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.

Let’s Talk About Sexy

Okay tumblr, seatbelts, because it’s time for a Tale of Two Sexy: two Black Widow minis that could have featured awful Greg Horn covers (one did!), and sex, and going undercover at a fetish parlor because, sure, that makes sense.

Nikki: You think we are perverts, maybe? But nothing happens unless the client wants it to, you understand? We’re here for their fantasies, not ours.
Yelena: And Colonel Starkovsky’s fantasy? Was it to be whipped and beaten in the Red Room?
Nikki: Yes and no… his fantasy was you, Black Widow.

This is from Pale Little Spider, a Yelena story by Greg Rucka and Igor Kordey, that deals overtly with the sexiness of the spy genre, the parallels of fantasy between prostitution and espionage. It’s set at a sex club, there’s a reason it’s set at a sex club, and the setting forces the themes of power, consent, and identity. These are all classic Black Widow themes remixed, painted darker.

Kordey’s art is really perfect for this story. There’s a deliberate ugliness in his linework that highlights all the edges to this setting. And this is a story that wouldn’t work if Yelena’s bodylanguage were the same as Nikki’s. The women here have their own faces. This book was published under the MAX imprint, so they could have gone boobs out if they’d wanted, instead of teasing with conveniently placed sheets. But this story was about control, not titillation.

It’s not an easy story, but there’s substance.

Some Dude: Sounds good. Just watch your back, agent. Everyone else will be.

This is the Black Widow Strikes mini that we all know I hate, which also deals with themes of identity by submerging Natasha in various “sexy” personas. She dresses up as a fetish waitress, in a bikini, in this super revealing evening gown with weird shoes. She never loses herself in the identity of a schoolteacher, or a McDonalds cashier, but bad guys do charge in when she’s changing, “necessitating” a fight scene in underwear.

All the scantily clad stuff feels like a detour from the plot, not an expression of it, but it’s so omnipresent that it’s hard to tell what the plot is for. Look at the above panels where boobs are emphasized in panel after panel despite playing no part in the action of the scene. They’re emphasized because it’s assumed that is what we want to see. It’s the sort of sexy that depends merely on not wearing many clothes, not on mood, or intent, or expressions of desire.

This comic came out ten years after Pale Little Spider. I think comics in general or improving, or I’m desperate enough to make myself think so. But it’s not a simple linear progression from Reed Richards being a jerk to Carol Corps issue #17. (Though I am excited.)

I’m a woman, I’m straight, I read comics, and I can appreciate comics women being sexy because sometimes I want to be. But that kind of sexiness demands atmosphere, it needs mood, it has character. It isn’t about cartoon boob close-ups, or the vague visual promise of Scarlett Johansson naked. Tell me a story. Don’t take detours for cleavage. (I know what boobs look like, I have my own.) Make it complicated, make it fun. Give me something to chew on, to fall in love with. That’s sexy.

The trouble is, when comics say sexy, I don’t actually know what they mean.

I said I might do a giveaway for reaching the 2,000 follower milestone, so here’s comics, kid. This is the three issue Pale Little Spider 2002 mini by Greg Rucka and Igor Kordey— Yelena Belova’s origin story, and a must for anyone interested in the character. Relevant info:

  • Signed by Greg Rucka!
  • Issues will come bagged and boarded.
  • You don’t have to follow me to enter; this is more about me trying to share comics I like than me trying to get more followers.
  • Like or reblog to enter, like and reblog to enter twice.
  • I will ship wherever the US Postal Service will let me.
  • Winner will be selected via random number generator one week from today, on September 16, 2012 & notified via ask.

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.