Kongo: Ha! Kongo have hand! Kongo fight good!
Natasha: Kongo not count past one.
I’m going to say it: Secret Avengers #20 was the best Black Widow comic of the year.
That’s not such damnation via faint praise as it may seem at first glance. While 2011 saw the cancellation of her ongoing solo title, it also saw quite a few spotlight issues and one-shots, which I enjoyed to varying degrees. But Ellis’s run on Secret Avengers has been the kind of manual I can instantly point at as evidence of Natasha’s value to the wider context of the Marvel Universe and as an island entire unto herself.
Natasha: Look! Guns! The last one out of this bathroom gets sold to a rival cartel!
Sharon: Or Doctor Doom! Al-Qaeda! Al-Qaeda!
Natasha: Al-Qaeda? Really?
Sharon: “Hail HYDRA” just doesn’t do the trick.
The Ellis Secret Avengers formula is done-in-one shots, with assorted cast members as the mission demands and story specifics rigged to suit the strengths of the featured artist. So Michael Lark’s issue #19 is a gritty mystic drug bust, well-suited to the atmosphere of the dude best-known for Daredevil and Gotham Central and other street crime superhero comics. A fair portion of this story takes place in bathrooms and unglamorous hallways— it’s a far cry from McKelvie’s secret Escherian city of three issues before. But each issue suits its own mood, and the shift in artists lend the run a sort of genre flexibility, a wider scope, even as the high concept remains the same.
But even if each issue is its own standalone story with its own specific visual kinetics, the whole run is better understood in context of itself. Certain themes recur: every issue features a fight against the enigmatic (and evidently far-reaching) Shadow Council, and there’s the occupation with secrecy expressed in the book’s new-minted tagline: run the mission, don’t get seen, save the world. The ideas recur, too, including thoughts about time travel, the gut-wrenching necessity of sacrificing lives for the greater good, the relationship between superheroes and secrets, and jokes about Moon Knight’s mental stability.
Marc: Moon Knight to all points: this isn’t a drug. Trust me on this one.
Natasha: Trust someone who thinks he was brought back to life by an Egyptian god?
Sharon: Steve trusts him.
Natasha: Steve’s been hit in the head a lot over the years.
The seeming tension between Steve and Natasha was one of the things I had questions about with Ellis’s first issue. Was it thanks to the recent Fear Itself mess re: Bucky? A one-time quirk of dialogue? But I think five issues in to the Ellis run, I can say it’s a deliberate choice. Steve chides Natasha’s perceived arrogance in the two issues they team up, and Natasha’s the only Avenger to casually criticize Steve’s leadership.
With issue #18, I think we saw the roots of Steve’s determined perfectionism, the burden of leadership and unknowing that makes him suspect the worst as a point of responsibility. And in issue #20, we see the roots of Natasha’s seeming snobbery, her comfortable and tragic world-weariness. It’s an interesting dynamic. Natasha’s slotted into the Hawkeye role of loyal opposition, but instead of practiced veteran and cocky upstart, its practiced upstart and cocky veteran. Because Steve’s perfectionism is a beginner’s perfectionism, and his vigilance is the vigilance of a man who has seen and done much but still feels a creeping moral unwelcome to the shadowy world of espionage. And Natasha’s arrogance is the arrogance of a woman who has breathed in that world for decades, who knows what it is and how to step and that she must take her pleasures where she can find them. It’s a rare writer who is willing to write Black Widow as more experienced than Captain America, but she simply is. And Steve is playing in her genre-pool and getting a bit spooked. They all are, really.
To be sure, Ellis’s Natasha is a bit sharper than most interpretations, probably because he writes a bit sharper than most, but it’s a deliberate sort of sharpness. As we see Secret Avengers #20 unfold, we understand her bored and haughty persona as half-truth (she’s been doing this forever) and half coping mechanism (she’s been doing this, forever). Natasha can’t fathom Hank’s fascination with time travel, and talking about it, because she simply has too much past. And stories about time have a way of being stories about timelessness.
Here is what happens in Secret Avengers #20. First, everyone else dies. Natasha has a time travel device. She can save them. But she can’t let time know she’s doing it.
Hank: But, again, she can’t land at a point that means, going forward, that two of her are running around.
Natasha: God, I hate time travel.
Hank: I bet you wish your friend had never mentioned it. Imagine how much more complicated it might be to change time in such a way that you appear not to have changed time.
Natasha: Keep talking.
It gets complicated.
The most notable stop on the non-linear narrative express will be the sixties time travel sequence done up like Modesty Blaise strips. The pastiche is a clever way to visually represent the flashback, but there’s a heft that goes beyond the reference. The first elaborations on Natasha’s backstory, in 1970, were in the mode of Modesty, so it’s a swing back to the archetypical root. But the reference and its deliberate datedness also call attention to the nostalgia of the Black Widow concept. In the Marvel Universe, Nazis will go on forever, and the commies are behind the sub-prime lending crisis, but outside the 616 the Cold War is over and it’s been over for a long time. Where then, does that leave Black Widow, Cold War pop culture ghost?
The passage of time is marked distinctly in this issue, pasted regularly in the upper left-hand corner and noted by the characters themselves. Natasha spends more than four months on her silent mission, time spent out of order and time that won’t show on her face. But time passes for everyone else, whole lifetimes, forty years.
Kongo: The Count, he was happy. Forty years, he was happy. He had work, and money, and time. The Count would say to Kongo, ‘Tasha gave us the best life. Strap is finished. Is at house waiting for you. Kongo took poison. Will sleep here. With the Count. Goodbye, ‘Tasha. Thank you.
Natasha: …Goodbye, Kongo. Thank you.
The love story of the Count and Kongo, with its eventual bittersweet end, reflects on Natasha’s past: how many times has she stood at the grave of a person she’s loved, unable to do anything but move on? Disciples of continuity are ambiguously reminded of her own Schrodinger’s cat of a lover. (Bucky’s either imprisoned or dead-but-not-really or on a seemingly interminable motorcycle ride, it’s unclear exactly where this story fits into continuity and as of Captain America #6 Natasha’s taken a leave of absence from the team.)
The complaints against this issue will be that it is difficult to understand or follow. There’s a lot of Warren Ellis technobabble, lampooned a bit by the comic itself, a Modesty Blaise reference a fraction of the readership will probably recognize, and a circular plot probably best understood on the second go through. It’s a very clever book that likes to remind you that it’s clever. Likewise, the ongoing theme in Secret Avengers, the idea that to save the world sometimes terrorists have to die, not happily, or casually, but knowingly, and what that can cost, is, perhaps, not well-suited to the entire team, but it fits Black Widow stories like a glove.
I like Maleev best when he colors himself, and find his figures are always a bit stiff. But his pencils add much to the atmosphere of the book. Here, Maleev’s Natasha is effortlessly elegant, in simple clothing and sophisticated surroundings. His gritty-but-fashionable style is well-suited to Natasha, and he didn’t go for the painted-on barely-zipped leather look he drifted to occasionally on Daredevil. The opening splash sequence is terrific.
There’s really a lot packed in these twenty pages, a story that doesn’t just end, but feels complete. There’s mercy and death and loss, a villa in Trieste, a house Natasha loves but necessity compels her to destroy, which she does without nostalgia or complaint. Four months and forty years in the bizarre microcosm of a single mission that no one will ever know about. That’s the final toll of secrecy, the unusual price in a world with superheroes and their bright-colored costumes and stance of public inspiration. I’ve said that Ellis writes an arrogant Natasha, and that’s true, but he also writes a character of unusual and heroic humility. Black Widow spends four months fixing a simple mission gone wrong, in a context where time is cheap but also precious. Four months that no one will ever hear about, that cost human lives and human love. And she does this to save her teammates, who will never know what she’s done, and she never questions the cost. It is simply what she does, and who she is. A secret.