"It is the unteachable skill to belong anywhere. The other edge of what is the unfortunate truth: You must first belong nowhere."
The Marvel community has had some great conversations about Black Widow lately (check them out here and here) so it only makes sense for my next Beginners card to be about her. Like the character herself, the history of Black Widow is tricky: nothing is quite what it seems. This first card will be about her origin story in the comics. The following card will examine her role in the current films. And the last cards will be dedicated to the work Nathan Edmonson and Phil Noto did with the character, with a follow-up piece about the fandom.
While not technically the first character to have the Black Widow title (that honor belongs to Claire Voyant), Natasha as we know her first appeared in Tales of Suspense #52 in 1964 (written by Don Rico and Stan Lee). During this period, she was a spy for the Russians, stealing technology from Tony Stark and tricking Hawkeye into helping her battle the Avengers. She and Hawkeye were frequently defeated by Iron Man and the other heroes, and eventually Hawkeye's idealism would convince Natasha to switch sides.
It wasn't until 1967 that readers got an origin story for the character.
Natasha proved her loyalty to the Avengers on a mission in Russia.
During this story arch (in Avengers #44 written by Roy Thomas in 1967) , it was revealed that the Russians brainwashed Natasha. During her time under the command of the USSR, she was married to Alexi Shostakov, who was presumed dead. Shostakov is now the Red Guardian and an enemy of the Avengers. During the battle, Natasha was injured trying to help Captain America and the Avengers. Her lover Hawkeye comes to her rescue, and Natasha officially joins "the side of the angels".
It's important to keep in mind the political connotations that might be lost on new readers today. President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, and the Cold War was still progressing. In 1964, China became the 5th nuclear power, and the United States was planning on waging war with Vietnam. Relations between the USSR and the U.S.A. were tense. Natasha's character was in a lot of ways symbolic of how the American people thought of Russians at the time. That they had been brainwashed by their government, that they were dangerous and untrustworthy because of this, but that America would eventually overcome them.
(Bonus points to anyone who can name what movie the above image is from).
Abandoning the Black Widow (temporarily).
In Avengers #45 (written by Roy Thomas in 1967), Natasha decided to abandon the Black Widow identity. While the character wasn't gone, she was on a brief hiatus. For the moment, it felt like her story was complete.
Origin (II) & Daredevil
Black Widow returned in Amazing Spider Man #86 in 1970. She had a new costume, a new demeanor, and new details about her past to be revealed.
After relocating to San Francisco with Daredevil, Natasha is confronted by a failed mission from her past. Daredevil pushes the issue, and learns from Natasha's chauffer Ivan Petrovich that there is more to her than there seems. Petrovich reveals that he rescued the infant Natasha from a burning building during WWII. He mentored her as she trained to be a spy.
A dark past
It's revealed over the course of the Daredevil comics (#88-91 written by Gerry Conway, published in 1972) that Natasha's first mission went bad, and it has haunted her ever since. In an attempt to steal a powerful orb from Project Four, Natasha's partner killed all of the scientists involved (she thought he had been using knockout grenades).
This story arc gives her past history as a spy a little more texture. Her relationship is also given more detail than the one she originally had with Hawkeye. Though this is a continuation of the character, the writing style is very different, which in addition to the ongoing evolution of the comic book style contributed to the differences.
Death and Resurrection
After leaving Daredevil, Natasha had adventures with Wolverine, Hercules, S.H.I.E.L.D. and Nick Fury. In Daredevil #185-191 (written by Roger McKenzie & Frank Miller in 1982-83), one of Daredevil's longtime enemies, a group called The Hand, is at large. Working for S.H.I.E.L.D., Natasha joins the fight. She's poisoned, and dies on Daredevil's doorstep.
During the same story arc, she's resurrected, which sets up the resurrection of Elektra later on in the series.
After a few more appearances in the 80s (with the X-Men, Daredevil, and the Avengers), Natasha was revisited in 1990 with a solo mission.
The Coldest War
This story arc had a lot of twists and turns. But here's the most basic outline:
Natasha is contacted by the KGB
She finds out her husband Alexei is still alive
They use him as leverage to get her to steal plans from the U.S.
After trying to reach out to both Hawkeye and Daredevil (who have since settled down with other partners), Black Widow agrees to help the KGB
The KGB reveals the demand was a ruse; they wanted to blackmail the Black Widow with footage of her betraying America
In a conversation with Ivan Petrovich, Black Widow reveals she's been anticipating this all along and plans to outsmart the KGB
It's revealed that Alexei is actually a robot
Black Widow defeats Alexei
That's... a lot to keep track of. The most important part of this story is the emotional journey of the character and the audience. When Alexei was originally introduced, there was only a brief period of action before he was killed (again). In this story, Natasha laments his loss, but reveals that she is determined to move past it. For the readers, who were seeing the end of the Cold War, the last panels were full of optimism.
The optimism didn't last.
Though at the end of The Coldest War, Black Widow has been offered a position in the ballet, the next major comics featuring the character have her back in action.
Origin (III) & Yelena Belova
This sleek style with heavy action sequences and less emphasis on the espionage elements of the story were the last major appearance Black Widow had before the film adaptations (which I'll be discussing next time). While on a mission, Black Widow is being stalked by Yelena Belova. Also trained by the Russians, Yelena wants to kill Natasha and become the next Black Widow. Natasha end sup subjecting Yelena to cruel manipulation, taking her through Natasha's own terrible past to convince Yelena not to aspire to follow in her footsteps. The reprogramming process is painful and dark.
Though Natasha is able to reveal the true nature of Yelena's trainers, thus convincing Yelena to abandon them, Natasha is not able to win the other woman over. These stories focus heavily on the rivalry between the two characters. They also frame Natasha as the more powerful of the two. Yelena resents Natasha, both admiring and despising her.
With this depiction in mind, stay tuned for my next card in this series!