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.

Yelena: …As ordered, General.
General: Why aren’t you in uniform, Captain Belova?
Yelena: Begging the general’s pardon, but this is my uniform.
General: At ease. Your report, if you please, Captain.

Shades of Kate Kane, here. Continuity police wise, it’s interesting that this is her uniform: Yelena’s look is clearly a 90s midriff update of Natasha’s classic black catsuit. But Natasha didn’t adopt the black costume until well after she defected, the uniform they gave her was the fishnets. The Russian government is full of odd fashion choices.

From Black Widow: Pale Little Spider #3 by Greg Rucka and Igor Kordey.

Yelena: You can’t have my name. He gave it to me. And you took him from me.

This is Yelena’s origin— the moment she breaks Petra’s neck is the moment she becomes the Black Widow. Yelena’s ambition, her desire to be the greatest agent the Red Room ever trained, is what separates her from Natasha, and to a large degree her origin reflects that. But even though Yelena has trained all her life for this, she still needed to be pushed to this moment. Pale Little Spider is a murder mystery, with Yelena killing the killer and solving the paradox of her identity. But she doesn’t know that the whole thing, including the death of her mentor, was a set up by her handlers. A mirror of Natasha’s original origin.

From Black Widow: Pale Little Spider #3, by Greg Rucka and Igor Kordey.

Val: Listen to me, now, I know a guy, Maks… He was with GRU Third Directorate until a couple monts ago, working for one of the new software companies now. And he tells me that Yelena Belova isn’t just any spook… she’s the Black Widow, Maks. Maks, are you listening?
Maks: That’s not possible. That’s not possible, Val. There is no Black Widow. There is no Black Widow, it was Cold War fantasy, propaganda. She doesn’t exist…
Val: Maks…what if she does?

One day I will make a long post about public perceptions, secret identities, and the Black Widow as urban legends. Today, I will post these panels.

From Black Widow #2, by Greg Rucka and Igor Kordey.

Nikki: Starkovsky always thought you were a lesbian. So I thought I should ask.
Yelena: No, I’m not a lesbian. I’m not… anything.

I mentioned earlier that I had some problems with Richard K. Morgan’s reinvention of Yelena Belova as a sex worker, and I wanted to clarify that it’s not because I think sex work is “wrong” or “degrading”. Actually, the idea of a sex worker superheroine on a campaign against international trafficking of women is something that appeals to me like a lot.

It’s just difficult for me to see Yelena in this role, given her previously-shown attitudes re: sex and sexuality. I appreciated Rucka’s asexual Yelena as an inversion of the traditional tropes about spies and Russian women. You could probably mine the narrative for an empowering story of a young woman coming to embrace instead of dread sex, but Morgan didn’t contextualize any of his concept in Yelena. In Yelena’s characterization, in Yelena’s history. First she was one way, then she was quite another. It must make sense because she’s a ladyspy. And I can’t see a “one size fits all” approach to female sexuality as a positive thing.

From Black Widow: Pale Little Spider #2, by Greg Rucka and Igor Kordey.

Rooskaya: thoughts on Natasha and Yelena

From Black Widow #1, Greg Rucka/Igor Kordey.

It always surprises me when people think Yelena was introduced as a serious replacement for Natasha, the way Kyle Rayner was introduced as a replacement for Hal Jordan. Her early appearances, for the most part, were in stories where Natasha played at least an equal role. She has a solo MAX mini, written by Greg Rucka and (somewhat infamously) taking place mainly at a fetish club. But she appeared at a time when Natasha was getting a considerable push through the Marvel Knights line, which was big at the time and putting a focus on street-level characters like Natasha. Yelena was always the other Black Widow, not the new Black Widow.

But she is, I think, an intriguing character in her own right. An ambitious rookie with something to prove, blindly patriotic, brutal towards her enemies but loyal to her friends. Naive, sometimes, but very capable, very determined. That’s “my” Yelena, the Grayson/Rucka Yelena, not the Richard K. Morgan lingerie model.

There is some deliberate commentary on the old vs. new in terms of costuming and design. The 1999 J.G. Jones mini marked a return Natasha’s swinging seventies look— the first time sporting the long hair, half-updo, and basic black since about 1981. For much of the 1990s it was the short-haired greysuit, and then, briefly, a Joe Madueira diversion complete with requisite leg pouches. Yelena’s design has a similar 1990s feel: there’s the short hair, the Jim Lee middriff, weapons strapped to the belt and leg, instead of Natasha’s decidedly retro dangly gold belt-thing. The basic concept of Natasha is quite dated, metatextually. The cold war is over, and Iron Man must find new enemies to fight. And here comes Yelena, with all her post-Soviet spunk, challenging her right to be relevant.

That’s the central conflict of Grayson’s first mini, and her solution is a Natasha that has moved beyond national boundaries. The end of the Cold War means little to her because she gave that fight up before the USSR did. This Natasha is a soldier for a cause, not a country, and so her fight will never end.

This contrasts nicely with Yelena, the (blindly) loyal inheritor of the Black Widow title. The nickname Natasha gives to her— Rooskaya— means Russian, which is of course how Yelena chooses to present herself. But to identify, primarily, as Russian, is to supress your individuality. More because, well, there are millions of Russians, rather than the trope of Russia as a fundamentally collective consciousness. And uniqueness is a central question, here, as both women are claiming the one codename.

Devin Grayson: For me, the key note to Natasha’s character was discipline. This woman has been a spy most of her life, and before that, she was a Soviet/Russian trained ballerina – the control that kind of training takes is all but unimaginable to most of us, the grace and the economy, the absolute efficiency of every word and gesture. I spent a lot of time thinking about what it would mean to be able to do that, and what it would mean to complete that training and excel at that kind of work. At some level, you would have to give up a lot of what made you unique, because you would always have to be able to blend in, you could never risk leading your enemies back to your employers. But Natasha is a woman with a rich history and a wonderful, inherent sense of style – so what does it mean for her to be essentially able to suppress that? How long can you lie to other people about who you are and still be confident that you know yourself?

This is the question Natasha struggles with, and eventually finds an answer to. She has always been deeply motivated by love, by her connections to individuals, people, and not a devotion to a state. And that unconventional background gives her the strength to continue on, always fighting, always marching through the cold. She hasn’t been passively dragged into espionage no matter how the requisite bald jackass government stooge tried to put it. She lives this way because she made a decision to fight those requisite bald jackass government stooges. And in turn, she puts the question to Yelena: how are you unique? How will you survive?

She does this by being a condescending jerk.

I mean, if I were Yelena, I’d hate Natasha and all her passive aggressive “little one” master manipulator bullshit.

And then it gets worse. Greg Rucka comes onboard as co-writer, and things take a predictable turn for the brutal. Natasha kidnaps Yelena, and then in a “oh, comics!” style sci-fi twist, manages to switch their bodies somehow. (It’s uh, better than nano-STDs…) Yelena-as-Natasha is dazed and confused, and quickly finds herself muttering and homeless. Natasha-as-Yelena coolly foils a terrorist’s nuclear ambitions.

Eventually, of course, they switch back.

Natasha’s compassionate motivations are clear, but so is the cruelty of her methods, here. She is a manipulator against manipulators, a spy against spying, but that underlines her hypocrisy rather than excusing it. Natasha wouldn’t apologize: she’s ruthless. So what? But how can that answer possibly satisfy Yelena? I don’t think it can.

This is full circle from their first meeting, where Yelena accuses Natasha. “I have not forgotten what the Black Widow is at her core— a spy!” Now, we are to believe that Yelena finally understands what it means to be a spy.

Where she goes from here is an open question. I like the solution of Richard K. Morgan even if I remain iffy about his specifics: Yelena leaves espionage and creates a new life for herself, one that is uniquely hers. That is what Natasha wanted for her, and perhaps what Yelena wanted for herself, though she could not see it. Or maybe something else, maybe Yelena became and agent of SHIELD and of HYDRA, and later the super-adaptoid monster that perished fighting the New Avengers. Or maybe that was a lie, and she is now a freelance agent, fighting for no country, honing a mercenary instinct, currently living in a forgotten tube of Norman Osborn’s.

Yelena’s continuity has been a big question mark, really. There are, I think, two options: the one where Yelena quits, and the one where she doesn’t. A Yelena, who, like Natasha, navigates a compromise between individuality and espionage, who finds something unique to fight for, who fights because she loves fighting and not because the country she loves told her to. A Yelena with a legitimate reason to hate Natasha, who is, you know, keeping on keeping on with the wearing Yelena like she is just another evening gown.

I think there’s probably more storyline potential in option B, for the general “happy families are all alike” reasons. But mostly I’d like to see Yelena used again, against Natasha, or on her own. And I think their twisted mentor-cum-rival relationship is very interesting. Very unique.

In the end, I think the lesson here is, despite the seeming evidence to the contrary, is: the Russian government doesn’t make the Black Widow. The Black Widow makes the Black Widow, through her own choices, her own ambitions. Her own loves. It is up to us to make ourselves more than a name.

Detective: Come back here! Who the hell do you think you are? You just don’t strut into my morgue and tell me you’re hijacking my investigation! I don’t care what directorate you’re from, the GRU has no authority over the police—
Yelena: Fuck you!

I feel bad spamming fake Yelena. So here is some real Yelena!! She is to the point.

Black Widow #1, by Greg Rucka and Igor Kordey.