Women in Marvel’s The Complete History of Black Widow (Part 1)
Welcome to Women in Marvel’s Complete History of Black Widow. We’re going through the complete history of everyone’s favorite super spy, Natalia Romanova. We’re starting from her humble beginnings as a silver age villain against Iron Man in Tales of Suspense, and going all the way to her current status as an Avenger with a troubled past on the path to atonement, and you know, all around ass kicker.
This week we’re going from Black Widow’s origin in Tales of Suspense #52 (April, 1964) through Avengers #33 (October, 1966).
[History of Black Widow Index Page]
I’m sure most of you are already following Women in Marvel, but if you aren’t know that the blog is running a read-through of Natasha’s continuity from the very beginning.
I want to talk about Tales of Suspense #53 because it’s actually one of my very favorite Natasha issues. It’s inaccessible and dated and there’s the weird detour into the women and shiny things laws of attraction, but still. Tales of Suspense #53 takes place after Boris, but before Clint. It’s the one issue we see her being evil on her own, and also the trickiest to track down in reprint.
I think there’s a collective memory of the “bad” Natasha as a cruel seducer, a Soviet agent whose chief asset was her assets. Check out Deadly Origins flashback to this era: Natasha was all flirtation and fascination with Tony Stark. It’s hard to see a feminist character there, but I think in 1960s Stan Lee comics we don’t expect to.
But in this issue Natasha isn’t trying to seduce Tony Stark. (Marvel’s Silver Age was the Comics Code age, and the sexuality in these comics was pretty bloodless, anyhow.) Instead Natasha relies on sympathy, the promise that she’s reformed, and the expectation that Stark won’t take her seriously as a threat, because she is beautiful and a woman and these are things no one in this issue takes seriously.
Natasha: Of course, I might have to face Iron Man again! He beat me once… but this time it shall be different! Anthony Stark was interested in me before… Like most Americans, he is sympathetic… and therefore weak! This tender little note may revive his interest!
Natasha needs to do something spectacular to keep the KGB from destroying her, and she refuses to run away. No powers, no weapons, no qualms about taking on Iron Man alone. The theme of mistaking sympathy for weakness repeats itself at the end of the issue, and foreshadows that sympathy will be Natasha’s downfall and her saving grace.
Because Natasha is brilliant, here, specifically brilliant. Because her plans work.
Tony: I underestimated the Black Widow! I knew she was up to no good, but I had to pretend I trusted her… to learn what she was after! I never thought she’d move so fast… so unexpectedly! Well, she won round one from Tony Stark…
Even Silver Age Tony Stark is not stupid enough to fall totally for an unsolicited supervillain letter. But he’s still beaten, thoroughly outplayed, and consequently down one ultraweapon. It doesn’t actually stop when he puts on the Iron Man suit, either.
Tony: Late again! How can I ever catch up with her? She has the cunning of a fox, and the stolen power of one of the world’s most awesome weapons!!
Natasha, at this point, doesn’t have fighting skills or a costume, but she’s far more dangerous than the male partners she survives because of her brain. She is the intellectual equal of Tony Stark, and that’s what does him in, not her extremely fabulous hair. The point is made over and over: the reason Natasha’s new anti-grav ray is so dangerous is because she is the one using it.
Stansky: Let me have it now… I shall point it at that car and push the control lever!
Natasha: Stansky! You fool! Give it back to me! You have neither the skill, nor the intelligence!! No!!
Stansky: Silence, woman!
Natasha’s problem is that, in true evil mastermind fashion, she’s surrounded by idiots. On her own, she was beating Iron Man. But she’s not on her own, she’s a cog in a cruel and deeply patriarchal system. The KGB realizes she’s the most brilliant agent they have, but they do not reward it and they do not take her seriously. Her fearless leader addresses her as “my little pigeon,” like a granddaughter. And perhaps this lets her survive— in previous issues, Khrushchev was plotting the Crimson Dynamo’s downfall because he was jealous. But maybe not. He gives Natasha impossible orders, here, to punish her for failure, or for success.
The thing is, again, Natasha almost wins.
Tony: (She still has the anti-grav weapon! Perhaps I can outbluff her.) That ray won’t work against me!! Hand it over!!
Natasha: Nice try, Iron Man… But the Black Widow is not so gullible as that!
Tony: (Too late! She’s aimed it at me! I won’t resist! I’ll bide my time… save my energy… let her think I’m helpless! Then, I’ll strike when they least expect it!!)
Natasha: Igor! Stansky! Quick… Seize him while he’s helpless!
Tony: Good! I knew you’d grow too careless! When they passed between the ray and me, it broke the beam’s energy! And now…
Goons: He’s attacking!! We haven’t a chance! Run!!
Natasha: Come back you cowards! Wait!
The issue ends when Iron Man saves the cowardly goons and Natasha escapes to keep herself breathing. She wonders at the compassion Iron Man shows for his enemies when her own shadow masters reward her for, and with cruelty. Because Natasha’s problem in this issue isn’t really Iron Man. She has no problem beating him, and he would show her mercy if he ever did. She knows that, now. It makes her situation more dire.
Natasha’s problem is the system she survives in that does not let her live. She has learned to be mean, to mistake sympathy for weakness, that men will underestimate a pair of limpid eyes. She knows how to capitalize on the fact that she will not be taken seriously, but she is still damned by this. She is not allowed out without a chaperone. Her guards are cowards, and they do not take her orders.
She can’t go up without getting out; she can’t get out without going up.
Panels from Tales of Suspense #53, by Stan Lee, N. Korok, and Don Heck.