Ivan: Natasha… I came as fast as I could. There was this wrecked car…
Natasha: Ivan…? Ivan!
Ivan: Everything’s okay, little lady. It was either you— or the Astrologer. If only I’d been here—!
Natasha: I’m glad you weren’t, Ivan… I set out to capture the Astrologer— and now he’s dead. And… that boy, earlier. If you’ve got a brain beneath those tousled locks, old friend… you’ll run for your life… because it seems… that to know the Black Widow… is to die!
I’ve read some critiques about the current Black Widow run as being too much “manpain"— and I don’t think they’re wholly unjustified. The earlier issues, especially, with their droning inner monologue that didn’t always fit sensibly to Natasha’s actions. Natasha saying, over and again, that she couldn’t let anyone in. Natasha seemingly emotionally stunted in ways she’d never been before, building walls she had never had.
I was (and continue to be) much more willing to roll with this than many other Black Widow fans, and I have thought a few times about why. One thing I know about myself is: I will try really hard to like any comic about Natasha Romanov. This is an old trick of superhero comics. They cultivate a loyalty to the character and use that loyalty to paint over plot holes. Another old trick of superhero comics is leading you around in circles so wide they might make you think you were going forward. But you’re not. Progression in hero comics is possible but usually accompanied by a complete shift in symbols. A new costume, a new codename, that is how you get new stories. Otherwise, characters will tend to renew their origin stories, to wind up back in the situations that got them those costumes and codenames in the first place.
Natasha is the Black Widow— mad, bad, and poisonous to know. She has always been surrounded by death and secrets and her power over these two things has always kept her isolated from the world. The victory of her compassion is that she is not wholly closed off, wholly unfeeling, that there is still something burning under all that ice. But without the threat crushing loneliness those victories do not mean anything. At least, this is what I tell myself to explain why Natasha is furious and confident and kind in some books, and then distant and damaged and hard in others. Somehow all these patchworks create a deeper, more compelling character, if I look from the correct angle, if I am willing to squint.
Another thing about me is that I really love the Bronze Age Black Widow stories. This might also fall under that thing where I’m really biased toward stories about Natasha and will myself to see the good things. Because there is a villain who is called the Astrologer and just as nonsense as you might think, and nothing more overwrought and brightly melancholy. I mean, just look at these panels. Next issue: The Silent Curse. What could be more manpain?
Here is something about manpain: it is an essential ingredient of that thing Tom Brevoort doesn’t want us to call Marvel six one six. Sometimes critics will pitch the Lee/Kirby/Ditko Marvel Revolution as the thing that made superheroes relateable, and gave them ordinary problems. Really though, what those stories did was make the ordinary superheroic. High school was just as tough as fighting commies and lifting cars, love was just difficult, just as dangerous as having an iron heart protected by magnets. Powers made things better but also made heroes tragic. Everyone fell in love in the space of two panels, and cried about it. It was all very self-indulgent.
Here’s something else about manpain: it is fundamentally gendered. We expect women to suffer, I think, to be emotionally vulnerable. We expect them to hurt, and we do not expect that hurt to make them noble. This all goes like triple for comics of a certain age. Which explains why these goofy old Black Widow comics, where Natasha thinks she’s cursed some dude named the Astrologer accidently blew himself up, were a revelation to me. Natasha had dead lovers that filled up her dreams, friends she pulled herself away from. She felt sorry for herself by loudly not feeling sorry for herself and going out and punching something instead. And her pain was meant to ennoble her. Maybe she did deserve the Marvel Universe, after all.
From Amazing Adventures #7, by Gerry Conway and Don Heck.