I’m a huge Samnee fan, so I like it. Plus he’s so obviously hyped for this project I have to root for him!! Samnee’s storytelling is always top-notch, and I love the little details he’s incorporating— Natasha pulling on that guy’s tie, the SHIELD cubicle kitchen in the background. The costume redesign looks better in action than it did as a sketch, and I also like the coloring style Wilson’s using in the preview pages better for this book than the one he used in Daredevil.
I am not gonna do a review of every issue. The longform reviews I like to do work best for whole storyarcs, and lol I’m so behind on this blog already. I’m sure you will all know what I think of it anyway!!
I’m not psychic, and the interviews about the series so far have been pretty mum on the topic of supporting cast/guest stars. So here’s what I think.
The initial premise, that something has happened and now S.H.I.E.L.D. is hunting Natasha down, makes it harder to incorporate civilian cast members. You’d think Isaiah would be the first person S.H.I.E.L.D. would stake out if they were looking for Natasha, so I could see her avoiding him, at least in the short term.
On the other hand, the setup lends itself pretty well to off-grid allies like Black Rose. And it lends itself really well to a high-stakes confrontation with Maria Hill, who is already solicited to appear in the second issue.
I don’t think everything will be new again; this is a creative team you go to for deep cuts. Even the short preview has a cameo by Agent Preston from Deadpool. They’re definitely creating some new characters that slot into the vast and sunless country of Natasha’s past, but I bet we see some others too, even if they’re not from the last two runs. Maybe it’s time for the triumphant return of Paul Hamilton! Or the reveal that the weird cyber-STD villain Ivan was an LMD gone strange.
The longer Natasha has an actual ongoing the more likely it is we see a real supporting cast for her develop and carry over. Even if Samnee/Waid don’t use Isaiah extensively, the next creative team might. There’s a lot more momentum behind a character that appeared for 20 issues two years ago than one who appeared for 5 issues 10 years ago. We’ve also been promised more comics appearances by Ava Orlova, though it’s up in the air where they’ll happen.
I personally really hope they bring back the cat. Seeing Natasha having to work out catsitting on missions and bringing the carrier to the safehouse was both a humanizing detail and cute visual gag. Plus, more cats = more reblogs for me. #liho2k16
All-New All-Different is a sales banner Marvel is using to brand its current books. It doesn’t really mean all new or all different, it means, “here is a Marvel title being published during this six month period.” All the post-Secret Wars titles are All-New All-Different. Everything was restored at the end of Secret Wars, which is usually what happens when the Marvel Universe dies and reality warping is involved. Read Secret Wars #9for details!
If you don’t want to read Secret Wars #9 here are some details:
There was an 8-month timeskip. (This is how we get stuff like pregnant Spider-Woman, Matt Murdock back in New York with a secret identity.)
We don’t really know how the timeskip has affected Natasha because her book hasn’t come out yet. She was a background extra in Spider-Woman #1 though.
Everyone thinks that Reed and Sue and their family are dead, but they are actually the new restored universe’s creator gods, or something.
Miles Morales is in 616 now!
Tom Brevoort still doesn’t want you to call it 616.
Well, if Natasha was saying she never uses guns, she was wrong, since you can go back to Tales of Suspense #64 and see Natasha posing with a rifle:
Tony: How can anybody so beautiful be so dangerously belligerent, lady?? And while you’re thinking up an answer, I’ll just borrow that pop gun of yours!
Natasha also uses a magnum in a Daredevil #90 flashback, and a famous page from Marvel Fanfare #10 shows Natasha with a man whose face she shot and the SHEILD gun she shot him with. So there’s a pretty strong precedent, even in early comics, that Natasha uses guns at least some of the time.
But it is true that guns were never her default setting, and she always made much more use of her martial arts skills and her special gauntlets. She’s even voiced a preference against using guns a time or two, such as here in Homecoming:
Natasha: Generally, I don’t like guns. Too much noise… you have to reload… and they’re more than a little symbolically suspect… but sometimes you really don’t have a choice.
It’s a bit ironic that Natasha thinks this in Homecoming, because that series was maybe the turning point where guns became Natasha’s almost default weapon. The covers on that series are about 85% Natasha posing sexily with a firearm of some kind, which is what you get when you hire Greg Land. But this was one of the first times Marvel really positioned Natasha as a gun babe, which is a cover theme that’s become pretty common since then.
To rewind a bit, the 1954 Comics Code explicitly prohibited “excessive gun violence” and advertisements for “realistic gun facsimiles” from showing up in comics. This meant that in the olden times, superheroes were discouraged from using guns. When you do see a good guy using guns, like early Nick Fury and other SHIELD agents, it’s usually a fantasy gun, something that has weird and deliberate knobs and shoots pink fire, rather than “realistic gun facsimiles.” It’s not a coincidence that most of Natasha’s early gun use involves wonky SHIELD pistols, or is from when Natasha was a villain and didn’t have to follow the good guy rules.
Marvel first started pushing the Comics Code in the early 1970s, but it took a long time to completely unravel. You see more realistic guns being used throughout the eighties, and then in the nineties big guns became an anti-hero trope. If Natasha were created in 1993, she would have used guns from the very beginning. But of course, she wasn’t. The 1999 introduction of Yelena Belova played on that— while Natasha incapacitates her foes with gizmos and trickery, Yelena pulverizes them with a giant machine gun. But even so, Natasha was using a realistic pistol more and more often. A 2003 Hawkeye arc revolved around Natasha using a sniper rifle.
By the time Homecoming rolled around, in the middle of the 2000s, Marvel could publish those Natasha-and-a-giant-gun covers and no one blinked. Homecoming also got rid of Natasha’s gauntlets, with the writer calling them bracelets and dismissing them as sexist nonsense. This didn’t stick, but it did remove the bit of her arsenal she usually used instead of a gun, meaning that she began to use guns a lot more, even when other writers an artists gave her back her gauntlets almost immediately.
Homecoming, incidentally, is where most of the things people blame Whedon for really originated. The MCU borrows heavily from the Ultimates-inspired early to mid 2000s era of comics that stories like Homecoming came from, because that’s when the MCU was first conceived. While the comics moved on, quickly retconned most of what Homecoming established, and also revealed Natasha was eighty years old and had an affair with Captain America’s dead sidekick, the MCU is bolted much more strongly to its own point of origin. And maybe that’s why the films treat Natasha’s gauntlets as such an afterthought, making pistols her primary offensive weapon. But now the MCU is bleeding back into latter-day Marvel continuity, and we’re seeing Natasha use guns more than ever as a result.
I should say that even if the no-guns rule for superheroes is linked to the self-restrictiveness of the Comics Code Authority, it’s also linked to the genre and the medium. Gun fights aren’t as dynamic on the page as they are on screen, since you can’t draw that sudden flash or the sound of gunfire. Fight scenes with kicks and flips and strange powers work much better. And part of the major conceit of hero comics is that guns aren’t enough, that you need more than the mundane to defeat the fantastic.
You see this in the MCU too, in that great circular shot in the first Avengers film, where they’re all geared up for battle and all Natasha has are these pistols. People made fun of her, for that, but the truth is pistols are a much more effective weapon than a hammer or a bow or a garbage can lid with a flag painted over it. We don’t see it that way because the films, like the comics, worked to invest each of these weapons with their own mythology. And I prefer spy-fi gadget stuff to guns as Natasha’s default for this reason. I think Natasha’s gauntlets must be difficult to adapt to film, because they haven’t really done it yet, but they should really be trying to figure something out there so little girls have toys to play with.
Panels from Tales of Suspense #64 and Black Widow: Homecoming #2.
Nah, the movie has execution problems. It’s also clear that the “monster” line hit a raw nerve with a lot people. It didn’t with me, and I don’t interpret it in the worst way possible, but it is clear that many did and that’s the film’s fault for not communicating its ideas very well.
But some of the backlash is because of shipping.
So: shipping is a major, major part of fandom. There’s also a general mass media reflex that female characters are better off left unpaired than “reduced” to a love interest. We’re (understandably) skeptical of the way women will be handled in romance arcs so single becomes stronger by default.
But shipping is a major, major part of fandom, which puts ladies in a tough spot. Often, I think shippers solve this tension by figuring out how their pairing is actually empowering, more empowering than the usual problematic narrative. (Sidenote: I don’t think the “single woman is best” reflex is entirely unlinked to the huge popularity of m/m. There’s no impulse that men as a category should be kept out of romantic plotlines for their own good.) So, when some fans thought Uhura’s relationship with Spock kept her from being an independent character, fans from the opposite camp wrote about essays Uhura’s WOC status and how unusual that was and how that transformed the whole romantic calculus. This isn’t just a ~tumblr~ thing, because if the fandom_wank wiki was still up I could link you to ancient arguments about the relative feminisms of JKR based on whether Harry/Hermione or Ron/Hermione was endgame. My ship is more righteous than your ship is classic shipwar technique.
Basically, we make the things we like fit our politics. And in fandom, our communities are built upon the things we like. Moreover, it’s not exactly strange that we imbue all this stuff with meaning, since so much of it lives in the imagination. The transformative labor of fandom is getting stories we like to a place where they do fit our politics. (Or our kinks, or our tastes, or our favorite tropes.) But you can take this easy to a place where it becomes alienating, where m/m is just internalized misogyny, where m/f is queer erasure, where supporting pairing x is a true moral wrong. This is how you get (a small minority of) Steve/Bucky fans arguing Natasha is a rapist.
Usually, though, fandom is big enough that it balances out. People find their own communities of like-minded and tolerable people.
But there were very few Bruce/Natasha shippers going into Age of Ultron. If they had done Clint/Natasha instead, there would be lots of essays about how it’s better (and so rare!) for women and men to just be friends, but there would also be lots of essays from Clint/Natasha shippers about the significance of Natasha’s jewelry and all the small moments they loved. Instead, almost every pre-existing Natasha faction was upset, and Age of Ultron didn’t work too hard to create Bruce/Natasha converts. Some of the time folks forget that even in the text of the film itself, Bruce/Natasha is a relationship that doesn’t work or work out.
These are all characters she’s implied to have some sort of rapport with in the MCU, anon. May has Natasha in her cellphone, Maria talks about her with Ward, Laura names her baby after Natasha, &c &c. For the comic versions, this is what we got:
Laura Barton doesn’t exist in mainline Marvel comics. In Laura Barton’s comic universe, she was murdered by Natasha, who was evil in that AU. People mostly bring this up without the AU context to bash Natasha or the Clint/Natasha ship.
May has only recently been introduced to the comic books and hasn’t interacted with Natasha there, yet.
Bobbi met Natasha when she was married to Clint, who was worried about introducing his new wife to his ex. But instead, they immediately hit it off:
Clint: Oh… uh, ‘Tasha, I don’t think you’ve met the Mockingbird. She and I… that is… you see, we’re… Bobbi: “Married” is the word he’s searching for. Natasha: Really? Congratulations!! It’s always a pleasure to meet a woman as brave as you must be. Bobbi: The pleasure’s mine, Natasha!
I’m not sure that I’d call them friends, since their interaction since then has been mostly incidental. I would say they are work acquaintances that get along well. Bobbi is getting her own ongoing series, soon, so I hope we’ll see her non-Clint relationships developed more in that.
Maria and Natasha have the most developed relationship of the list you gave me. They didn’t get along at first due to SHIELD politics and Maria’s dislike of superheroes, but gradually came to respect each other after being forced on an adventure together. When Maria was reinstated as Director of SHIELD, Natasha became her best and most trusted agent.
Maria: Natasha is sometimes the only person I can confide in. She’s valuable to me— she’s my confidant— precisely because she’s close to no one. Because she’s a loner. Maybe that’s selfish… but there’s… the other part. Isaiah: What’s that? Maria: She’s the only person I’m afraid of.
As SHIELD director Maria is in a position where she needs to be willing to use anyone, at any time, and that stunts all her human connections. She can only confide in Natasha when Natasha is at her most lonely, most distant. And so when Natasha didn’t like the person that Maria’s missions were making of her, she quit. And that’s about the last thing we’ve seen from either of them! I’m very interested to see what their relationship is like going forward.
I don’t know. The MCU hasn’t been phenomenal at having lots of women running around it with large speaking parts at the same time. Joss Whedon had to campaign to get her into the Avengers line-up at all, and most of her screen-time is shared with the dudes who actually headline the movies. I think the cinematic part universe is still skewed so boy heavy that it could still be a coincidence.
It’s implied that Natasha’s on good terms with May and Maria, and I think Laura Barton as well. Gwyneth Paltrow and Scarlett Johansson both talked about wanting their on-screen dynamic to be more nuanced than the girls vs girls Hollywood cliché. It’s also not true of Natasha in the comics, who has a pretty complicated relationship with Maria Hill, for instance.
But it’s hard to argue that the MCU powers think “has relationships with other women” is an important part of Natasha’s character, at this point. If they wanted to showcase that aspect of her comic book character, they could’ve by now. You could make the argument that Natasha might find it harder to connect with other women because of the gendered trauma of the Red Room: much like tumblr fandom, they were always pitting them against her.
Okay, so: Natasha doesn’t usually have enhanced physical abilities beyond slowed aging, and Yelena was introduced when Black Widow didn’t have any powers at all. Pale Little Spider was a Yelena origin miniseries and there were no chemicals or serums involved, just intense physical training. Keep in mind that Yelena’s first appearance was in 1999, when it was still pretty concievable that Natasha could be the generic mid-thirties superhero age and still have been trained before the fall of the USSR in 1991.
In the original stories, Yelena operated under the auspices of the GRU, not the KGB, but there was implied institutional carry over. Yelena mentions Natasha’s test scores and constantly compares herself to the Red Room’s greatest student; Natasha knows Stalyenko, Yelena’s handler. Anyway, from these early appearances— it would be pretty straight-on to assume Yelena recieved the exact same training and even had some of the same teachers that Natasha did. And because this version of Natasha didn’t have any powers or treatments, this first, essential Yelena didn’t either.
Then things got complicated. Natasha suffered a series of retcons and unretcons that has made my job of explaining them much harder, and Yelena has never been written consistantly again. So!
Richard Morgan was the one who introduced the idea of “biochemical enhancements” into Black Widow canon, which in his stories were mostly cosmetic— Natasha didn’t get sunburned, her hair didn’t fall out, things like that. (Morgan’s Natasha might have aged more slowly, but she was specifically in her late thirties, not her late seventies.) Morgan was very clear that the ~real~ Red Room continued as 2R, a KGB splinter group, and was not the same thing as the Red Room that trained Yelena. Subsequently, the biotech that the original Black Widow operatives had was still the property of 2R, not the contemporary Marvel Universe GRU.
Yel—? Oh— her. Oh, my goodness, no. Belova was a, an aberration. Nothing to do with the real Black Widow program. I believe she models fetish lingerie these days.
I don’t think Morgan liked Yelena very much!
The next retcon, which happend in the late 2000s, established that Natasha got her aging slowed by a mysterious “chemical”, but doesn’t have any powers otherwise. This timeline locates Natasha’s Red Room training back in the mid 1950s, separating her graduation from Yelena’s by more than five decades. At that point, I think it’s pretty likely that the instruction Yelena had differed from Natasha’s signficantly. She might have gotten the same chemical treatments, but I’d say probably not.
But wait! Yelena has a whole other powerset that has nothing to do with all this.
Sometime off-panel, Yelena joined up with a rogue cell of SHIELD agents, who encountered the New Avengers in the Savage Land. Yelena was burned to a crisp by the Avengers team, but she was rescued by HYDRA, who turned her into a Super-Adaptoid, which is a kind of robot powered by the Cosmic Cube.
This is what I have to offer. Behind me are the greatest minds of Advanced Idea Mechanics. AIM has been working with us to better our cause. What they’ve been able to do is sythesize— they’ve synthesized this adaptoid’s unique biology. They know how he works. They say they can make you as powerful and beautiful as you deserve to be. You can strike back at these rebel heroes using their own powers to beat them… So… what say you, Black Widow?
As Super-Adaptoid, Yelena could absorb and copy powers, and she gradually turned into a super-strong flying lizard thing. Anyway, at the end of the story HYDRA destroyed Yelena, and she died for a while. When she came back without explanation in Marvel Comics Presents a few years later, she didn’t have the Adaptoid powers anymore. I’ve always felt that the Adaptoid Yelena was probably a skrull.1 However, the Adaptoid stuff was mentioned in her most recent appearances in Spencer’s Secret Avengers, so??? You’re basically free to choose your own adventure with Yelena, since that’s what Marvel has done.
TL:DR; I don’t think Yelena has the chemical that keeps Natasha young, but who knows. She might have Super-Adaptoid powers, but who knows.
Panels from Black Widow: Homecoming #4 and New Avengers Annual #1.
1. This sounds like a joke, but it’s not. The rogue SHIELD cell and HYDRA powerbrokers were part of Bendis’s slow build to skrulls everywhere. A skrull infiltrator would be more interested in joining SHIELD than actual Yelena, and Yelena became not dead with no explanation right after Secret Invasion. But this is Marvel Comics, where the perfect continuity can never be.
You’ll have to be more specific. There are a few different Red Room retcons, so buckle up because this got long.
The Red Room was first introduced in Devin Grayson’s 1999 Black Widow miniseries, which is also where Yelena Belova first showed up.
My name is Yelena Belova. And I am a student of the Red Room in Moscow. You remember it, then? Yes, I thought you would.
The Red Room is introduced to establish Yelena’s place in the mythology and make her more of a credible threat. Accordingly, our first glimpses of the Red Room are really from Yelena’s perspective. We see her training there in the Pale Little Spider miniseries, which is sort of a Yelena origin story.
This is the kind of retcon that works with established continuity. We always knew Natasha received intensive training in spycraft from some sketchy and manipulative people, the “Red Room” just put a name to that process. The basic outline of Natasha origin: that she used to be a ballerina, that she was tricked into joining the KGB with the lie of her husband’s death, was unchanged. Yelena joined the Red Room when she was about fifteen, and it exists in this original version as a very demanding special ops training program that produces Black Widow operatives, but not a murder orphanage.
The murder orphanage bit came with Richard Morgan’s 2004 series Homecoming. He was the one that revealed everything that Natasha knew about her past was a lie, and that she’d been brainwashed since childhood into being a perfect assassin. But wait, Morgan’s retcons didn’t stop there!! He revealed her decision to defect from the KGB was also mind control, and he was the one who introduced sterilization as a way of ensuring that women didn’t develop too many ~feelings. (It wasn’t a graduation procedure in Morgan’s work, just something they did to Natasha without her knowledge or consent.)
Where the original Red Room expanded on and deepened Natasha’s existing mythology while providing more storytelling opportunities going forward, Morgan was all about systematically destroying Natasha’s past so she could be a better female character. He was convinced everyone who came before him wrote Natasha in terrible sexist ways, including his direct predecessor, Devin Grayson, a woman who was basically harassed out of comics. Not coincidentally, he was very careful to remake Yelena as an imposter: not a true product of the ~real~ Red Room, but a tawdry knock-off his characters slut shame.
Natasha: What did you people do to me? I remember that room back there, but I-I remember… ballet classes… the Bolshoi… It hurts. Grigor: Yes. If I were you, I’d try not to think directly about it. Part of the conditioning. You see, psychochemical. Very crude back then, but very powerful. You can enjoy the memories themselves, that’s what they were put there for. But if you try to think logically about it, well, there’s a deterrent effect. Headache, then nausea. Unconsciousness eventually.
You can probably tell that I loathe this retcon. It’s the the Black Widow equivalent of giving Wanda awesome powers so that she can’t control them, of empowering a character by taking away her agency. I don’t think the way towards Better Superheroines is making them all blank slates: that doesn’t work in a shared universe built upon the accumulation of continuity. I also don’t think Natasha was “the Marvel Universe bike” or that she had net-zero selfhood before he showed up. The thesis of this blog is “don’t believe Morgan’s lies” and this is the hill I will actually die on.
Interestingly, Morgan wasn’t the only one to reimagine the Red Room as a sort of murder orphanage. That was how it appeared in the David Hayter unproduced movie script, too, though since Hayter was writing in a new continuity his version wasn’t a retcon and didn’t rely on artificially implanted memory nonsense. As far as I can tell, Morgan and Hayter wrote their scripts and their very similar Red Rooms independently. I do think around this time, though, Marvel was probably looking to update Natasha’s origin away from the ballet and sixties melodrama, and that it would have happened with or without Morgan. That “victimized child assassin” seems to be the replacement everyone thought up is likely a product of generic mid-2000s edge.
Anyway, trying to fix up a character by revealing everything in their past is a lie doesn’t work because it inevitably creates plotholes. Then someone will try to explain those plotholes, and this is how continuity gets complicated. That’s essentially what happens in the 2010 comic Deadly Origin, which attempts to reconcile Morgan’s version of the Red Room with the fact that, hey, we’ve seen Natasha teaming up with Wolverine and Captain America as a child before, and she didn’t seem like she was stuck in a murder orphanage.
Deadly Origin also explains how Natasha is 80+ years old by introducing a “chemical” provided by the Red Room that keeps her young. This chemical is new to this particular version: Grayson’s version was the traditional Black Widow, no enhancements or powers, and Morgan introduced vague “biochemical” upgrades that doubled as cosmetic enhancements. In the Hayter movie script, the Red Room subjected Natasha to a painful surgical procedure that enhanced her dexterity and strength. The idea that Natasha is secretly immortal was actually developed in X-men and Captain America, not connected to the first few Red Room stories. Neither Morgan nor Grayson’s Natasha was significantly older than she looked.
The way Deadly Origin retells it has Natasha raised by Ivan as a child and grows up on the run from the Red Room after some close encounters with people who would put her in a murder orphanage. Eventually she joins the Red Room in order to save Ivan’s life in her mid-late twenties, but the Red Room brainwashes her into thinking she’s much younger to fit in as many versions of the story as possible. I don’t like a lot of the specifics of Deadly Origin or the way it still includes a lot of fake memory nonsense, but I like it as a general outline for her origin and the idea of joining up with the Red Room to save Ivan. Marjorie Liu builds off the timeline established here to great effect in Name of the Rose.
Alexei: How old are you? Natasha: Seventeen. Twenty-nine.
The problem is, because of the movies and the series of retcons kicked off by Morgan having gotten so complicated, some writers don’t understand that Morgan himself has been retconned. The “Natasha was raised to be a perfect spy from childhood but got out” version of the story isn’t the best Natasha origin, but it might be the simplest, so sometimes that’s what writers default to. Brubaker did this sort of implicitly as he stapled his own elaborate mythology onto something Devin Grayson originally created.
Edmondson more explicitly shows Natasha as a child in the Red Room specifically (instead of a separate generic murder school for orphans), but mind control and false memories don’t play a part in Edmondson’s flashbacks. I wrote a no-prizey explanation of how to fit Edmondson’s run into the established Deadly Origin timeline here, if you’re interested in that kind of nitty gritty. As it stands, I’d still probably call Deadly Origin the reigning Red Room retcon, despite being contradicted here and there, in part because it’s the most recent story to offer a cohesive version of her origin and not just one or two flashbacks.
If you want more explanation of this topic you should check out my secret origins tag, where I’ve posted a lot of panels, summaries, and analysis. If this was already too much, well, I don’t blame you.
Panels from Black Widow #1, Black Widow: Homecoming #4 and Black Widow: Deadly Origin #2.