Clint: They can’t keep being so damn reckless, Nat. If they do, everything we built—
Natasha: Everything you built.
Clint: Stop—
Natasha: No, listen to me, Barton— you keep carrying all this on your shoulders, and it’s gonna screw up your posture. You did it, okay? After Chicago, I thought this was over, but you found this spot, you brought us here. You make it work, and run, every day. Whatever hope these people have, however safe they feel, any normalcy they’re able to carve out— you did that, so maybe stop worrying about your issues with millenials, or water filtration systems, and take a second to let yourself feel good about it, yeah?
Clint: So— you’re saying all that stuff about saving lives—
Natasha: It’s a vaguely attractive quality in a man, sure. Idiot. Now— close your eyes.

So, this happened.

From Secret Empire #1 by Nick Spencer and Steve McNiven.

Maria: Geez, that guy really is a great motivator— I’m jealous.
Natasha: Director Hill—
Maria: Relax, Romanov. If I wanted you arrested, you’d be doing that weird thing you do with your thumbs to get out of handcuffs by now. You might be on the outs with SHIELD officially, but this one is as off the books as they come. So for as long as Sharon, Steve and I are willing to look the other way— consider this a momentary truce. I just wanted to see how our savior’s doing.
Natasha: Frail. But motivated. You really think he’s got no shot?
Maria: Don’t joke. Everyone loyal to Denz got gassed before iPhones happened. At best, he’ll come up with a few hundred amateurs who were trying to avoid getting drafted into the other two armies. I could give them all Hulkbuster armor suits, and they’d get themselves killed setting off the airbags.
Natasha: So why go through all the trouble?
Maria: Two words— coordinated air strikes. Wait, is that three words? Doesn’t matter. Point is, SHIELD can’t help a butcher like Novoty beat HYDRA. But good old, loveable General Denz? Hero freedom fighter? Him we can drop a lot of bombs for.
Natasha: And when that helps Navoty take back his country?
Maria: This is not the house we live in, Nat— we can’t tell the neighbors what to make for dinner. Novoty might be the most underrated of history’s greatest monsters, but it’s him or the Red Skull. Of the two— which do you think shows up at our door first?

This is just about the first time we’ve seen Natasha outside of her own book since the universe reset. Bigger than that, it’s the first time we’ve seen Natasha interact with Maria Hill since she quit SHIELD at the end of the Edmondson/Noto run.

Spencer’s Maria Hill is even more of a jerk than most other versions, and she seems to lord her moral ambiguities over Natasha here, treating Natasha as almost naive. It’s at once very different from the dynamic they had in the Natasha’s last book, and very much the same classic asshole Maria Hill.

It makes sense: Natasha quit SHIELD to get away from missions like this one, to keep herself from becoming a necessary evil. But Maria Hill won’t quit SHIELD, or can’t. But the ruthless pragmatism that led to Natasha’s double betrayal is also something that’s keeping her out of prison. Maria can still use her.

(This is all complicated a bit by Nazi Steve’s moralizing voiceover, which I’m honestly not sure how to read. I wonder if Natasha’s going to appear more in this book or if this was just a one-off thing…)

From Captain America: Steve Rogers #7, by Nick Spencer and Jesús Saiz.

Nazi Steve: It’s good to have friends. People you can count on— even when the chips are down. Especially then. Natasha Romanov— the Black Widow— is a sort of friend. Not the kind you trust— but the kind you sometimes need.

Whatever you say, Nazi Steve.

From Captain America: Steve Rogers #7, by Nick Spencer and Jesús Saiz.

Issue #12 – The UPRISING continues!
• The Army of the Dead march at Morgan Le Fay’s command!
• The ragtag heroes of the new Euroforce team up with the Avengers to confront the menace lurking under Europe.

Issue #13 – The UPRISING continues!
• The Gorgon and the Dragon Temple of The Hand attack China!
• The Avengers and The Ascendant answer the call.

• Here we go again! It’s your one-stop entry point to the world of ALL-NEW MARVEL NOW! Loki embarks on a mission for Asgard! The Silver Surfer and Dawn experience the cosmic rays of Nautikos! A Kree Pursuer and her Special Forces team prepare to invade the Earth! The Black Widow goes undercover in Russia! And can even the Indestructible Hulk survive the aid and assistance of fellow Avengers Cannonball and Sunspot?

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.

A new roster and creative team for Secret Avengers has been announced. I have Thoughts, but I’ll pool them tomorrow after they talk about it at NYCC for realsies. For now, though, some words from new/old writer Nick Spencer about Natasha:

“She has a such a higher profile than ever. She’s kind of the leading female character at Marvel at this point.”

I think the search for the “leading female character at Marvel” is something people like to talk a lot about but doesn’t move the real conversation forward. Necessary disclaimer aside, Spencer’s statement is generally the position of this blog. The further position of this blog, of course, is that it’s really messed up that they haven’t given her a book or spotlight title (until now?!?!)

Lori: Hold on— I didn’t start all this up, you know. My husband, this was his baby. He was more the mischievous type; loved taking politicians and celebrities down a notch, funny guy. Anyway, he was taking flying lessons, something went wrong. Nothing heroic, I know. But I keep the lights on for him.
Natasha: You’ll forgive me, but—
Lori: Did you notice not one of them mentioned all of your friends that hadn’t gotten up out of their graves yet? This generation… they love their cynicism, don’t they?

I like this issue a lot less in hindsight— this issue said I’d read previously on the internet about Comic Book Death, but not very much about Natasha. And she has such a relationship with love and loss. Because her past is riddled with death, and not just the crossover fakeout kind. The capes and spandex Avengers business is actually a comparatively small part of her life story. Before that she was a spy, and a soldier, her hometown a graveyard for over a million, and an orphan besides. Widowhood is a central theme of her character, and she always, always conscious of the nearness of death, of her own morality. That’s the only reason she survived this long.

But that didn’t really come across here.

From Secret Avengers #15, by Nick Spencer and Scot Eaton.