Natasha: You speak so casually of death, Viper. I grew up with death. I’ve walked hand in hand with it all my life! I saw children starve in the ruins of Stalingrad, and men freeze solid as ice overnight. Because I know death so well… I know how supremely precious life is.
Even as Viper speaks— more in anger than in fear— she reacts… her arms grabbing for the nearest handhold.
Natasha: Very good, Viper. I couldn’t have done it better myself. In my younger days… I would have simply left you to your fate. But I’m older now, supposedly wiser, and I only kill when I’ve no alternative.
I’m in a Chris Claremont appreciation mood, I guess, so I’m bringing this back with an addendum. Natasha is not the Punisher, she is not the Avenger’s avenger. Her codename, and therefore her iconography are rife with death, almost uniquely among the costume-cape set— she is not Captain or animal-hyphen-man or Ms., she is the widow, and black is the color of mourning. Natasha’s abilities, her origins, and her heroism are wrapped up in this notion of survival, and survival, while bound up with death, is still fundamentally about serving life.
This comic was published at a time when a no-kill rule was much more standard amongst Marvel heroes than it is today, but notice that Natasha doesn’t deny her capacity to take a life. Part of her personal and hard-won understanding of life and death is that sometimes you have to take a life to save one.
But, look, it isn’t simplistic or easy— you can do awful things in the name of survival, give up the only parts of yourself worth keeping, and I think Claremont’s Natasha knows that, too. She admits a time when she killed more than she had to, and a capacity for change. But note that she’s only “supposedly” wiser— I think this Natasha, even in saving Viper, knows that she might one day regret the action. Supervillains never stay locked up, never stay reformed. Except Natasha did, and she knows that too.
Claremont is saying: the capacity for killing does not preclude the capacity for mercy.
You might be thinking this is all a passive-aggressive rant directed vaguely at Jonathan Hickman, and you’d be right!! But I want to make it clear that I don’t think this comic is truer because it came first. That way lies madness and bad hair. No, Chris Claremont’s 1978 Natasha is the true Natasha, to me (one of many!!), because she is so much more interesting, more complicated, and more heroic than a punchline for torture jokes. This way is right because it’s better.
From Marvel Team-Up #85, by Chris Claremont and Sal Buscema.