Friday, May 15, 2015

The Curse of the Black Widow!

It's difficult to speculate on what exactly the plan was in regard to the relaunch of the Black Widow character in mid-1970--or even if there was a plan. Perhaps just a testing of the waters. The Widow received a makeover in Amazing Spider-Man that tossed out her mask, shoulder cape, and fishnet costume in favor of a sleek jumpsuit, while also shifting her from a brunette to more auburn hair--a transformation which made her less the deadly, seductive spy but more a member of the "jet set" and more approachable and accessible than when she used to unexpectedly drop down out of ceilings unannounced. There was little if anything left of the glamorous and sophisticated Black Widow who began her career at Marvel by mink-stoling her way into the confidences of men like Clint Barton and Tony Stark in order to conduct espionage, or the woman who was later given a costume, wall-crawling abilities, and limited weaponry and went on to become a double-agent. Now, "Madame Natasha" emerged to become a heroine--still the "Black Widow," but mostly in name only.

Once she debuted her new look and more active style in ASM, she immediately transitioned the next month to guest-starring in the new Amazing Adventures book with the Inhumans--not quite as hard to swallow as the Astonishing Tales format around the same time that co-featured, of all combinations, Ka-Zar and Dr. Doom, and interesting in the sense of the Widow finally getting her own solo feature (if only for ten-page increments). A try-out to determine what direction to take her in? A work in progress? With the revolving door of writers chronicling her stories in what only turned out to be an eight-issue stay (among them, Gary Friedrich, Roy Thomas, and Gerry Conway), the Widow herself seemed indecisive as to what her plans should be.

One storyline had her becoming involved in inner city struggles--perhaps too quickly pushing her into the public spotlight, but also offering believability in terms of stumbles that any person seeking to change their image might have made in her place. It also helped that she was fully aware that her "new life" wasn't going to be a cake walk as far as finding the right fit for herself:

Yet trying to identify herself with the common man seemed in stark contrast to the status she sought to maintain for herself. Riding around in a Rolls Royce; living in a luxurious penthouse apartment; being chauffeured by her friend and confidant, Ivan. For one so uncomfortable with such a life of ease and luxury that she once declared she "hated every moment of it," she certainly perpetuated it often enough.  It didn't quite make sense that she would so quickly acclimate to those causes she became involved in and sought to mediate--and whatever strides she made were mostly in terms of publicity. Yet, when the story is ready to be wrapped up, how easily she parts the waters and sets things right:

Later stories would attempt to shift her "Black Widow" name from that of a former spy to the more contemporary association of the phrase with a woman who exploits her relationships with males to their detriment or even death. In Natasha's case, she begins to associate her name with a curse, following a story when she becomes involved with a kid who'd become involved in a crime ring and had attempted suicide. (After he's saved and is brought to the Widow's penthouse by Ivan--and yes, in the Rolls--the boy's reaction probably mirrors that of readers who have been trying to get a handle on the Widow thus far: "I can't figure why an uptown queen like you cares if I swan-dive off a bridge or not." Indeed.) When the mobsters he'd become involved with come looking for him, resulting in a fight where the Widow is stunned and is about to be tossed over her building ledge, the kid's selfless act to save her results in tragedy:

From that point, the running theme in these Black Widow stories is much the same: Must those who cross her path find death? Had Natasha's history been far less involved and her self-awareness far less developed, such a pessimistic outlook on her new career might have been possible; but for the Black Widow, someone who's been able to put both risk and death in cold perspective during her career, she doesn't seem like the type to be rattled by tragedy or self-doubt, and certainly not to the point of preoccupation which hovers like a cloud over practically every case she takes:

Once her stint in Amazing Adventures ended, Natasha would find herself quickly folded into the Daredevil book, which she would eventually co-headline. With the first issue sporting a title like "And Death Is A Woman Called Widow," you can assume correctly that Gerry Conway had not left behind the Widow's concern that her life was akin to a curse for those she became involved with--though since she ended up saving Daredevil's life with that first appearance, perhaps the Black Widow could return to making things tough for her opponents, rather than for herself.

Artist Bill Everett's pin-up of the Black Widow from Daredevil #81!


B Smith said...

It was only after I started reading her in the early 80s that it occurred to me that someone at Marvel might have been a Modesty Blaise fan, and that the Spider-Man #86 "revamp" might have been inspired by O'Donnell's character.

Natasha is an heiress, Modesty a former crime gang leader = both are independently wealthy. Natasha is Russian, Modesty is undetermined but Middle-Eastern European = exotic origins. Natasha has Ivan (quotes old Hollywood movies), Modesty has Willie (quotes psalms) - of course the younger woman/older male "mentor" motif goes way back.

Thankfully they dropped that whole "Widow's curse" thing once she hooked up with Daredevil. Eleven-year-old me was quite impressed with her at that stage - she seemed to act like I imagined a mature world-weary superfemme might; there was a touch of Emma Peel to her as well.

I haven't actually read any of her exploits since her Daredevil period, and have been slightly disappointed to see her waving guns everywhere and forgetting to zip her costume right up, but I guess they're not writing/drawing her for me these days...oh well, we'll always have San Francisco.

Oh, and Bill Everett was born to ink her...her rendering in Daredevil #83 (pencilled by Alan Weiss) definitely made me feel a bit funny in ways I didn't understand at the time :-)

Comicsfan said...

B, those are some excellent points regarding Natasha and Modesty Blaise. I'm only vaguely familiar with the character--but from what I understand, Modesty also lived in a penthouse and found her boredom of living a wealthy lifestyle alleviated by adventure, just like Natasha in these stories. You indeed may be onto something, I think.

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