Today is International Women’s Day, aka Working Women’s Day, a holiday with socialist roots that was officially adopted in the Soviet Union following the October Revolution. So, internet. Let’s talk gender.
Once upon a time ComicsAlliance commissioned a mock-up of the Avengers movie poster line-up. All the dudevengers were replaced with a female counterpart— She-Hulk, Thor Girl, American Dream. Black Widow got, uh, Dead Husband.
I wasn’t lying!
The comments section brags about its vast collection of Dead Husband™ merchandise and, in the grand tradition of comicfan pedantry, lists some possible alternatives. Like Red Guardian, Natasha’s real actual occasionally dead husband, or Winter Soldier, Ed Brubaker’s one-man world tour attempt at making Bucky Barnes relevant. But I’m gonna call it, the picture is right. There is no male counterpart. Here’s why.
It’s a True Thing about hero comics: most of the popular girls live in the wardrobes of popular guys. Supergirl, Batwoman, X-23, She-Hulk, Spider-woman, &c &c. These aren’t just ladyheroes inhabiting a male character’s legacy, these are some of the most iconic ladyheroes we’ve got. Consider last few stabs at a female led ongoing Marvel has thrown at us, going back to their Year of Women: Red She-Hulk, Sif (via Journey Into Mystery), Captain Marvel, Ghost Rider, X-23, She-Hulks, Spider-girl, Black Widow. That’s 6/8 for the guy spin-off category, and that’s me being generous and not counting Sif. Marvel’s got plenty of non-legacy women, especially when we head into mutant territory, but when it comes to bankable solo leads, you go to distaff island.
It makes sense. It’s easier to create a working hero story if you’re not starting from scratch, if you have some themes to explore and villains and settings all built in. And it’s not like guys don’t take advantage of distaff island. Red Hulk, Genis-Vell, Danny Ketch, Daken, Venom, just to line up with that list I gave you earlier. In a marketplace where consumption is driven by brand loyalty, you stick with the familiar.
I confess a grudge against the knee-jerk that “legacy hero” means “less than”. Because we need legacies, we need characters like Spider-girl and Batwoman, and new lady Black Panthers. And it’s not just that sticking a bat on a title will make it sell thousands more copies. It’s because a character like Miles Morales says to little brown kids that hey, you can be Spider-man too. Kate Kane’s existence says, look, Gotham has room for lesbian asskickers. These symbols, these iconic cultural symbols, they really are universal things, not just stuff for specific white dudes to aspire to. Legacy characters, spin-offs, they deepen the shared universe.
But I believe strongly that we need female characters whose origins aren’t inexorably linked to more prominent male characters. We need women who fight under their own banners, under their own symbols, and they need to be treated like big names, and comics should tell us, over and over, how important they are.
There are a number of lady legacies in the grand corporate narratives, and they tend to be lady legacies of the no boys allowed stripe. Some of them have mythic logic to follow— the Amazons, the Valkyries. Some of them, like Black Canary, seem more supposed on the fact that men don’t wear fishnets. The struggle for a real unisex but female-originated legacy is a complicated one. Because, on the one hand, there is this disturbing sense we get from posters like the one above: that it’s all good and acceptable to have women adopt symbols and costuming that men had first, but the vice versa is a vast Siberia of featureless Dead Husbands. But to the contrary I still wince whenever I see Carol Danvers’s recent namechange referred to as a promotion. I think it’s a smart move brandwise and a logical in-character direction, but if going from feminine-signified to unisexy is felt as a step up, well, we gotta examine that feeling. (Especially when no one’s suggesting Spider-man be “promoted” to Major Spider.)
The solution, as ever, is more female characters with more varied sorts of origins and powersets and backgrounds, more visible and more important and made to sell more comics. But easier blogged about than done.
Natasha, though, belongs squarely to the no boys allowed school of legacy codenaming. She wasn’t introduced as a collective— the Red Room was a relatively late c. 1999 addition to her mythology, and I think that gets lost for the worse when that’s the only aspect of her background comics want to talk about. Her origins and essential themes aren’t there, they go back further. But when it’s used well the Red Room is a powerful storytelling backdrop that adds color and depth to Natasha’s world without taking much away.
It was introduced as something besides a child-solider factory, fyi, just your typical super ninja spy training ground that comes with the comic book territory. What also comes with the territory is the idea that Black Widow operatives are replaceable, a product of good manufacturing. Tools to be used.
General: Was there something more?
Lubyev: She truly loved colenel Starkovsky, General. If she ever learns that this was all an exercize, that we were responsible for his death, she could go rogue. You’ll have to kill her.
General: If it comes to that, Captain. We can always make another Black Widow…
They were also always female. And no matter how the Red Room shifted, from different eras of Soviet bureaucracy or just wildly inconsistant comic book writing, every Red Room trainee was female. This makes some historic sense, in that early women’s combat units like the Nachthexen were segregated. But Ed Brubaker, in probably the thing I like best about his Natasha-retcons, took this a step further:
The Wolf Spider experiment. I hadn’t thought of it in decades. The male trials f the Black Widow procedure. It never produced an operative Department X’s Red Room was satisfied with.
So, they tried, with the dudes. But it didn’t work, the mysterious chemical treatment just drove them unaging but insane. (Sidenote: this explains Ivan really nicely.)
Of course, there were never going to be any Russian Man Spider operatives before Brubaker came along and put it down in panels. He was just finding a way for the storyline to match up with the symbols. If the fungible Soviet leaders who oversaw the Black Widow program were, deep down, snivelling 1950s sexists afraid of giving laides guns, then it doesn’t make much sense for them to have a special “give ladies guns” initiative. But they were, and they did. And they called her Black Widow.
Because reality check, that is not a codename you call a guy. The latrodectus widow spiders are famous because they are poisonous and because, oh yeah, the lady spider eats the male after they’re done mating. We have a whole femme fatale trope that mixes danger and power and sexy, because women who operate outside the boundaries of appropriate conduct inevitably spell doom for the men they encounter. It’s a trope about women, but it can be very dude framed, dude oriented. The 588th Night Bomber Regiment didn’t come up with the name Night Witches; that was the Germans they fought.
But this is what Black Widow is really about: taking a lot of these tropes and suppositions and hewing them into a sort of heroic origin. And that turns the whole story on its head— it remakes the codename someone else gives you into a knife you wield for yourself. But the power there comes from these pre-existing gender tropes, from subverted expectations. It’s why the men grouped around her at the beginning of the Avengers film can know her reputation and still believe they’ve got her cornered, and why some people can watch that whole movie and still come away with the idea that she’s useless.
That’s why her “male counterpart” is Niko Constantin, doomed to an existence of asterisk, or dead husband, bland and nameless and dead. And it’s why, though I want so many other things for women and comics, I’m glad there is a Black Widow.
Natasha: So what did Imus promise you? What got your panties so wet you had to facilitate an assault on both my life and freedom?
Government Goon: Watch your mouth. You’re nothing but a criminal. A spy.
Natasha: I’m the Black Widow. I could eat you for lunch. Maybe not in one sitting, though. I have my limits.
Image by Chris Haley, panels from Black Widow: Pale Little Spider #3, Captain America #617, and Black Widow #5.