creepingmonsterism asked: Why is Natasha's origin specifically tied to World War II? Lots of other Marvel heroes had ties to specific points in history that got ignored or fudged over time--why is Natasha's specific historical context so important?
This is a tricky question because the use of World War II in Natasha’s mythology has been anything but consistent. The Stalingrad angle had been teased starting in Amazing Adventures but was first made explicit in Daredevil #88:
Ivan: It was late Autumn of 1942— the Germans had been fighting on the periphery of the city since the beginning of the year— and were now on the verge of destroying it. Many of us had already left, joining the Soviet embankment on the Volga river— but I stayed to the last— searching aimlessly for a dead sister I knew I’d never see again… Then I saw her in a sudden clearing of the smoke— a woman no older than I, clutching a young child as she called from her burning balcony— I rushed forward— she dropped the child into my arms— and in the next moment— one woman’s world ended— and a young girl’s began.
In my opinion, at the time they were playing up a Modesty Blaise angle for Natasha, with Ivan being her Willie Garvin, and Peter O’Donnell got the inspiration for the Modesty Blaise character when he encountered a young girl during his own wartime service. The story of Natasha as war orphan plays into the Bronze Age Widow’s Curse. It tells us that Natasha was clothed in fire and death and tragedy from the very first. It reminds us that, above all things, she is a survivor.
But in 1973 it didn’t twist the timeline at all to make Natasha a remnant of the Battle of Stalingrad. Twenty years later Marvel published Uncanny X-men #268, which did make the continuity more complicated. The central selling point of Uncanny #268 is a Wolverine/Captain America team-up set in the early goings of World War II, and also lots of ninja punching. The issue establishes a very long-running connection between the Hand, Baron Strucker and Natasha, suggests that governments were chasing Natasha as a lost scion of the Romanov dynasty, and flat-out tells us that Natasha’s much older than she looks. But these developments aren’t explained, and Claremont left the book soon after, so it’s hard to know what he was really driving at. The issue doesn’t even match up with Daredevil #88— it takes place in 1941, before Stalingrad, where Ivan and Natasha supposedly met.
Despite Uncanny #268’s status as an early-90s classic, comics were pretty comfortable ignoring it for a while. For example, here in Marvel Knights #3, Natasha references her grandfather’s experience in Stalingrad, and not the fires of her own youth.
Natasha: My grandfather was at the siege of Stalingrad in nineteen forty-three. They held out against the Germans through two winters. It was a battle that the Soviets knew they could not win. But they held and held and held.
It wasn’t until 2007 or so that the Natasha-is-immortal thing was dragged back into canon. Wolverine Origins spun a new, very stupid story out of Uncanny #268, while Brubaker used the long arm of Natasha’s history to entrench his Winter Soldier mythology in the wider Marvel universe. The latter, especially, kept Natasha tied to the Cold War more than World War II, and I think Natasha’s longevity has been to keep the “ex-Soviet spy” aspect of the character kicking around, as that, too, started sliding out of timeline possibilities. Natasha’s always been imagined as a KGB defector, she’s only sometimes been tied to the second world war.
Still, since then we’ve seen a few Natasha stories that explored her connections to earlier eras, and it’s worth discussing them. First is Paul Cornell’s Deadly Origins mini.
Soldier: Ivan! There’s nobody left in here! The imperialists went room to room! You’re not going to find your sister in here, Mate.
Ivan: Wait! I heard something! Over there!
Woman: Comrades, comrades, please—! You look like the comrade General Secretary himself! I know you’ll look after Natalia. Please understand— she’s a Romanoff, but—
You see aspects of the Conway/Colan story— Ivan’s sister, the fire— and also the Claremont idea that Natasha’s a Romanov scion, so governments will be out to get her. Cornell bumps the timeline for this scene away from Stalingrad, to 1928, which means Uncanny #268 could have happened as written, with Natasha and Ivan continuing on to Stalingrad a year later. This miniseries also explores Black Widow as a patriot character: Cornell essentially runs the whole of 20th century Russian history through Natasha. She is orphaned by the last gasps of the White Army, Stalin and Khrushchev take personal interest in her upbringing, she survives the Second World War. She’s long, twisted, steel, like the places she comes from.
Liu also uses a lot of World War II flashbacks, but in a different way— my favorite way, really, as Liu’s take tends to be. I’m just going to quote Liu’s own explanation:
For all that she’s a spy and a modern day heroine, Natasha grew up in the middle of a war that makes our current struggles look like a walk in the park. That was a brutal time, especially in Russia and given the history of how she was practically raised by soldiers, she must have seen some really horrific things growing up. I bet she learned a lot, too. Strategy, survival - all those mental games you need to play to keep one foot ahead of death - as well as honor and sacrifice. All at a young age.
I don’t think that’s made her cynical, though. A pragmatist, certainly - capable of dealing with and accepting death, without getting bogged down emotionally. You’re right, she’s lived a long time - seen the worst, the best - and like anyone who grows up in the middle of a war, you don’t forget how bad it can get. You don’t take for granted all the little freedoms and niceties. Despite appearances, she’s part of the same generation as our grandparents - and while she’s “hip with the times,” you can’t tell me that she doesn’t retain certain sensibilities that come from living through that era.
Liu essentially returns us to the original intention of the Stalingrad fire, the notion of Natasha as a survivor, as someone who grew up with death, and walked and and hand with it all her life. But Liu also emphasizes that Natasha found good things, in those years, too— a husband, and brothers, and words about love on a bloodstained piece of paper. And that duality helped make Natasha what she is. In this way Natasha’s early life can help explain why she was compelled to serve her country, and why the KGB would go out of their way to recruit her. It also explains how Natasha got out, how she learned to keep parts of herself safe.
One of the issues I have with the “Natasha was raised from age six by the Red Room and brainwashed and sent on assassination missions from the age of ten” origins is that they imply a very straightforward, narrow Natasha. She’s one of Marvel’s most worldly characters, which doesn’t make sense if she was built and grown in a lab, isolated from humanity. And she’s never acted like a weapon learning how to be human. Natasha isn’t socially awkward, robotic, confused— she’s a master of human nature and human assessment. She suffers from an excess of humanity, an excess of death and cruelty and contradiction.
Panels from Daredevil #88, Marvel Knights #3, and Black Widow: Deadly Origin #1.