Nikki: Only a virgin can muster such a caught-in-the-headlights look. I’m Nikki. You are?
Yelena: …Yelena.
Nikki: Top or bottom, Yelena?
Yelena: I…
Nikki: Shh… let me guess… let’s see… comes in alone… head held high… meets my eyes and give me her name… and wearing a very exciting ensemble—
Yelena: You don’t touch me, bitch.
Nikki: I don’t? May I ask who does? Struggling for the top, but not there yet…

Let’s talk about Pale Little Spider, an early-2000s MAX miniseries starring Yelena Belova, set primarily in a sex club. When you hear a description like that, it’s easy to have certain expectations: lots of boobs, lots of sex, lots of the stuff they don’t normally let you see in Marvel comics.

But this miniseries uses these expectations to challenge them: Yelena, the protagonist and hero-if-the-story-has-one, is deeply uncomfortable with the sexual expectations placed on her. Tellingly, she never “embraces” her sexuality, never becomes comfortable wielding the power of projected desire, does not learn how to weaponize her femininity. Yelena’s sexuality and desire remain ambiguous: what she does learn better are her own boundaries.

At the same time, Fabrika, the club, is full of human bodies, human fantasies, and human beings: Nikki gets almost as much character work as Yelena. And the twisted Petra is ruined not by the sex work, but by the implicit traumas of her military service and the willingness of the GRU to exploit them. There is a direct and condemning parallel drawn between the sexual commodification of women and their supposed mute interchangability, which is not always sexual. Though Yelena wins through violence, it is unclear whether she has found any real way out.

Though yeah, the Greg Horn covers are gross and ultra-porny1, the interior art by Igor Kordey is another story. His linework is voluptuous but unpretty, showing the folds in pople’s flesh and the shadows hatched across their faces. His figures are unheroic and unidealized, like Gaydos’s work in Alias. They look like people. Moreover, they look like different people, with distinct bodytypes and body language. This is essential to the plot, which hinges on a wannabe Black Widow, and the narrative, which insists that women aren’t interchangeable. Kordey’s pencils aren’t perfect, and sometimes the action scenes are difficult to follow, but they’re still a big part of what makes the series work for me.

If the “Black Widow MAX series in a sex club” pitch promised boobs, sex, and sort of storytelling you can’t get in mainline hero comics, it really only delivered the last. This is the only place where the parallels commonly drawn between hero costumes and fetish gear can be treated honestly, with neither Yelena’s objections nor fetish itself treated as a joke. It is true that James Bond, perhaps, would never be subjected to a storyline like this. A James Bond sex club storyline would get action hero posters and long, suggestive looks by the camera. He would never feel demeaned. But Yelena Belova is not and could never be James Bond, and this story is about that.

From Black Widow: Pale Little Spider #1, by Greg Rucka and Igor Kordey.

1. Greg Horn covers were the bane of many early 2000s series starring women, including Slott’s She-Hulk, Ms. Marvel, and Emma Frost. He seemed to be their go-to cover artist for lady-led books. The Emma Frost covers were particularly bad, because that series focused on Emma during her high school years and was geared toward teenage girls.

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