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Fuck Yeah, Black Widow

Fallaces sunt rerum species

Здравствуйте from FYBW, your one-stop tumblr shop for Black Widow news, no-prizing, and oversaturated .gifs. Some MCU, mostly comics. Often overwritten. Always overthinking.

Black Widow created by Lee, Rico and Heck & is © Marvel Entertainment.

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.

image
Fury: Fury to Black Widow: how are those upgrades working out? They give you that boob job I requested?
Monica: Drop dead.
Fury: Strength, speed, hyper-agility: I guess now you know why the last Black Widow kept volunteering for Stark’s experiments.
Monica: Would you please stop trying to make conversation? The sound of your voice makes my stomach heave.
Fury: Monica, listen. Between you and me: don’t you think it’s a little off calling yourself the new Black Widow after everything that went down with Hawkeye’s family?
Monica: I couldn’t give a rat’s ass. It’s a cool code name and if Hawkeye doesn’t like it he should grow the hell up.
Fury: Still adorable after all these years, huh? Why did we ever split up.

And here’s the first appearance of Monica Chang. This intro scene focuses heavily on the ex-couple bickering between Monica and Nick. I’m glad they’ve expanded her character beyond that, since we’re in agreement that Ultimate Nick Fury should shut up.

The line about enhancements is some easy exposition-by-dialogue to set up the new character: we know she’s stronger and faster than she ought to be. The Ultimate universe, with its overarching theme of military-industrial complex, is much freer with the government-granted nebulous power upgrades. Note that, as with Yelena’s first appearance, the intro sequence doesn’t show Monica’s face.

From Ultimate Comics Avengers #3, by Mark Millar and Carlos Pacheco.

Natasha: Don’t bother about her, she won’t last five minutes in those woods and your troops would last even less.
Col. Malenky: I told you to leave this to me!
Natasha: How can I when you’ve forgotten all about the bomber?
Col. Malenky: Stop! You can’t enter that bomber without me!
Natasha: You’re more than welcome to come along, Malenky… as long as you’re well versed in the procedure for disarming a low-yield nuclear self-destruct device!

There have been really very few stories about Natasha pre-defection, which is surprising because she was introduced as an experienced operative, the USSR’s best, and also because lately writers have been really hellbent on exploring her character via flashback and retcon. But these recent stories have all focused on Natasha’s origins, Natasha before she became a spy, training montages, not Natasha as the agent she must have been for decades.

Larry Hama’s version is my favorite. The Avengers film— and few recent comics— imply that Natasha was once a free operative marketing herself to the highest bidder, but I don’t think that can explain her. Natasha in this story is competent and professional, yes, but also compassionate, merciful, and capable of respecting her enemies. Hama excels at the noble adversary, the not-very-comic-book-y truth that soldiers on both sides are full up with the same virtues. Natasha, here, is able to question her immediate authority; she knows that her way is better than Colonel Malenky’s. But it never occurs to her to question the big picture, to wonder why she has to fight these Americans in the first place.

For a long time Natasha was a good and loyal soldier, convinced that any wrong she did was for the right reasons. And it hewed her, over time, into sharp and sharper angles, until finally her compassion had to go, or her loyalty did. Yet I don’t think it’s a simple case of Americans Good, Russians Bad, We Silver Age Now: I think Natasha had to learn to think her way out of loyalty altogether. She had to teach herself the big picture. But the Natasha who held a KGB clearance is, to me, not all that removed from the one with an Avengers membership card.

And that makes her all the more frightening.

As an FYI: Larry Hama is a great person to read up on if you are interested in the history of people of color in the comics industry. Or just the history of Cool Dudes in the comics industry. Larry Hama is pretty kickin’ rad.

From Before the Fantastic Four: Ben Grimm and Logan #2, by Larry Hama and Kaare Andrews.

Anonymous asked: do you think that natasha should be enhanced with that super-soldier-eques serum in the marvel movie universe like in the comics or no?

Let’s start this like I always do: with me waving my homemade cardboard Continuity Police badge around because that makes me feel like a big girl.

The idea that Natasha has a super soldier style serum, in the comics, anyway, is actually a pretty fuzzy one. There are two places it comes from. Black Widow: Homecoming #5, in dubious continuity at the best of times, is where the chemical enhancement card first got dealt.

We rewired you all biochemically. Gave you ramped up immune and cell repair systems. All the Black Widows have it. Your wounds heal four, maybe five times as fast as a normal human’s would. You hardly get sick, you don’t age as fast… your hair doesn’t fall out. Your skin can take the wind and sun without…

Note that none of this has to do with running faster or being able to punch better. Most of these biochemical enhancements are cosmetic and in fact the main evil plot here involves a villainous make-up company trying to buy the Black Widow tech for an eyecream, because feminism. I’m also gonna footnote that Morgan didn’t intend for Natasha to be unaging. His Natasha was in her late thirties but could probably have passed for a half-decade younger. His Natasha was not eighty-three who could pass for twenty-six.

I tracked the evolution of the ageless Natasha thing in a recent answer post, but when Brubaker & Co brought it back to make his OC/Canon Character OTP happen, he didn’t actually explain it. Everyone just sorta saw Morgan’s line about biochemical rewiring and linked the two. Paul Cornell actually explained it, and in explaining, further retconned:

Panels from Deadly Origin #1
Winter Soldier: The comrade needs medical treatment. My superirors offer you both this chemical in exchange for your renewed loyalty. It will heal him— and increase your life spans. But there is an extremely limited supply, comrades.

Cornell’s “chemical” is something Natasha knowingly accepts and isn’t covertly wired into her as a child, so points! But it also has the side-effect of driving people mad. This isn’t spelled out by the text, but highly implied: the other people who get the formula, Ivan and later Alexi, turn into wacky Bond villains. Only Natasha endures.

So, in comics Natasha has a government experiment chemical designed to make her a more useful secret agent. You could say it was a super soldier serum. But the Super Soldier Serum is a very specific Steve Rogers linked, Steve Rogers special thing in Marvel continuity. What Natasha has is closer to the Infinity Formula— she doesn’t age, and maybe she heals a bit faster, but she isn’t puffed up to the peak of human potential, either.

And the reason I went on this long detour is because that distinction is sort of my answer to your question. I don’t think giving Natasha generic “enhancements” really adds anything to the character. I don’t think making her a Soviet knock-off Captain America makes her any more herself.

But the agelessness thing, I’ve grown to like. Liu and Ellis used it to tell really smart, really good stories about Natasha that I loved, for one. It lets Natasha rely solely on her skill and cunning but also gives a reason for her to be much better at it than everyone else. The idea of an endless past makes thematic sense for a character trying to atone. And it takes the out of universe problem of making a Cold War concept relevant and cleverly spins it into an in universe problem for Natasha to struggle with.

Finally, I think it nicely underlines that Natasha’s real superpower has always been survival. That’s what a widow is, you know. Not the one who died, but the one who lived on after.

And I think all that is cool stuff to play around with if they ever do a Black Widow film, or get the time to explain some of Natasha’s complications, instead of just hint at them. But it’s strong comic-booky stuff, that does strain a bit at the badass normal cred that the MCU has going on with her. I wouldn’t want them to chuck in the ageless element just so she can hook up with Winter Soldier or have kid adventures with Wolverine because I kinda have a feeling that would make her more confusing, not less. But I wouldn’t mind if they started her story at the Battle of Stalingrad— I think that might explain her better.

Anonymous asked: My friend told me a story about Steve, Logan, and Ivan rescuing kid!Natasha. Did that really happen? Has it been retconned out of her continuity? What is her relationship with Logan like?

Sure, you’re talking about Uncanny X-men #268, a retro teamup set in WW2 that still felt pretty 1990 thanks to more than the usual amount of ninja. This is a Claremont/Lee joint, the gruff Wolverine and young and idealistic Captain America team up to save a little girl from the Hand. Also Nazis.

Strucker: I’m given to understand— by the old man who leads these costumed fanatics— that young Natasha here has an extraordinary aptitude for the martial arts. Under his tutelage, he will become the Hand’s master assassin.

It was 1941, and Ivan was living from place to place, Natasha in tow, trying to keep her safe from the Hand. Logan was hunting the Hand, Steve was hunting Nazis— together again, for the first time! As to whether or not it’s still in continuity, well—

Jubilee: Her? That old?? Uh-uh. Now way not a chance totally impossible! They’re talking like ancient history!

Uncanny X-men #268 was the first comic to suggest that Natasha was way, way older than she looked. The connection to World War II wasn’t new— in the earliest tellings of Natasha’s early life, she was a Russian war orphan adopted by the soldier Ivan Bezukhov. (I suspect this was all kind of a shout-out to Modesty Blaise.) But that version of her backstory, complete with the Battle of Stalingrad, was established in the early 1970s. Back then, it stuck Natasha in her mid-thirties. In 1990, it made her close to sixty. The issue offered no explanation, and if Claremont had one, he left the book before he could reveal it.

Because she’d only been secretly immortal in one comic from 1990 with absolutely zero rhyme or reason other writers gradually ignored that one comic, and if it wasn’t explicitly retconned it was definitely ignored. When Devin Grayson wrote her 1999 Black Widow mini she pictured Natasha as a creature of the Brezhnev era, and Richard Morgan had his Natasha approaching her fortieth birthday in 2005, not her 70th. These sorts of timelines made Uncanny #268 impossible, and that sort of non-retcon is pretty standard in comics. Reed Richards had World War II adventures, too, those have gradually fallen out of continuity because it makes no sense to acknowledge them.

But, in 2007 Ed Brubaker brought the “Black Widow doesn’t age” idea right back, so that he could retcon in a 1950s romance with his Winter Soldier pet project. Around the same time, Daniel Way did an Uncanny #268 flashback of his own in Wolverine Origins #16, but we don’t talk about that here. Basically, though, the World War II stories were back, and Paul Cornell and Marjorie Liu both worked to make Natasha’s agelessness part her own sombre character instead of just an excuse for cool retroactive team-ups starring dudes.

TL;DR: yes that story is still in continuity.

As for Natasha’s relationship with Logan, the punchline of Uncanny X-men #268 was that Natasha was the first Kitty Pryde, the first of many spunky little-girl sidekicks the man seems to acquire. For this reason it’s kinda creepy that fandom often assumes they’ve slept together. Logan was too transient back then to be a real fixture, a constant influence— it was Ivan who raised her, who was always there, not Wolverine. But when Wolverine was there he was being kicking rad and punching ninjas in the face, so of course he made a strong impression.

I’m not sure I’d call them close, exactly. Natasha doesn’t have the same kind of melancholy heart-to-hearts with Logan as she does with Matt, for example. I’m not sure he’s #1 on the list of persons she’d bare her soul to. But she doesn’t need to, with him, there’s a kind of weary trust there instead, borne of cruel lives that have crossed paths for decades. Logan respects the woman she’s become, but is still perhaps a touch overprotective. He remembers, now, the little girl she used to be. Natasha allows it, maybe because it’s nice that someone does.