Black Widow Underestimated: “I Remember Everything”

Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow is in comic book limbo.

Again.

The limbo after the end of v.8, just 15 issues, suggests that Marvel is only capable of underestimating her in the long run, but the latest (last?) run shows once again—and possibly at the highest level—that breathing rich and vibrant life into this character is not only possible but also needed.

The core team of v.8 offers readers one of the best volumes featuring Black Widow—Kelly Thompson (writer), Elena Casagrande (artist), Jordie Bellaire (colorist), and Adam Hughes (cover artist) with additional artists Rafael De Latorre, Carlos Gómez, and Rafael Pimentel making strong contributions.

While many familiar patterns are once again found in v.8, this run is held together by the unifying purpose that resonates throughout the writing and the visual power, solidly anchored in a creative team of women (Thompson, Casagrande, and Bellaire).

Covers by Adam Hughes alert readers to the visual allure of v.8—a red/black motif driven by Elena Casagrande and Jordie Bellaire interiors. (Issue 1 and issue 11)

“This Can’t Be It”

Just a few beautiful pages into issue 1—immediately situating Black Widow with Hawkeye and Captain America—Natasha thinks in dramatic fashion, “This can’t be it,” as she falls, drugged, from her apartment window.

Issue 1 with Thompson (writer), Casagrande (artist), and Bellaire (colorist).

In hindsight, with Black Widow’s current limbo in mind, this seems like a signal larger than the narrative tension of yet another death of Natasha Romanoff. However, Natasha is not dead, but is discovered by Clint and Bucky to be living months later in San Francisco (a nod to the Daredevil/Black Widow run from the early 1970s) as Natalie with a partner and a child—seemingly unaware that she is Black Widow.

Readers, like Clint and Bucky, recognize that Natasha remains just below the surface, eager to reappear.

Thompson is the star writer of this series, but a strong case can be made for Casagrande’s artwork defining this run. As “Natalie” thinks, “Well, this doesn’t suck.”

Soon, Yelena (White Widow) appears as a covert babysitter, and the usual cast of characters in Black Widow narratives is gradually assembled while Natasha remains underneath this new “Natalie” with an inexplicable child (only three months have passed since her fall and disappearance).

While the story arc seems to be well-worn territory so far in issue 1, one of the most effective examples of the purposefulness throughout this series is the use of color.

Issue 2 highlights the wonderful use of color motifs by Bellaire; here the vibrant red with Natalie/Natasha and green with the introduction of Arcade.

Another compelling aspects of issue 1 is watching Natasha/Black Widow resurface from the puzzling new life of Natalie (one Yelena, Clint, and Bucky gradually piece together). First, the motorcycle, and then, building a homemade bomb.

Issue 2 is a stellar showcase of Casagrande’s and Bellaire’s work.

Clint and Bucky grapple with Natalie/Natasha’s happiness from afar while they, along with Yelena, discover that Natasha is a pawn in an elaborate scheme monitored by Arcade, including that the child is in fact Natasha’s.

Gradually, a gallery of villains are revealed in issue 3 as Black Widow continues to resurface and then forms her own group, another of the many gifts offered by Thompson’s writing.

Issue 3 also portrays fresh and dynamic takes on iconic depictions of Black Widow—the acrobatic fight scene and the superhero landing pose:

Casagrande and Bellaire remind me of the brilliant run by Phil Noto in v.5.

By issue 4, Natasha regains her memory, and readers learn about her manufactured family—a family that is none the less “real.”

Issue 4 includes flashback scene art by Carlos Gómez.

Once Natasha/Black Widow understands her predicament, she joins Clint, Bucky, and Yelena in an elaborate scheme to protect her partner and child—a plot that once again leaves Natasha alone.

Casagrande and Bellaire render the images in issue 4 and issue 5 as dramatically as the plot itself.

The tensions, romantic and otherwise, between Natasha and Clint as well as between Natasha and Bucky are emphasized in issue 5 as Natasha grapples with the new reality of a manufactured family that she loves and must abandon to protect.

Thompson’s take on Natasha’s need to be a mother (explored in several earlier volumes) and the classic theme of being a superhero as a barrier to maintaining relationships are fresh and sincere.

“‘…And This Is My City Now'”

Even though v.8 has a core creative team of women, elements of the male gaze, objectification, and sexual innuendo are not absent, but framed in a different context, enabling readers to interrogate how women navigate s violent and sexually aggressive world.

Issue 6 includes a staple of Black Widow stories—sexual innuendo—with Rafael De Latorre maintaining the outstanding artwork presence.

In the second third of this volume, the story shifts to Natasha/Black Widow taking control of her world—the sexual banter vocalizes her power and control, for example. And this new life, this new world, is in her reclaimed city of San Francisco.

As Black Widow asserts control, the falling imagery in issue 6 parallels the first issue fall that is the initial transition of this volume.

This volume is grounded in women creators who, by issue 7, begin to center the narrative on women characters as Black Widow forms a group of women superheroes.

In issue 7, Natasha interacts with Spider-Girl and Lucy, characters that highlight elements of the complexities involved with being a superhero as they are compounded by also being a woman (as well as issues related to age).

For Lucy, coming to terms with new super powers highlights her frailty and the uncertainties of being differently human. One of the hallmarks of the Marvel approach to superheroes from the beginning in the 1960s was emphasizing the “human” in “superhuman”—such as acknowledging the negative as well as positive consequences of being “super.”

In many ways, Lucy parallels Natasha’s journey, and she offers a context for the dualities of being superhuman. (Issue 8)

As well, the interactions between Yelena and Natasha explore the iconic “with great power comes great responsibility” motif. Yelena speaks often for her own interests as Natasha remains deeply committed to serving those in need.

Issue 8 continues to explore Natasha’s commitment to San Francisco as her city now.

Thompson’s work as writer for this volume excels in the complex and rich portrayal and development of the characters, notably the women. Like Natasha, Yelena stands out in Thompson’s care for the character.

None the less, Yelena receives some of the often problematic elements found in many volumes of Black Widow—being bound and killed. In issue 8 and issue 9, Thompson’s approach to these well-worn narratives rises above mere objectification (being bound) and simplistic as well as hollow tension (being killed).

Yes, Yelena is bound to a chair, but the perspective avoids the lurid gaze found in earlier volumes, and Yelena’s apparent death also fits into a motif of the power of women to (in this case) literally save each other’s lives.

The second third of this volume reaches a milestone for the much underestimated character of Black Widow, the legacy issue 50 (issue 10). Marvel’s new normal of constantly rebooting and renumbering is annoying, and in my opinion, nonsense, but the legacy acknowledgements temper some of that.

Adam Hughs offers another visually dynamic cover for legacy issue 50, a fitting tribute to Black Widow as a underestimated and hypersexualized character in the Marvel Universe.

Issue 10 introduces another derivative woman superhero, Hawkeye, like Spider-Girl, but the assembling of a mostly women team remains a powerful aspect of this run. Natasha herself acknowledges this, suggesting a sense of community linked to their shared womanhood (even with a touch of her sarcasm).

While the comic book industry has suffered from lacking representation and often failed by seeking diversity in derivatives (women taking on male superhero roles), Natasha’s “My kind of team” carries a great deal of weight in terms of Thompson’s rich portrayal of both being a superhero and a woman.

This key legacy issue also includes more of the iconic depictions of Black Widow as an acrobatic and gifted super-agent and fighter.

Paneling and coloring continue to define v.8 as one of, if not the best runs featuring Black Widow.

“This Is Beautiful”

Issue 11 highlights in the final third of this volume Natasha’s remaining internal struggles. Although she has found and fostered a community with her new team, she remains in her bones a loner, and as in previous volumes, continues to value the power of secrets.

Nat certainly is well represented on a motorcycle—the solo vehicle that is an extension of her individuality as well as her power and grace.

How humans are portrayed in comic books has a long problematic history. Men and women alike are often drawn in distorted ways (particularly for me, the low point being the artistic style of the 1990s)—although women are more often than not hypersexualized. Black Widow has suffered that fate often, too often, so v.8 is an interesting way to interrogate women’s bodies, the gaze afforded readers when women are centered, and the role of clothing and fashion in depicting women superheroes.

Casagrande’s style is often similar to Noto’s in terms of portraying superheroes closer to realistic human shape while embracing elements of beauty without reducing women to their cleavages or mid-drifts (see here).

In short, women are celebrated as beautiful, unique, and powerful without the lens of the lurid male gaze. Fashion, in fact, plays a central role, and the characters are allowed to embrace what is often seen traditionally (and problematically) as womanhood in complex and even playful ways by the characters themselves.

In earlier volumes, Natasha and Yelena were puppets for revealing outfits and exposing cat fights. Thompson and Casagrande avoid these failures by centering both characters as autonomous humans who are both their bodies and much more.

At the center of how characters are portrayed, in fact, is the wonderful work of Casagrande and Bellaire (again). Possibly the best way to describe v.8 is that the entire run is simply beautiful—in the most inspiring use of the word.

Issue 12 is stunning in terms of art and coloring, a masterclass in the ways in which comic books can avoid underestimating characters and their readers.

Another element of fashion is the use of flashback in issue 13 with artwork on a variant cover and interiors by Rafael Pimentel. The use here of the gray Black Widow costume associated with Frank Miller is both a homage of sorts to the comic book legacy of the character as well as another dynamic exploration of how Black Widow is often defined by her costume.

Pimentel provides a stellar and complimentary addition to v.8. The variant cover for issue 13 is one of the highlights of the run.

The final issues of this volume, beginning with issue 12, matches Black Widow against the Living Blade (issue 13 provides the backstory for their rivalry). From the re-introduction of the Living Blade (and Natasha’s internal monologue exposing her fear) to the most WTF scene of issue 14, the core team of Thompson, Casagrande, and Bellaire take readers on a genuinely dramatic ride, punctuated with the sort of real surprise (Black Widow’s arm severed) that is rare in comic book narratives.

Bellaire maintains a high level of purposefulness in how the color motifs drive the narrative, tone, and emotional impact established by Thompson and Casagrande.

Many of the problems created throughout this series are resolved satisfactorily and without slipping into cliche; there simply is no lazy work in v.8.

And while I remain very frustrated that this series ended after (only) 15 issues and the Black Widow remains in comic book limbo, I think the real accomplishment of the series is the willingness to drive the narrative to a positive ending (in a way that reminds me of Alice Walker’s choice of ending for The Color Purple).

Despite the weight of her past and the traumas that continue in her life, Natasha makes a heart-warning final pronouncement—”This is beautiful”—and musters a genuine smile.

Issue 15, in many ways, offers the perfect way to think about v.8, “beautiful.”