Phil Noto and Nathan Edmonson: Black Widow For Beginners Part 3
It's time for the third installment of my Black Widow for Beginners Series. You can check out my other Beginners cards here! This one is going to examine the work that Phil Noto and Nathan Edmonson did on the character's solo series. Since the first one was released in 2014, it was developed after the cinematic universe had become a success, and the films had an undeniable influence on their characterization.
The series was commissioned after the success of Matt Fraction and David Aja's Hawkeye comics.
As one of the less popular characters out there, the popularity of the comics was completely unexpected. The style was extremely different from everything else that Marvel was producing at the time, and the story was engaging and sympathetic. The artist and writer were given the freedom to produce whatever they wanted with the characters, and that freedom yielded amazing results. And Marvel wanted to do it again.
Natasha speaks to us directly.
Unlike film, which often shies away from characters looking directly into the camera, Natasha looks right at us as we're reading. This is perhaps the closest she comes to honesty (or is it?), emphasizing the importance of her motivations. She's not in this for the money. The work that she's doing is her atonement. But for what? What has she done that's so unforgivable?
What is the truth?
The ambiguity of Natasha's past is integral to the portrayal of the character. As she said to Steve Rogers in Winter Soldier: "The truth is a matter of circumstances, it's not all things to all people all the time. And neither am I." The comic opens, and an unseen voice is speaking to a man strapped to a bomb. She promises that she's there to help. She's a countrywoman. She tells him that she's never been one of the good guys. She tells him a story about her past to prove it. She convinces him to let her help.
And it's all a lie.
"No one will ever know my full story."
The comic promises from the very beginning that Natasha's story will not be transparent, and that we'll never have all the answers. Were parts of the story she told him true? We'll never know for sure. We only know what she's willing to show us, but we can never be sure how much of that is really her, and how much is a disguise.
Natasha is toying with us.
We've come to expect a tragic backstory from our heroines. We've come to expect a dark past with a redemption arc. And she uses those expectations to her advantage. We as the audience belong to her. We want to know what happened. We want to know who she is. And she'll constantly dangle this information in front of us, keeping us guessing. The trick is that she's never going to deliver.
The Manipulator is a familiar archetype.
Often, female characters are set up as manipulative creatures, only to be punished by the narrative at the end for their duplicity. This story twists it around. Natasha is not at fault for telling us what we want to hear. *We* are the ones at fault for wanting. Who are we to demand she fit into a comfortable archetype? Who are we to determine who and what she is?
"The past is my own."
Black Widow Issue #2 reveals a little more of the character. We see a mission gone wrong, and we see the kinds of choices she's made. She takes a job for someone who's "dirty, but their enemies are worse". And we find out that she's done horrible things to horrible people. She admits that her own morals are dubious.
"Picking your own jobs means you get to exercise your own ethics. But ethics isn't a science. Which is to say... you do your best. But that doesn't make you right."
She's not like other heroes, with unyielding principles and spotless records. She works with bad people, and she puts herself in positions that no one else is willing to face: where she has to choose between bad and worse.
But how much of this is real?
Is this just the story she tells us, to make herself sympathetic? Is this the story she tells herself? History is written by the victors, and so the past is her own, to use and retell as she sees fit. The story is hers; it doesn't belong to anyone else. Which means that our interpretation of it is not just unwelcome, it is irrelevant. We are not the ones that get to cast judgement on her. That privilege (that burden?) is hers, and hers alone.
The court of public opinion hasn't caught up yet.
In an interview given during the Age of Ultron press tour, fans were disappointed by the tasteless joke made by actors Jeremy Renner and Chris Evans (they both later apologized). While these comics were released pre-AoU, they reflect upon the environment that led to this incident. Female narratives are often out of the hands of women. Women are rarely showrunners, directors, writers, or producers. And Natasha's narrative in the films has always been a service to the other characters. She rarely has any development that is independent and wholly her own.
The comics are where her story is told.
They're starkly different from the narratives of the films because they are about Natasha's experiences. Her missions, her goals. Her absolution. And unlike the films, we're not allowed to judge her. The audience is there to listen, nothing more.
It is the unteachable skill to belong anywhere. The other edge of that is the unfortunate truth: You must first belong nowhere."
The intentional contrast between the art and the writing is beautifully stark in Issue #3. Natasha describes herself as cold. She's a person without a home- she belongs wherever she is in the moment. Nothing about her is permanent. Not her identity, not her occupation. Her skills are the only constant.
In a way, she's redefining femininity.
The way she's drawn is incredibly soft, but her language is hard. Her choices are even harder. She's chosen a life of pain, one without roots. Traditionally, the sphere of female experience was limited to the home. She's rejecting that limitation, but she's not rejecting the experience. At the end of #3, she defends the housewife next door from her abusive husband. She has sympathy for the stray cat that lives outside her window. She relates to things that are coded as feminine experiences, despite choosing to live outside of them.
Did I mention her sense of humor?
Natasha isn't a humorless mercenary. Particularly during the brutal battles she often finds herself in, Natasha makes jokes. It's wry, often gallows humor. And it's very different from the stoicism of most of our (usually masculine) heroes.
Comics are shifting.
Audiences are becoming more focused on characters than crossovers. The definitions of morality and justice are becoming less clear. And creators are being given the freedom to push the genre further. The Black Widow solo comics are both critiquing the industry and demonstrating how it can be better. Like the character, there's more going on beneath the surface.