mutant ape. (For some reason, this last story was included in the recent Women of Marvel omnibus, and is why I refuse to buy a product that otherwise really gets me.) It was the nadir of Natasha, made worse by the fact that she was still, technically, co-headlining the book.

Anyway, I’m not the only one who noticed how terribly Natasha was treated under Gerber. Tony Isabella, the next Daredevil writer, immediately set out to do some rehab, letting Natasha address her diminishment and react to it. By referencing this scene in particular, Claremont is voicing his intentions, too: he wants to showcase Natasha, to show why she’s still the best in the world, and nobody’s sidekick. This isn’t as overt as his famous response to Avengers #200, but I absolutely believe this story is Claremont’s in-continuity middle finger to Natasha’s awful mishandling in the pages of Daredevil, and the way the superhero parts of women are too often reduced.

From Marvel Two-in-One #10, by Chris Claremont and Bob Brown, and Daredevil #120, by Tony Isabella and Bob Brown.

Natasha: You know I used to be the most dangerous spy in the world. Matt? Men used to tremble at my name. I didn’t like myself much then. Then I met Hawkeye, helped the Avengers, joined SHIELD, and did a few other noble things. I liked myself better. Then I met you. Didn’t you see it happening? The liberated lady you fell in love with became you— sidekick. I used to be so darn strong, Matt— and I feel it slipping away from me.

Metatextually, this is a bit of a dig at Steve Gerber, the guy who just left the book. When Conway brought Natasha into the series and renamed it Daredevil and the Black Widow, he was, in his sometimes imperfect ways, trying to showcase Natasha as a “liberated lady” and an equal partner. When Gerber took over, he wasn’t interested a partnered-up DD, so he found various (sometimes humiliating) ways to minimize Natasha’s presence in the book.

But that’s not why I like this moment. I like this moment because it Natasha’s strength not so much to being terrible & fearsome, but to her own perception, her self-image. What matters most isn’t what other people think of her, but how she feels about herself.

From Daredevil #120, by Tony Isabella and Bob Brown.

Matt: No! If it is Blackwing, he’s too dangerous for the Widow to tackle alone. Natasha! Hold it a minute!
Natasha: You’re getting awfully liberal with your hands, Daredevil. Once, it’s horseplay. Twice, it’s developing into a decidedly bad habit.
Matt: I… I’ve got to go to that warehouse alone! I can’t explain why. You’ll just have to trust me!
Natasha: What? Are you forgetting that Nelson got captured saving my life? I’m not about to sit on the sidelines! Not now or ever!

To ruin a funny old panel with context, here’s what was really going on in Daredevil during that arc. Tony Isabella came on the book with the intention of breaking Matt and Natasha up, and to do that he exaggerated the Matt’s well-meaning chauvinism under Conway to in-retrospect hilarious degrees. Isabella felt that the relationship did both characters a disservice, and after Steve Gerber’s run, that was probably true.

The central problem, as Isabella presented it, was that Matt wanted to have a girl he could rescue and take care of. He has a real need to be The Man in the relationship. Natasha, on the other hand, loved Matt deeply but couldn’t stand to be coddled. She knew she had to be the one to save herself, and after a few issues of trying, still, to make it work, she left him.

Over the years Matt has developed into someone who needs to play the protector but is sexually excited by women who won’t let him, leading to a cycle of romantic misery and a billyclub of broody manpain +2. (He’s also developed into one of the most textured and interesting of Marvel’s protagonists, precisely because his comics give him room for his flaws.) But this wasn’t the same as Reed Richards declaring wives should be kissed and not heard— Reed’s casual misogyny was for Sue’s own good, and Sue even agreed with him that “females” were scatter-brained and emotional. It was the sexism of a comic book era that had little idea it was being sexist. A decade later, though, and Isabella wrote Matt Murdock doing hilariously sexist things to point out some of comics’ pre-existing tendencies, and to show Natasha questioning and rejecting them, despite her deep love for Matt. That last bit is important, because “women’s liberation” in this era of comics was often an empty synonym for man-hating. Natasha didn’t hate men, and she loved Matt. But in the end she loved herself, too.

From Daredevil #122, by Tony Isabella and Bob Brown.

brianmichaelbendis:

if this was written today, the next panel is Daredevil’s head is completely twisted off his body.  the end.

And as many of you have pointed out what’s really hilarious is that he is blind and cares that much about what she is wearing 🙂

She did dump him for this, even back in 1974.

From Daredevil #120, by Tony Isabella and Bob Brown.

Bobby: I can’t revive them with my home-grown cold compresses, Warren. They’re out for the count— and then some.
Warren: Then it’s just the four of us.
Natasha: The three of us, Angel. Johnny, only you can withstand those spears. Can you stay here and guard them?
Johnny: Can’t say I like that, but I can see you’re right.
Warren: Well, it looks like you’ve become the leader of our little group in record time.
Natasha: Is that an objection, young man.
Warren: Heck, no! You’re a darned sight more attractive than the last team leader I worked with!
Natasha: Then let’s find the Huntsman before he finds us!
Bobby: Or to put it as Cyclops— the previously referred-to leader— might have put it: let’s go!

So today I’m doing a Natasha leadership HBIC spam. Just eff-why-eye. The “is that an objection, young man?” is so hilariously school-marmy.

From Champions #2, by Tony Isabella and Don Heck.

Natasha: You know I used to be the most dangerous spy in the world, Matt? Men used to tremble at my name. I didn’t like myself much then. Then I met Hawkeye, helped the Avengers, joined SHIELD, and did a few other noble things. I liked myself better. Then I met you. Didn’t you see it happening? The liberated lady you fell in love with became your— sidekick. I used to be so darn strong, Matt— and I feel it slipping awayw from me.

Tony Isabella (hero to this blog) was making a metatextual point, here, I think, about the way past and future writers would mishandle Natasha in Daredevil comics. But even Conway, who had a definite, deliberate “Women’s Lib” bent to his stories, seemed to forget Natasha’s past. His Black Widow struggled and fought to be considered Matt’s equal, rebelled against Ivan’s overprotectiveness, and searched for ways to make an independent living rather than relying on Matt’s salary. (Gerber’s Black Widow got written out of the picture more often than not, and was, apparently, completely unemployable, so she had to live out of the backseat of her car??)

But prior to meeting Matt, Natasha had her own superhero career, was independently wealthy, and had a glamourous jet-set social life. It wasn’t background information— these were recently published comics. We saw Natasha save the Avengers, saw her do dangerous solo SHIELD missions, and it was clear who wore the proverbial pants in the Black Widow/Hawkeye partnership. So what happened? Setting aside the obvious Steve Gerber shaped explanation, the last issues of Natasha’s Amazing Adventures run introduced the Widow’s Curse: anything she loved was doomed to die. This wasn’t earth logic, as Clint Barton was still running around the MU in a miniskirt, but it let Natasha share in the guilty manpain of Bronze Age Marvel. When Natasha met Matt, she was still haunted by the idea of this curse, and so she threw herself into the relationship to prove that happy endings were still on the table. This arc saw her realizing that she did love Matt, but that no happy ending was worth her own happiness. She dumped his ass next issue.

From Daredevil #120, by Tony Isabella and Bob Brown.

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.

Natasha: However, I do “like” you. I do care deeply for you. And when it comes down to it, I suppose I do love you.
Matt: Natasha, I…
Natasha: Not tonight, my love. We still have too many things to work out. It’ll take time.

Denied. Though why Matt needs the lights off to set up a mood, who can say?

From Daredevil #122, by Tony Isabella and Bob Brown.

Fury: I’m still running this operation and I make the decisions about who does what with whom!
Matt: Fury, you don’t know…
Fury: Shaddup! Nobody’s checking out that warehouse until I get a back-up force ready to move in on it!
Natasha: You would do well to watch your tone, Fury. The Black Widow does not take orders from anyone.

One of the reasons I started this blog was because fans were dismissing Natasha as Fury’s loyal sidekick (thx Iron Man 2), when their relationship has often been adversarial.

From Daredevil #122, by Tony Isabella and Bob Brown.