Tony: Here… let me help you… wha…? I can’t move!!
Natasha: This paralyzing gas will render you helpless just long enough, my handsome fool!
The next moment, as the sricken Stark slumps to his knees…
Natasha: If it can lift a safe… it can move a wall… ah! It is working!!
Guard: Hold it, lady! That’s a restricted area! Stop, or I’ll… holy smoke!
Natasha: Stay up there a while, little man and do not annoy me!

From Tales of Suspense #53, by Stan Lee, N. Kurok and Don Heck.

Marvel had hit after hit in 1963, bringing new characters and fresh concepts to a public primed and ready for heroes with feet of clay. And none touched both that heroic ideal and human reality like Iron Man! A jet-setter, playboy and brilliant scientist, Tony Stark had his life changed forever when a battlefield explosion ripped into his heart — and only the amazing Iron Man armor could keep him alive! Stan Lee and Don Heck built the foundation that would turn Iron Man into a cultural icon. Now, you can experience his earliest adventures in this Epic volume collecting their complete original run. Featuring the evolution of the Iron Man armor, and the first appearances of Hawkeye and the Black Widow, they’re true classics from cover to cover! Collecting material from TALES OF SUSPENSE (1959) #39-72.

Here’s a new paperback reprinting early Tales of Suspense stories. The “Epic Collections” seem to be a replacement for the discontinued “Essential Marvel” line. This volume contains all of Natasha’s early supervillain adventures, so it’s a nice buy for a completist. The Sting of the Widow hardcover skips from Natasha’s first appearance here to Amazing Spider-Man #86, missing a lot of stories and character development. My personal favorite Soviet spy Natasha story, Tales of Suspense #53, is rarely collected except in big volumes like this one.

Natasha: No matter what you do to me! I’m through serving your evil schemes!
Khrushchev: I thought you might react that way! And so, I took the liberty of bringing your parents here! If you have no fear for yourself, surely you don’t want the state to treat them as parents of a— traitor!
Natasha: Mother! Father! Oh, no!
Father: Do not fear for us, my daughter! Do what you feel is right!
Natasha: But I could not let any harm befall my parents! And so…

Natasha: And the warmth of my parents— my… parents… makes up for… no… no, that’s not right…

The classic Black Widow children’s story is Daredevil #88: in the hollows of Stalingrad, 1943, a soldier looking for his dead sister finds an orphan girl in the ruins. But before that issue, when she was bad Natasha had these nameless parents, that her masters threatened to keep her stick straight. This 1965 scene was the first hint at Natasha’s inevitable defection. Strangely, she never thought of her parents again, even after she left the Soviets for keeps. Even though at one point they’d been all that was keeping her for leaving. Then her backstory became something else, and it was easy to drift over this panel. Maybe Natasha had been lying about her change of heart, and about her parents. She’d lied to Hawkeye before.

Several retcons later, Paul Cornell and John Paul Leon wrapped it back into Natasha’s tangled history. Her parents weren’t real, but she thought they were, for a while. Notice how bit from Black Widow: Deadly Origins #2 clearly references Tales of Suspense #64.

From Tales of Suspense #64 by Stan Lee and Don Heck & Black Widow: Deadly Origin #2 by Paul Cornell and John Paul Leon.


Women in Marvel’s The Complete History of Black Widow (Part 1)

Welcome to Women in Marvel’s Complete History of Black Widow. We’re going through the complete history of everyone’s favorite super spy, Natalia Romanova. We’re starting from her humble beginnings as a silver age villain against Iron Man in Tales of Suspense, and going all the way to her current status as an Avenger with a troubled past on the path to atonement, and you know, all around ass kicker. 

This week we’re going from Black Widow’s origin in Tales of Suspense #52 (April, 1964) through Avengers #33 (October, 1966).

[History of Black Widow Index Page]

Read More

I’m sure most of you are already following Women in Marvel, but if you aren’t know that the blog is running a read-through of Natasha’s continuity from the very beginning.

I want to talk about Tales of Suspense #53 because it’s actually one of my very favorite Natasha issues. It’s inaccessible and dated and there’s the weird detour into the women and shiny things laws of attraction, but still. Tales of Suspense #53 takes place after Boris, but before Clint. It’s the one issue we see her being evil on her own, and also the trickiest to track down in reprint.

I think there’s a collective memory of the “bad” Natasha as a cruel seducer, a Soviet agent whose chief asset was her assets. Check out Deadly Origins flashback to this era: Natasha was all flirtation and fascination with Tony Stark. It’s hard to see a feminist character there, but I think in 1960s Stan Lee comics we don’t expect to.

But in this issue Natasha isn’t trying to seduce Tony Stark. (Marvel’s Silver Age was the Comics Code age, and the sexuality in these comics was pretty bloodless, anyhow.) Instead Natasha relies on sympathy, the promise that she’s reformed, and the expectation that Stark won’t take her seriously as a threat, because she is beautiful and a woman and these are things no one in this issue takes seriously.

Natasha: Of course, I might have to face Iron Man again! He beat me once… but this time it shall be different! Anthony Stark was interested in me before… Like most Americans, he is sympathetic… and therefore weak! This tender little note may revive his interest!

Natasha needs to do something spectacular to keep the KGB from destroying her, and she refuses to run away. No powers, no weapons, no qualms about taking on Iron Man alone. The theme of mistaking sympathy for weakness repeats itself at the end of the issue, and foreshadows that sympathy will be Natasha’s downfall and her saving grace.

Because Natasha is brilliant, here, specifically brilliant. Because her plans work.

Tony: I underestimated the Black Widow! I knew she was up to no good, but I had to pretend I trusted her… to learn what she was after! I never thought she’d move so fast… so unexpectedly! Well, she won round one from Tony Stark…

Even Silver Age Tony Stark is not stupid enough to fall totally for an unsolicited supervillain letter. But he’s still beaten, thoroughly outplayed, and consequently down one ultraweapon. It doesn’t actually stop when he puts on the Iron Man suit, either.

Tony: Late again! How can I ever catch up with her? She has the cunning of a fox, and the stolen power of one of the world’s most awesome weapons!!

Natasha, at this point, doesn’t have fighting skills or a costume, but she’s far more dangerous than the male partners she survives because of her brain. She is the intellectual equal of Tony Stark, and that’s what does him in, not her extremely fabulous hair. The point is made over and over: the reason Natasha’s new anti-grav ray is so dangerous is because she is the one using it.

Stansky: Let me have it now… I shall point it at that car and push the control lever!
Natasha: Stansky! You fool! Give it back to me! You have neither the skill, nor the intelligence!! No!!
Stansky: Silence, woman!

Natasha’s problem is that, in true evil mastermind fashion, she’s surrounded by idiots. On her own, she was beating Iron Man. But she’s not on her own, she’s a cog in a cruel and deeply patriarchal system. The KGB realizes she’s the most brilliant agent they have, but they do not reward it and they do not take her seriously. Her fearless leader addresses her as “my little pigeon,” like a granddaughter. And perhaps this lets her survive— in previous issues, Khrushchev was plotting the Crimson Dynamo’s downfall because he was jealous. But maybe not. He gives Natasha impossible orders, here, to punish her for failure, or for success.

The thing is, again, Natasha almost wins.

Tony: (She still has the anti-grav weapon! Perhaps I can outbluff her.) That ray won’t work against me!! Hand it over!!
Natasha: Nice try, Iron Man… But the Black Widow is not so gullible as that!
Tony: (Too late! She’s aimed it at me! I won’t resist! I’ll bide my time… save my energy… let her think I’m helpless! Then, I’ll strike when they least expect it!!)
Natasha: Igor! Stansky! Quick… Seize him while he’s helpless!
Tony: Good! I knew you’d grow too careless! When they passed between the ray and me, it broke the beam’s energy! And now…
Goons: He’s attacking!! We haven’t a chance! Run!!
Natasha: Come back you cowards! Wait!

The issue ends when Iron Man saves the cowardly goons and Natasha escapes to keep herself breathing. She wonders at the compassion Iron Man shows for his enemies when her own shadow masters reward her for, and with cruelty. Because Natasha’s problem in this issue isn’t really Iron Man. She has no problem beating him, and he would show her mercy if he ever did. She knows that, now. It makes her situation more dire.

Natasha’s problem is the system she survives in that does not let her live. She has learned to be mean, to mistake sympathy for weakness, that men will underestimate a pair of limpid eyes. She knows how to capitalize on the fact that she will not be taken seriously, but she is still damned by this. She is not allowed out without a chaperone. Her guards are cowards, and they do not take her orders.

She can’t go up without getting out; she can’t get out without going up.

Panels from Tales of Suspense #53, by Stan Lee, N. Korok, and Don Heck.

Tony: It might interest you to eavesdrop with me! Here’s a tiny pair of ear-plugs. Tune in and learn your reward for trying to destroy me! It will show you how trustworthy your leader is!
“Leader”: Remember, comrades! Seize Vanko the instant he returns, and machine-gun him! I cannot take any chances of the Crimson Dynamo being more popular than I! So Vanko must be liquidated!
Vanko: The unscrupulous scoundrel! So! Death was to be my reward for serving him!
Tony: Poor Vanko! He doesn’t know he really heard my voice, not his leader’s! When I left Vanko momentarily… I quickly recorded the speech he just heard on my tape machine! I was certain that he’d believe it— because he knows how treacherous all communists are!
Vanko: Thank you Iron Man! You have saved my life! I realize now that my scientific genious has been at the service of a savage, double-dealing system.
Tony: My ruse worked!

It’s tradition for these communist engineer villains to create machines that are bigger, stronger, and bulkier but lack the finesse of their American counterparts, and introduction to Crimson Dynamo rides that off into the sunset. Vanko’s mastery of electricity lets him build a suit of armor that might be a match for Iron Man’s, but the mysterious power of ~transistors~ make the Dynamo’s best weaponry useless. Stark gets Vanko to surrender by cooking up a bit of Mutually Assured Destruction: it becomes plain that Tony is willing to die for his cause, but Vanko is not.

Then Tony gets Vanko to defect by putting on a really good Khrushchev impersonation. Again, apparently the Premier’s secret (but not so secret they aren’t broadcast into Tony Stark’s headset) orders are given in English. The thing that’s really fascinating here is that Tony’s absolutely right— Khrushchev is definitely planning to kill Vanko because he needs to be the most popular boy at the dance. The story has shown us that, indeed, all commies are chronically suspicious of one another, and that there’s no room for scientific innovation under a “savage, double-dealing system.” Tony wasn’t just lying to Vanko, he was also telling the truth.

But he was also lying. And, in fact, when Vanko started sabotaging Stark labs, US government spooktypes thought that since his property seemed to be under perpetual communist attack, Tony Stark might be a communist. Stark had to record Vanko’s confession to clear himself. Governments are a threat to individual genius everywhere! But not as much in America as beyond the Red Curtain. Stark gives Vanko a job at his company, and they feast on communist gold. Meanwhile, in Russia, Khruschev starts throwing vases at his secretary.

When Natasha makes her first appearance, her assignment will be to capture the traitor Vanko.

From Tales of Suspense #46, by Stan Lee, R. Burns, and Don Heck.

Can you recognize the pudgy, scowling figure entering a strange laboratory just outside Moscow?
Leader: Guards! Follow me!
If you don’t, then you know nothing about the Cold War! For this stocky fellow is the “Mr. Big” of the Iron Curtain!
Guard: Here we are, excellency! The laboratory of the Crimson Dynamo!
Leader: How I hate this Professor Vanko… and fear him! But Vanko is the world’s greatest expert on electricity! So I must regretfully use him, and not liquidate him.
Vanko: Ah! Comrade Leader! I am honored by your presence!
Leader: Stop lying, Vanko! I am aware of your arrogance! You think you’re the cleverest man in the nation— even more ingenious and important than I!
Vanko: I, more important than our glorious leader? Surely you jest!

So, I’m starting a new blogging serial, All Commies are Chronically Suspicious. I’m hoping to examine the shifting stereotypes of Russia through the lens of Black Widow’s appearances. It’s not so much about Russia as it was, but Russia how American comic book imagined it.

To begin I’m actually trekking back to Tales of Suspense #46, a land where at least 50% of Russians are large men with larger mustaches, with the introduction of the Crimson Dynamo. Nikita Khrushchev is in this comic! He is pudgey, paranoid, and generally incompetent. Vanko puts together a standard “look what awesome things my robot armor can do” montage, and Khruschev is terrified and basically starts plotting to kill Vanko right there.

He also sends Vanko to destroy Iron Man.

Note that in strange laboratories just outside of Moscow, signs are apparently hung in English.

From Tales of Suspense #46, by Stan Lee, R. Burns, and Don Heck.

GRRM and Retroactive Continuity

So something on the internet happened and George R. R. Martin had an opinion about the Avengers movie. He liked it (he wouldn’t say he loved it) but he had some problems and those problems were codenamed Hawkeye and Black Widow.

Same’s true of the Black Widow. Scarlett Johanssen looked great in that outfit, but she seemed to be there only as eye candy. The shot in the middle of the battle where she pulls out a pistol was silly. I don’t know who this Black Widow was, and I don’t think the screenwriter did either. She wasn’t the original comic Black Widow, the Russian femme fatale who seduces Hawkeye into trying to kill Iron Man. She wasn’t the later comic book Black Widow, who dons a costume, comes over to the good guys, and teams with first Hawkeye and then Daredevil. She was just… there.

To me the idea that all Black Widow did was “look good in that outfit” is so absurd it doesn’t even warrant analysis— though if you’re fishing for that kind of thing see here. But the idea that there are two comic book Black Widows, the original villain version and then the later character whose defining trait was teaming up with Daredevil, I guess, is really interesting to me. All comic book characters have different iterations that reflect shifting cultural values: compare 1940s Captain America with Nixon-era Steve Rogers, for instance. And it’s true that female characters in the good old days were not allowed to be physically formidable— they were not shown to have super strength or martial arts moxie. It’s true again that Silver Age Iron Man was especially informed by a freedom-good-commies-bad Cold War mentality.

But the hero character of 1966 picked up directly from the villain of 1964. Natasha’s super-villain career was short and hardly iconic, but it does inform her later persona. We’re introduced to a liar’s liar, and the twist is that the cold Black Widow persona is itself a lie. Four issues in, and she’s given a tragic impetus and real feelings of love and remorse. Her Silver Age character arc ends with the reveal of her origin story. And then we understand what drove her to her past misdeeds and why she fights to atone for them. These were all Stan Lee era plotlines, following in sequence somewhat jerkily, but following in sequence none the less. And Natasha’s original twist remains her fundamental twist— not that she’s villainous, but that she’s heroic.

One of my favorite Black Widow stories is Tales of Suspense #53, which is generally a silly dispensable Iron Man story fraught with communist stereotypes and the patented Stan Lee melodramatic love triangle. This is Natasha’s second issue and her first as the Big Bad. She knows she can’t seduce Tony Stark, but she rightly figures she can play on his sympathies. Last issue he let her escape because she was “just a girl”, per his own inner monologue. This issue she returns, knocks him out, and steals his latest miracle technology. She proceeds to wreck all sorts of havoc with the thing, outwitting Iron Man at every turn. I just wanna emphasize: in the middle of the story she is winning, and it’s because she is cunning and smart and not because she has lovely eyes.

But then her (male) superiors come calling and they force her to team up with (male) goons, to take on an overambitious mission she doesn’t want but her duty compels her to try. And she comes up with a brilliant and totally nuts criminal mastermind plan anyway. It would have worked, too, except those same goons she didn’t want to be saddled with aren’t half as competent or half as smart as she is. They screw up Natasha’s plan and then abandon her. She gets away, but not without wondering briefly who she is fighting, and why.

Natasha: Stansky! You fool! Give it back to me! You have neither the skill, nor the intelligence!! No!!
Stansky: Silence, woman!

This isn’t like, a feminist text, or anything. It’s a Stan Lee comic from 1964, all the disclaimers. And I came to it as a reluctantly adult woman almost fifty years later, and I definitely saw things there that the ten year old boys it was written for didn’t. But I did see a terrifyingly smart woman written off repeatedly because of her gender, who used that sexist framework to her own advantage as best she could but was still ultimately undone by assumptions and personal loyalties. Personal loyalties that, incidentally, would ultimately function as her redemption, even as dudes continued to assume she was just there as eye-candy.

So, not like the movie at all.

Natasha: Very well, then! I’ll defeat you alone! This anti-grav ray makes me completely unbeatable!
Tony: She’s aiming the weapon at me again, with the control set at reverse!! I’m pinned down… can’t move!
Natasha: Farewell, Iron Man! This time my victory will be complete.
Racing outside, the Black Widow finds her cowardly co-spies, and then…
Henchman: You are raising the building! Why?
Natasha: Why? You blind fools! When I shut off the ray, the structure will fall, trapping Iron Man forever.

It’s typical to talk of Natasha’s early days in plainclothes honey-trap terms, but sex was so de-emphasized in those days of the Comics Code that it’s hard to see much seduction in her decoy dinner date with Tony Stark. When Natasha returned for her second appearance, the issue after her debut, she abandoned the womanly wiles routine entirely. Her leading trait in this issue is intelligence, not beauty— she outsmarts Tony Stark multiple times, by his own admission. In the end, she’s mainly undone by the incompetence of the bureaucracy that surrounds her, not because of Iron Man. Natasha gets away in the end, and Tony only gets a Pyrrhic victory.

It’s such an interesting portrayal, to me, especially given the gender politics of the times. The Black Widow of this early era was strangled by her glamour-girl disguise: she wouldn’t be shown entering the fray herself until several issues later, and women weren’t regularly shown to punch stuff until the early 1970s. (The first generation of Marvel superheroines— Jean Grey, Janet van Dyne, Sue Storm, Scarlet Witch— all had mental or utility powersets, nothing that demanded they wade into physical melee.) So, done up in lipstick and pearls, and not allowed to fight, Natasha had to go up against Iron Man using cunning alone. And she was successful— right up until the KGB saddled her with dudely accomplices half as clever and half as brave. Natasha was at her most formidable when she called her own shots, underestimated by friend and foe alike.

Which is so much more interesting to me than any retroactive seduction narrative. When you look at it like this, her defection from Russia becomes a clear metaphor for liberation, even before they realized it.

From Tales of Suspense #53, by Stan Lee, N. Korok, and Don Heck.