black widow vol 2
The good Yelena stories are in the Itsy-Bitsy Spider TBP. Unfortunately, the Pale Little Spider MAX mini, which stars Yelena, hasn’t been collected.
The other two feature mostly as supporting characters. Monica Chang first appears in Ultimate Comics: Avengers, and then as a recurring character in Ultimates books.
Jessica Drew first appears as Black Widow in All-New Ultimates, and she has a few good moments in that book. But I’d recommend her earlier appearances as Spider-Woman to understand the character. She first shows up in the Ultimate Clone Saga, and continues to show up in Ultimate Spider-Man, then later joins the Ultimates when that book becomes Ultimate Comics: Ultimates. This TPB guide to the Ultimate Marvel Universe will give you the reading order.
For Claire Voyant, I recommend The Twelve.
I’m Very Bad at head-casting; I don’t have a deep vocabulary when it comes to actors, which is something this kind of fandom fun usually relies on. That’s a bit of a weasel answer. I’d like to see someone actually slavic cast in the role. But I’ve enjoyed Scarlett Johansson and Bridget Reagan in their roles— I like Natalie Dormer too and would be excited if she was cast. Lbr, though, I’d be excited if Yelena was cast at all.
The Soviet / post-Soviet contrast between Natasha and Yelena is probably not feasible in the MCU, even though the timeline in Captain America: Winter Soldier is a little warped. (Born in 1984, but working for the KGB?) That theme is probably less obvious and visceral now as it was in 1999. So on that level, the generation gap between Natasha and Yelena is less relevant.
Still, the goal for Yelena, in the beginning, was surpassing Natasha. She beat Natasha’s old Red Room test scores and was awarded the codename Black Widow after Natasha defected. Another theme of their early encounters was learned experience versus lived experience, something that Yelena can’t really embody if they were peers. You could still do a rivalry, still have Yelena determined to beat Natasha, but if Natasha’s always beaten Yelena at everything, if Yelena only got her legacy as a second choice, the stakes change. You have to introduce something else to make Yelena a heavier threat.
Maybe the thread could be that Natasha has spent so much time fighting robots, aliens, and Captain America that her actual spy skills have gotten soft, something Yelena takes advantage of. That Yelena would be a knife-sharp for a Natasha that is still figuring out how much of a hero she can be.
Black Widow – Breakdown (2001)
Okay, so: Natasha doesn’t usually have enhanced physical abilities beyond slowed aging, and Yelena was introduced when Black Widow didn’t have any powers at all. Pale Little Spider was a Yelena origin miniseries and there were no chemicals or serums involved, just intense physical training. Keep in mind that Yelena’s first appearance was in 1999, when it was still pretty concievable that Natasha could be the generic mid-thirties superhero age and still have been trained before the fall of the USSR in 1991.
In the original stories, Yelena operated under the auspices of the GRU, not the KGB, but there was implied institutional carry over. Yelena mentions Natasha’s test scores and constantly compares herself to the Red Room’s greatest student; Natasha knows Stalyenko, Yelena’s handler. Anyway, from these early appearances— it would be pretty straight-on to assume Yelena recieved the exact same training and even had some of the same teachers that Natasha did. And because this version of Natasha didn’t have any powers or treatments, this first, essential Yelena didn’t either.
Then things got complicated. Natasha suffered a series of retcons and unretcons that has made my job of explaining them much harder, and Yelena has never been written consistantly again. So!
Richard Morgan was the one who introduced the idea of “biochemical enhancements” into Black Widow canon, which in his stories were mostly cosmetic— Natasha didn’t get sunburned, her hair didn’t fall out, things like that. (Morgan’s Natasha might have aged more slowly, but she was specifically in her late thirties, not her late seventies.) Morgan was very clear that the ~real~ Red Room continued as 2R, a KGB splinter group, and was not the same thing as the Red Room that trained Yelena. Subsequently, the biotech that the original Black Widow operatives had was still the property of 2R, not the contemporary Marvel Universe GRU.
Yel—? Oh— her. Oh, my goodness, no. Belova was a, an aberration. Nothing to do with the real Black Widow program. I believe she models fetish lingerie these days.
I don’t think Morgan liked Yelena very much!
The next retcon, which happend in the late 2000s, established that Natasha got her aging slowed by a mysterious “chemical”, but doesn’t have any powers otherwise. This timeline locates Natasha’s Red Room training back in the mid 1950s, separating her graduation from Yelena’s by more than five decades. At that point, I think it’s pretty likely that the instruction Yelena had differed from Natasha’s signficantly. She might have gotten the same chemical treatments, but I’d say probably not.
But wait! Yelena has a whole other powerset that has nothing to do with all this.
Sometime off-panel, Yelena joined up with a rogue cell of SHIELD agents, who encountered the New Avengers in the Savage Land. Yelena was burned to a crisp by the Avengers team, but she was rescued by HYDRA, who turned her into a Super-Adaptoid, which is a kind of robot powered by the Cosmic Cube.
This is what I have to offer. Behind me are the greatest minds of Advanced Idea Mechanics. AIM has been working with us to better our cause. What they’ve been able to do is sythesize— they’ve synthesized this adaptoid’s unique biology. They know how he works. They say they can make you as powerful and beautiful as you deserve to be. You can strike back at these rebel heroes using their own powers to beat them… So… what say you, Black Widow?
As Super-Adaptoid, Yelena could absorb and copy powers, and she gradually turned into a super-strong flying lizard thing. Anyway, at the end of the story HYDRA destroyed Yelena, and she died for a while. When she came back without explanation in Marvel Comics Presents a few years later, she didn’t have the Adaptoid powers anymore. I’ve always felt that the Adaptoid Yelena was probably a skrull.1 However, the Adaptoid stuff was mentioned in her most recent appearances in Spencer’s Secret Avengers, so??? You’re basically free to choose your own adventure with Yelena, since that’s what Marvel has done.
TL:DR; I don’t think Yelena has the chemical that keeps Natasha young, but who knows. She might have Super-Adaptoid powers, but who knows.
Panels from Black Widow: Homecoming #4 and New Avengers Annual #1.
1. This sounds like a joke, but it’s not. The rogue SHIELD cell and HYDRA powerbrokers were part of Bendis’s slow build to skrulls everywhere. A skrull infiltrator would be more interested in joining SHIELD than actual Yelena, and Yelena became not dead with no explanation right after Secret Invasion. But this is Marvel Comics, where the perfect continuity can never be.
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.
Nikki: Only a virgin can muster such a caught-in-the-headlights look. I’m Nikki. You are?
Nikki: Top or bottom, Yelena?
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.
I assume this confusion is because she mentions early on that her parents live in Kiev.
You have turned your back on Russia! You are an American now, a super hero! I have parents back in Kiev waiting for me to make them proud. I have not forgotten what the Black Widow is at her core— a spy!
Of course, even as she mentions her parents in Kiev she clearly identifies as Russian. Her whole introductory monologue is all about her pure and unsullied Russian identity; that’s why Natasha calls her rooskaya/русская, which means the Russian. Yelena trained in Moscow and initially appears as an fiercely loyal agent of that state.
Now, why would she have parents in Ukraine, then? It’s tempting to write this off as another geography gaffe, since Marvel is not so good at non-U.S. cultures, customs, or locations. But I don’t think this needs to be the case here: there’s a large Russian diaspora in Ukraine. A significant minority in Kiev identify as Russian. We don’t know if Yelena was born in Ukraine or if her parents simply live there now.
Yelena was likely born before the collapse of the Soviet Union, and when she was introduced in 1999, it hadn’t happened terribly long ago. I think the possibility of Yelena growing up as a Russian in Kiev adds some interesting context to her initial fierce patriotism, especially if her parents were among the minority of Russians in Ukraine that did not support Ukranian independence in 1991. It would explain, I think, some of Yelena’s anger at Natasha’s loss of her “true Russian” identity.
Panel from Black Widow #1, by Devin Grayson and J.G. Jones.
“You have turned your back on Russia! You are an American now, a super hero! I have parents back in Kiev waiting for me to make them proud. I have not forgotten what the Black Widow is at her core — a spy!”