So. When I started this blog, I didn’t want to talk too much about Natasha’s love life, because ~conventional wisdom~ made her out to be some kind of perpetual girlfriend, and there’s not enough eyeroll.gif on the internet.
But it’s hot outside and I’m bored and I feel like writing about Clint Barton so here’s #1 in a slowly-produced tumblr series.
This is in some ways the toughest relationship of Natasha’s to characterize, because it’s confined entirely to the Silver Age, where rule of melodrama meant characters could fall in breathless love in the space of two panels and the Hulk could change color between issues. And in some ways, Clint and Natasha were a very Silver Age Marvel couple, burdened with melancholy and overburdened with thought balloons; it was kind of abusive if you looked at it too closely.
In other ways, not so much.
Hawkeye was Natasha’s first major love interest— the pairing was advertised on the cover of Clint’s very first appearance. “We think Hawkeye is so terrific, we plastered him all over our cover!” By issue’s end he was hopelessly devoted to the Black Widow and had maybe committed some light treason.
I don’t want to suggest that Clint was ever a simple minion. He was a decent man damned by bad luck and bad decisions both. He’d decided to become a hero for the wrong reasons, as basically, he was a circus performer jealous of Iron Man who was mistaken for a big purple bank robber on his first day out. Natasha, on the run from her Soviet handlers, was listening in on the police blotter. She offered him a ride, and the rest is awkwardly-costumed history.
Natasha: Why run when you can ride!? Shut the door behind you!
Clint: Look lady…I…wow!!
Natasha: What is wrong? Is something the matter?
Clint: Lady, whoever you are, don’t pinch me! This is one dream I don’t ever want to wake up from!
Natasha: I assure you, my costumed friend, this is no dream! If you are as adventurous and powerful as your appearance would indicate, you might be the very ally I’ve been seeking!
Clint: Whatever you’re lookin’ for, gorgeous, you can bet your bottom dollar… I’m it!
Now, Marvel ladies in the Silver Age get a lot of flack. I’ll quote a recent blog post/historical review:
After the début of Invisible Girl, it wasn’t long before Jean Grey aka Marvel Girl appeared with the birth of the X-Men, and Janet van Dyne aka Wasp appeared in Tales to Astonish. These three women would go on to achieve greatness in later decades, but in the 60s, all three were very much stuck in some familiar patterns.
Firstly, all three were desperate for romance and in each case it was a younger woman involved with an older man: Susan is far younger than Reed Richards; Janet is far younger than Henry Pym; and it’s hinted that the much older Professor Xavier is harbouring some non-platonic love for his young protégée – certainly Jean is devoted to the Professor. In each partnership, this age difference further underlines the position of power in the relationship. The women are girls, the men are grown up, wiser, and stronger.
But here we had the older, cleverer woman with her devoted dupe. It took a while for Hawkeye to fully round out into the brash upstart foil of Captain America. But by the time Hawkeye, the Marksman! showed up in Tales of Suspense #57, Madame Natasha had already faced Iron Man several times. She was as established a member of the tin can Avenger’s rogues gallery as he could have had at the time, and she was good at it. Black Widow was a terrifically clever woman who was out done by the constraints of her superiors and her own lack of physical prowess. Still, sans powers, she managed to outsmart Tony Stark a few times, and though she couldn’t destroy the capitalist dog, neither could he ever catch her. Natasha was trolling for minions when she ran into Hawkeye, and it was her plans that he’d go along with.
Of course, she was evil, back then, so she was free to be dangerous, and free to do things her heroic counterparts maybe couldn’t, like lure handsome American men into treason. But the foreign seductress downfall of the would-be hero plotline was pretty soon played out. Natasha, as it turned out, really loved Clint.
I’d argue that she’d always loved Clint, or at least was inclined to care for him, that her hard-faced seductress routine was always something of an act. It’s reading characterization backwards into continuity, a bit, but these were very early appearances, when the broad strokes of characterization were still being worked out. She wasn’t supposed to care for him, of course. But Natasha couldn’t help it. She was a better person than she was pretending to be.
So, why Hawkeye?
Clint: I have agreed to be your ally, my lovely Black Widow… but my heart rebels at the thought of treason!
Natasha: It will not be treason, my bold hero! I only serve the cause of international peace!
Clint: Very well, my darling, I’ll do it.
Natasha has a type. That type can pretty much be summed up as: Clinton Francis Barton. Her most significant romances have invariably been with prettyboy herotypes whose brash confidence masked brooding insecurities. But Clint saw the best in Natasha at her worst. She told him that hers was a mission of peace, because the sabatogue weighed on his conscience. She told him that hers was a mission of peace, and he believed her, or tried to, because that is what he wanted to believe. And Natasha, with her warped patritoic motives, wanted to believe that, too. That is, perhaps, how she realized she was lying, and the depths to which she’d fallen.
(As for Clint’s attraction to her, well, no one else took the arrows-vs-Iron Man idea seriously, and he craved that kind of validation. He’s also just an easy mark.)
Anyway, soon they became a sympathetic villain duo, with Hawkeye manipulated by Black Widow manipulated by her pitiless masters. Natasha got her first costume and with it gizmos that let her enter the fray instead of watching her partner battle capitalism from afar. They were amongst the most interesting villains Iron Man ever had— not archfoe material, but a plotline unto themselves. Then, Hawkeye decided he was going to be an Avenger. It wasn’t a betrayal of Natasha, even though she’d been the one to rope him into villainy, he was trying to make amends for them both.
Then, before I could clear myself, I met the beautiful Black Widow and fell hopelessly in love with her! Even ater I learned she was in the employ of the communists, I couldn’t tear her from my heart. But then, just one week ago, they made her pay the price for trying to desert her red masters! I reached the scene in time to avenge her— after which there was nothing more to do but call the ambulance— and feel my soul shrivel within me as I saw them drive her away!
Across the world, equally isolated, Natasha had also decided she’d had enough. The difference was, she was already in communist captivity, and they had a brainwashing machine. So, she turned up evil one last time, leading another gang of smalltime supervillains with odd medieval weapons themes against the Avengers. But her love for Clint broke the brainwashing, in true four-color fashion, and from then on, they were both good guys. Their romance continued in the pages of Avengers. The team mistrusted her, but Clint argued strenuously that she deserved to be a member. In Avengers #83, the Enchantress, disguised as Valkyrie, would paint Natasha’s perpetual exclusion as a form of sexism, but that sexism was mostly Hank Pym.
I’ll just go back to quoting that same article:
What these women, at this time in history, also had in common with Batwoman and Supergirl, was that they were all shown to be ruled by their hearts and emotions, unlike the more sensible males. Keeping the men happy was seen as the most important factor in their lives, and they were always portrayed as weaker than the men. That’s not to say that they weren’t good characters. Jean Grey is perhaps the most complex and interesting member of the X-Men, but despite her vast power she is always (in the 60s) shown as being weaker than the men. Wasp is feisty and fun, but by the end of her first appearance is madly in love with Pym, and follows him into the Avengers with marriage, not justice, on her mind. Fainting with exertion was the order of the day. No matter how strong and powerful these women were, they were hugely constrained by the societal expectations of the period.
Here was another twist! Because Natasha, like the Silver Age Sharon Carter, put her heroic career before her relationship. Nick Fury gave her a secret mission, to disappear behind the bamboo curtain and play double agent. She’d have to abandon Hawkeye, to make it look like she’d betrayed the Avengers. She did it with a heavy heart, but she did do it. Clint was heartbroken, and took to brooding, while Natasha ran around stealing top secret plans from army bases singlehanded. The climax of that story, with the reveal of the Red Guardian and Natasha’s destruction of the communist mind-control machine, was what cemented her redemption. It was also the beginning of the end of Clint and Natasha.
Hank: We’ll discuss the matter when we get back to Avengers HQ! Then— Hawkeye, wait! Where are you going?
Clint: …What’s the difference? I just wanna be alone for a while! Gotta think things out… I’ll be along later… maybe…
Not that it was apparent at first. Natasha gave up her Black Widow identity, quit SHIELD and the Avengers both, and tried to make it as a normal woman. Clint said he was fine with it, that all he wanted was her to be safe and happy, but Natasha wondered if some of the excitement had disappeared. With no alter-ego, she faded from the pages of the Avengers. When Natasha did suit up again, because she discovered she could never be satisfied with ordinary, she joined SHIELD instead of Earth’s Mightiest, and the divide between them deepened. Eventually, Natasha called it off so she could start a solo series.
Hint: she was lying
I tend to think seeing her husband Alexi return from the dead only to promptly die again affected her more than she let on, or felt she could. After all, their relationship began dishonestly— and though she trusted Clint I think she might have found it difficult to explain herself to him after lying for so long. They might have been right for each other, but the timing was all wrong. Quickly, comics cast them as star-crossed, inevitably doomed.
And that’s the final inversion of Silver Age as usual: the fact that they ended, really ended, and went on to have other lives and other loves. Most comic book characters still circle round that first romance, even as other threads are added. Hank and Jan have been over for years, but their stories keep coming back to each other. Matt Murdock suffered a 100 issue breakdown after the murder of Karen Page. Pepper and Tony are still coping with almosts even after she married another man. Sharon Carter and Steve Rogers have both died and they’re still dating. But Clint and Natasha broke up and stayed apart.
Starting in the nineties writers occasionally implied that Natasha defected because of the mysterious lure of Tony Stark’s penis. But that’s not how the story went, and thank god. Trufax: if she’d fallen in love with Iron Man in 1964, she would’ve wound up half as interesting. Because Clint and Natasha were allowed to screw each other up. And by bringing out the worst in each other, they somehow regained the better part of themselves.
They never did defeat Iron Man.