Natasha: I am at work. You will call me Black Widow.
Yelena: You have that wrong, Natalia. It is you who will call me Black Widow. That’s right. I am the first student in the history of the Red Room to surpass your marks. I may lack your experience, but I am your equal or better in every other respect.
Natasha: Or so it says on paper.
Yelena: You have turned your back on Russia! You are an American now, a super hero! I have parents in Kiev waiting for me to make them proud. I have not forgotten what the Black Widow is at her core— a spy!

First meeting, part II. In a few lines of dialogue you can see the major themes of this story introduced. Yelena is challenging the contradictions in Natasha, her loyalty, her character, how she can be so many things at once and still call herself Black Widow. How she can be so many things at once and call herself anything at all.

It also raises questions about the codename itself— always better suited to a villain than a hero, it has unsavory connotations. In the 1970s Natasha greatly feared becoming her namesake, and believed she was cursed to destroy everyone she loved. But here we’re seeing a mythology built up around the codename itself, that it means something specific, that it has to be earned. Retroactively, then, we’re getting a reason for Natasha to stick with it, even after defecting, even after her defection.

And then there’s Yelena’s trademark ambition mixed with naivete. “I have parents in Kiev waiting for me to make them proud.” Natasha seems rather bored an unimpressed by all this, doesn’t she?

Thoughts on Diggle’s Thunderbolts Run

To close out Thunderbolts week, I thought I would review Andy Diggle’s run that I’ve been spamming the past few days. Diggle had the admittedly thankless job of following Warren “Fucking” Ellis’s reinvention of the series, so he named his first arc after a Talking Heads song and brought in a whole new team of Z-listers.

Being the kind of person to run a Black Widow blog I was pretty excited to see Yelena Belova doing something besides being dead and/or the Super-Adaptoid. (Yeah, yeah, Marvel Comics Presents, but no one read that.) The first arc gave me a lot to like: I’ve been a fan of Roberto de la Torre’s art since the inaugural issues of Ms. Marvel, and they were well suited to Diggle’s twisty blend of espionage, politics, and people in green and purple halloween costumes. It was pitched as maybe the darkest part of Dark Reign, lacking the spandex theatrics of Bendis’s Dark Avengers title, and iamokwiththis.jpg.

The problems started with the Deadpool crossover. Look, it’s not just that I have an aversion to all things Daniel Way, because taken on its own, the Magnum Opus storyline was not horribly executed. Where it succeeded as a screwball romantic comedy, though, it failed at adding to the layers of intrigue set up in the first Thunderbolts arc. It was all Deadpool saying funny things and a group of five highly trained killers being constantly out-thought and out-quipped by Wade Wilson and his backup singer Taskmaster. Oh yeah, and Yelena got hit on a lot. That confused me, because the Yelena Belova I remember from Greg Rucka’s work was deeply uncomfortable with the world that saw her as something to be screwed. She had no sexual assertiveness, no wiles, and no sense of humor about those things. So what was up with that?

Then issue #132 happened, and I thought things were getting back on track. The focus was back on the Thunderbolts and their relationships and growing unease. So okay, Mr. X is gross, but they pulled some badassery in getting the guy recruited, instead of standing around stupefied by Deadpool’s amorous advances. Hey, this was progress, and I’d take it. And oh, yeah— I’d figured out what was up with Yelena. See, solicits and interviews had promised there was a team traitor, and smart money was on Yelena because it’s always the one who seemingly toes the line. Taskmaster mentioned something about her fighting style not being pure Red Room, and then there was the ballet. That wasn’t a nod to Yelena’s backstory, it was a nod to Natasha’s. I decided Natasha was probably pretending to be Yelena again, even though she was off in Taiwan being pissed at Bucky at the same time. Comics.

I’m not sure I’ve ever been so frustrated to be right.

Okay, it wasn’t the being right that frustrated me. It was just everything else about that arc. Diggle and de la Torre were both being exported to Daredevil for that— what was that plotline, exactly? No, I’m not remembering it and you can’t make me— and so they wrapped up all their dangling plotlines lickity-split and these suckers needed room to breathe. Or, you know, basic explanations. You can make me swallow a “Nick Fury was Norman Osborn all along pill” but you’d need a hell of a sugar spoonful to convince me that Natasha would. She was the only person to suspect Spider-woman prior to the “I’m the skrull queen!!” splash page, a woman whose middle name is paranoid and who was in semi-regular contact with the actual Nick Fury at the time.

Rant over, now for the no prize: I think that Natasha knew, or guessed, and went in anyway. She doesn’t need Nick Fury to tell her what to do, for one thing, and all of Norman’s “reports” from Yelena turned out to be crap, if he believed the team was loyal to him. But Natasha knew them better than that— she had some kind of faith. “Osborn is a monster. And you are not monsters.” That’s my story, sticking to it.

Where were we? It wasn’t that Natasha and Melissa got captured that killed me. It wasn’t even that they were tied up and promised torture and Norman promised he’d get off on it. This was a brutal arc of a brutal series and it didn’t pretend to be otherwise. It wasn’t that the art and plotting took a turn for the rushed right about then, though that really didn’t help.

But Natasha Romanova and Melissa Gold were the two heroes of Diggle’s Thunderbolts run, the only characters in that muted landscape of moral ambiguity that showed any kind of personal courage. Not physical bravery, but real goddamn super hero style courage, the kind that can only come from fighting for the right think and not just the easy one. And here we had this rare and magnificent chance for two women characters to team up and be awesome and not about retconned Sex and the City friendships or recovering from Avengers #200, but an actual team up that might have a profound effect on that one corner of the Marvel Universe, and they weren’t even allowed to save themselves.

To add insult to injury, the last two pages promised more, enough to wash down the taste of that particular bile.  Two teams of Thunderbolts led by two Black Widows fighting to define what the Thunderbolts is and should be? Tbolts: First Class vs. Dark Reign? Instead, Diggle left the title and left Yelena Belova in a tube. Which, is better than where we last saw her, but that says more about bad things than it does about good ones. I can’t blame Jeff Parker for not following up on plotlines he didn’t start, and I can’t really blame Andy Diggle for moving on to bigger assignments.

I can only point out that there’s no greater enemy to what was than what could have been.

I’m just glad I can speak using articles again.

I’m always glad for extra reminders that Natasha isn’t talkink like moose and squirrel despite her name being a bit of a Rocky and Bullwinkle reference. (Her first appearance was alongside a Boris, after all.)

But Yelena never had a thick accent, either, so, uh. I tend to think the accent, and “Yelena’s” general demeanor, weren’t so much Natasha’s take on Yelena, but what Norman Osborn wanted Yelena to be.

From Thunderbolts #135, Andy Diggle and Miguel Sepulveda.

Detective: Come back here! Who the hell do you think you are? You just don’t strut into my morgue and tell me you’re hijacking my investigation! I don’t care what directorate you’re from, the GRU has no authority over the police—
Yelena: Fuck you!

I feel bad spamming fake Yelena. So here is some real Yelena!! She is to the point.

Black Widow #1, by Greg Rucka and Igor Kordey.