My recommitting to collecting comic books started out very targeted, but since I completed my Daredevil collection, I have floundered a bit where to turn next. I have been collecting Daredevil appearances in other titles and started working on Moon Knight volume 1 after finding issue 1 in an antique store.
Then, the other day, Nova issue 1 from the summer of 1976 popped up on my Instagram feed. As a beginning collector and a wanna-be comic book artist, I was immediately drawn to Nova as possibly the first #1 of a comic that occurred during my early collecting days. I also was drawing Nova by later that year:
It is a bit cliche, but my immediate love as a comic book collector was Amazing Spider-Man. My introduction to Spider-Man was during the Gil Kane and John Romita years, a truly wonderful era that may even rival Steve Ditko’s original run.
However, my purchasing years were mostly during the Ross Andru run on Amazing Spider-Man (issues 125-185) and that work still has a special place in my heart.
Here are a few older issues and some initial grabs of those Andru issues:
One of my more embarrassing confessions is my delayed nostalgia for Conan the Barbarian. My dad and I made two large purchases of a collection early in my collecting; that included many (if not all) of the early 1970s Marvel titles.
One of which was the Barry Windsor-Smith Conan run. At the time, I wasn’t really all that engaged with BWS’s work, and during my main collecting days, John Buscema took over (often with wonderful Kane covers and Ernie Chau inking).
I purchased the The Barry Windsor-Smith Archives Conan (v1, v2), but haven’t quite fully committed to collecting, again, those excellent issues:
Here are scans of a few early Conan issues in my recollecting stack:
When I began collecting again, I immediately searched for Deathlok, who first appeared in Astonishing Tales. I was actually a Rich Buckler fan, although I think his work was considered second-tier, and this character series fit perfectly into my science fiction obsession.
Recently, I completed this run, although I need to find a better quality AT 25:
Above are galleries of some of my favorite covers, but I am a huge fan of those 1970s covers and the gradual increase in issue prices. I collected many comics costing 12¢, 15¢, 20¢, and 25¢, and watched as they creeped into the 35-40¢ era.
I find the dramatic “Still only 25¢” endearing and miss that era of comic books. There is something we have lost since the basic coloring and newsprint from the 1960s and 1970s—although there is much to enjoy and praise in the current era of comic books.
Hope you enjoy the walk down memory lane that I am taking, recollecting the issues I held in my hands as a teen who fell in love with Marvel way before it was cool.
Scott continues the awe inspiring artwork by Phil Jimenez (Book One) and Gene Ha (Book Two) with DeConnick weaving an allusive and powerful re-imagining of the Amazons as well as speaking to enduring themes about humanity and human frailties as well as triumphs.
“She Believes Her Sin Set the War in Motion”
While Book Three offers an incredibly compelling narrative both in the writing and the visual dynamics, here I want to focus on the rich allusive and referential elements that reach out beyond that story.
Book Three opens with stunning spreads, the artwork and coloring invite the reader to linger on pages in order to grasp the grandeur that envelopes this world, this story of the Amazons.
The opening scenes include a serpent theme, complicating and flipping the Garden of Eden iconography with Demeter as the serpent transforming to talk with Hera and then the ultimate human frailty, sin, and of course human guilt: “She believes her sin set the war in motion.”
Dualities build, then, throughout adding innocence versus experience to birth/death, gods/mortals, and men/women. And now, “[s]omething terrible is coming.”
The next duality is both a dramatic element of this story and a new duality that reinforces the man/woman tensions—the rugged individual versus collective power wrapped in the classic theme of hubris. DeConnick works elegantly within mythological archetypes and turns them into lenses for our contemporary realities.
Heracles, son of Zeus, represents masculine hubris and serves as a catalyst for the disaster to come because the Amazons embody a higher form of power in their shared commitments.
Using dynamic ant imagery, this scene reminds me of Adrienne Rich’s poem confronting “the book of myths” and masculine/feminine power:
my mask is powerful it pumps my blood with power the sea is another story the sea is not a question of power
In victory, the Amazons show respect and care for the vanquished:
But the consequences of these women and their power are monumental since they invoke the ire of the god of gods:
At the core of the story of gods versus mortals, DeConnick and Scott show readers that death begets death—and that “might makes right” remains when men rule over all, especially when women assert their power.
DeConnick also includes literary nods to Aristophanes, with the Amazons performing Thesmophoriazusae, a play about women subverting patriarchy, and quoting Euripides:
Death and honor are framed against the greatest of powers, the will of the gods, echoing the Garden of Eden allusion from the beginning and raising the issue of power again:
This leads us to the key refrain: “We are—all of us—born to die.”
“You Treat Us as Livestock”
It is this issue of power within masculine/feminine dualities that DeConnick continues to explore through the lion/sheep duality:
The Amazons find power in being a community but also in the mentoring relationship (not antagonism) between those who are innocent and those with experience.
Just as a different kind of power is detailed among the women, the Amazons, so is a different way to interrogate the classic motif of hubris found in Greek tragedy:
The hubris/humility duality reveals the “complicating” consequences of aging, experience, which sets adults apart from children.
The central tension of Book Three is the wrath of Zeus and the consequences of the Amazons’ power and resistance. This ultimately creates the duality of life versus freedom:
Of course this is a fabricated duality because of the capriciousness and shallowness of a god who represents patriarchy and misogyny:
The shepherd/sheep duality fits into a literary history of confronting patriarchy and misogyny through using women-as-animal imagery (see Zora Neale Hurston’s mule imagery in Their Eyes Were Watching God).
Power in the hands of gods, the patriarchy, is exposed as capricious and cruel versus the contrast of justice and mercy:
Here the sacrificing nature of women along with the death/birth duality begins to build to the climax of these tensions:
Wonder Woman Historia across three books proves to be a work that portrays and confronts dualities in ways that force readers to rethink enduring motifs and themes within and beyond mythology.
While there is great loss and often violence, Book Three ends with triumph, hope, and birth/rebirth rising out of that loss:
By the end of Book Three, even “born to die” is turned onto itself as a superhero is born into the matriarchy of goddesses and Amazons—although the very real threats of the world and beyond remain ever in the background.
Books 1-3 of Wonder Woman Historia offer a compelling and visually stunning exploration of heroism that is solidly situated in superhero royalty (Wonder Woman among DC’s Big Three), yet this is not predictable superhero story.
DeConnick along with Jimenez, Ha, and Scott tells stories of dualities and confrontations by turning those dualities around and inviting readers to rethink those tensions in ways that speak to the very real world we walk in today.
As a long-time fan and collector of Daredevil, I have expressed my concern about the current storyline that has included Daredevil and Elektra as king and queen of The Fist as well as Daredevil announcing, “This is God’s plan.”
With Daredevil 6 (v.7), Chip Zdarsky appears to be shifting the trajectory of Daredevil away from the precipice of knowing the mind of God and toward a much more compelling characterization of the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen as a Christ figure—complete with human frailty and doubt (see more below):
With issue 6, I immediately thought of the recurring motif in literature that reveals the alienating consequences of putting Jesus’s plea for charity into real-world practice. Literature often portrays religiosity as false and dangerous, framed against a more humanistic and secular embracing of simply living one’s life with empathy without regard to punishments or rewards (in this life or in a claimed afterlife):
About belief or lack of belief in an afterlife: Some of you may know that I am neither Christian nor Jewish nor Buddhist, nor a conventionally religious person of any sort.
I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishments after I’m dead.
Daredevil finds himself struggling to communicate with a world disconnected from God/Jesus in a way that parallels John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany; John Wheelwright, narrator and friend of Owen, offers a key scene in Chapter 1:
We were in Rye, passing the First Church, and the breeze from the ocean was already strong. A man with a great stack of roofing shingles in a wheelbarrow was having difficulty keeping the shingles from blowing away; the ladder, leaning against the vestry roof, was also in danger of being blown over. The man seemed in need of a co-worker—or, at least, of another pair of hands.
“WE SHOULD STOP AND HELP THAT MAN,” Owen observed, but my mother was pursuing a theme, and therefore, she’d noticed nothing unusual out the window….
“WE MISSED DOING A GOOD DEED,” Owen said morosely. “THAT MAN SHINGLING THE CHURCH—HE NEEDED HELP.” (pp. 33-34, 35)
Owen sees a world that those around him appear either unwilling or incapable of seeing; Owen also is eager to act on his vision for empathy and compassion while those around him are paralyzed by their daily lives:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon! ("The World Is Too Much With Us," William Wordsworth
The arc of issue 6 depends on creating some nuance to vigilanteism, a core problem in superhero narratives. That arc begins with Daredevil and ends with the Punisher, who has long provided a moral complication to Daredevil’s code of ethics.
Matt Murdock, lawyer, and Daredevil, superhero, have carried this tension as well throughout the long history of Daredevil:
Daredevil’s mission is grounded not in punishment but in a key tenet of restorative justice:
Criminals are a consequence of social forces, Daredevil argues, and thus, he seeks a way to use love and compassion to help those labeled “criminals” regain their humanity.
Daredevil’s commitment to restorative justice is dramatized in an exchange with Bullet:
Like Daredevil, Bullet is aware of the inherent flaws in the criminal justice system, built on punishment; however, Bullet is also a voice of blunt reality against Daredevil’s idealism:
Here, my concerns from issue 5 are greatly tempered although this exchange creates even more tension in the story itself. Similar to the powerful scenes between Frank Castle/The Punisher and Daredevil in S2 of Daredevil, here Bullet calls Daredevil on his idealism:
Alone, the weight of that reality on Daredevil is revealed, the pressure of being Christlike, leading by example:
The religious motif of issue 6 is made explicit once Daredevil confronts Goldy while Elektra serves the mission (and faces Iron Man*):
From issue 5—”This is God’s plan”—to issue 6—”The Lord knows the plans of man”—Psalm 94:11 pulls the reader back from Daredevil’s idealism, suggesting that despite his best intentions, his mission is “futile.”
And then, the narrative returns to something ominous, the motif of punishment:
Justice, we must acknowledge, is in the eye of the beholder, and issue 7 appears to be tracking toward a clash between the mission (Daredevil) and the cause (The Punisher).
And the question remains if that justice can be restorative or futile.
This origin story is set in rural Upstate South Carolina during the 1970s, and there are plenty of uncomfortable parallels with the scrawny nerd-to-hero Peter Parker (the origin story of Spider-Man, 1962, occurring a bit over a year after my birth, 1961).
This origin story is about nerd-t-hero, however; it is about an anxious rail-thin teenager being diagnosed with scoliosis and stumbling into reading, drawing from, and collecting Marvel comic books.
From 1975 until I graduated high school in 1979, I managed to collect about 7000 Marvel comic books, the greatest bilk of what was published in the 1970s. One huge part of that collection was buying a collection from an ad in our local newspaper.
As I have written about often, my parents turned themselves inside out to support their son resigned to spending his adolescence wearing a full body brace to correct a crooked spine. Buying comics and even attending a comic-con in Atlanta were stressful for my working-class family, but my parents never wavered.
While my collecting—and drawing from comic books—gradually faded while I was in college and then married in the early 1980s, I held onto that collection until my then-wife and I decided to buy a townhouse before having our only child.
Here, I allowed the normal life expectations to prompt a really bad decision—selling the entire collection to a comic book store in Charlotte (who mainly wanted the X-Men titles, and the full original run of Conan) for enough money to make a small downpayment on that townhouse.
While the money for us then was enough, looking back, I essentially threw away a wonderful collection because of impatience to start the sort of life I believed I was supposed to follow.
Over the next 40 years, I was a former comic book collector—although I popped back into collecting a few times because of students I taught and the growing wider interest in superheroes grounded in films featuring Batman and then the X-Men.
Also over those 40 years, my life—as life does—changed dramatically and in ways I could have never envisions.
In 2002, I moved from K-12 teaching to higher education, and it is then, that I turned to comic book scholarship/blogging and began once again filling my office with comic books used in that work as well as starting (without any initial purpose) collection Daredevil, focusing on my favorite Alex Maleev run.
The 2010s included the greatest changes in my life. Grandchildren, another serious cycling versus car accident (on Christmas eve 2016), the death of both parents in 2017, and then a major life change in 2019 after spending two years in therapy.
This may seem trivial to many people, but a key to coming to embrace my true self, and thus, true life, was to allow myself to return to the joys of my teenage years.
For a few years now, I have recommitted to comic book collecting, focusing on Daredevil and Black Widow along with a few other Marvel (and some DC) titles.
I moved my small collection from my office into a very small apartment already overwhelmed by two occupants and way too many high-end bicycles.
But in 2022, we moved into a larger apartment allowing us to dedicate a small bedroom to those bicycles and that growing collection—along with another new avocation, Lego.
Something unexpected happened in 2022.
First, I was able to complete my Black Widow solo series collection while I also wrote an 8-blog series on Black Widow and recently submitted a book proposal on the character (currently under review).
Next, I gradually began to make huge dents in the more daunting Daredevil collection since his solo series began in 1964 and includes nearly 700 issues.
After connecting with a local comic book store, where they targeted Daredevil issues for me, I began making some large purchases and eventually believed I could complete the entire run.
A tipping point in 2022 was making the big leap to buy Daredevil 1, 2, and 3 from that store, and then realizing I had dwindled my needed issues from about 100 to just about 10.
In that final 10, I was faced with a few key issues that were experiencing the usual market inflation connected to the MCU so I was patient and watched for dropping prices at local stores and on ebay.
This post in December 2022, then, is a magical one for me, surreal as I announce with acquiring Daredevil v.1 issue 7 (the first issue with his red uniform), I have a full run of Daredevil.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
And Natasha remains vividly aware of who she is: “The violence. The rage”:
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:
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:
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):
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:
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:
Identity and rebirth open the last issue of this series with Black Widow surviving a blast, portrayed with subtle phoenix imagery:
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:
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:
While issue 1 too often remains reductive and derivative, Mooney’s artwork soars none the less:
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.
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:
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:
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.
More often than not recently, many people have come to know Marvel superheroes through Netflix, the MCU, and now Disney+. That sets up tension between the recent fans and those of us coming from a comic book background.
I am a Marvel reader and collector from the 1970s, and fell in love with Daredevil when his comic book was co-titled with Black Widow. I also grew up a Marvel fan when shows such as The Incredible Hulk hit mainstream TV.
Once CGI allowed superhero movies to look the way we now-older fans always hoped, I have been mostly thrilled with the mainstreaming of Marvel comics—despite the many problems with that different universe compared to the too-often rebooted and jumbled universes of comic books.
I am also one of those fans who loved the Netflix Daredevil series because it captured almost everything that makes the Daredevil character and narratives nearly equally compelling and deeply problematic.
Matt Murdock becoming Daredevil incorporates the traditional silliness of superhero origins (a chemical spill doesn’t kill young Matt, but renders him superhuman) as well as some refreshing and compelling elements (Matt develops many of his superhero qualities because of his character, one grounded in a relentless righteous anger than is more than vengeance).
Although Daredevil is one of the earliest Marvel creations, debuting in 1964, and has endured almost 60 years and numerous reboots over 7 volumes, in many ways, the character is a low tier one, if not a top tier two figure in the Marvel Universes (certainly a notch down in the MCU).
Daredevil, however, is currently trending regularly on social media because, as many of us Netflix Daredevil fans have wanted, the character is being reintroduced to the Disney+ and MCU versions—although at a glacial pace. With that, we comic book fans who have been stung many times by various types of reboots have been fretting about a Disney+ series ruining the Netflix version, one that is incredibly violent (Kingpin’s car door scene, for example, is very not Disney) and one that owes a great deal to Frank Miller’s reboot of Daredevil that boosted Miller to superstardom and laid the foundation for his heralded Batman work.
Many comic book fans also fretted about Moon Knight, a much more clearly second tier Marvel superhero. However, in some ways, I think, the success of Moon Knight tempered our fretting about how Daredevil would be recreated (again).
Another element of the relevance of Moon Knight and Daredevil in the MCU is religion. Moon Knight being Jewish has been examined with the Disney+ series, in terms of how relevant his faith was portrayed in the series. Matt Murdock, and the entire ethos of Daredevil, Man without Fear, is grounded in Miller’s emphasizing Murdock’s Catholicism.
In similar ways to concerns about Moon Knight being Jewish, it seems important to interrogate whether or not Murdock’s Catholicism is being trivialized or honored in the MCU. Some fear Murdock’s faith is mere “stained-glass window dressing” (Cressler, 2022, p. 113).
Ironically, Matt/Daredevil’s righteous resolve is the antithesis of glass. In many ways, people find Daredevil compelling because his superpowers are certainly skewed closer to being human, thus frail, than other superheroes such as Luke Cage, The Hulk, or Superman. Yet, Daredevil is often the most determined human in any conflict, counting on his ability to suffer and persevere—because he is certain (usually) that he is right.
Cressler admits a concern I raised above (with the Netflix series a notable exception):
The extent to which Murdock’s religiousness features in any given story—and indeed, whether it features at all—depends of course on the artists involved. Some center other elements of the Daredevil mythos (secret ninja societies, for instance). Most of the time Catholicism seems more like stained-glass window dressing, offering a thematic or aesthetic palette without much depth: fistfights in front of altars, vaguely religious themes, jokes about Catholic guilt. (p. 113)
What makes Cressler’s analysis compelling is using Catholicism as a lens for understanding not only Matt/Daredevil but also portrayals of Daredevil as that intersects with who is drawn to the character and why. Citing Andrew Greeley and others, Cressler asserts, “Daredevil’s abilities accentuate what is often cited as the distinguishing feature of Catholic Christianity: the sensuousness of its religious culture,” including violence (p. 116).
But even more significant, I think, Cressler notes that Catholicism reinforces a central motif of most portrayals of Daredevil, suffering. In the Netflix series, for example, a motif of the show is how often people express disbelief in the amount of suffering Matt can and does endure. Nearly even more so than his blindness, Matt’s willingness—even eagerness—to suffer defines him.
Among the most informative aspects of Cressler’s analysis is his explaining how Miller’s own working-class Catholic background builds on the origin of Daredevil: “Daredevil thus presents a working class twist on the classic comic book origin story” (p. 120).
Miller’s working-class Catholicism, I think Cressler demonstrates compellingly, contributes to both why Daredevil is an enduring character (maintaining Miller’s stamp) and a very problematic one as well.
The best analogy I have is that Miller-influenced Daredevil (Netflix and Disney+ versions) are similar to why so many people are drawn to Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul despite the deeply problematic elements. When the craft is high, the work soars, but often with any work, the flaws of the artist and the world seem to inevitably creep in:
This reluctance to call white Catholics white and have that word signify something substantive is particularly problematic when talking about the era in which Miller came of age and eventually began a career in comics. In the 1950s, white Catholics defended “their turf” against Black migrants in the urban North. In the 1960s, some fled to federally subsidized and racially segregated suburbs while others fought on the frontlines of resistance to integration. The so-called “Catholic vote”—by which pollsters meant working-class white Catholics—helped usher in a half century of conservative rule, first as part of Nixon’s “silent majority” and then as members of the “Reagan revolution.” Born Again bears this influence….
By the time Frank Miller began drawing Daredevil in the late 1970s, white Catholics had thrown bricks at civil rights activists in Chicago, firebombed school busses in Boston, and brutally quelled a prison uprising in Attica, just to name a few notorious instances of white Catholic violence. (pp. 124-125,127)
Miller’s own misogyny and bigotries grounded in his upbringing tarnish even the best aspects of his run on Daredevil. Like too much of the comic book world, stereotypes often populate Miller’s narratives in the most reductive ways.
Yet, as Cressler explains, we must acknowledge the key role of Catholicism:
When Frank Miller said Daredevil “had to be Catholic,” the Catholic he created was a white working-class Irish American Catholic man prepared to save his woman and defend his block with brute force. This is the Catholic Daredevil brought to life in Marvel’s Daredevil. And this is not merely a work of fiction. (p. 127)
Ultimately one of the most interesting tensions here is between Matt’s devoutness and his righteous anger turned violent:
Daredevil’s religiousness, reviewers seem to say, can be found in biblical quotes, religious images, and theological themes. Violence is another matter, one that has to be forgiven in the confessional and reconciled with faith. (p. 128)
However, as Cressler shows, Matt—notably in the opening scenes of Netflix’s Daredevil—has fully embraced both his faith and his violence:
If we resist [the] urge to separate the two, however, it quickly becomes clear that religion and violence are bound together for both Frank Miller and Netflix’s adaption of his work. Recall how the series opens. We meet Matt Murdock in confession, where he admits “I’m not seeking penance for what I’ve done, Father. I’m asking forgiveness for what I’m about to do.” (p. 128)
The portrayal of Matt/Daredevil, by Charlie Cox in the Netflix series, I think, is at its best when viewers can see in the acting that Matt/Daredevil has switched to “violence is the only solution”—sometimes accompanied by a slight head tilt. And we feel a little rush of adrenaline as we anticipate that despite all the odds against him, Daredevil will leave the “bad guys” regretting not only their immediate actions but also being bad guys.
I do not see Daredevil as a base vigilante bouncing from act of vengeance to act of vengeance. I am compelled by the character Daredevil because of the tensions created through Matt being a lawyer and his Catholic drive to rid the world of evil (starting, of course, with saving all of Hell’s Kitchen). Cressler referencing Birzer notes that Daredevil embodies “righteous violence meted out in defense of moral order” (p. 129).
The Disney+ era of Daredevil has been announced, Daredevil: Born Again. There is no doubt that Miller will be lurking there, but what remains to be seen is how seamlessly the Disney+ era will grow from what Netflix established.
Will we have to endure mere “stained-glass window dressing,” or will we feel the hair raise on our arms anticipating Daredevil single-handedly pummeling the bad guys down a cramped and dark hallway?
[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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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 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.”
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.
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