Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow is in comic book limbo.
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).
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Issue 3 also portrays fresh and dynamic takes on iconic depictions of Black Widow—the acrobatic fight scene and the superhero landing pose:
By issue 4, Natasha regains her memory, and readers learn about her manufactured family—a family that is none the less “real.”
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.
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.
“‘…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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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).
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.
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).
This key legacy issue also includes more of the iconic depictions of Black Widow as an acrobatic and gifted super-agent and fighter.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.