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.