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.