Black Widow Underestimated: “I Am What I Am”

In the Marvel Universe(s), including the MCU, Black Widow has endured just about every compelling and nonsensical plot line and character development that represent the larger sub-genre of superhero comic books. As I have been documenting, however, Marvel and even their best creative teams find ways to underestimate (and, of course, hypersexualize) Natasha/Black Widow.

With Marvel committing more issues and superstar teams in v.5 and v.6, readers may have held out hope that the fate of Black Widow (both inside the comic book universe and more broadly as a character Marvel would develop more substantially) had turned a corner. However, v.7 ultimately is a regression with only 5 issues, and then, the Web of Black Widow offers another brief 5-issue run after that.

Black Widow v.7, issue 1 (cover art by Clayton Crain) and Web of Black Widow issue 3 (cover art by Jung-Geun Yoon) remind us that too often Black Widow is hypersexualized with her outfits and the relentless urge to show her bound.

Since we have the benefit of hindsight—this post sitting as it does after one of the best (if not the best) run on Black Widow, v.8 (thanks to Kelly Thompson, Elena Casagrande, and others)—many of us are now dealing with both the afterglow of a stellar 15-issue run and the recurring disappointment of Black Widow once again trapped in publishing limbo.

Here, I want to consider v.7 and Web as a stumbling journey to that excellent Thompson series, holding onto the hope that at some point Marvel will overcome underestimating and hypersexualizing Natasha/Black Widow.

Black Widow, Lost and Found

The creative team of Jen Soska and Sylvia Soska, writers, and Flaviano Armentaro, artist, are tasked with v.7 in the wake of Natasha Black Widow’s death in Secret Empire issue 7.

Cover art by Max Brooks.

The opening of v.7 issue 1 establishes, again, the double-identity and secret identity motifs very common in superhero comics, but especially in Black Widow narratives. Here, the dual Captain Americas (one of which has killed Black Widow in Secret Empire before she is resurrected through cloning and memory implants) face off again as Natasha helps—while trying to maintain the veil of people believing she is dead.

While Black Widow and the real Captain America fight the evil Captain America, this volume returns to considerations of dual and secret identities as well as the tensions at the core of being a superhero—fighting for good while trying to honor human life.

Natasha is a perfect pairing for Captain America’s identity crisis since she has long suffered doubt and suspicious about her loyalties despite her heroism.

The dynamic between Black Widow and Captain America works well here, but once again, sexual banter returns in a way that feel reductive and unneeded:

Hypersexualized Black Widow would not seem as abrupt in v.7 if not for the more nuanced and fuller explorations of the character in v.5 and v.6.

The core tension of this issue is one of the most enduring elements of the superhero subgenre, one that includes the problematic aspects of vigilanteism, embodied by Black Widow and Captain America arguing over taking a life:

Black Widow, cold and practical, resists Captain America’s idealism with “I am what I am.”

And Natasha remains vividly aware of who she is: “The violence. The rage”:

Ominous beginnings for v.7 highlight what likely are the strongest elements of the Black Widow narrative, a woman fighting herself because of the injustices she has suffered even as she seeks to fights for other people’s justice.

For v.7, the Soska sisters explain the are committed to “Black Widow … unleashed,” and placing Natasha motivated by avenging child sex trafficking provides fertile soil for just that—as Black Widow herself revels in the opportunity:

Natasha’s passionate resolve stand in contrast to Captain America’s naive view of the ugliest aspects of humanity.

And Black Widow unleashed shifts the reader’s gaze away from Natasha’s body (when creators underestimate the character) and highlights the violence she has embraced, and justifies. We must confront the allure along with the problems of ends-justify-the-means justice:

Placed side-by-side with Wilson Fisk’s infamous car door scene in Netflix’s Daredevil, v.7, issue 2 allows Black Widow to take no prisoners.

The focus of v.7 maintains the “unleashed” commitment of the writers, and much of the action involves several women characters—Black Widow, Tyger Tiger, Madame Masque—against the backdrop of the most horrific child sex trafficking (including a child recovered who had her hands cut off).

Throughout this series, I struggle with Flaviano’s artwork, however. Too often the style leans to the cartoon side, unlike the dynamic and even hyperrealism of previous artists such as Phil Noto and Chris Samnee. These concerns are more about my tastes than quality, I think, because Flaviano’s work suits well the “unleashed” tone throughout.

As one example, the creators of v.7 turn the tables on one of the most reductive ways Black Widow is portrayed—bound (and often nude or semi-nude):

A great deal is at work here in v.7, issue 3—a twist on the bound motif, the working-class slur, and extended scenes between two women in what is too often a misogynistic media.

However, after Natasha takes on Madame Masque’s identity to infiltrate the child trafficking ring, issue 3 slips right back into old habits—Natasha exposed, and bound:

It is hard not to be disappointed when creative teams cannot resist Natasha returning to the role of victim and almost always finding herself bound, helpless, and exposed.

By issue 4, “unleashed” becomes hyperviolent and cathartic for Black Widow, and likely readers. Despite my concerns raised above, Flaviano’s paneling and design lend a powerfully dynamic look that reinforces the narrative.

And at the center of it all, the weight of Natasha’s past remains at the heart of Black Widow, super-agent, and Natasha, deeply traumatized woman:

“I am through being a plaything, a pawn”—this refrain drives v.7, but also speaks to the essence of my series, raising concerns about underestimating and hypersexualizing this important character.

Identity and rebirth open the last issue of this series with Black Widow surviving a blast, portrayed with subtle phoenix imagery:

Survival and rebirth sits at the center of who Natasha is a woman and as a superhero.

The volume ends with some of the strongest aspects of this too-short series. Natasha/Black Widow imposes her world view—not Captain America’s—on her revenge, exposing the emptiness of the sex traffickers and fulfilling her own resolve to enact justice (even as that takes life).

The final pages reveal Natasha providing Winter Soldier-like hands to the mutilated girl and reuniting with Steve Rogers: “It doesn’t matter how our story started. It’s up to us how it’s going to end.”

This series becomes a story of power with the gender roles reversed—Natasha taking control of her world and urging Steve to let go of his fatalistic worldview.

Black Widow ends, again, yet the rage remains:

One of the best pages of v.7 occurs at the very end.

O, What a Tangled Web…

Marvel released a limited solo series, Web of Black Widow, after v.7 and before v.8, the celebrated Thompson run.

Web, regretfully, immediately introduces Tony Stark, and of course, Natasha’s cleavage:

Web is written by Jody Houser with artwork by Stephen Mooney. Issue 1 doesn’t suggest another brief series, 5 issues, will rise above well-worn ground.

While issue 1 too often remains reductive and derivative, Mooney’s artwork soars none the less:

Mooney captures many of the best qualities found in superior runs of Black Widow.

Noted above, v.7 built to an issue of power; Web establishes the issue of history, switching the tension from between Natasha and Captain America to between Natasha and Iron Man.

Natasha continues to build who she is on who she has been, and how her history has often been what others do to her.

Web is intended as a noir take on Black Widow, and as acknowledged earlier, the artwork certainly aspires to the very best of previous Black Widow series, but too much of this solo run falls back into the underestimated and especially the hypersexualized:

Cover art by Jung-Geun Yoon

Comic books have long suffered the misleading, unnecessarily provocative covers. Throughout Web, we are confronted not with Natasha’s cleavage, but the possibility of her cleavage behind that zipper. I am reminded of a scene in The Handmaid’s Tale: “They wore blouses with buttons down the front that suggested the possibilities of the word undone. These women could be undone; or not. They seemed to be able to choose” (p. 25).

I am unable to trust what choices are allowed for Natasha in Web, genuine power and autonomy, against the objectification of her throughout. But I do sense a strong grounding of Web in all that has come before, not just Natasha’s backstory but the many series I have been covering:

Issue 2 alludes to v.6, issue 9 as the Winter Soldier is introduced to this plot line.

Ultimately, Web proves to be a mildly interesting thought experiment, Black Widow noir, and it looks good while muddling through being mostly derivative.

Worse things can be said about a comic book series, but I continue to hope for better, and with my last post coming next, I can assure you that v.8 is better—if not the best.