Monday, April 16, 2012

Marvel Firsts: The Lady in Black

Amazing Adventures
#1 (August 1970)

"Then Came... the Black Widow!"
Gary Friedrich-John Buscema/John Verpoorten

Karen: The Black Widow has been around a pretty long time in the Marvel Universe. Starting as an Iron Man villain (and a commie!) in Tales of Suspense #52 (published April 1964), she soon switched sides and became a good guy, a frequent ally to the Avengers and Hawkeye's main squeeze. But she eventually left Hawkeye and struck out on her own, changing from her original masked outfit to a sexier form-fitting suit designed by John Romita, Sr. Her first appearance in what has become her standard outfit was in Amazing Spider-Man #86 (July 1970). Amazing Adventures #1, published a few months later, was her first solo feature, even if she shared half the title with The Inhumans (what an odd pairing!).

Doug: I always felt that Natasha was a character that writers had a hard time using. Her appearances in the Avengers were for the most part underwhelming. However, I cannot begin to imagine how Hawkeye would have reacted to seeing her in the catsuit she sports in this story. Fishnets aside, ol' Clint Barton may not have been able to contain himself! And she seems an odd choice for a solo book. Do any of our readers know if Marvel's second go-round with split books had the original intention of try-out series, or were the Inhumans and the Widow supposed to be ongoing?

Karen: Our tale opens with 'Madame Natasha' bored out of her rich little mind. At this stage of her career, she was still just as interested in fashion and fun as she was espionage. She gets a call from a well-known playboy (not Tony Stark!) who asks her to come to Switzerland with him later in the week. She's thrilled and accepts immediately. But as soon as she hangs up, she has that empty feeling again. She realizes that it's action she really craves. She thinks back on her encounter with Spider-Man, and how he defeated her. She needs to get out, to prove herself. You never know when opportunity will knock. She notices that her maid, Maria, has been crying. She asks her what's wrong, and the woman explains that her son owes money to bad men who have threatened to kill him. The Widow immediately offers to give her the money, but Maria insists that her son must work things out himself, and leaves.

Doug: How did you view Natasha in this scene? While she's compassionate toward Maria, she's "all about me" in regard to the rest of her life. She just seems pretty aimless. I thought she appeared pretty self-absorbed. Do we know how she got all of her money?

Karen: Yeah, I had the same feeling. It was as if the Widow used Maria's son's plight as the perfect excuse to put on her costume again. We get a page that demonstrates her powers, including her anti-grav shoes (!) and widow's web, which duplicates Spidey's web line. She calls Ivan and tells him to have the Rolls ready, then throws on an overcoat and heads out. As they drive to Maria's home, the Widow looks out the car window and sees the rough conditions of the neighborhood. She does some typical Marvel pondering about government and the common man and then has Ivan pull over. Apparently Ivan is unaware that his boss is the Black Widow at this stage of their relationship, which surprised me. She tells him to go home, leaving him worried, and she clambers up Maria's building.

Doug: This version of Ivan was a very far cry from the protector of his "tsarina" we'd see in the Champions a few years later. Ivan in this story wasn't half as cool as Alfred. If memory serves, it's later revealed (retconned) that Ivan had been with Natasha since her childhood. Am I off-planet in thinking he may even have been her father? Anyway, I thought it was dumb that she went to her crime investigation in the Rolls, especially since it was in the 'hood!

Karen: The Widow eavesdrops on Maria's apartment and hears a couple of typical Buscema-style thugs threatening Maria and her son. They take the kid and tell Maria to come up with the money in 12 hours or they'll kill him. The Widow decides it's time for her to act. As the men leave the building she swings down, kicking one in the face. As the other thug prepares to shoot her, the Widow uses her Widow's Bite (a ray from her bracelet) to shoot him first, paralyzing him. The first thug she attacked has recovered and is charging at her. He's huge, twice her size, and mad as heck. But the Widow takes him down with a well-placed kick. She's actually disappointed that the fight wasn't more challenging.

Doug: You know, they should have just plastered "jumping on point for new readers" all over the cover to this mag. While not a first-issue origin story, it seems to have been written with the grab of new readers in mind. But, there really isn't much of a story here, is there? We get a little history, a little motivation, some very minor characterization (but enough), a complete run-down of Natasha's powers and attributes, her relationship with SHIELD, and that fact that she's superbad when she needs to be. As far as the kidnapping, it may have been a world record for the shortest in history. The baddies don't even get off the front stoop before they're slam-banged by our heroine!

Karen: New York's finest quickly arrive and the Widow realizes her new outfit doesn't have a mask! Uh, maybe she should have considered that before? Wishing to avoid being recognized, she scampers up the building just as the cops help Maria's son up. He explains that a lady in black saved him. The Widow swings off, pondering whether she should continue in her crime fighting career - well, I think we know the answer to that one.

Doug: My suspension of disbelief was put to the test when she got into the Rolls with a trench coat on over what was obviously a black catsuit. Or was she just too good-looking that Ivan didn't even notice her strange clothing choice? Then, as you said, the whole mask thing was dumb. It made her seem way too flighty for me. The Natasha I recall was strong, self-confident, and without doubts. This gal may evolve into here, but there's certainly a ways to go.

Karen: This was an OK little story. To be honest, the Buscema art really saves it from being utterly forgettable. I think the Widow became much more interesting when she partnered with Daredevil soon after.

Doug: John Verpoorten didn't do a bad job on the inks. This Big John was Marvel's production manager, but frequently stepped into his embellishing shoes during this period. I thought in a few instances the faces were flat, but overall there was a little "pop" to the art. I agree with you that the story was unspectacular but not offending. As I said above, it's really a nice little piece of marketing if you wanted to keep new readers coming back. Unfortunately, as we saw before, the Kirby writing on the lead Inhumans feature may have chased some away!


dbutler16 said...

One interesting (to me) thing about the Black Widow is that, I think she was one of the first female characters who would actually get involved in fisticuffs and physical combat with men. There weren't a lot of female superheroes at the time, anyway, and most of them had mental or energy projection powers so that they never had to touch the bad guy. Even Wonder Woman usually didn't fight men, but fought monsters or women, and used her magic lasso on men. At least I think so, as I'm no Wonder Woman expert.

And yes, Natasha got much more interesting when she hooked up with Daredevil. Also, while I love NYC, it was nice to see a couple of superheroes in San Francisco.

Anonymous said...

I never found this character compelling.

--Matt alias Anonymous

Cease said...

I adore her. She's about to really get a public spotlight, too! It is true, she was, it seems, the earliest heroine who went knuckle-to-knuckle with the bad guys. She teamed up with Spidey in the sixth comic I bought when I started consistently collecting: MTU #140, where she's on a similar street crime sort of case. I'd love to read all of her DD appearances; Gerber determined Hornhead's blind world should be an emotionally lonely one, as she might get a bit of the short shrift. What could've been is probably more tantalizing than what was, but they made a much more interesting couple than any super-hero pair before them! Gerber's Red Guardian was just a hint of how very cool a well-written Widow might be, with her unique socio-political context. Colan's coming in later AA issues!

Anonymous said...

You can get all the DD & Black Widow stuff in the Essential series. It was all right. I found the drama and complications very forced. But I love Daredevil in this era, before Frank Miller.

--Matt alias Anonymous

Doug said...

Hey, friends --

Off topic, but just saw this. For those of you who are Man-Thing enthusiasts (careful...), there is an Omnibus due for release in July. You can check it out here:

And as long as you're on that page, is there anyone besides me who thinks the issue choices for the "Bride of Ultron" collection are peculiar?


Anonymous said...

Isn't "Man-Thing enthusiasts" an oxymoron? Just kidding. There's also a John Carter Warlord of Mars omnibus out...I guess to capitalize on the blockbuster hit movie!

--Matt alias Anonymous

Edo Bosnar said...

I already have two the Man-Thing Essentials, so there's no way I'm going to throw down all that cash - even with the markdowns offered by Amazon and other online dealers - just to get all the same material in color. Good collection, though.
And yes, Doug - seems to me a "Bride of Ultron" collection should also include the Ultron story from Avengers #170-171 (otherwise, it's just like a Masterworks volume, collecting a set of consecutive issues - do the increasing number of Premiere HC volumes mean the Masterworks program is winding down?)
I also noticed the "Trial of Yellowjacket" collection. My first thought was: who would want to memorialize that horrible story arc with an attractive collected edition? Roger Stern made a valiant attempt to clean up Shooter's mess, but the damage had been done...
Otherwise, Doug, what really struck me about that page was just how few of those titles even sparked my interest, much less made me think of buying any of them.
And just to sort of put this comment back on topic, I generally like Black Widow, and she features prominently in arguably the best multi-issue story arc in Marvel Team-up (issues 82-85).

david_b said...

I'll be honest, my first glimpse of Natasha was a very healthy interest the DD/BW covers (103-107 and onward..). She simply was very sexy.

Aside from cover 'eye candy' charm mentioned above.., this ish REALLY looks great, I've never seen it. I did mean 'looks great', since I'd agree, not having read it, that Big John B.'s art truely saves the otherwise muddled story. I'd rank John B. as drawing Natasha the best, after Perez and perhaps Brown.

I do agree that the DD/BW relationship did seem a bit forced and stiff, now that I think of it.
But again, she really spruced up the covers a bit.

As for the 'Trial of Yellowjacket' Edo mentioned, I hate the concept, totally hate it. Why draw attention to a miserable story arc with terrible art which destroyed a great character..?? I'm SO appreciative to the current Animated Series returning Our Man Pym to his previous greatness.

Anonymous said...

I never cared for Yellowjacket and think his expulsion from the Avengers waa pretty neat. Is it really the story you object to or merely that it happened to a character you like?

or both?

--Matt alias Anonymous

david_b said...

Overall, Matt, I'd say it was more the former. Like most Avenger fans have bemoaned here many times, the Shooter era Avengers team didn't really generate many good stories between ish 200 and 250, that's well known. The art was terrible to begin with, and generally the trial story, along with the following Egghead story didn't have much plausibility and gave the sense that creatively, the scripter really wanted this character denigrated swiftly.

For instance, many times in Avengers history did some members make mistakes or were accused of being less than forth coming, the Vision's actions in ish 99 come to mind, tending to Wanda instead of saving Herc. Was Vish held on trial for that..? When Vish later on failed to save the near-drowning of the Zodiac member in ish 122, was anything done then..? Nah.

IMHO, it just seemed very odd and totally uncharacteristic to hold a trial for an error in judgement, first off. Then to set him up without the other Avengers knowing in ish 217.., and so on..? It was a bit beyond belief for most readers, even for comics in general, regardless of the character.

Fred W. Hill said...

I got a couple of AA issues off the racks back in 1970 - '71, although I don't think this was one of them. Since Kirby had already left Marvel by this point, clearly his half of the mag was from back inventory. Otherwise, it seems Marvel did intend AA and its sister split-mag, Astonishing Tales (with the equally odd pairing of Dr. Doom and Ka-Zar), to be ongoing series.
The Black Widow story itself is just very pedestrian and given too little thought. I recall reading in a DD story that Natasha got all that money from an inheritance but that still doesn't make any sense unless it was from a rich relative who escaped Russia with his (or her) fortune before the Bolsheviks took over. And considering that Natasha was born and raised in Russia and was hardly old enough to have experienced life before the Revolution, she sure took to the bored and pampered life pretty quick. Did Friedrich or anyone else involved put any thought into this at all? Maybe all that money would have made more sense if it was explained that she'd done very well very quickly as a fashion designer and dealt at least a little bit with the differences in the communist and capitalist systems as she experienced them. Or if, as with that other amazing arachnidian hero, if she was shown having to struggle to make a living, as well as learning to assimilate in her newly adopted home. Then again, all that might have been a bit too much to ask for in a 10 page illustrated adventure story in 1970.
As far as I know, this was the first Marvel superheroine to feature in her own ongoing feature (leaving aside pre-Marvel characters, the Wasp's introductions to short stories that otherwise didn't feature her, as well as Medusa's sole solo story from a couple of years before), and Stan likely had hopes that a Black Widow series would entice more women to pick up the mags, but as depicted here, despite her external glamor, Natasha is shallow and unmotivated.
Of course, John B. draws her very nicely, although I regard Gene Colan's renderings as the Natasha Romanov par excellence!

Fred W. Hill said...

It's been a while since I read those issues regarding Pym's trial, David, but I recall reading somewhere that Shooter did want to do a story about a long-established, well-respected good guy going bad and, welllllll, being that Henry Pym was one of Marvel's earliest heroes and didn't have a series of his own and had previously displayed erratic behavior, mainly that which led to the creation of his Yellowjacket persona, he was the ideal candidate. Fortunately, Shooter didn't go all the way to making Pym go outright evil, but what got me at the time was that clearly he was having a psychological breakdown but none of his longtime Avenging buddies recognized, as they should have, that he was behaving well out of character and none of them tried to help him. Of course, as most infamously displayed in Avengers #200, in this era, characterization took a dive in many Marvel titles, just another reason I quit collecting.

david_b said...

I agree, Fred, and I obviously know all the back story.

BUT.., having said that, I felt that the entire arc was too contrived. You can have a breakdown occur, or 'go evil' per se, without denigrating a character in the fashion it was done in, thanks to the lousy writing. Quicksilver was another character who basically went mad and became villainous, but at least it seems he was treated a bit better.

(I see no one's argued my point about having trials with other character guilty of similar or worse mistakes endangering team members..)

For instance, I'm not a big fan of Tigra or a host of other characters, but that is one un-befitting path I would never take them down on. It was just an embarrasingly bad arc.

Anonymous said...

It was prettyinconsistent treatment. Reminds me of the terrible trial of the Flash except Superman fid right by me inthat case


Fred W. Hill said...

Musings in regard to David's last post, comic book trials are generally farcical and the writers seem to forget that although juries are supposed render decisions based on the letter of the law, the letter of the law can be interpreted in several ways and jurors will also go with their gut feelings, which may or may not turn out to be correct. I would think in either the Marvel or DC universe, if a hero kills a genuinely nasty villain, either due to accidental circumstances or to defend another life, including their own, most juries would not convict the hero, especially if the villain has been in out of jail or asylums for decades and has committed multiple murders during each escape.
The citizenry of Gotham City would not be crying out for Batman's neck if did he kill the Joker; they'd more likely be sighing, why didn't you do that ages ago? Of course, in funnybookland, a popular villain essentially is immortal. Only the unsung C-graders, like the Tumbler, killed off during the Secret Empire Captain America story in 1974, die and stay dead.

Anonymous said...

The way police andcourts work in comics is a joke all around. I used to work in a legal-ancillary field and learned a lot about the law asa result so now Icringe when reading comics where super heroes getarrested or practice law. The trial of the Flash was about the wirst. We're supposed to believe a grand jury in CentralCity would hand fown manslaughter charge against the Flash for accidentally killing a murderer to prevent another murder. In acity with a Flash Museum for the love of Mike!

--Matt alias Anon.

B Smith said...

This was something of a reboot of the Black Widow character - given her vaguely ill-defined nature, and the emergence of the women's liberation movement, The Marvel folk may well have decided they had nothing to lose by sort of starting from scratch.

Someone there must have been a Modesty Blaise fan - there was something about her from now on that had that "mature woman who's been around the block/reformed criminal" riff going on, and Ivan (whom i didn't realise first appeared here) was soon formed into the Willie Garvin mold.

That they gave it to Gary Friedrich was a slight disappointment; his stories, though serviceable, always seemed fairly slight to me One can't help wondering if he was looked upon as the guy to go to for hip, groovin' scripts of today - his Captain America stories that came soon after, with the Femme Force, and plenty of "Right on!"s seemed witness to that.

For all the faults with the character that followed (and correspondents such as Wendy Pini and Paty Cockrum nee Greer certainly let the Powers-That-Be know of them), this and the short stint in Daredevil was to my mind Madam Natasha at her best - she combined a certain world weariness with an air of sophistication that made her actually be like the youngster reader me imagined adults to be (I never saw any of her subsequent adventures till she reappeared in Miller's Daredevil, where she was a different person completely).

This was an awkward start to a character who bloomed for a few years after - thanks for showing it!

Inkstained Wretch said...

What seems odd to me regarding the Black Widow character (in this series anyway) is that the writers/editors didn't go what ought to be the most obvious route: show her adventures as an active S.H.E.I.L.D agent.

It certainly clears up the question of motivation and how & why she would end up fighting super baddies: It's her job. And who doesn't find being a spy cool?

Instead they opted to make her yet another independent costumed crimefighter, of which Marvel was already rapidly overflowing with. Where's the novelty in that?

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