In a luxurious penthouse high above the East River, the mysterious Madame Natasha whiles away the hours like any other international jet-setter…
You probably wanted me to talk more about Winter Soldier but instead here’s several rambling paragraphs about seldom-reprinted issues from the early 1970s. I do what I want, Thor!
Like most of Marvel’s women who haven’t carried a book in the long-term, which is to say, all of them, Natasha has a reputation as someone who cannot make up her mind. She’s never had a book work, goes the thinking, because writers can’t decide who they want her to be. But though Marvel has overcomplicated her origin in recent years, her basic concept remains remarkably steadfast. From beginning to end, Natasha Romanoff a.k.a. Black Widow is an elite Soviet spy who defected and found a new life as a superhero. Her stories deal with identity, redemption and control, the hazy undefineds of a four-color world.
There’s one big exception to that— Amazing Adventures #1-8. And it’s a curious exception, because those Amazing Adventures issues are Marvel’s first spin at Black Widow: Solo Star. They’re Marvel’s first spin at a solo heroine, period. So for that, anyway, I think they’re worth talking about.
The series picks up right after an Amazing Spider-man detour that re-costumed Natasha a la mode Mrs Peel. She became a bored Manhattan socialite, living a life of unparalleled glamor with an unquiet heart. Natasha craved adventure and inner peace: two great tastes that don’t go together at all.
Marvel was determined to scrub the spy out of her. Natasha severed her connections with SHIELD, and buried her KGB so deep as never to mention it. She was still Russian, the comic was sure of that, but now she was from an old aristocratic family, her penthouse filled with relics from the Tsar. All previous communist sympathies were confined to the nebulous laundry hamper known as a “mysterious past.” Natasha was a haunted heroine, but they kept her ghosts fuzzy.
How exactly Black Widow went from enemy terrorist to the society pages is the sort of trivial detail 1970 is above explaining. But she’d always fit in there— she stormed into Tales of Suspense #52 with the intention of getting billionaire playboy Tony Stark to pay for her drink. Spy stories involve glamor and tuxedos because the rich and the powerful usually have the most expensive secrets, and because if Alias taught me anything it’s that evil likes to plot in chic European nightclubs where everyone wears eyeliner. But the element of glamor also comes from the element of disguise. Spy genre stuff deals so easily with martinis and cocktail dresses because high society is obsessed with appearance, and appearance is the easiest thing to fake. Bond wears a tuxedo to remind us that it’s just another piece of clothing.
And Natasha in this moment is a cover identity sans mission. She is earnestly trying to be what she had once only pretended, and so of course she finds herself feeling hollowed-out, empty. But this is comics. There could be only one solution: violence.
Luxury is already mine! Now I must find satisfaction for my soul!
“I grow bored, fetch me my fancy car and a baseball bat to whack crime with” is not a motivation that stuck with Natasha for long. Her melancholy goes too deep to make “adrenaline junkie” a credible character streak, and she’s too calculating to play for thrills. But there is a certain restlessness that’s stuck— a yawning need to be more than she appears.
Natasha’s Amazing Adventures feature takes place in the earliest gasps of the Bronze Age, an era that brought Social Relevancy to the funny pages. Harry Osborn on drugs! Roy Harper on drugs! Lois Lane: Black Lady! All this, and a new breed of superheroine trotting out some funny Women’s Lib business. But unlike her later appearances in Daredevil, in Amazing Adventures, Black Widow’s central thesis wasn’t her gender. It was class.
Black Widow was, briefly, the Marvel flipside of Green Arrow, a super-rich person punching other rich people on behalf of the poor. She had her Rolls driven down to Spanish Harlem and she did not forget about the forgotten and the downtrodden. Natasha fought corrupt politicians taxing the poor to the hilt, or cultish gang leaders drawing impoverished youths into lives they did not want. And more than that, she acted as a facilitator— using her wealth and connections to give a voice to the people she still employed as servants. The comic was not sophisticated enough to be aware of its hypocrisies, to really mine the irony of a former Soviet (shh!) celebutante buying her way out of other people’s poverty. But it had a tone, and a message, and when Gene Colan came on with issue #3, an artist uniquely suited to depicting urban splendor.
Perhaps you don’t know it, but some of the papers have already made a red-eyed radical out of you!
Natasha’s chief partner in all this was Paul Hamilton, of the pipe-smoking liberal media. He wore seafoam checkered jackets with orange ties, and he was Natasha’s one-woman PR team. The Marvel universe has always acknowledged the importance of public opinion and JJJ’s mustache in cultivating heroic legends. The Fantastic Four have good press, the X-men do not, and this shapes those franchises down to the bone. Black Widow was to be a mysterious, controversial figure, courting the sort of attention that made Natasha wary. Reporters are a staple of superhero fiction because they go to where the action is and chase secrets. Pulling the mask off a cape-and-tights type is the ultimate scoop— but Natasha didn’t wear a mask.
I do not think they recognized me, but they very easily might have! If the world learns I am the Black Widow, it would mean the end of my private life! I should have considered that when I designed my maskless new costume.
That’s right, in a stroke of master spywork, Natasha gave up her secret ID because she designed a costume without a mask and neglected to purchase matching glasses at the Clark Kent store. This is one of those marvelous Moments of Continuity that reading really old comics will treat you to. But I’ve always thought it was a curiously honest choice, for Natasha be public with her identity, until you consider, perhaps, that her superhero career was her attempt to escape from the world of masks. No matter!
In 1971, Madame Natasha had it all. Her own ongoing feature, a distinct niche in the Marvel Universe, and Gene Colan doing art. Natasha’s public and private lives were set on a collision course: what would happen to her high-society friends when the papers ran Paul’s story? And then there was Paul himself. Sure, right now he was Natasha’s handsome, pipe-smoking ally, but what if the story made him dig deeper? What if he discovered who Madame Natasha really was, where she had come from? Would he tell?
The social justice set-up was going story places, is what I’m saying, but the Roy Thomas took over scripting duties and the comic became increasingly banal. But these were the issues that set up bits of status quo that stuck. Paul Hamilton disappeared and Ivan, Natasha’s previously invisible chauffeur, grew into her closest friend overnight. (Ivan grew steadily creepier and creepier over the years until Paul Cornell turned him into a robot rapist. But his role has always been driving Natasha places and telling her what she’s too delicate to do.)
The later issues also introduced the Widow’s Curse, the idea that Natasha doomed everyone she loved by loving them. This is the idea that Paul Cornell tried to turn into a cyber STD, but the real metaphor behind it is so simple it has to be obscured by dialing it up to eleven the way only comic books can. Love is danger. To love, to really love, is to keep some of yourself with another person, and you can lose it that way. You surrender, you lose control. And for Natasha, life is danger, connections are fleeting, and lies are necessary. You keep yourself to yourself because that way, you won’t feel it. The Widow’s Curse is not that she wrecks doom because she loves, but that she feels it down to the bone because she cares.
That she chooses to keep caring, instead of shutting that part of herself off, is her deepest heroism.
Again, it has nothing to do with cyber STDs.
But it is a curiously masculine melancholy. Natasha is far from the only superhero to recycle supporting character trauma into main character angst— we call that Women in Refrigerators. Of course, the misfortunes in this series were nothing so gruesome and traumatic as Alex DeWitt folded up in an icemaker. They were only profound in that they happened, that Natasha did not always save the day, and that gave her strip weight.
I’ve suddenly developed a terrible headache! Will you please— excuse me?
Amazing Adventures gave its heroine a colorful romantic life— of a sort. The book was quick to establish Natasha’s seemingly constant stream of dates with movie producers and movie stars. But they were always abortive, cut short by abrupt fits of heroangst. How very Bruce Wayne, no? Yet by featuring a glamorous heroine dating glamorous boys and saying no to them, Marvel was underlining Natasha’s independence. Even back then people were putting superheroines under the microscope, complaining that they existed mostly for superheroes to date. Here was a heroine who existed for herself, who dated but was not about dating.
I said that Natasha’s comics weren’t about her gender, and I think that’s true— the Cat and the early Ms. Marvel issues are much more forceful attempts to turn second wave feminism into a superhero allegory. But Amazing Adventures always aware of her gender. She remarks on it constantly, the bad guys remark on it constantly, and there were quite a few panels of Natasha lazing about in a nightgown, or frantically pulling on her superhero outfit. There’s nothing in there that would bat eyelashes by today’s Greg Land saturated market. Natasha was only in a state of semi-undress when it made sense for her to be— sleeping in bed, taking a shower. Still, there’s that persistent element of voyeurism that’s gotten attached to every superheroine at some point or another, the kind that is dangerous chiefly because it is so casual.
There’s nothing so only about being female, fellas. You ought to try it some time.
But the letters columns were threaded through with gender commentary. The “not enough female leads at Marvel” complaint goes back to 1970, eff why eye, and comic book fans have been sharing their opinions even longer. One of my favorites is from a Lester G. Boutillier:
The Black Widow’s statement in panel 3, page 3, indicated a character trait entirely alien and removed from the personality she was depicted with in the Avengers’ stories, and one which I personally find offensive and unladylike. I remember the complaint of a female fan some months ago about the absense of any solo strips of female characters, but you didn’t have to give half a book to a feminist.
Lester G. Boutillier was and remains exactly the reason why you have to give books to feminists. Shirley A. Gorman is another:
Now for the Black Widow. I must confess that at first I was terribly disappointed when you broke her and Hawkeye (I still can’t bear his new name) up. I wanted her to join in the adventures of the Avengers. But I now bow to your superior knowledge. The Black Widow as she is now is fantastic. She has it all put together in a most wonderful way. She doesn’t need Hawkeye or the Avengers or even SHIELD. You might say that Madame Natasha is what Women’s Lib is all about. She is truly the emancipated woman. And the role couldn’t fit her more perfectly.
Until this new Black Widow came along Marvel never had a solo female star. You have great female characters but they are all part of some group. Natasha is her own woman. And she is a woman of today pitting herself against the evils of our society. She’s a a beautiful person. Black Widow represents the romance, the adventure, and the intrigue which the average woman surely must yearn for.
Shirley Gorman’s letter was printed in Natasha’s last issue. It would take a few more years for Marvel readers to get their cootie shots and for Marvel to get a female lead to keep for more than a dozen issues. Only one has made it to the triple digits since the days of Patsy Walker. These Amazing Adventures issues aren’t perfect; they are only good some of the time. But they have a tone, and a theme, and ideas, an identity almost in spite of themselves, places they could have gone to, nooks and crannies to seep into. Marvel has published a great many mediocre comics through the years. Uncanny X-men, famously, only found popularity after being cancelled and relaunched, Daredevil went on for decades before finding its iconic voice.
That’s the sticking thing. Forty-two years later we’re still arguing the same points about the same problems, still pointing out the lack of solo female stars and crossing our fingers the next attempt won’t be cancelled at issue eight. And forty-two years ago there were yet Shirley Gormans, people this stuff mattered to.
Madame Natasha moved on co-billing in Daredevil in an attempt to prop up that book’s sales. There, her restless melancholy and crimefighting career continued. She was still a glamorous socialite, and when she and Matt moved in together Natasha paid all the bills. But her spy past caught up to her, sometimes driving her plotlines; her new persona folded in with the old. By the end of the decade she was freelancing with SHIELD, in a sense returned to her start.
Panels from Amazing Adventures #1-8. The entire run has been collected in the Sting of the Widow hardcover.