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.
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.
This post is intended for people who have viewed the full series, including the final episode, of Ozark.
Many people have acknowledged that Ozark is a well-acted derivative of Breaking Bad. But an analogy just as important, if not more so, is that Ozark is a 2010s-2020s version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1910s-1920s The Great Gatsby.
Marty and Wendy Byrde are essentially Tom and Daisy Buchanan, although Wendy is often more like Tom, and Marty, more like Daisy. None the less, Marty and Wendy fit well narrator Nick Carraway’s description of the Buchanans:
I couldn’t forgive [Tom] or like him, but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made….
The Byrdes leave a staggering trail of carnage, larger but similar to the bodies in the wake of the Buchanans. Both couples survive mostly unscathed—at least still wealthy and alive.
If we include the Breaking Bad comparison, the two series’ creators made some important and different decisions about Marty and Walter White—the main white male center of the “vast carelessness”—and some profoundly important different decisions about the parallel characters of Jesse and Ruth—both sympathetic characters who suffer some of the greatest consequences of the carelessness.
Ozark and Breaking Bad ultimately offer some excellent aspects of contemporary series, and nearly equal elements that are problematic. Notably, the shows center whiteness against Mexicans as murders and drug lords—with the whiteness often seeking viewer empathy.
The back story of Walter White—and the annoying messaging that being reduced to a high school teacher is proof Walter has been cheated by the universe—folds into his cancer diagnosis; this feels much reduced in the scene where Marty is on his knees about to be murdered, only to start the momentum toward nothing ever really touching Marty Byrde, unlike Walter’s fate.
Bryan Cranston and Jason Bateman go a long way to help the writers skirt past the ugliest of truths beneath these men scorching the earth for the good of their family. They are, in fact, the worst sort of “careless people,” selfish and calculating.
Breaking Bad, like Better Call Saul, are far better written and filmed than Ozark, even as these series are carried by incredible acting, possibly even better in Ozark than its obvious inspiration.
On balance, Break Bad is the better series, but in its last episode, Ozark makes a case for itself because of the decisions around Ruth, in contrast to her parallel, Jesse, from Break Bad.
Like the Buchanans, the Byrdes are outsiders, and although Jesse is a local like Ruth, Ruth’s parallels in Gatsby are the Wilsons, low- to working-class characters. And like Myrtle and George Wilson, Ruth as redneck young woman, is sacrificed beside her not-yet-finished empty pool with a corpse buried beneath. The imagery of her death is intensified as we hear her telling Wyatt he doesn’t know how to be rich—paralleled by Myrtle’s pathetic efforts to play rich in Gatsby.
Ozark seems to argue that the class barrier trumps race and gender. It certainly dramatizes that class trumps character and intelligence and work ethic.
Ruth splayed on her dirt yard—reminiscent of Myrtle mutilated in the road by Daisy driving Gatsby’s gold Rolls Royce—comes after mid-final-episode the Byrde’s suffering a dramatic car accident, one shown in an earlier episode, one no one could simply walk away from.
For me, the car wreck had no emotional weight, even as Marty and his children crawl free, miraculously unharmed, even as Wendy appears unconscious (dead?) until Marty rouses her. The family soon after arrives at their house in a taxi, Wendy noting they survived only somewhat battered and bruised.
But it is Wendy’s comment to Novarro’s priest that reveals the narrative purpose of the accident—not to tease the audience with one or more Byrde deaths but to show that the entire series is an extended allegory about the Teflon promises of whiteness and wealth.
As Wendy boasts to the priest as she takes him by the shoulders, they will survive, and they do.
The series ends black screen, a gun shot, the Byrde’s winning (a more honest and cynical ending than Breaking Bad), murderously (again) after Marty softly nods to his teen son, Jonah, who fires the shot.
Like Walter White, for Marty, and now Jonah, “what he had done was, to him, entirely justified.”
Many plot lines and characters force viewers to repeatedly interrogate that very concept; Walter and Marty live by the ends justifying the means.
Yet, none confront that central question more vividly than the tensions between Wendy and Ruth about the killing of Wendy’s brother, Ben.
The last episode highlights the emptiness pervading Ozark with Ruth caving to Wendy about culpability for Ben’s murder, prompted by Wendy committing herself in yet another grand manipulation (suggesting viewers should feel empathy for Wendy since, as the scene depicts, she shares with Ruth the consequences of an abusive father).
Ozark and Breaking Bad left me wondering how I am supposed to feel about the characters.
It is there I focus on Ruth and Jesse, the characters with the most lingering sympathetic qualities in spite of their very human flaws, and frailties. I think we can (and should) find more sincerity in the struggles of Jesse and Ruth against the backdrop of the posing and ruthlessness of Walter and Marty.
Like Gatsby, Ozark is a deeply cynical work about the American Dream. This American nightmare is more like what John Gardner lamented:
That idea—humankind’s inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—coupled with a system for protecting human rights—was and is the quintessential American Dream. The rest is greed and pompous foolishness—at worst, a cruel and sentimental myth, at best, cheap streamers in the rain. (p. 96)
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.
[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.
The oversized format and stunning cover by Phil Jimenez and Romulo Fajardo Jr. suggest something special from DC Black Label, but the black text-only first page signals Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Wonder Woman Historia: The Amazons has arrived just in time:
The “Some say…” reply of “Some are liars, fabulists” can be read as a critique of the Trump-poisoned Right today. But the most powerful lines speak to the exact source of why conservatives in 2021 are seeking to control what children are taught and how, echoing the essence of Critical Race Theory and vilified historians such as Howard Zinn:
History, young one, is written by the victors. In the bitter battle between the Amazons and the Gods of Men…
The Amazons lost.
There is no objective version. Neither this one, nor that.
The creative team of DeConnick (writer); Jimenez (artist); Hi-Fi, Arif Prianto, and Fajardo (colorists); and Clayton Cowles (letterer) remind me of J.H. Williams III and Kelly Thompson’s run on Black Widow—although in many ways, Historia proves to be dramatically unique.
Occasionally calling a work a feminist read on a topic can seem reductive, or insubstantial—how many feminist reads  has there been of Wonder Woman?—but in a world darkened by censorship and the looming threat of overturning women’s reproductive rights nearly 50 years after Roe v. Wade, a feminist manifesto is not just in time, but essential.
“For the Institutions of Men Care Not for the Weal of Women“: Just in Time?
After a beautifully rendered introduction of Goddesses, the narrator admits, “The subjugations and abuses of not-men by men are too numerous to catalog in a library…let alone a book.”
This powerful refrain not only sets the focus of Historia, but carries an eerie weight in a time of book censorship—books ripped from classrooms and libraries, school board members calling for book burnings—as well as the threat of of the State denying women reproductive rights, “the subjugations and abuses of not-men by men” and the women who do men’s bidding.
Next, an admission more sober: “For the institutions of men care not for the weal of women. You don’t have to be the Queen of Gods to recognize injustice.”
Book One moves from introduction to an exchange between Hera and Zeus, where Hera requests the elimination of not humankind but all men.
“The history of men is a chronicle of crimes against women,” Hera proclaims to protestations that history too includes “tales of love and beauty,” followed by:
“Herodotus 1.93. Every daughter of Lydia will work as a prostitute until she has raised sufficient money for a dowry and can secure a husband.”
The arguments are an excellent dramatization of concepts such as justice as well as privilege. Hera, indignant, asks, “Do you mean to suggest that women have done something to deserve this station?” Zeus concedes, condescendingly, “You’ve made your point, girls. Women do suffer—historically and undeniably—at the hands of men. But their world is not justice.”
Finally, the main narrative of Book One focuses on childbirth and vividly portrays Hera’s protestations—in short, “Hell is a state of being,” and we can add for women.
An unwanted girl is birthed, an excessively bloody event confirming:
In every birth, there is risk and pain. This is true of creatures, ideas, and tragedies.
Mortal births are particularly gruesome. They enter the world unprotected, screaming, suited for inevitable suffering.
But the birth itself is not the only “pain”; Hippolyta is tasked with discarding the unwanted baby girl.
After leaving the baby in the river—”‘The Gods will decide, as they decide the fates of us all. They will choose wisely. Yes.'”—Hippolyta balks on that faith and runs until collapsing in hopes of saving the child.
This tale of the burden of women and the inescapable fate of women as self-sacrificing builds to her being saved by the Amazons, setting up Book Two in a dramatic final page:
Historia is beautiful and compelling as another contribution to the long history of Wonder Woman, but this is a work that speaks to “not-men” and “men” in the U.S. during the final month of 2021. It is a call to confront the “the institutions of men [that] care not for the weal of women.”
Beyond my face-to-face life, few people have impacted my development more than comedian George Carlin. Along with Richard Pryor (and indirectly, Lenny Bruce), Carlin entered my consciousness while I was a teenager in the 1970s, a redneck mired in the racist provincialism of rural upstate South Carolina.
Of course, teachers and writers—along with a wide array of artists, thinkers, etc.—shaped my Self and my mind, but Carlin and Pryor were essential doorways into critical thought. Notably, Carlin and Pryor taught me the importance of language and its relationship to power, foundational concepts that would in many ways lead to Paulo Freire as well as my careers as a teacher and writer.
So when Carlin was trending recently—a video clip of him talking on Larry King with many people connecting Carlin’s comments about comedian Andrew Dice Clay to the current controversies around Dave Chappelle—I felt I had to explore the Tweets and how people were navigating Carlin today:
First, I believe it is important to stress that Carlin clearly begins these comments by supporting Andrew Dice Clay’s right to be the sort of comedian who people found to be deeply offensive, offensive in ways that were not funny (homophobia and misogyny, specifically). Carlin is weighing in but distinguishing between “can” and “should.”
As well, Carlin checked King about “we” laughing at Clay, suggesting that Carlin did not find Clay funny even as he supported something like free speech for comedians.
In many ways, Carlin was way ahead of his time and this on-air discussion fits well into the larger “cancel culture” debate among comedians (see the Jerry Seinfeld/Bobcat Goldthwait situation, for example); but of course, Carlin’s tempered comments also match perfectly the Chappelle controversy.
The world of the comedian is filled with violent-adjacent language—”punch line” and the common claim that comedians “kill” when jokes or sets work really well. (Carlin has brilliant, early jokes from the 1970s about replacing “kill” with “fuck” in movie dialogue, highlighting the essential violent nature of American culture.)
But Carlin makes a case for the importance that comedians punch up, using comedy to challenge power, and that Clay tended to punch down, specifically at the expense of marginalized groups such as homosexuals and women.
I think, as many on Twitter claimed, that Carlin’s comments are relevant to Chappelle even as some try to justify Chappelle’s trans-phobic rants as attacks on outsized influence by what Chappelle and his supporters see as misguided trans-rights activists. Chappelle apologists, then, seem to believe Chappelle is punching up.
That argument is nonsense, missing a bigger point, one also made by Carlin but somewhat glossed over.
At its core, the problem with Clay and Chappelle is less with them, and more with their audience. One common justification expressed for Chappelle’s recent comedy special is that his garbled perspective on trans people is embraced by his audience and that those he criticizes (trans-rights activists) are the ones out of the mainstream.
Chappelle apologists argue that the court of public opinion supports Chappelle, and thus Chappelle is justified, if not right.
As Carlin notes, Clay had an audience, many white males who, as Carlin notes, were deeply insecure and prone to a wide array of bigotry (that likely would have included anti-semitism, Carlin adds since Clay is Jewish).
If we set aside whether or not Clay and Chappelle crafted funny jokes, if we set aside whether or not Chappelle is punching down or up, we cannot set aside that Chappelle is speaking into and directly fueling environments of hate and exclusivity.
Trans people live delicate lives and their margins are frail, thin, and Chappelle is being cavalier and calloused, placing his right to free speech (in wrong-headed ways) above the lives and rights of marginalized and oppressed people.
Chappelle is certainly aware that there was a fairly recent world where white comedians made their livelihoods on racist jokes and the most aggressive and offensive use of racial slurs; maybe they had the right to that language, and yes, they certainly had audiences who agreed.
But mainstream acceptance of racist jokes and racial slurs were contributing to environments of hate that directly impacted Black people in negative and horrible ways.
Clay and Chappelle should be bright and perceptive enough not to need these comparisons to their own potential frailties, but these points do highlight that comedy is not in some sort of joke vacuum; there are consequences for jokes told and the laughter that often occurs about the Others used in the pursuit of those jokes.
Chappelle’s doubling down on trans-phobia isn’t funny and it isn’t inconsequential.
Finally, while I do support Carlin’s video clip going viral, and I do agree Carlin’s perceptive analysis of punching up and the audience for comedy is directly applicable to the Chappelle debate as well as the current discourse around “cancel culture” (where I side with Goldthwait, not Seinfeld), I have a huge caveat for the added belief that we need Carlin alive today since he would be a solid and powerful voice in this situations.
As much as it pains me to write this, I am certain that given time and space, Carlin would, in fact, disappoint us now. There is a bittersweet advantage to having the ability to cherry pick from Carlin’s brilliance (a real thing, in my opinion) and to ignore that as he grew older, Carlin lived up to his standard less and less.
The Carlin of my teen years, the 1970s, is a sort of peak Carlin, one I tend to idealize; the Carlin of the King interview is the mostly sober and mature Carlin of 1990 (Carlin was being interviewed, not on stage performing).
Carlin tended to devolve into the angry old man, and his comedy content and targets became sloppier and sloppier even as his delivery and craft remained impressive.
I think Carlin alive now would slip and fall on his face right before us—similar to the recent crumbling of the ways some of us have idealized Margaret Atwood.
Carlin’s comments on Clay are worth highlighting, and his analysis speaks to how we can and should navigate Chappelle and cancel culture.
But this is also a lesson in the dangers of idealizing and idolizing.
In my own way, I love Carlin and am eternally grateful for his contribution to my mind.
Carlin was, ultimately, a man, a human, frail and flawed. He occasionally said some really stupid shit.
We don’t need him alive now to recognize that he is right about the direction of punch lines. And we would all be better off if we simply used his words from 1990 to recognize the importance of everyone’s humanity.
There is no punch line more valuable than our collective humanity—and about that, even if he would fail us today, I feel certain Carlin would agree if he were still alive.
As a teen I had two experiences that have shaped my entire life, being diagnosed with scoliosis (resulting in wearing a full-body brace throughout high school) and subsequently falling in love with comic books and science fiction.
This was the 1970s, and I was captivated by a much different Marvel Universe than people recognize now with the rise of the MCU.
As a comic book collector and fan of superhero comics, I was drawn to Spider-Man (of course), but I also developed an affinity for so-called second-tier characters and sidekicks.
One of my favorite characters was the Falcon, who shared the cover title with Captain America starting with issue 134 and lasting until issue 222:
The most enduring characters, however, were Daredevil and Black Widow, who co-titled Daredevil from issue 92 until issue 107:
In the MCU era, Black Widow is associated with the Avengers, but for me, the connection is Daredevil.
Also, in the MCU, Black Widow has suffered a double death—her character killed off (and then given an after-the-fact solo film), and the high-profile actor playing the role, Scarlett Johansson, breaking ties with Disney and Marvel.
The end of the Johansson/Black Widow run in the MCU often contrasts with the jumbled ways Marvel has handled Black Widow in the comic books (see below where Black Widow has had 8 volumes, often running only 3 issues, with a total of 50 issues and running) beginning with her introduction in 1964.
But there is one significant similarity, identified by Johansson in an article for Salon:
All of that is related to that move away from the kind of hyper-sexualization of this character and, I mean, you look back at ‘Iron Man 2’ and while it was really fun and had a lot of great moments in it, the character is so sexualized, you know? Really talked about like she’s a piece of something, like a possession or a thing or whatever — like a piece of ass, really. And Tony even refers to her as something like that at one point.
Consider as one extreme case, the MAX series from 2002:
But this reductive hypersexualization goes back to the 1960s and 1970s as well, with the artwork of Gene Colan:
Brown confronts that hypersexualization and exoticizing marginalized (by race and/or gender) characters are standard practices in superhero comics:
Black women in the media, especially within the superhero genre, are still constructed as exotic sexual spectacles, as erotic racial “Others.”… Female superheroines…are primarily depicted as scantily clad and erotically posed fetish objects. (pp. 134, 135)
Black Widow, although white, fits into the pattern of hypersexuality and othering as exotic (her Russian and mysterious as well as isolated background). Brown’s recognition that female superheroes are often reduced to “purely symbolic images,” especially noting “the way that superheroines are portrayed as sexual objects on comic book covers” (p. 144):
“[T]he superhero genre of comic books continues to reply heavily on stereotypes of all kinds,” Brown concludes—and throughout her solo career in Marvel comics, Black Widow represents the irony found directly in a central motif of her characterization:
“But like most men, in the end,” Natalia Romanova observes, “he underestimates me.”
Throughout her years in the print Marvel Universe, Black Widow has far too often been underestimated by the (mostly) men who write her story and draw her life into action—men hypersexualizing and Othering her along the way.
There is another layer to these problems, however, since there have been and currently are powerful and far less problematic versions of Black Widow along the way; regardless of the quality, it seems, of how creative teams deal with Black Widow, the Men (the Industry) continue to underestimate, and fail the character.
The current run, volume 8, has been a stellar and beautiful rendering of Black Widow, not surprisingly in the hands of women—Kelly Thompson (writer), Elena Casagrande (artist), and others:
There remains a noir quality to this version of Black Widow, and certainly, Black Widow continues to be sexual and physically compelling. But the rich humanity and complexity of being Black Widow / Natalie Grey (Natasha Romanoff) is more fully realized in this volume, often to critical acclaim.
With the track record behind the character of Black Widow, time will ultimately tell if Marvel and superhero comics can finally stop underestimating this character, can allow the full and complex humanity to exist beyond the reductive hypersexualizing.
Black Widow represents that too many have failed superhero comics even though comic book universes allow a nearly endless opportunity to imagine and reimagine again and again.
Doing it right, I believe in that too.
Jeffrey A. Brown, “Panthers and Vixens: Black Superheroines, Sexuality, and Stereotypes in Contemporary Comic Books,” in Black Comics: Politics of Race and Representation, ed. Sheena C. Howard and Ronald L. Jackson II (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013).