This post is a pretty thorough rundown of Yelena’s stories and origins, and it’s long enough that it would be silly to type it all out again. It covers the Thunderbolts stint, but since you asked, I’ll elaborate on that a bit more.
The original Thunderbolts was a team of new heroes who, plot twist, were really a team of old villains in disguise. The next plot twist was: some of them came to like it, came to want to do the hero thing for real. Natasha played a part in some of the earliest Thunderbolts issues, and I wrote about that because they’re some of my personal favs.
Anyway, by the time Dark Reign rolled around, the Thunderbolts concept had been retooled a few times, and now it was about Norman Osborn’s group of d-list assassins! This was during a badend period of the Marvel Universe, when Osborn was running HAMMER (née SHIELD) and most heroes had been forced underground. The art style was exagerated blacks and masculine lines and the tone was that military noir that was so popular in the midlate 2000s era. Yelena was the first recruit, picked to lead this killsquad:
How would you like to lead the Thunderbolts?
Anyway, there were a few wetworks missions and an awkward Deadpool crossover before this run came to a premature end— the creative team got promoted to Daredevil. For a killsquad, though, they didn’t seem to kill anyone. That was by design: Yelena was a double agent, working for Nick Fury. From that reveal forward, the plot twists piled up. This summary is just focused on the Black Widow stuff, but stuff like “Nuke is the new Scourge!!” happened too. Hang on to your hats, because it’s gonna get complicated.
First: Yelena wasn’t just a double agent, she was also Natasha, in disguise. She’d caught Norman Osborn snooping on Yelena’s SHIELD file, and passed herself off as Yelena in order to infiltrate his new Thunderbolts squad. And it wasn’t a case of Yelena “supposedly” being Natasha the whole time, the comic was pretty explicit about it.
Melissa: I don’t understand any of this… if you’re really Natasha Romanova, how long were you a double agent?
Natasha: From the very beginning.
So, none of that was Yelena.
Then: the Nick Fury Natasha was working for wasn’t Nick Fury, it was Norman Osborn disguised as Nick Fury!! So Natasha was pretending to be working for Osborn while really working for Osborn pretending to be Fury, This made no sense and also made Natasha look incompetent, so I was pretty ticked off at the time. But the mistaken identity complex harkened back to those original Thunderbolts stories. Captured at the end of it all, Natasha makes a last plea to her team’s better natures, to the fundamental thread of the Thunderbolts— and calling back to Thunderbolts #9.
Now, Yelena was assumed dead after being turned into a Super-Adaptoid and exploding in New Avengers Annual #1. Her “appearances” in Thunderbolts lampshaded that— Natasha-as-Yelena waved it away as one of those fake spy deaths, the kind they want you to believe in. But with her cover blown, Natasha talks about Yelena in the past tense. She thinks Yelena is dead, too. But she wasn’t exactly correct.
In the promotional press for this book, before the twists were revealed, Diggle, the writer, said that Black Widow was his favorite character, and pointed to Yelena’s recent appearances in Marvel Comics Presents as evidence that she wasn’t really dead. Did that mean that the Yelena in that story was also Natasha in disguise? But wait, there’s more—
I’m thinking what this team needs is some new blood… starting with the real Yelena Belova!
Because he final twist of this Thunderbolts run was that Norman Osborn had the real Yelena Belova in his closet the entire time. She’s in a Winter Soldier style tube, close-lipped and motionless. How she got into Norman Osborn’s freezer aisle is not explained. She “died” after being turned into a science experiment by HYDRA and AIM, so it maybe they kept her preserved, but then how do you explain the Marvel Comics Presents appearances? Maybe it was skrulls. (No, I’m serious, for a long time I thought the best way to explain the adaptoid thing was skrulls.)
So, anyway, Yelena appears in Thunderbolts for a total of one page. She’s unconscious. It’s kind of a rip off. They take her out of the tube in v2 of Secret Avengers, a comic that was wiped from everyone’s brain.
Panels from Thunderbolts #128, #135, & #136.