Rooskaya (русская) means Russian. It’s the feminine form of the adjective. When Yelena first confronts Natasha, she’s full of patriot identities:
My name is Yelena Belova. And I am a student from the Red Room in Moscow. You remember it, then? Yes, I thought you would. And yes, it is still active. You are its greatest legend, Natalia Romanova, even though you are no longer truly Russian.
Natasha calls Yelena rooskaya because Yelena says that Natasha is not.
black widow (1999); “no, little one, you will not kill me today. you look forward to coming after me again. the game is your passion. and that’s what makes you unique.”
Natasha: You think what I did was cruel, but it is nothing compared with the savagery of our business. Yelena: Nothing? You call stealing my soul nothing? Natasha: You don’t understand… Yelena: I understand your arrogance, Natasha Romanoff. I understand that you think you are justified in your cruelties. But you are right. I do not understand the kind of monster who would rape me in this way. You stole everything from me… for your game. And I hope you burn in hell for it, Romanoff.
This sequence has so many sharp points. What strikes me on this reread is Natasha’s carefully-reckoned moral code— “it is nothing compared with the savagery of our business"— and how it unravels, like most codes do. Natasha’s strength, in the two Yelena stories, is meant to be her dispassion. She does not love her work, and so refuses to lose herself in it. But she has still suited herself to cruelties, and so she cannot always see them.
In this last confrontation, Yelena alone is allowed her whole face. But then, it is not her face.
From Black Widow: Breakdown #3, by Devin Grayson, Greg Rucka, and Scott Hampton.
Bixby: Wait…that’s it? You didn’t even tell me your name. Who are you? Yelena: I’m the Black Widow.
Yelena Belova came into comics in 1999, after a decade of pouches and ediger, contemporary replacement heroes. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the miniseries which crashed Yelena to Natasha also returned her to the 1970 all-blacks and half-bouffant, after near to two decades of short, angular hairstyles. Yelena had her middriff bare, Yelena used rifles instead of gadgets, Yelena was very 1999. She was also post-Soviet, young and hungry. Natasha was getting older, getting old; that 1999 mini saw her pass a birthday unremarked and unremembered. It also gave her an archfoe, something she hadn’t had for a while.
Yelena Belova was all these hard worn comic book trope: the edgy nineties replacement, the dark mirror. But because she was the Black Widow, none of that was colored in binaries. Natasha didn’t want to defend her codename— she wanted to save Yelena from it. Yelena wasn’t only the villain— she was also the wronged.
Natasha: We are not like Daredevil or the others, Yelena. We are not heroes. We are tools. And tools get used. I had to make you see that. It was not cruelty for cruelty’s sake. Yelena: Tell me, Natasha… if I pull the trigger, will I kill me, too?
While Grayson’s first volume drew Yelena as Natasha’s shadow, her second story moved from Yelena’s point of view. From this angle, Natasha seems impossible, inhuman, legendary. But also cruel.
What Natasha does is switch their faces around, making Yelena into the “real” Black Widow, unmaking Yelena. The shock of deep cover and careful training and unkind mirrors take all of that away from her— she breaks down into her human parts. Natasha reveals her ruse eventually, saying that she was moved by mercy. She wants teach Yelena that to be a spy, to be Black Widow, is to be used. Yelena in her ambition and naïveté believed, perhaps, that she could be better than replaceable. But she is also justifiably angry, to have her identity ripped away for the sake of a lesson she did not ask for. And in the end, it is personal, not because the two women share a codename, but because their relationship with that codename sets them at odds.
Yelena is the Black Widow by choice. Her past might be keeping secrets from her, and she might not understand the full dark of where her orders take her, but Yelena knows she wants this, still. She likes the danger, she likes to see her mission succeed. She knows she likes the feeling of completing a mission, winning. She likes to play the game, and likes that she is good at it. Yelena is a hero with no known and wounding trauma, nothing bleeding under her own skin to make her unsuited for any kind of life. She has a mother at home, waiting with messages on an answering machine, waiting to set her up with boys. When Natasha tells her to get out, it comes with the implication that she can.
Natasha is the traditional Marvel hero, filled up with ink and noble melancholy, gifted and cursed in one breath. She fights because she has to, because if she does not use her training someone else will use her. She did not choose to be Black Widow, that chose her. Natasha’s choice is to do good or something like it with the shapes of her old trauma. She made herself a hero, but she did not make herself.
They are both agents, holding on to agency.
Nikki: Maybe it’s your kink, that’s why. Starkovsky always thought you were a lesbian… so I thought I should ask. Yelena: No, I’m not a lesbian… I’m not… anything…
In 2003 Yelena appeared in a miniseries of her very own, a prequel story under the MAX imprint. The plotline reflects Natasha’s origin. Yelena’s superiors staged the death of a loved one to glue her loyalties together. But in a modern twist, the whole thing takes place in a sex club.
Yelena isn’t comfortable with any of it. She has never known romance, never let those emotions into her life. Yelena started training at fifteen, and she is not the sort to look sideways. Not every young girl wants romance, builds their lives around that first love. But even if Yelena’s outlook is agendered, asexual, the world she traps herself in, the world she wants, is not.
The book is set in a sex club because comics are obvious and there are many ways to be used. The madame, Nikki, turns out to be a high-ranking GRU agent in disguise; the whole thing is a masquerade. But it’s also, I think, a commentary on what the espionage genre wants from its women. Lady spies are meant to trade sexual favors for information, to use their thighs as much as their minds to extract information. Natasha’s canon is full of men like this, men who are usually super villains but sometimes fellow Avengers. Sometimes women, fictional women spin sexy poses into power. But Yelena finds none of this empowering, only uncomfortable, violating.
Igor Kordey’s art is voluptuous but rough, the women are differently and realistically proportioned, they stare back with sure lines and individual expression. (The covers, by Greg Horn, are another story.) The art’s humanity helps sell the anger Yelena feels when people take her uniform for bondage gear. If she has become a spy to leave a world of blind dates and gendered expectations, she has not left them all the way. But significantly, in none of these early stories does she use batted eyelashes to get her way. When Daredevil mistakenly kisses her, she pushes him away, spouting threats instead of instead of playing along. She tries to keep her own boundaries.
Yelena’s unbatted eyelashes mattered to me, in a genre pile-up where women’s weapons are their looks. This is a Black Widow blog, and I don’t mind the femme fatale tropes. But if every woman is flirty and dangerous, there’s no power left there, it becomes something that they have to be.
After Grayson and Rucka stopped writing Black Widow stories, Yelena disappeared. She also, somehow, kept appearing in comics.
Yelena: Thing is, Natasha, you’ve never known how to handle men right. You’ve got to learn to play them. Like with a big fish. They need to feel important, like they’re in control. You just find other ways to get ‘round them. Natasha: I don’t like games, ‘Lena. I never have. And I’m tired of deploying my body to get what I want. Yelena: Then, my dear, to quote Doctor Johnson, you are tired of life. Life as a woman, anyway.
Richard Morgan stripped Yelena of all her connections to the “real” Red Room, making her a mistake instead of a successor. “Oh— her,” says one of his expository devices. “Belova was an aberration. Nothing to do with the real Black Widow. I believe she models fetish lingerie these days.” When we do meet Yelena, her nipples are poking through a sheer evening dress, out of the spy game, Natasha’s chatty ally, and mistress of a soft-core porn empire.
Morgan wrote a potentially interesting character. A potentially interesting Black Widow, even, a woman who helps sex-trafficked women find ways to find medicine and work, whose way to beat the spy game is to not play it. Black Widow is all about the dangers and mean necessities of using the system to escape the system. But none of it felt like Yelena, whose passion was spying, who was troubled by sexual power, who had no reason to forgive Natasha and no reason to listen to her.
In any case, no other comics ever acknowledged the events of that mini, as though it were never in continuity in the first place. Yelena appeared around the same time in Bendis’s New Avengers series, part of a group of rogue SHIELD agents. The Avengers are confused, and don’t know who she is. Spider-Man helpfully informs us that “Black Widow’s a redhead with bigger—” but the identity crisis is done with quick. Yelena is burnt extra-crispy in a matter of pages, her mission remaining mysterious. She returns a few stories later, now armed with a set of Super-Adaptoid powers that turn her multicolored, and soon turn her into a pile of goo.
Yelena: Help m—
The sad thing about it, apart from, you know, Yelena dying in a storyline that had nothing to do with her, is that it could’ve had a lot to do with her. Yelena leaving her Russian masters for SHIELD is logical, given the place we last really saw her; even if Fury was using her, he makes a great sales pitch. Yelena taking on whoever would pay her, choosing to be loyal to nothing, as a way to beat the game, I could buy that, I could be interested. But Yelena thought she was better than Natasha because she was loyal, truly Russian, and there’s nothing thick to connect the dots and no space for them to matter.
The Super-Adaptoid powers are tragic, awful and fitting— Yelena gets a new codename, but again it is already someone else’s. She gains all the powers of her enemies, but none of her own, and when she fails, she is disposable. Her handlers, mysterious as always, mean as always, hit a self-destruct button, and she dissolves. Finally, in the end, she is not a person who made a choice, but a weapon to be disarmed. And given the heart of all Yelena’s old complications, that’s heartbreaking. But it isn’t this story that makes it so, this story makes her a villain-of-the-week, fighting the good guys because she is bad.
Yelena didn’t stay dead for long, something I work up to the simple appeal of her concept. She first showed in a Marvel Comics Presents twelve-parter in an expansive team-up no one read. Her adaptoid powers were gone, her return from the dead acknowledged but unexplained, and she performed the rote role of tough spy lady. Next Yelena turned up in Thunderbolts, seemingly the leader of Norman Osborn’s Dark Reign killsquad. Except that wasn’t Yelena, it was Natasha, using Yelena’s face again, making someone else’s identity into her own weapon. A few plot twists later and Osborn had the real Yelena trapped in artificial stasis. The stage was set for two teams of Thunderbolts, led by two Black Widows, for Yelena to earn some measure of revenge. But a new writer came on board, and that final panel of Yelena in stasis is the last we saw of her in that book.
Then comes the recent Secret Avengers volume, where Yelena was fished out of stasis by A.I.M. and invested as Minister of Defense in their new security council. Her reasons for joining A.I.M. are left unclear. Recall that in her first appearances Yelena was not a terrorist, but a Russian patriot, a ranking officer affiliated with a legitimate government, and that all of that was a source of pride. She had no connection to the entropy cult that seemed to move her new leaders. Yelena owed whoever saved her from that status tube, maybe. The spotlight issue on the A.I.M. security council does not show Yelena being recruited— it shows Yelena dealing with the expectation that she’d sleep with her boss.
But at this point, harassment, weird sadomasochist flirting with Nick Fury Jr, still-unexplained adaptoid powers, or not, I was glad to see Yelena again. I was glad to see her on panel.
Then, of course, Marvel went and killed her again.
Yelena’s cause of death: a labyrinth of plot twists that have nothing to do with Yelena. Bobbi Morse is rescued by Clint Barton, Bobbi Morse is escaping, the bad guys don’t want Bobbi Morse to escape, Bobbi and Yelena fight, Bobbi uses camotech to switch their appearances, bad guys shoot Bobbi, Clint Barton cries, and then, on the escape boat, the ruse is revealed. Yelena is dead, not Bobbi. Yelena is dead, so we can get a few fake-out panels of Clint Barton sobbing over his ex-wife’s corpse.
This issue promised the death of a Secret Avenger, and fans were worried Bobbi Morse was going to bite it. Bobbi Morse, you see, is a lot like Yelena Belova— a character who thrived under a few dedicated caretakers, but has since fallen into a chaotic non-direction. After Hawkeye and Mockingbird was cancelled and Widowmaker ended, Bobbi was beaten within an inch of her life and given a souped up Super Soldier Serum to save her. This could have been interesting— Bobbi spent time as a SHIELD biologist trying to duplicate the Serum, never intending to use it on herself. But that plot wound up nowhere. Secret Avengers decided to do something totally different, making her maybe psychic, maybe an A.I.M. sleeper agent all along. None of the questions this raises have been answered. When the book relaunched, Bobbi was left out of the line-up.
When Bobbi was going to die, her fans were irate: why end a character so hooked with potential, instead of exploring that potential? In this era of Marvel Now, we are being kinder to our women. More lady-led ongoings are being printed now than ever before, with more on the way. Some complain that they are the same female characters, over and over. Me, I don’t mind repetition. If Moon Knight gets a bunch of relaunches, why not Captain Marvel, why not Spider-Woman? But the Marvel Now woman fits a certain profile: she first hit it big in the 1970s or early 1980s, she has a very physical powerset, either martial arts or super-strength. She is probably white and probably straight.
I don’t suggest we take down the Marvel Now woman, but I do think the MU is a richer place when more sorts get to live there. Natasha is sitting relatively pretty right now. She has her own book, a hit movie out now and another one filming, membership in two different Avengers teams, and space in the current Avengers cartoon. But she’d be even better off if Yelena was still alive. Natasha is thirsty for a rogues gallery, and Yelena is her very best villain, her most personal, and most complex. If you want to launch a Black Widow comic, isn’t it better to have that card in the deck?
Instead, Yelena is dead and unmourned, and she has had a dagger of an ending. Natasha tried to tell Yelena that she would be used, that she’d be replaceable. And that is what she came to be— grist for the mill of other characters’ plot twists. She has died now, not once, but twice, wrapped in someone else’s powers, someone else’s appearance, killed by her own superiors. Secret Avengers #15 does not care enough about Yelena and her history to even show Natasha’s reaction to her death, even though Natasha is in the issue. We only see Clint’s temporary tears for Bobbi, so thoroughly is Yelena erased and unmentioned.
It is how comics work, I know. Characters, good characters, get drifted off to limbo all the time. The Marvel Universe is a wide and wonderful place but not large enough to contain all of its multitudes. Characters get introduced, they get developed, they get misused, they get forgotten, appearing first in bloodless cameos and then never appearing at all. I get it. I understand. Not every story can be every thing to every character. The Avengers need their casualties to remind us that these stories have stakes. That these stories matter. But to me, Yelena mattered, too. I wanted to remember her, so that someone would. So that maybe, someone will.
A bit more ideas on Metal Gear Widow to entertain myself during breaks, including a cleaner version of her design and a couple of busts of characters I think would definitely be featured in a MGS-esque Black Widow game, imo.
if i pull the trigger, will i kill me too? | no, only me
a natasha romanova/yelena belova breakdown mix
stolen roses karen elson calm me down mother mother these streets bastille seven devils florence + the machine zero yeah yeah yeahs birth in reverse st. vincent black balloon the kills (remix) power & control marina and the diamonds help! i’m alive metric the other side woodkid
Natasha: We… had to know what Stalyenko was doing, Yelena. We had to stop him. Yelena: There were other ways! Natasha: Yes, there were, but… I wanted you to understand, finally, what it meant to be a spy. We are not like Daredevil or the others, Yelena, we are not heroes. We are tools. And tools get used.
I think this is maybe what Whedon was talking about when he said: “She’s not a hero, you know, and it’s something that I read and I feel bad that I can’t remember who wrote the book, but it’s in one of the books explaining ‘These guys are heroes, you are a spy. It’s a different thing, it’s a different skill set, and you don’t have their moral high ground or any of that good stuff’ and that just makes her so interesting to me.” Or, I hope so, anyway, because if he’s basing Avengers 2 script on the Grayson/Rucka stuff, he’s doing it right.
I’ve written about the spy vs superhero thing before, but it drills down to this. Natasha became a superhero to escape her old spy life, but she can never get all the way out. The skills that the Red Room taught her are what let her be an Avenger. And as long as that’s so, the line between who she is and who she was will always be murky, grey.
After all, she still wears her old codename.
From Black Widow: Breakdown #3, by Devin Grayson & Greg Rucka and Scott Hampton.
This is tricky because I really don’t think anyone has done Yelena right since Grayson and Rucka. Writers have treated her as “substitute Natasha, but evil and blonde” or been Richard Morgan trying to fix Grayson and Rucka because he thought those stories were sexist…
But, here is a list of stuff Yelena has been in, so you can judge for yourself.
Black Widow: The Things They Say About Her #1-6
New Avengers Annual #1 (which is prequeled by Breakout, New Avengers #1-6 )
Marvel Comics Presents v2 #3-12 (the Vanguard arc)