Natasha: No matter what you do to me! I’m through serving your evil schemes!
Khrushchev: I thought you might react that way! And so, I took the liberty of bringing your parents here! If you have no fear for yourself, surely you don’t want the state to treat them as parents of a— traitor!
Natasha: Mother! Father! Oh, no!
Father: Do not fear for us, my daughter! Do what you feel is right!
Natasha: But I could not let any harm befall my parents! And so…

Natasha: And the warmth of my parents— my… parents… makes up for… no… no, that’s not right…

The classic Black Widow children’s story is Daredevil #88: in the hollows of Stalingrad, 1943, a soldier looking for his dead sister finds an orphan girl in the ruins. But before that issue, when she was bad Natasha had these nameless parents, that her masters threatened to keep her stick straight. This 1965 scene was the first hint at Natasha’s inevitable defection. Strangely, she never thought of her parents again, even after she left the Soviets for keeps. Even though at one point they’d been all that was keeping her for leaving. Then her backstory became something else, and it was easy to drift over this panel. Maybe Natasha had been lying about her change of heart, and about her parents. She’d lied to Hawkeye before.

Several retcons later, Paul Cornell and John Paul Leon wrapped it back into Natasha’s tangled history. Her parents weren’t real, but she thought they were, for a while. Notice how bit from Black Widow: Deadly Origins #2 clearly references Tales of Suspense #64.

From Tales of Suspense #64 by Stan Lee and Don Heck & Black Widow: Deadly Origin #2 by Paul Cornell and John Paul Leon.

Ivan: ‘Tasha… what…?
Natasha: I took a sample of your new body’s nanites from your brandy glass… it took the ones I’m carrying a few minutes to hack in. I’ve just shut off your ability to kill me. Or to fire your weapons. And… now I have control of the dreadnaught. And your personal defense shields. So… this is your last chance. To say sorry. Or at least to call me by my real name.

This is one of the only times in comics that Natasha expresses a name preference. It’s informed by a lot of context: Ivan has gone round the bend and demands that Natasha “humble” herself. He calls her ‘Tasha because he wants to remind her that he was her father, to make her now his lover, and remind her of all this with names. Ivan has always called Natasha things like “my little Tsarina,” even when she was full-grown and Avenging, and depending on the scene this seemed sweet or it rung condescending. Now, in later decades, that ambiguity is removed.

I don’t think Natasha is demanding everyone call her Natalia. I don’t think she resents Bucky calling her “Nat” or Matt calling her “’Tasha"— those names represent an intimacy she chose. But it makes sense that at this moment, finally, she’d tell Ivan to name her, formally, distant, and like an adult.

But maybe the name she’s talking about isn’t Natalia. Deadly Origin’s entire plot is an latter-day exploration of the Widow’s Curse theme, the old idea that Natasha is fated to kill the people she loves. Ivan’s plot made this all very literal, and it’s significant that she defeats him by hacking the nanites, somehow, and control of her curse. But to stop Ivan, she has to go again through the corpse of someone she cared about. I do not think her real name is Black Widow, but I could understand if at this too familiar moment, Natasha feels that it is.

It’s a nice ambiguity.

From Black Widow: Deadly Origin #4, by Paul Cornell and Tom Raney.

Re: the Black Widow: Deadly Origins online sources, I just checked and I have access to #1 and #4 via MDCU. Which might not be the most useful thing, since it is missing half the miniseries, but at least you can get a taste!

Huh, it wasn’t under the little Black Widow section they’ve got, but it is under Paul Cornell, except, as you say, only the first and last issue. Those are, at least, the strongest issues, imho?


Alexi: She was hard to live with. She wants to be a mother, a sweetheart— but they made her barren and a… and a…

Paul Cornell reprised this point in his uncomfortable blending of false memories and arranged marriage. Again we see that false dichotomy: a mother and a sweetheart, barren and a… possibly a less-noble word for warrior. The joke’s on Alexi, here, though, because by Cornell’s take she’d been a fighter long before she feel in with the KGB. If they turned her into anything it was a “sweetheart”— but that can’t be so, because that’s not what the Red Room is for.

A mother, a sweetheart, then, is what Alexi himself wanted from Natasha, a warrior what the Soviet state demanded. What Natasha wants for herself goes unsaid. Like with Lyudmila, there’s an inversion in how this scene is framed. Earlier, Natasha, the good housewife stormed into the same office demanding an intelligence post. And here, though it is Alexi who is dead and Alexi who is wearing the hero’s uniform, it is Alexi who is sobbing, embracing others for comfort.

From Black Widow: Deadly Origin #2, Paul Cornell and John Paul Leon.

So I assume you’ve probably discussed it before but what are your thoughts on Black Widow: Deadly Origins? I see it doesn’t have a place in your recommended reading.

My feelings are long and complicated and touched on in multiple posts the deadly origin tag. Basically, a lot of the flashback sequences reverse much of the agency she displays in the original stories— as a particular example, the scene with Tony Stark, where she’s outwitted and physically dominated by a morally triumphant Tony— in the old comics she successfully played him a few times, and always escaped him, and was never confessing her love for him while he pressed his hand around her neck.

I also do not like the decision to tell her origin story mostly through vague flashbacks to relationships she’s had with men, men who typically sell more comics than her, men who crowd up her page time. The villain’s plot, too, is basically elaborate slut-shaming, coupled with threats of rape and incest, it’s all extremely uncomfortable things to dwell on. I felt that like Richard K. Morgan, Paul Cornell inserted a lot of extra misogyny into her past for the sake of pointing out that misogyny. I realize and understand that the point of it is for Natasha to heroically subvert all this misogyny, to deny that she’s simply a serial girlfriend, the sum of a bunch of Marvel romances, but that is something that I think should be taken for granted. I’m not sure it needed to be said— and if it did, I don’t think there was the page space to accomplish it effectively combined with all else Cornell had to do.

There are things I appreciate about the series, chief among them Leon’s art. But I also like a few of the individual sequences, the themes of Natasha’s closing speech, the way Cornell plays around with history. I like especially that he got rid of much of that terrible child soldier origin, and the twist he did with Natasha joining up with Soviet intelligence to save Ivan’s life. I don’t think it’s all bad. But I do think it’s somewhat hopelessly cluttered, that it makes Natasha’s origin more desperately confusing and less tonally certain than it had to be.

I have a lot of similar misgivings with Morgan’s stuff, but I think Homecoming holds together better as a story. Morgan is also a lot of people’s favorite take on Natasha, so I felt obligated to include it, even if it isn’t mine. General opinion on Deadly Origin is mixed-at-best, and I see a fair bit of angry reaction posts about it, even now.

Hercules: The others say they have lost heart. Not I, of course.
Angel: 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-demo, half-human, half-westerner— out west to seek our fortune!

The primary appeal of the Champions was that they didn’t make much sense but tried to be heroes anyway. They weren’t A-list or awe-inspiring, but their hodgepodge nature lent them an anti-establishment, underdog appeal, and that’s why I think the fascination with the team in flashback has long outlived the original not-always good 17 issue run.

The Champions were also the first Marvel team to have a female leader, c. 1975. In the eighties, the X-men and Avengers would follow suit.

From Black Widow: Deadly Origin #3, by Paul Cornell and John Paul Leon.

Medic: Do you want to save your friend’s life just to give him a ticking clock?
Nick: ‘Tasha? It’s your decision.
Natasha: James actually prefers long odds… do it.
Medic: All right then…

Ivan: Just you fron now on…proud of you. My little girl—
Winter Soldier: The comrade needs medical treatment. My superiors offer you both this chemical in exchange for your renewed loyalty. It will heal him— and increase your life spans. But there is an extremely limited supply, comrades.
Ivan: Don’t…don’t…
Natasha: We say yes.

I wanted to highlight the way these two scenes mirror each other instead of pointing out how this just happened in the last arc of New Avengers. Both times we see Natasha in charge of administering immortality juice to some guy she loves with a hole in his chest, and both times she decides damn the future steroid testing, full speed ahead.

But there’s a huge difference: one of these scenes is a mistake, the kind of mistake you have to spend the rest of your life making up for. The other takes place 50 years later and is an escape from the consequences of a capital-e summer Event. So, heh, did Natasha learn anything in those fifty years?

Obviously, where she screwed up the first time was pledging herself to a lifetime of service to an oppressive black ops regime. But she also was paying more attention to what she wanted for Ivan than to what Ivan wanted for himself. Giving him that shot of comic book juice prolonged his life, but didn’t save it. Ivan just twisted up into a cruel shell of a person— he couldn’t cope with all that time. She couldn’t have known that, of course, but Ivan did tell her to say no. She didn’t listen.

With Bucky, at least, she makes reference to what he would want. The scenes work to such different purposes, I’m pretty sure there’s no echo intended. But the echo’s there anyway. The scene with Ivan was such a turning point for her, how could she not remember it when confronted with such a similar dilemna?

From Fear Itself #7.1 by Ed Brubaker and Butch Guice, & Black Widow: Deadly Origin #1, by Paul Cornell and John Paul Leon.