did u see the buckynat tease in thunderbolts #6?

I did.  Thunderbolts #5, for reference:

Natasha: Zvezda moya… I love watching you get ready for work.

It’s… kind of an odd scene to me, tbh, since I don’t think Natasha’s attraction to Bucky/Winter Soldier was ever how good he is at killing people, even back in the USSR. Really the opposite.

But at least we now know Bucky’s hair is officially longer than it was when he was brainwashed. It’s important to keep track of these things.

Natasha and Bucky is another one that people ask about. Natasha’s memories got wiped and all this stuff, and I’m like, Mark Waid and Chris Samnee are doing the Black Widow book, and I don’t want to intrude on their territory. We’re all in the sandbox here together. But! At some point in time, if it’s viable and it works, and/or it dovetails with what they’re doing in a way that improves the whole, then let’s do it.

Jim Zub, on the possibility of Natasha appearing in Thunderbolts

Is there anyway you could write a rundown of Yelena Belova’s history in comics, including the stuff with Thunderbolts even though that was supposedly Natasha?

This post is a pretty thorough rundown of Yelena’s stories and origins, and it’s long enough that it would be silly to type it all out again. It covers the Thunderbolts stint, but since you asked, I’ll elaborate on that a bit more.

The original Thunderbolts was a team of new heroes who, plot twist, were really a team of old villains in disguise. The next plot twist was: some of them came to like it, came to want to do the hero thing for real. Natasha played a part in some of the earliest Thunderbolts issues, and I wrote about that because they’re some of my personal favs.

Anyway, by the time Dark Reign rolled around, the Thunderbolts concept had been retooled a few times, and now it was about Norman Osborn’s group of d-list assassins! This was during a badend period of the Marvel Universe, when Osborn was running HAMMER (née SHIELD) and most heroes had been forced underground. The art style was exagerated blacks and masculine lines and the tone was that military noir that was so popular in the midlate 2000s era. Yelena was the first recruit, picked to lead this killsquad:

How would you like to lead the Thunderbolts?

Anyway, there were a few wetworks missions and an awkward Deadpool crossover before this run came to a premature end— the creative team got promoted to Daredevil. For a killsquad, though, they didn’t seem to kill anyone. That was by design: Yelena was a double agent, working for Nick Fury. From that reveal forward, the plot twists piled up. This summary is just focused on the Black Widow stuff, but stuff like “Nuke is the new Scourge!!” happened too. Hang on to your hats, because it’s gonna get complicated.

First: Yelena wasn’t just a double agent, she was also Natasha, in disguise. She’d caught Norman Osborn snooping on Yelena’s SHIELD file, and passed herself off as Yelena in order to infiltrate his new Thunderbolts squad. And it wasn’t a case of Yelena “supposedly” being Natasha the whole time, the comic was pretty explicit about it.

Melissa: I don’t understand any of this… if you’re really Natasha Romanova, how long were you a double agent?
Natasha: From the very beginning.

So, none of that was Yelena.

Then: the Nick Fury Natasha was working for wasn’t Nick Fury, it was Norman Osborn disguised as Nick Fury!! So Natasha was pretending to be working for Osborn while really working for Osborn pretending to be Fury, This made no sense and also made Natasha look incompetent, so I was pretty ticked off at the time. But the mistaken identity complex harkened back to those original Thunderbolts stories. Captured at the end of it all, Natasha makes a last plea to her team’s better natures, to the fundamental thread of the Thunderbolts— and calling back to Thunderbolts #9.

Now, Yelena was assumed dead after being turned into a Super-Adaptoid and exploding in New Avengers Annual #1. Her “appearances” in Thunderbolts lampshaded that— Natasha-as-Yelena waved it away as one of those fake spy deaths, the kind they want you to believe in. But with her cover blown, Natasha talks about Yelena in the past tense. She thinks Yelena is dead, too. But she wasn’t exactly correct.

In the promotional press for this book, before the twists were revealed, Diggle, the writer, said that Black Widow was his favorite character, and pointed to Yelena’s recent appearances in Marvel Comics Presents as evidence that she wasn’t really dead. Did that mean that the Yelena in that story was also Natasha in disguise? But wait, there’s more—

I’m thinking what this team needs is some new blood… starting with the real Yelena Belova!

Because he final twist of this Thunderbolts run was that Norman Osborn had the real Yelena Belova in his closet the entire time. She’s in a Winter Soldier style tube, close-lipped and motionless. How she got into Norman Osborn’s freezer aisle is not explained. She “died” after being turned into a science experiment by HYDRA and AIM, so it maybe they kept her preserved, but then how do you explain the Marvel Comics Presents appearances? Maybe it was skrulls. (No, I’m serious, for a long time I thought the best way to explain the adaptoid thing was skrulls.)

So, anyway, Yelena appears in Thunderbolts for a total of one page. She’s unconscious. It’s kind of a rip off. They take her out of the tube in v2 of Secret Avengers, a comic that was wiped from everyone’s brain.

Panels from Thunderbolts #128, #135, & #136.

Natasha: Clint is so frustrated. I know how personally he takes failure. And I know how stubborn he is about finishing what he starts. My plan was to sneak in and sneak out. But…

Perhaps I could help you with at least one of your problems?
Clint: Tasha? We didn’t do nothin’— I swear!
Natasha: Actually, I came because I needed the Thunderbolts’ help!
Clint: Yeah? Whatever we can do, pretty lady!
Bert: Uhm… Exuse me— isn’t anyone concened how she got past our security systems?
Abe: Dude, she’s the Black Widow!

Damn right.

From Thunderbolts #43, by Fabian Nicieza & Kurt Busiek and Mark Bagley.

In honor of the Avengers movie, I’ll be posting about Black Widow for awhile



Kind of counts?   She led the team for like a year.  And under false pretenses, which makes her like some kind of double-Thunderbolt.  My only question was what took her so long. 

Tony Stark as Cobalt Man counts too.  Even if he screwed up and called them the Thundercats that one time.  Nobody’s perfect.

Well, yes she led the team for a year, but that was mostly to neuter it, and we didn’t even realize it was her until she had to GTFO. Same for Tony — neither of them were on the team with the same level of affiliation as, say, Hawkeye or Luke Cage, or even Norman Osborn. 

Stark and Natasha joined under the pretense of being interested in the group to serve specific exterior motives on behalf of other parties. For me, that sets them apart from even the most self-interested, sociopathic criminals to ever don the bolt. 

This is not necessarily a bad thing.

I have a lot of issues with the Diggle run in Thunderbolts; I didn’t think the rushed ending lived up to the build-up, and I generally really liked the build-up, so there’s kind of a double-crushed nerdfrustration motivating my writings, here, but—

What were Natasha’s exterior motivations? The textual premise says she was recruited to infiltrate the team for Nick Fury (who was actually Norman Osborn, ~plot twist~) and to provide intel back to him. Osborn explains that he wanted to figure out if his shiny new killsquad was loyal to him, so he tricked Natasha into doing it for him. That… well, I think that’s some bullshit, because there’s no way Natasha would work with fake Nick for months without noticing something was up, especially since she was in contact with the actual Nick Fury in other books at the time. In any case, she certainly didn’t think her mission was getting intel on the team for Norman Osborn.

Her mission is getting them to flip on Osborn. And notice, though she tells fake Fury that there’s no real hope on that score, that isn’t what she tells them in the next issue.

The thing is, if getting the other members to flip is her goal, not only is she successful— because O’Grady, Ghost, Paladin and Headsman do— but her mission is the Thunderbolts credo. Since the Thunderbolts are really about reformation and not Norman Osborn’s secret assassin squad, you could make the argument that Natasha was the one real Thunderbolt, even though she was incognito the entire time. It’s not coincidence that Diggle’s finale has Natasha teaming up with Songbird (and Fixer and Abe, sort of) against the Osbolts.

That’s not to say her involvement with the Thunderbolts isn’t heavily asterisked!! She isn’t Hawkeye, or Luke Cage, Avengers who joined the team under their own names without false pretenses. I can definitely see why she wouldn’t be included in an official member list. But I think there was more to it than there was with Cobolt Tony.

Our Princess is in Another Refrigerator

The topic of this first women write about comics blogamafest is Women in in Refrigerators, 13 years later. (Subtitle: the freezerburn.) I tackled a lot of what I think about WiR previously, so today I’m going to talk more about what other people think. And then I’m going to tell you what I think again, because I don’t shut up.

In August of 2009, Natasha was appearing in three books: Captain America, Invincible Iron Man, and Thunderbolts. In August of 2009, Natasha was captured in each one of them by the same Norman Osborn. And in August of 2009, quite a few people cried refrigerator.

Think about that. Women in Refrigerators struck such a vital nerve that it assimilated into the geekspeak. We have a shorthand for “women in comics are constantly run over by the bus of male narrative"— we can just say fridged, and people will understand. That’s an amazingly powerful thing.

The flipside of that is that people cry refrigerator, they invoke a powerful trope without thinking about its context, and it becomes a meme more than a critical vocabulary. Here’s the thing about superheroes: they punch things. People get punched. Danger is the genre’s middle name. A woman isn’t fridged just because she’s captured, and female characters need to triumph over impossible odds just like their dudelier counterparts, and sometimes, that shit is going to get bloody. To say otherwise is to cultivate a myth of feminine fragility. I once had an argument with a man about ladies getting bloody noses in his comics. At first I thought he was complaining about the visceral violence of it, how unsettling it was when that violence was applied to women. But then I realized he was just complaining because it made them un-hot.

To me, there are really three things about fridging that become apparent in the rear-view mirror:

  • Women suffer status-quo altering acts of violence in stories that aren’t about them.
  • There’s a sexual element to the constant threat of violence when ladies are involved.
  • This kind of thing? It happens a lot.

So let’s measure those refrigerators.

Natasha: Just tell us what you want, Osborn, so we can turn you down and get back to our cells.

Of all the "Captured by Osborn” scenarios Captain America Reborn #2 was the least objectionable. It happened as a mid-arc setback, because the heroes went on fighting valiantly against well-delineated, impossible odds. We know the male lead would have suffered the exact same fate, because there he is, suffering the exact same fate. This single incident of distress happens as part of a longer meta-narrative that has Natasha help defeat the bad guy ultimo with a score of assembled Avengers, and regular readers of Captain America have seen Natasha save the day more than once.

In short, this is not the fridge you are looking for.

Invincible Iron Man #17 was quite a bit worse. Natasha appeared here mostly for movie quota special collectors issue purposes— she certainly didn’t do any spying. For most of the arc, she was mean to Maria Hill, then she got both herself and Hill captured. Rather than fighting their way out, both überspies are rescued by Pepper Potts. Despite Natasha and Maria’s repeated claims of impossible odds, the only villains they face are nameless HAMMER agents, the Big Bad Osborn and B Villain Madame Mask were reserved for Tony Stark and Ms. Potts respectively.

But I don’t think this is a refrigerator, either. No lasting character damage— not much in the way of character, period. Contemporary reaction to the arc was, “why was Black Widow there?” The hindsight is 20/20 reaction says, wow, Natasha and Maria should just make out already.

Osborn: Get these women out of my sight. Ship Romanova to a HAMMER interrogation unit. I’ll attend to her myself.
Scourge: And Gold?
Osborn: Bring me her head. I’m thinking of having it mounted in my office. Oh, and Scourge…?
Scourge: Sir?
Osborn: Be sure to film it. I’ll want to review the footage later… when I’m alone.

Melissa and Natasha were the heroes of Diggle’s Thunderbolts run, in the sense that they were the good guys, the people the audience was meant to root for. They were not heroes in the sense that they got to stomp the villain. What they got was captured, sexually threatened, and rescued by men. There’s a special element of missed opportunity with this one, because the finale of the arc seemed to suggest the story might continue, with the women getting the chance to avenge themselves. But this was the final arc Diggle wrote on the title, and when Jeff Parker took over, the new Thunderbolts roster had no women on it at all.

Coincidence? Almost definitely. The end of Diggle’s Thunderbolts was rushed to all hell as the creative team left to do Daredevil. More coincidence: in each of these stories Natasha played little-to-no part in her own rescue. Even more coincidence: Bucky Barnes had a part to play in each of these stories, even the ones he’s not in. Maria Hill only approached Natasha as a means to get to her boyfriend, Norman Osborn promised to her in Thunderbolts to figure out where Bucky was. Again, Natasha was one of (and probably the) key member of the Diggle-era Thunderbolts. Bucky never appeared. But when Natasha was tied up and angry, Osborn wanted the dude-not-appearing-in-this picture more than the woman actively defying him.

Look, in Thunderbolts, the ample amounts of personal courage and cunning she’d displayed were undercut by walking straight into Osborn’s nonsensical just as keikaku. (Trans. note: keikaku means plan.) They were further undercut when she didn’t save herself, when Osborn revealed her as merely a pawn in his more important battles with more important dudes, and by not allowing Natasha and Mel the chance to avenge themselves, the narrative confirmed that.

But wait! This all happened in the context of Dark Reign, aka subtitled bad guys win and that’s the point. But even within the doom and gloom of Dark Reign, many heroes got their own shining moments of badass. (Nick Fury and Pepper Potts come to mind just in the issues that I’m scanning!) More disturbingly, Dark Reign was Warren Ellis’s Thunderbolts blown up to event-size. Songbird was the moral cornerstone of that series, and the one left behind when the whole thing went big time. Natasha Romanov, playing a part in three high-profile Dark Reign storylines, was confined to the text-only backups no one reads in Siege, the story of Osborn’s inevitable downfall. Melissa Gold, being the hero of the story Dark Reign was spawned from, did not appear in Siege at all. Written out of her own book, she had no place to even cameo.

Steve Rogers was dead though Secret Invasion and most of Dark Reign. But he played a starring role in Siege— the panels of his claimed-again shield flying towards Osborn’s helmeted head are probably the most frequently referenced panels of the don’t miss mini. And the truth is, that’s what readers wanted to see. That’s what would sell. And that’s the catch-22, because women’s narratives don’t sell, and are therefore expendable. But likewise, women’s narratives are expendable, therefore they don’t sell. Simone maintained that the point of Women in Refrigerators has always been: “if you demolish most of the characters girls like, then girls won’t read comics. That’s it!”

Women in Refrigerators is defined by its context. Barbara Gordon was fridged because she was paralyzed and sexually humiliated (if not worse) in a story that was in no way about Barbara Gordon. She reduced naked pictures and collateral damage in Jim Gordon’s private hell. But when Yale and Ostrander spun the story around, when they turned Barbara’s injury into a story of her own cunning, determination, and inner steel, they created the Oracle character many were sad to lose. That is the power of context.

There’s more context in the numbers. A lot of the power of Women in Refrigerators came from the length of the list, the grisly ends women have come to over and over again. Marvel cancels a low-selling title, nothing out of the ordinary. But when they axed X-23 (and Ghost Rider) they were left with zero (0) female leads. I don’t want to cry fridge and let loose the dogs of war, but I think that added up together, these stories become worse than the sum of their parts. The little stuff, it adds up, and if you’re not careful it can swallow up the good. You don’t need grisly murder and sexual threat to undermine a woman’s narrative, you just need to show her as consistantly less-competent than her male counterparts. That’s the true horror of Women in Refrigerators— even if we took away plot device deaths and Alex DeWitt’s strangled corpse, female characters would still have ample room to be treated as second class. Unplug the fridge, and you’re still left with last month’s electric bill.

Here’s some final context: the Natasha-gets-captured litany occurred during the ramp-up to Iron Man 2. This was a character Marvel was trying to promote, not trying to stuff into the refrigerator. How do you think they did?

Scans from Captain America: Reborn #2, Invincible Iron Man #17, and Thunderbolts #135.

Natasha: Welcome to Thunderbolts. You come highly commended. Ground staff will show you to quarters. Mission briefing in thirty.
Nuke: Ma’am.
Natasha: Call me sir.

I write a lot here about how Natasha isn’t just a one-dimensional pitiless instrument of asskicking. But the truth is she can pretend it very well when she has to.

From Thunderbolts #133, by Andy Diggle and Miguel Sepulveda.

Natasha: Tonight, Mister X will be attending grand opening of new opera house with Tyger Tiger, Madripoor’s absolute rule.
Paladin: Then the place’ll be crawling with security. How’re we supposed to get up close and personal?
Natasha: With these.
Paladin: Tights? Ya gotta be kidding me.

This incarnation of Thunderbolts was nicknamed Blunderbolts, but all of their successful missions happened when Natasha was in charge. And all of the missions that failed, while she was leader— the failure to kill Deadpool or Songbird or capture Spider-woman— happened because she deliberately sabotaged them. Most of the plans she came up with were amusingly convoluted.

From Thunderbolts #132, by Andy Diggle and Roberto De La Torre.

Natasha: I’m proud of you, Clint.
Clint: Yeah?
Natasha: This is a very hard road you have undertaken.
Clint: An’ we’ve been hittin’ a lot of potholes lately, too!
Natasha: Do you regret the endeavor?
Clint: Sure, ‘Tash, there’s days when it’s tough, but overall— this is the best thing I’ve ever done in my entire life!
Natasha: There’s something— someone— else, isn’t there?
Clint: You can tell?
Natasha: I know you. Even though she’s a bit young for you, Songbird seems like a good person…
Clint: Songbird? No— no—
Natasha: Uhm… Jolt is a teenager— and dead! Mach-2 and Atlas don’t seem your type… well, maybe Atlas.
Clint: ‘Tasha!
Natasha: No. Oh please, Clint, tell me it’s not… *sigh* — if falling in love with that harridan weren’t clue enough— it’s obvious now where your sympathies lie.

So NYCC announced not one but two new Avengers lineups featuring Natasha and Clint, who have actually never really been on a team together!! (Ikr? Closest was the confused Avengers non-lineup circa the Crossing.) Since Bagley is drawing one of the books I am using this as an excuse to repost some Thunderbolts, which highlights her real and ongoing respect for him and how far he’s come, casual Clint semi-nudity, and also that Natasha thinks Atlas is maybe his type.

From Thunderbolts #43, by Fabian Nicieza and Mark Bagley.