Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Femme Fatale

Marvel introduced many memorable female characters in the 1960s. One of the more interesting was the Black Widow. She first appeared as an opponent of Iron Man, in Tales of Suspense #52 (April 1964).

As you can probably guess, she's a Russian spy, assigned by the Kremlin, to kill Vanko (the former Crimson Dynamo), Tony Stark, and Iron Man. She is accompanied by Boris, a hulking brute of a man, who kayos Vanko, brings him back to a Soviet sub, then returns to Stark's plant to wreak havoc in the Crimson Dynamo's old outfit.

Meanwhile, Tony's got designs on the Widow:

He heads back to the factory when he learns of the destruction going on there. At first he is overcome by a sucker move from the Dynamo (because he does not know Boris is inside the suit. Both he and Vanko are now on the sub. Fortunately he is able to recharge his batteries from a light plug, and rescues Vanko. Iron Man and Boris fight it out once again at the plant, but Vanko derails the battle by killing both himself and Boris with an unstable ray. The Widow escapes in the confusion, but now she has failed:

We next see the Black Widow in TTA #57, this time teamed up with Hawkeye, making his first appearance. Hawkeye is a former trick archer at the carnival, who decided to become a superhero after seeing Iron Man get accolades for saving people on an out-of-control ride. However, he bumbles a bit and the cops confuse him for an accomplice of the first thief he encounters. Fortunately for him, the Widow happens to be driving by and rescues him:

She suggests some accessories for his arrows, and Hawkeye, being already madly in love with her, agrees to defeat her enemy, Iron Man. Of course, he is not aware that she is a communist spy.

Hawkeye and Iron Man battle it out, with Iron Man eventually emerging victorious. Hawkeye tries a demolition blast arrow on Shellhead, but it ricochets and hits the Widow. Hawkeye escapes with her, planning to nurse her back to health.

She next appears with Hawkeye in TOS #61. By now he realizes that she's an enemy of the USA, but she soothes him with lies:

He attacks Stark's plant again, but is dismayed to learn that the boss himself keeps all the plans in his head. He barricades himself inside with Pepper Potts (Stark's secretary and secret love). The Widow goes to help him out, but she is captured by her Soviet masters, who haven't forgotten her earlier failures. As the story ends, Hawkeye escapes capture, but Natasha is on her way back behind the Iron Curtain.

She returns in TOS #64. Stan refers to Kruschev's fall from power here and shows that Natasha is on the verge of becoming a good character:

But that commie rat brings out her parents and threatens them unless she does as he orders. So now she joins the ranks of villains who are only doing it for a good reason. She picks up a new uni and a web-slinging device for swinging through the city:

She returns to Hawkeye, and they kidnap Pepper Potts and Happy Hogan. Iron Man shows up and we have the basic battle. This time an acid arrow seems to be winning the day for Hawkeye, but Iron Man decides to behave like a cad:

I'll attack his weakest link, the girl? Not very heroic! But sure enough, Iron Man blasts her with "a transistor-powered electrical bolt", causing Hawkeye to break off the combat to rescue her. You can make the argument that by kidnapping Pepper and Happy, the Black Widow had forfeited any right to chivalry, but it's very hard to fit in with this new notion of the Widow as moving towards the hero class.

The next chapter of the saga took place in Avengers #16 (May 1965). Hawkeye appears at Avengers headquarters, hoping to join the team. And just to show that he's not a bad guy, he announces himself by tying up Jarvis and shooting a smoke arrow into the room:

And for possibly the only time in the Marvel Silver Age, a bunch of heroes actually refrained from getting into fight given an excuse. They listened as Hawkeye explained about how he never meant to be a bad guy, he was just misunderstood. He fills us in on Natasha here:

Well, that's a heckuva a boyfriend, not bothering to hang around the hospital and instead heading off to join the Avengers. Amazingly Iron Man says "I believe you, Hawkeye," and before you know it he's giving the bowman a copy of the Avengers' rulebook. As it happens, in the same issue Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch join the group, while Iron Man, Giant Man and the Wasp exit stage right, leaving only Captain America as the only "good guy all along" in the group.

So matters continued until Avengers #29. Apparently the Black Widow did not die, but she might as well have:

This time, her commie masters want her to destroy the Avengers. Given that she's been unsuccessful in the past at eliminating even one of the (former) members, that seems a pretty difficult task. She recruits the Swordsman and Power Man, two villains who have battled the Avengers in the past. She also attempts to get Hawkeye to betray his comrades, but despite his continuing infatuation with her, he senses she's brainwashed and refuses.

The Swordsman and Power Man kidnap Cap and bring him back to the Widow's mansion. At first, the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver are captured as well, but they are freed by Goliath and the Wasp, and manage to turn the tables. But as the villains are about to escape, Hawkeye has a chance to stop them with one of his arrows. However, he is unwilling to risk harming the Black Widow and the bad guys get away.

In Avengers #30, we learn that the brainwashing is wearing off. The Black Widow senses an affection for Hawkeye, and a distaste for the two thugs that she's palling around with. Meanwhile the Avengers have located their new hideout, and Hawkeye demands to be allowed to battle the trio alone.

He manages to defeat the Swordsman, but is having difficulty with Power Man when suddenly Natasha comes to her senses:

So now her transformation from evil commie to good capitalist is complete. She helps out in the following storyline which features a hate organization called the Sons of the Serpent:

She appears briefly at the end of Avengers #35, throwing some pottery at Hawkeye because he ran off on a mission without her. In the following issue, he sponsors her for membership:

But as Cap notes, they're a little busy trying to figure out where Pietro has disappeared. So they debark for the tiny European country where Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch grew up, with the Widow tagging along. She helps out, eventually winning the battle, but only by threatening the life of another, which is strictly against the Avenger Code. Fortunately nobody observes this other than Hawkeye, who isn't about to squeal on his girlfriend.

In Avengers #38, Natasha gets a call from Nick Fury. SHIELD needs her services as a spy behind the Bamboo Curtain. She blows off Hawkeye and the Avengers, who still haven't managed a formal vote on her acceptance. In #39, we learn that she has been accused of stealing top-secret atomic plans. Of course, we know that she's working for SHIELD and the charges are phony, but Hawkeye and the rest of the Avengers don't.

Over the next few issues we get brief looks at Natasha on her Far Eastern mission. She is captured by the commie rat who brainwashed her, and subjected to the new Doomsday Device called the Psychotron, as they have figured out she worked for SHIELD. At the end of Avengers #42, Hawkeye and the others learn that she's been captured.

But if they are to get her back, they will have to defeat the Red Guardian, a Soviet version of Captain America, who has a stunning secret connection to the Black Widow:

And in the following issue, the Red Guardian sacrifices his life to save Natasha.

It was perhaps inevitable that Marvel would put their two arachnid-based characters against each other, and it happened in ASM #86 (July 1970). We learn of a rather Diana Riggish new look for the Widder:

The story is a typical Marvel intro battle; one side is deceived by early success into believing it has the upper hand, but suddenly they learn that their opponent is stronger than suspected. In this case, it was another of Peter Parker's mysterious ailments which caused him to appear weak, but as he shrugged off the effects...

This was an intro for the Black Widow's own series in Amazing Adventures, where she shared the mag with the Inhumans (much as Iron Man and Captain America had shared Tales of Suspense, and the Hulk and Submariner had shared Tales to Astonish, until all four graduated to their own titles in 1968). Although the Black Widow series only lasted 8 issues and is mostly forgettable, it did have one important aspect; it marked the first work by Gene Colan on the character.

As you can see, it also marked the beginning of a more "adult" aspect to the series. Colan's association with the character would continue in late 1971, when the Black Widow started teaming up with Daredevil for a memorable four-year run.

Coming soon by popular demand: Still more fishnet, featuring the Black Canary.