Fury: Thing of it is, Daredevil, blondie sees things like you do… she thinks she’s a super hero… but Natasha, she’s the Black Widow. She’s the real deal. She knows espionage is a nasty business.
So here’s the question, that turns and keeps turning whenever discussion tries to define Natasha: is she a super hero, or is she a spy?
The answer has swung to all sides of the pendulum; like always, when it comes to the vast badlands of Marvel continuity, it depends on the decade. When Natasha quit SHIELD and washed the black dye out of her hair c. 1970, she vowed to leave spywork behind. Readers wondered if she’d ever return to undercover work for Nick Fury— “we prefer her as a superhero” wrote the letters column in response.
From a character standpoint, Natasha’s attempt to wrest herself from world of espionage made perfect sense, even if the comics of the time didn’t burden themselves overmuch with explaining it. Her life, lately, had been a wreck of failed relationships and compounded betrayals, and her spy career was at the heart of it. So Madame Natasha made a clean break and tried a new genre.
When I asked you to find someone whole to be… did it have to be a Western super hero?
It didn’t work. She was in full-on superhero mode through most of the seventies, but her past kept creeping back into stories, injecting elements of espionage whether Natasha wanted them or not. You can’t outrun your origin story. By the end of the decade, she’d rejoined SHIELD, and Frank Miller gave her a haircut and greysuit redesign to drum in the direction change.
In the early nineties Natasha was balancing her job as Avengers chairperson with semi-regular solo SHIELD assignments. (This was also around the time they retconned her into a WW2 adventure with Wolverine. Perhaps he taught her his secrets of time management?)
I think the current meme of “Natasha’s a spy, not a superhero” begins with the end of her Avengers tenure. The team blew up as part of a nineties crossover comic book stunt, and Natasha was stuck in a rut of survivor’s guilt. A few contemporary writers tried to spin it as her own incompetence, in the grand tradition of characters not named Captain America being made retroactively incompetent to speed Steve’s return to the post. But mostly, consensus interpretation became that Natasha was stuck with an awful situation no one could have prevented. (Since the universe shifted as a result of editorial fiat, this is mostly true.)
But Natasha blamed herself. She took it hard. Briefly, she threw herself headlong into the Avengers, but no one left shared her dedication, or they were grieving in their own ways. Then she turned to SHIELD assignments, trying to channel her rage into her work. Remember: she first threw herself into the spy game when her husband died, and for a time, his memory made her a fanatic. Grief has always been one of Natasha’s prime motivators— she’s the Black Widow, after all.
Natasha: You see, recently I reached the conclusion that I may not be all that good a superhero— but I’m still a very, very good spy.
I think this was a statement more borne of circumstance than of fact! But definitely, for the next couple years, Natasha’s solo stuff would steep itself in the more gritty, espionage elements. By the time we got to Morgan, he stripped her of her iconic gagetry, most of her costume, and was only using the word superhero as a dripping irony.
That didn’t last either. Because here’s the truth about the spy versus superhero question: Natasha’s both. That’s her conflict. That’s what makes her unique.
Shared universe serials are strange creatures. They can’t rely on beginnings and endings, or a constant tone or mood. Instead they’ve got characters, characters who have a bunch of wacky stuff happen to them. Character gets stretched, and character is flexible. I’m not saying we should stick Matt Murdock on the moon and make him a ninja space invader, but the shadowy street crime and bright wisecracking swashbuckling are equally Daredevil. And the one side of him wouldn’t be half as interesting if it didn’t have the other.
So it goes with Natasha, who can slip into grim Cold War fables and Central Park alien invasions alike. People are quick to dismiss superheroes as mere adolescent male fantasy, but they incorporate a vast vocabulary of pulp cliche, and that potential for mish-mash is part of the appeal.
That’s why the idea I occasionally run across, that Natasha should be limited to grimdark “realism”, in order to preserve her uniqueness, strikes me as bogus. Those stories can be great when you’ve got the right people making them, but they aren’t all she needs to be boxed into. Actually, it does her a huge disservice, because characters get less exposure when they’re not operating in the shared part of the shared universe. Her connections to franchises like Daredevil and Avengers kept her doing stuff in between solo stints.
Making her spy-only doesn’t actually make her unique, either, because the universe is thick with SHIELD foils to the spandex set, characters like Maria Hill and Sharon Carter, and the big one, Nick Fury. Natasha lacks Fury’s bureaucratic clout and his ability to turn up everywhere as a plot device. (A character needs something to do? Enter: Nick Fury. He’s always watching.)
Moreover— stripping a story of espionage elements doesn’t take away her background. If Natasha on an Avengers team becomes an amorphous blob of characterization with nothing to distinguish her from a lampshade, that’s bad writing, not the inevitable result of genrebending. Natasha’s KGB agent concept has never changed, from first appearance to next week’s releases. That has always been her past, always been her beginning.
And it absolutely effects how she operates as a superhero. The 616 is full of superheroes with espionage backgrounds— Jessica Drew and Carol Danvers, to start— but Natasha has nothing but her spy techniques and skills to rely on, no powers, so they come to the forefront often. Tricky bit is, they aren’t methods that suit themselves naturally to hero business. I’ll let Marjorie Liu explain:
It’s very interesting balancing both sides of that, because I won’t say that she’s torn. But there are old habits she can’t shake, and that she shouldn’t shake, really, that kept her alive all these years. But because she comes from that kind of old world, violent mentality, the people she deals with, they don’t always understand that. And so there’s conflict there— they aren’t always going to understand the way she does things. There’s some things they accept about her because she’s the Black Widow. Okay, she’s a spy, whatever. But when you get deeper into her character, you see the things she does, out of paranoia, out of pure survival, they step back a little bit. They say, why would you do that? Why would you do this? I thought we were friends. And so there’s a push and pull there between her personality and her training, and how the rest of the world works. They don’t always jive.
Tumblr user mizzelle asked Liu about the superhero-spy continuum, and I think her answer was fantastic.
Within the confines of this book, there’s really no difference. Mentally, she’s a very flexible person. It’s very seamless. She can go from being a spy to being a hero in one breath because that’s just who she is. Being a spy is so natural to her, she does it without even thinking. But she’s also got a good heart, deep down. She’s ruthless and she’s all of the above, but she’s not really a bad person. She knows the difference between right and wrong. She knows how to walk the grey ground. I’m not going to focus on some split in her personality: I’m a hero! I’m a spy! How do I reconcile? She is who she is.
Even as Natasha says she’s a very good spy, but not a good superhero— she’s doing something heroic, trusting semi-blindly instead of playing close to chest. When Nick Fury tells Daredevil that blondie’s got it all wrong, the spy business, Natasha was using every dirty trick in the book to save Yelena. She did it in a cruel and convoluted way, but her motives were genuine. They worked against her purpose. Natasha wanted to reinvent herself, to create a Western superhero life away from the stuff that almost broke her. But that life she used to have, the training that came with it, the lessons she learned from it, is what lets her fight the good fight at all.
I don’t think she’s conflicted, I think contradictions are just second nature. Duane Swierczynski had it pretty neatly, and so I’m just gonna roll that quote again.
From the very beginning, she had no say in her own destiny, which is a very noir, very dark kind of outlook on life. And yet, she fought back from that and has now taken her own life in her own hands again. I guess I respond to those kinds of characters. Characters that seem screwed, who are also talented but are put in a difficult position and who fight their way out of it. That’s what appeals to me about her. Despite the convoluted, difficult life, she’s come out on top. And now her mission, the way I see it, is that she wants to free other people from being controlled and used. That’s her thing, I believe, and why she is equally super hero as she is a spy.
Scans from Black Widow: Breakdown #3, Black Widow: Deadly Origin #3, and Thunderbolts #9.