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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.

Anonymous asked: Okay, I've got two questions: Was Natasha raised in the Red Room or did they train her there after she accepted Bucky's miracle drug to save Ivan? And, did Ivan know what they were doing to her? Thanks for your time! :)

I cover this in more detail in my Secret Origins series, which has three parts: one, two, three.  I also have a tag for origin stuff you might want to look through.

Basically, though, the “Natasha was raised an orphan the Red Room” idea comes from a series that decided everything we ever knew about Natasha’s history was wrong, and ran with it.

Anyway, after that story got published, it was really easy to be confused about her history, which is a big side effect of rewriting a character’s entire past. So Marvel published another miniseries, Black Widow: Deadly Origin, in part to clarify a new official version of her origin. In that series, she enters the Red Room in her twenties, as the price for saving Ivan. That is the “real” continuity as it currently stands! But stories can change.

As for Ivan— he knew enough that he didn’t want Natasha to enter the Red Room, even at the cost of her life, and I think it makes sense that they pursued him because he had some connection with Soviet intelligence. While Natasha was there, they were kept separate, but she still tried to confide in him.  What he knows exactly is up to how the reader wants to shade it.  But no one knows the everything of the Red Room.

Even though the audience remains unclear, discovering the character’s past, it’s important for me as an actor to know where I’m coming from, what my backstory is. Of course the character, the Widow, has this complex backstory, with many different incarnations. For me it’s important to think of the Widow as being a very contemporary character. She’s not standing the test of time, we’re talking about somebody who’s in her late twenties, early thirties, and she’s had the history that she’s had, been involved with the Russian KGB, obviously, she was taken as a young child and put into the Widow training program, and you learn more and more about what she did, during that time.
— Scarlett Johansson


Natasha: No matter what you do to me! I’m through serving your evil schemes!
Khrushchev: I thought you might react that way! And so, I took the liberty of bringing your parents here! If you have no fear for yourself, surely you don’t want the state to treat them as parents of a— traitor!
Natasha: Mother! Father! Oh, no!
Father: Do not fear for us, my daughter! Do what you feel is right!
Natasha: But I could not let any harm befall my parents! And so…
Natasha: And the warmth of my parents— my… parents… makes up for… no… no, that’s not right…

The classic Black Widow children’s story is Daredevil #88: in the hollows of Stalingrad, 1943, a soldier looking for his dead sister finds an orphan girl in the ruins. But before that issue, when she was bad Natasha had these nameless parents, that her masters threatened to keep her stick straight. This 1965 scene was the first hint at Natasha’s inevitable defection. Strangely, she never thought of her parents again, even after she left the Soviets for keeps. Even though at one point they’d been all that was keeping her for leaving. Then her backstory became something else, and it was easy to drift over this panel. Maybe Natasha had been lying about her change of heart, and about her parents. She’d lied to Hawkeye before.

Several retcons later, Paul Cornell and John Paul Leon wrapped it back into Natasha’s tangled history. Her parents weren’t real, but she thought they were, for a while. Notice how bit from Black Widow: Deadly Origins #2 clearly references Tales of Suspense #64.

From Tales of Suspense #64 by Stan Lee and Don Heck & Black Widow: Deadly Origin #2 by Paul Cornell and John Paul Leon.

spiderine asked: I'm trying to date when about Natasha trained with/by the Winter Soldier in the Red Room. Specifically her age at the time. I've been researching but I can't even get a ballpark estimate. Can you help?
Alexei: A secret agent? What are you talking about? How old are you?
Natasha: Seventeen. Twenty-nine.

The answers are confused here because this is when the weird Red Room memory stuff starts kicking in— her cover is a seventeen year old ballerina, and her real self is a twenty-nine year old spy. (It also lets him explain away the inconsistencies in previous flashbacks.) It is her real self that trains with and knows Winter Soldier.

Natasha was born c. 1928, was a girl growing into a teenager during World War II c. 1939-45, and was in her late twenties when she came to the Red Room and trained with Winter Soldier, in 1956-57. The timeline is most clearly established in Deadly Origin but it lines up with Brubaker’s Captain America stuff and Name of the Rose.

Panel from Black Widow: Deadly Origin #2, by Paul Cornell and John Paul Leon.
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.

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.