• More ladies, more problems. Featuring: The Girlfriend, the Work-Wife and the Ex-Wife.
• Plus the tracksuits are back and aim to kill.
• Good luck, Hawkeye.

Natasha is the “Work-Wife” in question, which doesn’t really fit as a description of their 616 relationship, imho. It suits fine as a direction they want to take the characters in, though.

I’ve been basically waiting for Aja to draw Black Widow since he said in one of those Marvel round-tables that she was his favorite Marvel lady. Then Secret Avengers teased me with an solicit that promised Natasha for an issue she didn’t appear in. Don’t let me down again, Marvel!!

More Secret Avengers

Nick Spencer, of course, wrote the book for the Fear Itself tie-in issues, and has done some other work at Marvel, which, imho, hasn’t lived up to the promise of his indie stuff. Luke Ross has drawn Natasha before, he was one of the artists of Brubaker’s Captain America run, but I think his stuff looks better when he’s not trying to line-up with Epting. So, let’s start off with the thing that rings alarm bells:

S.H.I.E.L.D. brings the biggest twist in their approach to the team — using similar technology to what the original Nick Fury employed in 2004-2005’s Secret War, the team’s memories of their adventures will be erased following each mission. Thus the existence of this Secret Avengers a secret to even the Avengers that are a part of it.

“Avengers make for terrible S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. They’re used to calling their own shots, you can’t really trust them with high intel because one of them goes bad every week, or turns out to be a Skrull,” Spencer said. “At the same time, they have mindwipe and memory implant technology. The trick is, the last time they did it, it blew up in their faces and basically set off a chain of events that brought down S.H.I.E.L.D. Of course, they’re going to try it again — the temptation to get their hands on weapons like the Hulk is just too great.”

This is the exact kind of abuse Natasha left espionage to escape, why she actually defected to the Avengers and not SHIELD, and why she would up quitting both for a time. That is her superhero origin story, through every needless retcon— she reclaimed her humanity from people who thought of her as a tool. So, any way you slice it, this is a giant leap back for her.

That’s not, intrinsically, a bad thing storywise; there’s always fertile ground in returning to the point of origin. There’s a reason Steve loses the Super Soldier Serum every now and again. Origins tend to get renewed, restated and thereby reinforced. And something like this certainly sets up a story like that. But the interview describes everything from SHIELD’s point of view, and my faith in Marvel re: Natasha is sort of at an all-time nadir. I’m honestly beginning to wonder, in my hyperbolic cynicism, if they think the point of her character is cleavage. And fighting. And cleavage. (I can’t actually look at Secret Avengers right now.)

You also have to wonder: Natasha doesn’t make for a terrible SHIELD agent, she’s actually the best they’ve ever had, the only one to be promoted to Level 10 besides Nick Fury Original Vanilla and Daisy Johnson, who only attained that rank on a gambit by Fury. Why would they want to brainwash her, or Bobbi, for that matter?

The new line-up is Natasha, Clint, Bobbi, Taskmaster, Maria Hill, “Iron Patriot”, Fury Jr, Hulk, and Coulson— with Fury Jr. and Coulson mentioned as quasi-leads. I like most of these characters and dislike any of them, but it’s still an odd duck of a line-up. The usual way to build a superhero team is to collect different skillsets. This makes some practical sense, but it also means, ideally, that no character feels useless because they all have a built-in role. One character can plan the missions, one character can smash things real hard, one character can turn invisible and sneak into the enemy base, &c &c. When all the characters have the same skillset, i.e. “SHIELD agent with minimal powers”, you have to find other ways to differentiate them. This can be done, either by specializing further (i.e. all the members of Bobbi’s WCA team had stated expertises) or by putting the focus elsewhere, making relationships and characterization really driving forces. I think Gail Simone’s first run on Birds of Prey worked this way: Helena and Dinah could easily feel redundant, but they didn’t, because it was as much about how they worked as personalities as how they worked as heroes.

The members of the team that play against type: Iron Patriot & Hulk, just contribute to the feeling that this is a hodge-podge decided by editorial committee for maximum MCU exposure, rather than a cohesive motivated whole. But that’s the twist. None of these characters want to be here, none have their own motivations for joining, they were, indeed, selected by a shadowy
backroom. How this will jive with Spencer’s stated desire to mess around with character dynamics in true Avengers soap-opera style, I’ve no idea.

One character I’m particularly worried about is Bobbi. I’m a huge Mockingbird fan, to no one’s surprise but those people in the tumblr tracked tags who think about everything in terms of ships. And, well:

Mockingbird: “Also known as Bobbie Chase, Hawkeye’s Ex-Wife. So we have some fun dynamics to play with there,” deadpans Spencer.

Bobbie Chase is an editor at DC Comics. (They’ve since amended it to read “Bobbie Morse”, which is an improvement but still wrong.) To make my eyebrow furrowing deeper, even in subsequent interviews where they get her name right, she’s overwhelmingly described in terms of her status as Clint’s ex. Don’t get me wrong, I like the relationship dynamics stuff as much as anyone, and I think you can write a really well-rounded treatment of Bobbi with Clint still in the picture. (See also: McCann’s Hawkeye and Mockingbird.) But there’s a lot more to her— her past as a SHIELD agent and biologist, her weird sojurn in the Savage Land, her constant flitting between identities, her very uneasy Avengers status, her recent injection with superstuff, her still-dangling family drama— that should get just as much interest as “used to date Clint”, but doesn’t. Spencer does say that he really loves the character and wanted to get her on a book, and more pagetime is a definite plus. Hopefully the actual comic won’t be as one-dimensional as two sentence blurbs.

Anyway, I was talking to a friend about Secret Avengers yesterday and described it as a “legacy of unrealized potential.” Even while I’ve liked this book I’ve felt it hasn’t been as good as it could be— the action and payoff too slowly paced, the characterization just slightly off, the random tie-in arcs featuring completely different characters. The exception was maybe the Ellis run, tragic mostly in its brevity. Hopefully the relaunch breaks that trend.

Freya: Ages agone, you were cast from the ranks of the Valkyrior. ANd before that, the shieldmaidens were forbidden to enter Midgard. And yet… my sisters— Gaea and Idunn— agree it is time for the Valkyrior to ride once more… and this time with a calling greater than simply ferrying the fallen to Valhalla. Eight women… selected as symbols as valor and honor and reward for those who adhere to their standard. Eight heroes… vigilant in their post against evil… fearless in the execution of their duties. But this time, they will not be chosen from the realm of Asgard. As our kingdom is now upon Midgard, so too shall our shieldmaidens be chosen from among the heroes of Midgard. Chosen— and commanded— by you.
Idunn: And don’t squander my apples this time.

The conclusion of Fearless also set things up for a new Lady Liberators, this go-round inspired by the mythological Valkyrior. To quote Cullen Bunn:

Those last couple of pages were what I was most excited about. And, yeah, while there were some specific characters shown as possibilities, it was never my intention that they would be the ONLY possibilities for a line-up. …I’d love to write something like that. It’s something that’s been in my head for a while and there’s definitely a longer story I’d like to tell. But if it’s something that readers want to see, they need to let Marvel know. I’m sure something will be done with the idea. How and where, though… I dunno.

I’m pretty lukewarm on the Lady Liberators as a concept, but this is a nice update that would give a clear direction for an all-female team, and tie into the current status quo of the MU.

From Fear Itself: The Fearless #12, by Cullen Bunn w/ Matt Fraction & Chris Yost and Paul Pelletier & Mark Bagley.

Steve: Clint… what do you want me to say? It’s Bucky Barnes. And what they did to him, the Russians, that wasn’t his fault.
Clint: Damn it… Look, at least tell me he didn’t whack JFK or anything.
Natasha: Don’t be ridiculous, that was the C.I.A.
Tony: Kennedy was a skrull.

This was a joke.

From Captain America #611, by Ed Brubaker and Daniel Acuña.

Bobbi: You came here in that thing?
Natasha: You two and movies and musicals. Made for each other.

I’m actually sort of surprised Natasha picked out the references to Star Wars and Les Misérables. Not because they’re so obscure omg, but Natasha grew up in 1940s Soviet Russia in a completely different pop culture context. And also because she clearly doesn’t appreciate the nerdery.

From Widowmaker #3, by Jim McCann and David López.

Natasha: And he just introduced Simon and Garfunkel while you were all picking up your jaws.
Clint: What? A reunion show? That son of a bitch. I’m gonna kill him twice for this.

Ahahah, she totally knows Clint’s taste in music. I am not sure why he is special-edition longhair Clint for one issue only, but there you go.

From Captain America #600, by Ed Brubaker and Butch Guice.

Greybox Bucky Monologue: It’s funny… in some ways, Steve accidentally cursed me when he told the cosmic cube to give me my memories back. He brought me back to the world but… it’s been hard to accept that I belong here. Sometimes I forget he was trying to save me…
Bucky: Very funny… I hope there’s some cake under all those candles, Natasha…
Natasha: You love it.
Greybox Bucky Monologue: …trying to give me a family again.
Bobbi: Wait. Aren’t you going to make a wish?
Bucky: Nah… I’m good.

I think it’s been said that Natasha’s probably the wrong person to tease him about his age. Something else: this is the first time Bucky calls her Natasha. He drops the formal “Natalia” from this point on in Brubaker’s stories.

I write the broken record in these little commentaries about the Past, the Past, and how it’s a living thing in this run, a giant flashback sequence that threatens to swallow the whole narrative. But that’s why this little bright-colored coda is so important. Every candle on that cake is a year gone by, something here to be celebrated, not just to escape from. Birthdays are about claiming the past in the name of the future, blowing out the candles, and making a wish.

Finally, from personal experience: crowding that many candles on a cake so small causes them to merge into a giant supercandle that melts really fast and covers the cake with a delicious sheet of wax. Do not try this at home, kids.

From Captain America #50 by Ed Bruabker and Luke Ross.

Clint: Happy birthday, Avenger!
New Avengers: Happy birthday!

This is almost a conclusion to Brubaker’s run on Captain America, the happy ending we’ll never get, a sequence where D’Armata’s colors are bright and warm for once and everyone is smiling. It’s a surprise birthday party for Bucky and Clint is still wearing his ninjasuit. There are a lot of things to remark upon about this scene. Did they have to tell the guy at the balloon store they were having an Iron Patriot party? Carol, I hope that is milk. And I definitely notice that with a bit of creative cropping this panel could be distinctly Carol/Natasha flavored.

During Dark Reign the New Avengers were borded up at Bucky’s house and generally making a mess of it. As a corellary, in Brubaker’s mind and according to his interviews, Natasha was living there, too. This isn’t borne out by anyone else’s work— Natasha has separate apartments in Invincible Iron Man and Deadly Origin, and she doesn’t cameo at all in the New Avengers takeout milieu. (Not even getting into the headache of Thunderbolts.) But there are a few of Brubaker’s scenes in Captain America that do really play off the premise, that Natasha’s always around and the Avengers are sort of there in the background.

And I wonder what that would have been like for her, interacting with this team but not being a part of it, even though she was an Avenger, even though her connections to the Avengers go back further than anyone’s there, save Clint, especially since her relation to the team has been at times quite complex. The New Avengers are also an especially close incarnation of the team— it’s a buddy book, more than a team book, in some ways. So what would it have been like, for her to shadow this fraternity of superheroes and not really be a part of it, even as her still-new relationship with James let her be more open than she had been in some whiles?

It’s not that I think Natasha ever feels left out, because solitude is second nature to her, it’s something she knows inside and out. And though she’s not as cold or removed as she sometimes lets on, I do think she likes quiet and privacy and probably wouldn’t appreciate a surprise party of her own.

But yes, Awkward Times with Clint and Bobbi. There were so many soap opera possibilities in that now blown-up apartment that never really got touched on.

From Captain America #50, by Ed Brubaker and Luke Ross.