Category Archives: Black Widow

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.

Black Widow Underestimated: “I Reap What I Sow”

[NOTE: This is the next installment of a series begun at Comics Bookcase, which has made some changes; therefore, I am completing the series here, with this and then two final posts. I also hope to develop these posts into a book proposal because I think Black Widow deserves a deep dive into how the character has been underestimated (and hypersexualized) throughout Marvel’s less-than-adequate handling of the character.]


After Nathan Edmondson, writer, and Phil Noto, artist, set the bar very high in v.5 of Black Widow—avoiding the pitfalls of underestimating and hypersexualizing her—another all-star team took over with v.6, Chris Samnee handling pencils and co-writing with Mark Waid. This reboot repeats many aspects of previous volumes: a Daredevil team trying their hands at Natasha Romanov and portraying Natasha as possibly disloyal because of the ghosts of her abusive past that cannot be exorcized.

Yet, Samnee and Waid maintain the momentum set by Edmondson and Noto, especially with a visually compelling 12-issue run that also does not stoop to focusing on exposed cleavage and Black Widow bound by chains or rope.

A couple covers do involve Black Widow embraced—although these portrayals fit well into the tone and imagery of the run without reducing Black Widow’s agency as a character and a woman.

Covers for issue 002 and 009 feature Black Widow embraced. Pencil by Chris Samnee and ink by Matthew Wilson.

Enemy of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Again?)

Issue 001 opens with dynamic action and panels; Samnee (pencil and ink) and Wilson (colors) set the tone for the series by centering Black Widow’s athleticism and intelligence. However, once again, readers are in for another exploration of Natasha’s trustworthiness and how damaged she remains because of the trauma of her childhood training as an assassin.

Samnee and Wilson build to Black Widow’s dramatic escape in the opening pages of issue 001 in v.6, highlighting Samnee’s panel designs and Wilson’s brilliant coloring.

Similar to Noto, Samnee carries the narrative through textless panels and creates a film effect for much of the volume. After her dramatic escape from S.H.I.E.L.D., Natasha finds her foe for the volume in issue 002, Weeping Lion, and is again threatened with having her deepest secrets revealed. In many ways the focus of this series feels overworked already, but visually Samnee and Wilson maintain a compelling narrative.

Samnee and Waid also craft a smart approach to old topics because they clearly honor the complexity of Natasha/Black Widow as a rich and complicated human as well as superhero.

Once again, Black Widow finds herself bound and threatened in issue 002, but Samnee and Waid never stumble into the hypersexualized and reductive patterns in early volumes.

Instead of focusing on Natasha’s exposed body, Samnee depicts Black Widow in the context of images as a ballerina through the use of pastel colors and emphatic shading. As well, Natasha remains physically vulnerable, often battered, stabbed, and brought to exhaustion through a relentless parade of battles for her life.

A perfect scene for Natasha/Black Widow, in fact, in issue 003 involves her being stitched up in a flashback mixed in with her actual return to the Catacombs in the Red Room Academy. Natasha is told: “It will scar, which is good. A scar is not the mark of a mistake made, Natasha. It’s another lesson.”

Natasha as Black Widow is a life lived among scars, pain, and seemingly lessons that never end.

Issue 003 offers powerful uses of pastels—blues, pinks—contrasted with black shade and faded images.

Natasha is badly wounded and finds the help of Iosef in issue 004. Caught between the Weeping Lion and S.H.I.E.L.D., Natasha must secure the tools, old weapons from Iosef, to confront the Headmistress and Recluse in the Dark Room Academy, a replacement of the Red Room Academy, where young girls continue to be trained as assassins like Natasha was.

Samnee and Waid use parallel narratives—present and flashback—and motifs well despite this being overworked ground with Black Widow. The issues continue to be visually dynamic and compelling, breathing life into stories and conflicts we have read again and again.

Natasha and Iosef are one of the better pairings used in Black Widow series, at times playful but absent the empty sexual banter and tension too often present in Natasha’s relationship with men.

Issue 004 also highlights the power of images, the use of color and dynamic paneling, and either textless or sparse-text full-page spreads. Samnee gives this volume the same presence and visual weight that Noto provided in v.5.

The use of blue on this full-page panel and the simple “Well, damn” captures the vastness of Nastasha living in the present while continuing to fight the past.

The Arc of Black Widow’s Universe

After parallel stabbings—from her past and in the present, returning to the Catacombs—Natasha confronts the Red Room Headmistress and Recluse, complicating the main narrative involving S.H.I.E.L.D. and Weeping Lion. After recovering with Iosef’s help, Natasha moves to her mission to recover intel for Weeping Lion, which goes wrong, dramatically and violently with S.H.I.E.L.D. involved. The lingering question of Natasha’s loyalty is left in the balance.

The next test is Tony Stark/Iron Man joining issue 006, mixed with another flashback of Natasha’s life as a ruthless assassin. The Stark scene shows Natasha manipulating Stark: “Makeup and acting, Tony. You’ve always been a sucker for both. Thanks for the access.”

The “former lover” motif is a return to a pattern found in many Black Widow series; however, Samnee and Waid insert a power shift and portray Stark as the weaker of the two instead of hypersexualizing or reducing Natasha to stereotypes that do not suite her character.

The access she secures leads to Natasha discovering that Weeping Lion is part of a duo, including the telepath brother Ilija Knezevic in issue 006. Black Widow now turns the focus of the plot to her confronting the Headmistress and Recluse to rescue the girls from the Dark Room.

“No one gets into my head unless I let them,” Natasha informs Ilija Knezevic after turning Stark’s weapon on him. “And I rarely let them.”

Possibly the perfect tagline for Natasha/Black Widow is found in issue 006: “I reap what I sow.”

In issue 007, “No More Secrets,” readers witness a truly violent and disturbing flashback that centers both this series and Natasha/Black Widow by alluding to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

Natasha as a child assassin was supremely dedicated to her mission, a sort of moral code that is graphically displayed in the flashbacks depicting cold and calculated violence even in the face of innocence, notably other children—more of the weight of Natasha reaping what she has sown.

Issue 007 forces the reader to consider “justice” but also reveals the moral tension of the assassin’s mandate to leave no witnesses.

Natasha, the duo that is Weeping Lion, the Headmistress, and Recluse are all entangled by the end of issue 007 in a web of violence and an urge to seek justice warped by revenge and under the dark cloud of their pasts because Natasha failed to follow the full mandate of her assassin’s creed. After Headmistress’s death, Natasha claims, “…her mother did just die. I am not a monster.” The issue ends with Knezevic’s ominous, “Right.”

Issue 008 involves current-day child assassins in the White House with Natasha undercover. When the child assassins are exposed, Natasha confronts the girl calling herself “Death” with “You have been programmed for as long as you can remember. I know this. I was too.” Natasha adds that the Headmistress made her a “living weapon.”

Here, an important question about who is culpable and for how long when the actions are extreme, but the person is only a child, a child behaving in ways that they have been indoctrinated to believe and act upon.

Black Widow seeking to save these child assassins foreshadows later issues with Bucky Barnes involving tensions of savior and sacrifice.

The killing of Iosef in issue 009 adds to Natasha’s fear of death in the wake of anyone knowing her, and sets up her confrontation with Recluse, who has captured Bucky Barnes. Natsha chastises Barnes for wanting to protect her, but Barnes has another mission, bringing Black Widow to Nick Fury, now The Unseen.

On the moon in issue 010, Black Widow, Weeping Lion (telepath), and Bucky meet Fury/The Unseen. This dense issue includes the death of the telepath, a child assassin stowaway, and a familiar plot element, Natasha demanding that she be sacrificed: “My turn…to be the savior.”

Paneling and color continue to stand out as some of the most powerful work on v.6.

In the final two issues, Natasha must subvert the plan of a group of child assassins, charged with destroying S.H.I.E.L.D. and eventually confront Recluse.

The determination and skill of Natsha/Black Widow are highlighted in v.6.

The series ends with a climactic battle between Black Widow and Recluse, displaying some of Samnee’s finest work. The issue is also well written by Samnee/Waid as the plot builds to Natasha surrounded by the child assassins stating to Recluse, “I remain a better fighter than you. But a lesser assassin.”

Here is Natasha as savior without being sacrificed.

Yet, when all is said and done (including another scene with Stark), Natasha is asked to confront that her “lone wolf act” doesn’t mean she is alone. To that, Natasha agrees to “come in out of the cold.”

Samnee and Waid’s run on Black Widow fulfills the message of the universe bending toward justice, at least momentarily, at least for some.

Regretfully, Marvel abandons Black Widow again, until v.7 in 2019, a brief 5-issue run that regresses to early, weaker runs and breaks the excellent momentum created by Edmondson/Noto and Samnee/Waid.

Noto variant covers for v.6.