Women in Marvel’s The Complete History of Black Widow (Part 8)
Welcome back to our tour through the History of Black Widow. Last week we saw the influence of the Women’s Liberation movement on Black Widow rise and fall. Together with Daredevil, Natasha took on a number of now forgotten villains, such as Stiltman, Angmar the Screamer, and Terrex. After a run in with Moondragon, she starts pressuring Daredevil to better define their relationship, which begins a downward spiral for the superhero couple.
This week we’re continuing through Black Widow’s lengthy run in Daredevil, going from Daredevil #109 (May 1974) to Daredevil #117 (January 1975).
[HISTORY OF BLACK WIDOW INDEX PAGE]
If you haven’t been following along with womeninmarvel's History of the Black Widow, you should be. I wanted to comment on this edition specifically because I think pound-for-pound and panel-for-panel Steve Gerber has been the worst creator in Black Widow history. And I think I’m the only one who thinks this, so I gotta explain.
Here’s how it goes, guys, the narrative strikes back. Marvel introduced a bunch of “women’s lib” heroes in the 1970s, but then they took them away. When Ms. Marvel was cancelled, Carol moved into the Avengers, and was then infamously written out of the book with issue 200. Greer Grant, original alias the Cat, was created by a women for women audiences in the early 70s, with a woman writing her series and woman pencillers when they could get them. The story goes that the Wally Wood, the inker, handed back the pencils with all clothes removed, and Marie Severin had to white out the nipples and pubic hair. But Greer was an explicitly feminist hero: the widow of a controlling cop learning to fight for herself. Her powers came from a lady super-scientist, who Greer meets when she returns to the college classes her husband forbade her from attending.
Steve Englehart didn’t like the Cat, and still says so. “I wasn’t real interested in the Cat. I read the books and they seemed like pandering, frankly — not very good stories written to appeal to a demographic.” When he took over Avengers and Avengers West Coast, he gave her original costume Patsy Walker as an ironic turn on both heroines (the 70s feminist being replaced by the 50s romance queen) and regressed Greer into a hypersexual cat creature with an animal mind, who couldn’t help but throw herself at all her male teammates. “Whatever failings I may have, I do like men— !” she thinks to herself in one issue, “—and men like me! I’d never have been this free if I’d stayed Greer Nelson the feminist!”
Likewise, Steve Gerber didn’t like Black Widow in his book: in her book, really, because the book he took over was called Daredevil and the Black Widow. Years later, this is what Gerber had to say:
If I recall, Black Widow also left during my run on the comic. And I have to say, in all honesty, I didn’t miss her… One of the keys to understanding the Daredevil character is that he’s one man alone, in darkness. Mitigate the totality of that darkness and the character becomes much less interesting. Natasha was a mitigating factor. However much I may have liked looking at her, she just didn’t belong in DAREDEVIL.
Look, as a longtime Daredevil fan, I’m okay with the idea that Matt Murdock is a man alone, a man of bleakness, and later writers have doubled-down on that idea, so it seems especially inevitable in retrospect. But Natasha got put in the Daredevil titles because both their books were struggling, so it was time to try shaking the status quo. Marvel thought about merging Daredevil and Iron Man, but Gerry Conway brought in Natasha instead. She was pitched as the “Gloria Steinem of the jumpsuit set,” and the title of the book was changed to give her co-billing. And then Gerber took Natasha from courageous co-star and feminist inspiration to discarded love interest. He introduced a bunch of new women for Matt to flirt with for a few issues and made Natasha jealous. Part of the “women’s lib” direction of earlier runs was Natasha’s determination to get herself a job, pay her own way. Gerber had that quest wind up in humiliation: Natasha becomes homeless, confesses she has no skills, and that her whole quest for self-sufficiency was silly, stubborn pride.
And then, yeah, Gerber brainwashes her into the “bride” of a misogynist-monkey supervillain. It’s terrible, needs all kinds of trigger warnings, and full of racial ickiness besides. (The Mandrill is a mutate with a baboon face whose only power is removing women’s ability to consent, and his secret origin is basically being black. Yeah. )
Tony Isabella and Chris Claremont noticed what a raw deal Natasha got under Gerber and tried to give her space to address her diminishment in other comics, in other runs. (Even back then, Natasha didn’t go out quietly.) I don’t know if he was trying to kill Natasha’s message or just get her the heck out of the book. I do know that Steve Gerber has since been made a Marvel comics legend, remembered for Defenders and Howard the Duck, and his odd and beautiful and different outsider heroes. And so his Daredevil run is remembered as brave and forward-moving, for introducing space aliens and monkey villains and not the careful destruction of its feminist hero. It’s remembered as a Daredevil run, and not as Daredevil and the Black Widow.
Like I said before. I’m trying to remember better.